What has grass to do with the gospel?

My father, a pharmacist, was convinced that smoking pot meant going to pot. I grew up in the 1960s and 1970s with the impression that even a casual flirtation with Mary Jane would be my ruin. Consequently, I have no personal knowledge on which to draw to address what for many Americans has become, or is becoming, the new normal: the legalization of recreational marijuana.

Where does recreational use of legalized marijuana fit into Christian ethics and living? Jesus says his yoke is easy (Matt. 11:30), but a toke is easier still. What, if anything, should pastors say? May disciples light up as they take up Christ’s cross?

Recreational marijuana use has just become legal in my home state of Illinois. It was already legal in several other states. Local counties and communities are divided over whether to allow the sale of recreational marijuana (medical marijuana is a separate issue). THC (the mind-altering chemical in cannabis) can now be ingested in baked goods, drunk, and smoked (Chicago-based Cresco Labs makes more than 500 marijuana products).

Those in favor anticipate a boost in revenue (through sales taxes and licensing fees); those against it worry about the expenses it may incur on health services and the untold personal and social costs to those who become addicted or suffer psychotic episodes.

The Bible is silent on the subject of marijuana (but not intoxication). It is not the fruit from the tree of the garden in Eden, and it would be clever but mistaken to see a veiled reference in John 6:10: “Now there was much grass in the place.”

Still, there are good reasons to avoid what we could call “the normative principle of weedship”—to argue that anything not expressly forbidden by Scripture may be smoked.

The Dope on Pot: What Everyone Needs to Know

Proponents of recreational pot point out that the Netherlands legalized it in the 1970s, and it did not lead to widespread crime, much less the collapse of Dutch society. Supporters of legalization argue that cannabis is safer than alcohol or tobacco, if used in moderation. A good book from the perspective of public policy on the pros and cons of legalized pot is Marijuana Legalization: What Everyone Needs to Know.

While some users report a heightened awareness of sensory experience, studies conclude that the net effect of using pot is some degree of cognitive impairment, and a less executive “executive function.” The above book reports: “Being under the influence of marijuana can impair verbal and working memory, attention, and psychomotor performance.”

Regrading the short- and long-term effects of marijuana on the brain, one of the best resources is the National Institute on Drug Abuse page for marijuana, which concludes that frequent users of large amounts of marijuana are more likely to have lower life satisfaction, poorer mental and physical health, and greater relationship problems.

Marijuana clouds our ability to perceive the world clearly and dulls our sense of urgency about what disciples should be doing.

The American Academy of Pediatrics states that marijuana use in teens and young adults results in “impaired short-term memory and decreased concentration, attention span, and problem solving. . . . Alterations in motor control, coordination, judgment, reaction time, and tracking ability have also been documented.”

For all these reasons, the National Safety Council (“Our mission is safety”) is encouraging employers to forbid all workers in safety-sensitive jobs from using cannabis, even when they’re not at work. In Illinois, all dispensaries must post signs stating, “Cannabis consumption can impair cognition and driving, is for adult use only, may be habit-forming, and should not be used by pregnant or breastfeeding women.”

And the American Medical Association, the largest association of physicians in the country, believes “that cannabis is a dangerous drug and as such is a serious public health concern.”

Protestant Play Ethic?

Even those in general agreement with the above facts differ on how to evaluate its recreational use. It is therefore salutary to think about the qualifying adjective: “recreational.” Protestants already have a work ethic. What we need is a better play ethic.

What should pastors say to an adult Christian who intends to use marijuana responsibly, which is to say, in moderation, in the privacy of his or her own home? Simply to insist that it is still immoral, even though it is no longer illegal, does not get to the heart of the matter.

Besides, according to a June 2018 Gallup Poll, 65 percent of Americans say smoking marijuana is morally acceptable. The underlying question is whether the intended effects of using weed—reducing anxiety, experiencing highs or altered states of consciousness, enhancing creativity, and so on—ought to be regarded as valuable or harmful. In particular, is recreational marijuana use consistent with gospel citizenship (Phil. 3:20)?

