DETROIT — In Michigan, the signs are everywhere.
Driving down Interstate 94 in either direction, drivers are confronted with a host of billboards advertising specialty cannabis, delivery services for a strain called Kush, “1-800-get your medical marijuana card here.” It’s hard not to notice.
Michigan legalized medical marijuana in 2008, and 10 years later, Proposal 1 passed, allowing for the legalized sale of marijuana beginning in 2019. At the time, Michigan was the 10th state to pass such a law; today, 19 states allow recreational use, plus Guam and the District of Columbia.
In a recent study led by the Anderson Economic Group out of East Lansing, as commissioned by the Michigan Cannabis Manufacturers Association, the state had a nearly $3.2 billion cannabis market in 2020, including both recreational and medicinal usage.
For all intents and purposes, the marijuana industry is blooming in Michigan, and its prevalence is nearly impossible to ignore.
So where does the Catholic Church stand on this increasingly polarizing topic, and how should the 1.3 million Catholics in the Archdiocese of Detroit respond when asked whether medical and recreational marijuana is morally and ethically permissible?
Although marijuana is not explicitly mentioned by name, Jesuit Father Peter Ryan, professor of moral theology at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit, said the Catechism of the Catholic Church addresses the topic under its treatment of respect for life and health.
A person’s physical health is a gift that ought to be taken care of for the person’s benefit and for the benefit of others, Ryan said.
“We have to respect the life of the body, and at the same time, we have to avoid excesses with respect to various things, including food, alcohol, tobacco or medicine,” he said.
Specifically, paragraph 2291 of the catechism touches on the use of drugs outside of a therapeutic setting, Ryan said.
“It says the use of drugs inflicts very grave damage on human health and life — it means the use of it when it’s not warranted,” the priest explained to Detroit Catholic, the archdiocesan online news outlet.
“Their use, except on strictly therapeutic grounds, is a grave offense, (as is) clandestine production of and trafficking in drugs or scandalous practices,” he said. “And so, they obviously have to be avoided.”
Ryan said this paragraph extends to any psychoactive substance, which can include the mildest, such as coffee, tea and aspirin, to the severe, such as LSD, heroin and cocaine.
While some of these substances can be used within reason — Ryan was careful to point out that not all of them can be used reasonably — the use is often a matter of context and purpose, especially if used to promote health.
“Even when you’re using them rightly to promote health, you have to be very concerned about side effects,” Ryan said. “Any merely emotionally motivated choice to use some substance, including cannabis, is an abuse.”
In other words, Ryan said, if a person is doing it without some good in view, and is simply seeking the altered state of consciousness as an end in itself, then that itself is unreasonable use.
However, if used reasonably for medical purposes, it can be permissible in some cases, although Ryan expressed doubts as to whether medical wellness was Michigan’s true purported reason for legalization.
Marijuana is a Schedule 1 substance, which is defined as a substance with a high potential for abuse, no current widely accepted medical use in treatment in the United States and a lack of accepted safety for use under medical supervision.
In June 2014, Pope Francis told an audience at the 31st International Drug Enforcement Conference that the use of illicit drugs is an evil where there can be “no yielding or compromising.”
“To think that harm can be reduced by permitting drug addicts to use narcotics in no way resolves the problem,” Pope Francis said at the time. “Attempts, however limited, to legalize so-called ‘recreational drugs’ are not only highly questionable from a legislative standpoint, but they fail to produce the desired effects.”
“Substitute drugs are not an adequate therapy but rather a veiled means of surrendering to the phenomenon,” the pope said. “No to every type of drug use. It is as simple as that. … But to say this ‘no,’ one has to say ‘yes’ to life, ‘yes’ to love, ‘yes’ to others, ‘yes’ to education, ‘yes’ to greater job opportunities.
“If we say ‘yes’ to all these things, there will be no room for illicit drugs, for alcohol abuse, for other forms of addiction.”
When Michigan’s ballot proposal was before voters, the Michigan Catholic Conference — backed by the bishops of the state’s seven dioceses — urged a “no” vote, citing negative consequences for emotional and physical well-being in other states, particularly among teenagers.
Is prescribing medical marijuana ethically and morally permissible?
For Dr. William Chavey, a Catholic physician practicing in southeast Michigan, the use of marijuana for medicinal purposes has not been proven to the point where he believes it can be morally justified and ethically prescribed.
“We need better understanding of the risks and benefits of medical marijuana before we can answer whether it is ethically permissible,” Chavey told Detroit Catholic.
“There are a lot of purported benefits of marijuana in terms of things like anxiety and well-being and things like that,” he said, adding that “the literature is mixed. … For the most part, I would say that marijuana is more recreational than it is medicinal.”
Considering the lack of research and the church’s teachings on the use of drugs and other mind-altering substances, Ryan said Catholics should avoid ingesting marijuana for medical or recreational purposes.
“You’ve got to ask yourself, all things considered, ‘What’s the most likely thing to help with my health and help me with the health issue that I’m dealing with?’” the priest said. “I think it’s going to be hard to say that the most likely thing that’s going to help me is marijuana.”
“If you really do come to that conclusion after actually weighing the issue, and you’re excluding emotional motivations and simply are just really trying to deal with the issue as well as you can, and you don’t have any other way of attaining the good end you’re seeking, then it could be OK,” he said. “However, I’m skeptical that a person is likely to be able to come to that conclusion.”
Patti is a news reporter on the staff of Detroit Catholic, the online news outlet of the Archdiocese of Detroit.