Going to Pot: Why the Rush to Legalize Marijuana Is Harming America

March 23, 2015

William Bennett and Robert White have written a very helpful, practical refutation of the marijuana legalization effort, and it could hardly be timelier. In less than 200 pages of very accessible text, Going to Pot: Why the Rush to Legalize Marijuana is Harming America (Hachette Book Group), released in February, effectively dismantles every serious argument being put forward by the legalization crowd. Bennett, a former secretary of education and first director of the National Drug Control Policy office, and White, an attorney, begin with the central, most important argument in the secular debate—whether or not marijuana use is dangerous.

Bennett and White write from a social science perspective. There are important spiritual reasons to oppose the use of marijuana, as well. Scripture teaches clearly that sobriety and self-control are hallmarks of healthy Christian discipleship. Bennett and White are not working in that space, however. They argue, convincingly, that legalization of marijuana for medical or recreational purposes will lead to more personal and social problems, not only for users but for society as a whole. Marijuana use, they emphasize, is a threat to the individual and the nation. It is everyone’s concern. Consequently, this is a book for everyone.

The authors make their case in a very straightforward, matter-of-fact way. There are stories, but not long emotional appeals. They also pepper their book with letters and notes they have received over the years from people whose lives have been turned upside down by marijuana. However, this is principally a book of facts. The writers want to win this debate with facts, and they do this effectively. They provide page after page of facts about the problems associated with both medical and recreational marijuana.

Bennett and White roundly dispel the medical marijuana myth with this book. They skewer the arguments made about the place marijuana currently plays in alleviating real suffering. While acknowledging sympathy for people with medical needs, they point out that the vast majority of those who are claiming the need for medical marijuana in Arizona, for example, are men between the ages of 18 and 30 years old. Only 13 percent of medical marijuana cardholders in Arizona are over 60. In other words, the very group most likely to be using marijuana to get high also happens to be the group using marijuana for supposed pain issues. They even note that medical marijuana cards are being issued to children under the age of 18.

Not wanting to be taken as heartless, the authors acknowledge the potential benefit marijuana might pose to a narrow range of health issues. In order to make the drug available to those who might truly benefit from it, they offer a “modest proposal” for the use of medicinal marijuana. They suggest 10 criteria for this regimen. If our country insists on pursuing this path, their proposal, at least, provides some important accountability from government, doctors, and patients.

I agree that we should help those suffering from various health challenges find relief. I do not believe marijuana is very effective for pain relief, however. The evidence is clear on this, as well. Most people who use marijuana to deal with significant pain also take other pain relief drugs because marijuana is not that effective in alleviating pain on its own. On the other hand, if marijuana will actually provide some real help for some specific health challenges more effectively than the many other drugs that are already available, I am not opposed to its use, either. The current no-holds barred approach is just plain reckless and irresponsible, though. The entire current approach to medical marijuana must be addressed, because it is out of control. Bennett and White offer some helpful guidance forward on this front.

The medical marijuana debate is really just a stop along the way to recreational use of the drug. This is where Bennett and White spend most of their time. They go straight for the jugular in their chapter on legalization and its effects. They work through the long list of problems created by marijuana legalization, and back up every claim with facts. For example, they address the long list of negative consequences of smoking marijuana, including the impact on the lungs, brain development in adolescents, IQ loss, psychosis, judgment, coordination, motor skills, and the heart. They also note the practice of packaging marijuana in bright, colorful wrappers that makes it look more like candy than a supposed drug. The result is that children are finding these products and eating them, without realizing they are consuming marijuana.

Bennett and White also discuss the social costs of greater accessibility to marijuana. They note that greater use will result in such things as more crime, more auto accidents, more deaths, more addiction, more overdoses, as well as greater loss of productivity in the workplace and increased emergency room visits. They rightly claim that the supposed benefits to society of legalization are also vastly overestimated. They observe that tax revenues will not spike significantly, the drug cartels will not be put out of business, and law enforcement will simply find its time diverted to policing the impact of greater legal drug use.

For those wondering how to respond to the various arguments being made to advance the marijuana legalization effort, the authors offer some very helpful commentary. They provide, for example, a brief snapshot of the failure of marijuana legalization internationally. Every country with a long enough record of legalized marijuana to study has demonstrated the leap toward legalization was a bad decision. Most are already working to rein it in. The authors also help the reader respond to claims that marijuana is not as deadly as alcohol, and that marijuana is not addictive. There is also helpful argumentation on the gateway nature of marijuana and refutation of libertarian arguments for legalization.

Wrapping things up, the authors provide helpful guidance for a successful return to a government program to reduce illicit drug use rather than capitulation. They propose a partnership between government and civil society that would produce a full court press to restore the stigmatization of drugs in society. Their proposals are offered only in summary form and require significant fleshing out, but their recognition that our country is failing our youth through its lack of deterrence is right on target. Every facet of society must coalesce around the effort to reclaim the message that drugs, including marijuana, destroy lives.

In their conclusion, the authors challenge readers to examine the facts for themselves rather than simply accepting what they are told. “Almost every argument on behalf of legalization,” they conclude, “has a better countervailing argument.” I share their confidence, with one distinction. I would qualify the word “almost” so that it applies only to possible uses of marijuana for a very narrow range of medicinal uses. In the end, there are no good arguments for legalizing marijuana for recreational purposes and only a narrow range of possible arguments for its medicinal value. Following their conclusion, Bennett and White offer some helpful materials in an appendix, including the complete text of a 2014 New England Journal of Medicine article entitled “Adverse Health Effects of Marijuana Use.”

Going to Pot is a serious volume, written by serious men, in an approachable format. I agree completely with their last words: “This argument is, after all, about our most precious and valuable assets: the health and well-being of our children and our country.” We must do all we can to protect both. As one whose life was nearly destroyed by drug use as a teenager and young adult, I urge everyone who wants to understand the issues in the debate about marijuana to read this important fresh look at the misguided leap toward the legalization of marijuana.

Barrett Duke

Barrett Duke is now the executive director of the Montana Southern Baptist Convention. He is the former vice president for Public Policy and Research at the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. Read More by this Author

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24