“Recreation” originally referred to the process of spiritual refreshment: the act of restoring or reviving the soul. Today, it usually refers to things people do to relax or have fun. Recreation is an activity of leisure—leisure being “free” time. It can be solitary or communal. In either case, it is formative, either spiritually or socially.

To what kind of culture does recreational use of marijuana contribute?

Josef Pieper defines leisure as an attitude of the mind and condition of the soul that fosters a capacity to perceive the reality of the world. He also says it is the basis of culture. To what kind of culture, then, does recreational use of marijuana contribute? The language related to using weed gives some hints.

There are hundreds of terms for marijuana and the effects it produces: “amnesia” (because it can make one forgetful); “Houdini” (because the user escapes reality); and “stoned” (the state of being immobile due to intoxication).

What has Christ to do with stoner culture—the practices and products that result from being laid back, in mind and body?

Advice to Christian Disciples

Two biblical considerations—(1) the contrast between being lawful and being expedient, and (2) the reminder to keep watch—provide pastors with a framework for addressing recreational marijuana use in terms less of morality (right vs. wrong) than of discipleship (wise vs. foolish).

“‘All things are lawful for me,’ but not all things are helpful” (1 Cor. 6:12). Exactly! Paul is here probably quoting, and qualifying, a Corinthian slogan. He argues that what we do with our bodies is part of our Christian witness, because “it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me” (Gal. 2:20).

Paul makes his meaning even clearer by what he goes on to deny, “‘All things are lawful for me,’ but I will not be dominated by anything. . . . ‘All things are lawful,’ but not all things build up” (1 Cor. 6:12; 10:23).

Being filled with the Spirit leads to more self-control (Gal 5:22–23), whereas getting high leads to a loss of inhibitions. Note the difference between drinking alcohol and smoking pot: a glass of wine complements food but doesn’t result in intoxication, whereas the whole point of consuming cannabis for recreational purposes is to get “high.”

A glass of wine complements food but doesn’t result in intoxication, whereas the whole point of consuming cannabis for recreational purposes is to get ‘high.’

The second consideration takes its cue from Jesus’s command to keep watch and stay alert (Mark 13:32–37). C. S. Lewis described his conversion as an awakening, and we might describe discipleship as the project of helping Christ-followers to stay awake: alert to the privilege and responsibility of living out their citizenship of the gospel always, everywhere, and before everyone.

Much like the spell the green lady cast over Jill, Eustace, and Puddleglum in Lewis’s The Silver Chair, marijuana clouds our ability to perceive the world clearly and dulls our sense of urgency about what disciples should be doing.

The importance of wakefulness is an Old Testament theme as well: “At that time I will search Jerusalem with lamps, and I will punish the men who are complacent, those who say in their hearts, ‘The LORD will not do good, nor will he do ill’” (Zeph. 1:12). The Hebrew for “complacent” literally means “thickening on the dregs” (of wine). Taking “drags” on a joint produces a similar effect.

Contemporary culture typically depicts marijuana users as hapless but harmless. “Stoned,” “baked,” and “blunted” are all passive verbs—ways of describing the lethargic state commensurate with being under the influence. Can disciples be simultaneously saints and slackers? Could recreational marijuana be the latest opportunity of sloth: not mere laziness, but the deadlier sin of not caring enough to stay awake?

What Augustine says in On Christian Doctrine about the difference between using and enjoying things applies to recreational marijuana too. The only thing to be enjoyed for its own sake—loved—is the triune God. Those who use pot to enjoy getting high risk using creation to enjoy something other than God Most High.

Our culture does not know quite what to do with recreation, much less recreational pot. There’s a temptation either to idolize recreation by contrasting it with the oppressiveness of work, or to cheapen it by dismissing it as “down” time that doesn’t matter. Good stewardship applies not only to work, but also to the way we relax. Using weed is not the way to redeem the recreational times.

Disciples should be wise stewards of their time and energy, and what happens during times of recreation is spiritual formation too. The watchword for wise disciples is “Watch! Stay alert!” (Mark 13:37).