Article Jun 1, 2015

Kentucky Baptists and marijuana

My foster son began using marijuana when he was in the fifth grade. That was before he became a ward of the state and came under my care. But his drug use wasn’t the cause of him being taken away from his parents. It was their drug use.

"My Poppy didn't used to do drugs. He only smoked a little weed. He started after Mama. Mama got started because of my sister." Today our foster son’s “Poppy” is in prison, and a quick look at photos posted on Facebook and Instagram will reveal his mother's addiction has not waned. Of course, he isn't supposed to see those photos because he has been ordered by the court to have no contact with his own mother and father. Their parental rights have been permanently terminated.

And in the bedroom down the hall is a little boy struggling with all of the challenges common to middle school adolescents but multiplied by the reality of living in a stranger's home and knowing his parents are still alive but not even being allowed to talk with them. On good days, his pain is masked behind dark curls, brown eyes and an infectious grin. On bad days, it is unleashed in self-destructive decisions and unyielding defiance. 

This is why I ask Kentucky Baptists to fight against the legalization of marijuana in our state. But it isn't just the boy down the hall. Today, in Kentucky alone, there are more than 7,600 other little boys and girls in state care. Is every case drug related? No, but most are. Does every addiction begin with the decision to “smoke a little weed?” No, but most do.

Yet, support for marijuana legalization is rising rapidly in the United States. According to the Pew Research Center, 53 percent of Americans now say the drug should be made legal, compared with 44 percent who want it to be illegal. Opinions have changed dramatically since 1969, when Gallup found that just 12 percent favored legalizing marijuana.

Here in Kentucky, marijuana legalization efforts are in full swing. The Speaker of the State House of Representatives introduced legislation earlier this year to legalize the drug for medicinal purposes. In response, we worked through the Public Affairs Committee of the Kentucky Baptist Convention to compel Kentucky Baptists to address the issue. A series of press releases, letters and phone calls helped to spread the word. Concerned Baptists quickly reacted by contacting their elected representatives and imploring them not to take our state down a trail that would likely end at full blown legalization of marijuana for recreational use.

The Baptist outcry was heard and Kentucky legislators acted with wisdom. Ed Shemelya, coordinator for the National Marijuana Initiative, an organization that opposes legalization of pot, was quoted by the press as saying, “The success we had this year was, in large part, thanks to the stand Dr. Chitwood took on this issue.” Shemelya is a 30-year veteran of the Kentucky State Police (KSP), and a retired KSP Post Commander. He is also a fellow Kentucky Baptist who feared that Kentucky would become the 24th state where medical marijuana was legalized by politicians without the input of physicians and pharmaceutical research. Thankfully, Ed’s fears have been put to rest, at least for now, because of the responsiveness of Kentucky Baptists.

Medical marijuana is an emotional, complex and often confusing issue. I have spent time studying the matter and sought out the counsel of law enforcement and medical professionals. The Federal Food and Drug Administration continues to study all of the facts related to the medicinal use of marijuana but has not found any marijuana product to be safe or effective for the treatment of any disease or condition. Moreover, the American Medical Association, American Academy of Pediatrics, American Psychiatric Association, American Society of Addiction Medicine, American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, and American Cancer Society have all reviewed the science as it relates to their respective discipline and do not advocate marijuana as medicine. 

For the sake of those who genuinely suffer from debilitating illness, we hope FDA testing will reveal derivatives that are safe and effective as medicine and would obviously support the legalization of those medicines. Epidiolex is one example of a drug that is a direct derivative from the cannabis plant currently being used in an FDA trial study to determine its effectiveness. My hope and prayer is that we can give time to allow trained researchers and medical professionals to do their work rather than politicians taking matters in their own hands and unknowingly putting people at risk.

After speaking out on the issue, we received many expressions of appreciation and praise. But we also received a good amount of criticism and hate mail. Some of the criticism came from those convinced that marijuana could help them or their loved ones with health problems. Most simply saw us as standing in the way making their pot habit legal.    

Our ultimate desire is to protect children in Kentucky, not harm them or prevent them from receiving treatment they desperately need. The wreck and ruin I have witnessed firsthand in the lives of countless children of drug addicted parents has the common denominator of individuals who started their drug experimentation with marijuana. Potentially multiplying that pain by making marijuana even more easily accessible is, for me, a grave risk we must work hard to avoid even as we try to determine if marijuana can be used for good rather than evil.

Until hard evidence proves that marijuana is a safe and effective treatment option, I implore Kentucky Baptists and Southern Baptists to fight against legalization. Why? For the kids.

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