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Nov10ThuCanada's marijuana laws are going to change. What does that mean for Salvationists? November 10, 2016 by James Read
The Liberal Party of Canada ran for office in 2015 with the promise to legalize the use of marijuana. Since they won a majority in that election, it is going to happen—no matter what I think. Why waste ink writing about it?
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Well, for one thing, it would be good to know the reasons (besides getting votes) that lie behind the Liberal promise. More importantly, just because something is legal doesn't mean I should do it. Without a law to tell me not to do something, I'll have to decide for myself.
The Case for Legalization
Three points seem to be at the heart of the case for liberalizing the law: 1) continuing to treat the use of marijuana as a criminal offence costs too much; 2) even-handedness means we shouldn't outlaw marijuana when we don't outlaw alcohol; and, 3) for adults, freedom from government interference is a fundamental democratic value.
These claims are worth looking at.
I was caught by surprise when I learned that the former head of the Toronto Police Service, Bill Blair, now a Liberal MP, was the cabinet minister named to lead the political process of changing the law. I thought a police chief would be against it. But a little research revealed that what has really troubled the police is the tension they feel between ignoring the present law and enforcing it at great cost in terms of time, personnel, and court and jail resources. Without doubt, the cost of enforcement has been huge. A Senate report in 2002 pegged it at $300-$500 million a year.
On top of the enforcement costs is the government revenue that could be generated if marijuana was taxed like alcohol or tobacco. According to the chartered accountants' association, the average Canadian family already pays close to $2,000 a year in taxes on those things. Legalizing marijuana and taxing it could help the governments' bottom lines.
The Value of Freedom
Quite apart from the financial considerations, something does seem irrational about our laws on marijuana use and our laws on alcohol, doesn't it? People can drink themselves silly and break no laws, but if they possess a “joint” they have broken the law before taking the first puff.
We need to ask ourselves: “Is this the way I want to treat my body?”
Of course, one could agree that drinking alcohol, smoking tobacco and using marijuana should not be treated differently, and then argue they should all be criminalized. That would treat them equally. But even as a principled teetotaler who hasn't tried any of these substances, I would not argue for prohibition. Prohibition requires a massive governmental restraint on personal liberty.
Not all Christians would agree with me, but I firmly believe that liberty is a Christian value. In my understanding, God created people out of abundant divine grace and wants them to love him in return, but does not compel their love. God wants it freely given. “Freely you have received; freely give” (Matthew 10:8). Salvation Army teaching is that choice is a good thing; it is the bad exercise of free human choice that has given sin entry to history. The Salvation Army teaches that sin entangles people and compromises their ability to choose. Sin enslaves; God liberates.
For me, this has political and social implications. It is not as if there is no case for the government to interfere with what people want to do, but the case has to be made. The burden is on showing that constraint is justified.
Those who argue that marijuana is a good thing point to its supposed health benefits or its pleasures. Medical marijuana is said to bring relief to pain and nausea, and has worked to stimulate the appetite of some patients who have lost their desire to eat. These are not unimportant benefits. And someday marijuana may be used in mainstream medicine as opiates are now. But just how beneficial marijuana is in relation to alternatives, and which chemicals in marijuana are therapeutic and which aren't—and in what doses—is presently poorly understood. This is why doctors in Canada have guidelines for giving a patient permission to access marijuana, but they can't prescribe it. (Ironically, we don't have answers to these questions in part because the law has made it hard for researchers to access the substance they need to study.)
Those who use marijuana recreationally tout its ability to enhance the taste of food, and the way it relaxes them and eases social interaction. Some seek its perception-altering capacities.
Against these benefits—especially with respect to the “recreational” use of marijuana—one has only to read the facts on a site such as the Canadian Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH): “Using a lot of marijuana for a long time may make it harder to pay attention, remember things and learn. Large doses of marijuana can lead to 'toxic psychosis.' This can cause people to hallucinate (see or hear things that aren't really there), become paranoid (feel like people are out to get them) and believe things that aren't true.”
It may not be addicting in the same way that alcohol and tobacco are, but CAMH doesn't hesitate to say marijuana is addictive. The “stoner” personality is not a fiction. Even casually used, marijuana dulls critical thinking. It can trigger schizophrenia and anxiety. It can cause problems in pregnancy. Smoked, it can cause cancer. And in the current unregulated environment, marijuana purchased on the street may contain other dangerous elements besides THC. An investigative report in the Globe and Mail on what's available in so-called dispensaries (visit tgam.ca/marijuana) is sobering.
THC stands for “delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol” and it is the main ingredient that produces the marijuana high. Growers have consequently tried to cultivate strains that contain higher percentages of THC. Marijuana also contains CBD, or “cannabidiol” which, interestingly enough, appears to work to moderate the psychotropic effects of THC. Plants with high THC and low CBD therefore put their users' minds at greater risk; plants with higher CBD may prove more desirable for medical purposes. Time will tell.
We need to ask ourselves: “Is this the way I want to treat my body? Is this the way to thank the God who gives me life and rich possibilities? If it is true that my body is in some way the dwelling place of the Holy Spirit, is this the way I show God hospitality?” We need to ask these sorts of questions before we do lots of things, like eating “ordinary” food, but marijuana shouldn't be excluded.
Impact on Others
On top of these questions, however, Christians need to ask about the impact of our decisions on others.
Homelessness has increased in Denver since Colorado legalized marijuana and Salvation Army services fear they are at the breaking point.
And when I put on my grandparent hat, things get really scary. Marijuana use alters brain development in children and youth. It creates attention and memory problems and impairs judgment— with long-term consequences for young people.
“Although increasing legalization of marijuana has contributed to the growing belief that marijuana is harmless, research documents the risks of its use by youth are grave,” said the American College of Pediatricians in an April 2016 statement. “Marijuana is addicting, has adverse effects upon the adolescent brain, is a risk for both cardio-respiratory disease and testicular cancer, and is associated with both psychiatric illness and negative social outcomes.”
If I love my grandchildren—and I do; if I care about the children and grandchildren in my corps—which I also do; if my love for my neighbour extends beyond my immediate neighbourhood— which it should do more—then I want to make it difficult for them to get their hands on weed.
Canada's marijuana laws are going to change. The change won't be as massive as the one that means Canadian doctors can now terminate the lives of their patients, but it is going to be big. And, as a Christian who cherishes democratic freedom, knowing the facts means I should advocate for regulation that makes it difficult for children and adults to choose to harm themselves.
Dr. James Read is the executive director of The Salvation Army Ethics Centre in Winnipeg.