By / Oct 20

The Biden administration’s Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) is recommending that the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) significantly loosen federal restrictions on marijuana and reclassify it in a lesser category under the Controlled Substances Act. This recommended shift at the federal level is spurred by the increasing efforts at legalization and decriminalization at the state and local levels. Currently, 21 states have fully legalized recreational use of marijuana and six others have decriminalized such use.

If accepted, the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC) believes this change will bring significant harm to our communities. Because all people are made in the image of God, we desire to see public policy that promotes the flourishing of our neighbors. The ERLC sent a letter to the DEA sharing these concerns and urging them to reject this rescheduling recommendation from the Biden administration.

While proponents of legalization, decriminalization, and rescheduling of marijuana often cite—and overstate—the medical benefits and the disproportionate criminalization impact on marginalized communities, there are compelling arguments to keep marijuana illegal, especially at the federal level.

Why marijuana should be restricted

One of the reasons marijuana should remain illegal is rooted in the health hazards associated with marijuana use. The National Institute on Drug Abuse has highlighted several adverse effects such as impairment in learning, memory, and attention. Moreover, it has been associated with an increased heart rate and a higher risk of heart attack. The drug is also more addictive than is assumed, with an estimated 10% of users becoming addicted.

In 2017, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine convened a committee of experts to conduct a comprehensive review of the literature regarding the health effects of marijuana use. They found there is substantial evidence of a statistical association between cannabis use and increased risk of motor vehicle crashes. Also, in states where cannabis use is legal, they found an increased risk of unintentional cannabis overdose injuries among children.

In 2019, five years after legalization of recreational sale of marijuana in Colorado, more people were visiting emergency rooms for marijuana-related problems, and hospitals reported higher rates of mental-health cases tied to marijuana. Legalization can potentially lead to a public health crisis, particularly if marijuana use begins during adolescence, a period when the brain is still developing.

The potential impact on mental health further accentuates the concerns surrounding marijuana usage. Early marijuana use is linked to lower IQ scores, dropout rates, and risk of mental illness like psychosis or schizophrenia later in life. Marijuana smoke also contains many of the same carcinogens as tobacco smoke, which could increase future risk of lung cancer and chronic bronchitis.

Another reason marijuana should be restricted is that it remains a “gateway drug” to other controlled substances. As long-term studies have shown, marijuana alters brain chemistry and primes it for sensitivity to other drugs. Usage of the drug has been shown to lead to experimentation with harder drugs such as cocaine and heroin. Also, as has been shown over the last decade, decriminalizing and legalizing marijuana has normalized drug use, making individuals—especially young people—more susceptible to trying substances that are even more dangerous than cannabis. 

Supporters of loosening restrictions argue that there are valid medical reasons for reclassifying marijuana from a Schedule I to Schedule III drug under the Controlled Substance Act. But such a shift is unnecessary since there are already legal and regulated medications available to address the medical conditions that proponents argue marijuana can alleviate.

While marijuana contains compounds like THC with potential medicinal benefits, there are FDA-approved medications like Marinol that serve similar purposes but within a regulated framework. This regulation ensures a standardized dosage and quality, minimizing the potential for abuse that comes with the raw, unregulated form of marijuana that has over 400 components, many of which have not been studied well.

Those advocating for the decriminalization or rescheduling of marijuana too often ignore the potential public health and societal effects. The risks associated with marijuana, in terms of addiction, mental health issues, and its role as a gateway to harder substances, outweigh the perceived benefits of its legalization or decriminalization. The Biden administration should be taking a more cautious approach, emphasizing the importance of maintaining marijuana’s status as an illegal substance in order to safeguard public health, and to ensure the government will continue to protect children from the use of addictive and harmful drugs. 

By / Mar 23

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.