Last November, citizens of Colorado voted on Amendment 64, an amendment to their state’s constitution that would allow the “personal use and regulation of marijuana” for adults 21 and over, as well as commercial cultivation, manufacture, and sale, effectively regulating cannabis in a manner similar to alcohol. The first stores selling marijuana for recreational use officially opened on January 1, 2014.
While the new legislation applies only to Colorado (Washington state passed a similar measure, though marijuana is still illegal in all other states and at the federal level), Americans across the nation are beginning to examine questions related to the use of marijuana. For Christians, one of the most pertinent questions is whether the recreational use of marijuana is sinful.
Although many Christians consider the answer to the question to be rather straightforward, it can be helpful to examine the reasoning process that allows us to determine how biblical principles can be applied to this issue.
What does the Bible say about marijuana?
Like abortion, nuclear weapons, and many other modern controversies, the Bible does not specifically mention marijuana. However, some defenders of marijuana do appeal to the Bible—indeed, to the very first chapter—to make their case:
And God said, “Behold, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is on the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit. You shall have them for food. (Gen. 1:29)
Since marijuana is indeed a seed-bearing plant we can legitimately consider whether God gave it to us for “food.” Before we do that, though, we should note how this claim undercuts the most popular form of recreational marijuana use: smoking. There are no other foods—even smoked salmon—that we consume by smoking them. So this defense can only apply to using marijuana that can be constituted as food and consumed in an edible.
Presumably, no one adds marijuana to brownies because it improves their flavor. The reason to add this particular plant to foodstuffs is because of its effect on senses other than taste. However, let’s assume that someone really does enjoy and gain some nourishment from eating marijuana leaves. Would that be a sin?
Analogical Reasoning and the Bible
To provide an answer rooted in Scripture and Christian ethics we must use analogical reasoning. In his essay “The Place of Scripture in Christian Ethics,” James Gustafson states the commonly accepted method of scriptural analogy:
Those actions of persons and groups are to be judged morally wrong which are similar to actions that are judged to be wrong or against God’s will under similar circumstances in Scripture, or are discordant with actions judged to be right or in accord with God’s will in Scripture.
While this may seem rather obvious, it raises the question of how we determine whether an action or circumstance is similar to an action judged to be wrong in Scripture. Legal scholar Cass Sunstein explains how we apply analogical reasoning:
This kind of thinking has a simple structure: (1) A has characteristic X; (2) B shares that characteristic; (3) A also has characteristic Y; (4) Because A and B share characteristic X, we conclude what is not yet known, that B shares characteristic Y as well.
Is there an analogical action that is judged to be wrong or against God’s will that similar to the recreational use of marijuana? Indeed, there is a clear example that is mentioned frequently in the Bible: drunkenness. (At the end of this article are several scriptural references to drunkenness and sobriety.) Drunkenness in the Bible is the state of being intoxicated by alcohol.
A (Intoxication by alcohol ingestion) has characteristic X (produces a psychoactive affect, that is, affects brain function, resulting in alterations in perception, mood, consciousness, cognition, and behavior.) B (Intoxication by marijuana ingestion) shares that characteristic; Because A and B share characteristic X, we conclude what is not yet known, that B shares characteristic Y (is an action that is judged to be against God’s will, i.e., is sinful).
Reasoning by analogy, we can determine that since it is sinful to become intoxicated by alcohol, it is sinful to become intoxicated by marijuana.
What Constitutes Intoxication?
The analogical argument against recreational marijuana use appears rather incontrovertible. However, the Bible prohibits drunkenness, it does not prohibit all uses of alcohol—even those for recreational purposes. A person can consume small quantities of alcohol without any intention of becoming intoxicated. Can a person consume small quantities of marijuana without any intention of becoming intoxicated?
To answer the question we must determine the average quantity of the drug—alcohol or marijuana—needed to produce the impaired state.
For alcohol, the unit of measure is the “standard drink,” that is any drink that contains about 14 grams of pure alcohol (about 0.6 fluid ounces or 1.2 tablespoons). A standard drink is conventionally defined as the alcohol content of 12 ounces of 5 percent-alcohol beer or 5 ounces of 12 percent-alcohol wine or an ounce and half (a shot) of 40 percent-alcohol (80-proof) spirits (hard liquor). In most U.S. states, the legally defined level of intoxication typically occurs, depending on pacing, after four drinks for an average-sized woman or five for an average-sized man.
For marijuana, however, a much lower dosage is needed to induce a state of intoxication. Studies show that intoxication occurs at the ingestion of less than 7 mg of THC (the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana). That is approximately the equivalent to four puffs of a marijuana cigarette.
If the purpose of consuming the marijuana was for nourishment and taste, we would need to eat only an amount that would not cause the intoxicating effect – about 200 mg of marijuana leaves. In theory, then, it could be possible to ingest marijuana with no sinful intentions. But of course, in almost all cases, the recreational use of marijuana is done with the intention of achieving some level of intoxication. And if the intent of the recreational use of marijuana is to achieve some level of intoxication, then it is clearly a sinful motive and action.
A sampling of Bible verses related to drunkenness and sobriety:
Ephesians 5:18 — “And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit, . . .”
Galatians 5:21 — “Envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.”
1 Peter 5:8 — “Be sober-minded; be watchful.”
1 Corinthians 6:10 — “Nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God.”
Proverbs 23:20-21 — “Be not among drunkards or among gluttonous eaters of meat, for the drunkard and the glutton will come to poverty, and slumber will clothe them with rags.”
Proverbs 23:29-35 — “Who has woe? Who has sorrow? Who has strife? Who has complaining? Who has wounds without cause? Who has redness of eyes? Those who tarry long over wine; those who go to try mixed wine. Do not look at wine when it is red, when it sparkles in the cup and goes down smoothly. In the end it bites like a serpent and stings like an adder. Your eyes will see strange things, and your heart utter perverse things.”
Isaiah 5:11 — “Woe to those who rise early in the morning, that they may run after strong drink, who tarry late into the evening as wine inflames them!”
Hosea 4:11 — “Whoredom, wine, and new wine, which take away the understanding.”
1 Corinthians 5:11 — “But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler—not even to eat with such a one.”
Isaiah 28:7 — “These also reel with wine and stagger with strong drink; the priest and the prophet reel with strong drink, they are swallowed by wine, they stagger with strong drink, they reel in vision, they stumble in giving judgment.”
Matthew 24:48-49 — “But if that wicked servant says to himself, ‘My master is delayed,’ and begins to beat his fellow servants and eats and drinks with drunkards . . .”