By / Mar 7

They are going to do it anyway. So regulate it, tax it, and we all will benefit.

Alcohol is legal, so what difference does it make if pot is legal?

Prohibition does not work; we learned that lesson.

The government has no business telling people what they can and cannot do in the privacy of their homes. Therefore, make pot legal and leave people to live their lives.

These are just some of the arguments for legalizing recreational marijuana. Those who argue for its legalization seem to make their case based on pragmatics. Advocates for decriminalization contend that laws just don’t work—no amount of regulation will stop free people from indulging. Additionally, if we legalize recreational pot, it can be taxed, and everyone in society benefits from the revenue. Consequently, decriminalizing marijuana simply makes practical sense.

Nevertheless, laws do more than simply restrict behaviors. Laws also commend the type of conduct that we want to encourage. Laws curb the behaviors that we want to discourage while at the same time promote the actions that a society champions. H. Richard Niebuhr noted that legislation works toward an end goal: it leads toward the desires of individuals and social groups.

What Niebuhr realized is that legal codes reinforce a vision of the kind of people we want to be, and they promote the values that a society believes will bring about human flourishing. Therefore, when we consider the question of legalizing recreational marijuana, we do well to think beyond pragmatics and ask the bigger question, “What vision does legalization cast for our future?”

The flight from reality

Marijuana is a drug that takes users into a disembodied state, and this is why so many find it relaxing. Marijuana immediately brings feelings of euphoria and heightens one’s senses, including one’s sense of time. And marijuana makes the user feel as though he has entered a new reality—one that is likened to an out-of-body experience. This intensified state happens within a relatively short period of time. So, many prefer marijuana to alcohol. Moreover, marijuana does not seem to have the same side effects as alcohol. Smoking pot avoids all the inconveniences of hangovers (with the exception that it smells). Therefore, advocates argue that legalizing recreational marijuana is really no different than alcohol.

Nevertheless, this argument ignores the reality that marijuana is a different kind of drug altogether. Marijuana alters the mind relatively quickly. While some comparison between marijuana and alcohol may seem legitimate, most proponents ignore the fact that a person can consume small amounts of alcohol without dramatic mind-altering effects. This is not to argue that one drug has more virtue than the other. I only make the point to distinguish the difference between recreational marijuana and alcohol. Marijuana provides immediate sensations of escape, whereas alcohol requires excess to achieve the same result.

Therefore, decriminalizing marijuana encourages an immediate flight from reality. The escape provided in marijuana merely recycles an age-old religion called Gnosticism. Gnosticism believed that the material world was intrinsically evil; thus, true happiness could only be found when we escape our material world. Cultures that encourage citizens to escape reality pay a heavy price.

Some of our lawmakers applaud the potential revenue from numbing the masses. But our states face challenges that have real and lasting effects on our communities. For example, in my New York community, we face problems such as poverty, racism, and city schools where teachers are asked to achieve unrealistic standards with minimal support. While lawmakers are passing legislation encouraging people to numb the mind, we demand our teachers nurture the mind. It seems odd, and a bit disjointed, that on one hand we champion the mind in education, and on the other we celebrate altering our mind for recreation.

The threat to the vulnerable

Nevertheless, many of the laws that promise escape ultimately lead to captivity. We were told that legalized gambling would be a windfall for our states. Scratch off tickets would be the hope for a better future. Yet how many widows and fatherless have lost their property, and their soul, to the local corner store? Promised freedom has actually enslaved the most vulnerable in our communities because we have failed to recognize that ideas have consequences. Escapism and its consequences leave a culture vulnerable to the complicated conditions of a fractured world.

People who are numb tend not to notice the injustice around them. But maybe that’s the point? When our heads are buried in the sand (or floating in the clouds), it is easy to close our eyes to the ills of our communities. Pragmatism can have a cost. And unfortunately, the ones asked to pay the bill are the ones who can least afford it. As Christians, we should be those who think through these issues seriously, with the good of our neighbors in mind—and then advocate for the flourishing of our communities.

By / Jul 7

They were everywhere: Slouched on park benches. Lollygagging in doorways. Strumming guitars. Asking passersby for money. Pretending to stop passersby for other reasons and then asking for money.

This is the face of legalized pot.

At least it’s the face I encountered during a recent stay in the hip downtown area of a state where recreational use of marijuana was recently made legal.

Most of the locals I talked to don’t care much one way or the other about the legal status of pot. But they do care that what was supposed to be a privately exercised freedom has become public—very public. For despite the fact that it’s not legal to smoke in public, such regulations have little teeth when aimed at wanderers more likely to move on to the next town than show up for court or pay a fine.

Of course, every city has its share of vagabonds and homeless folks. But I’ve never seen them assembled in such numbers. And as sad as the sight of a mentally ill person muttering to himself on the street is, it’s that much more dismaying to witness so many otherwise able-bodied young people wasting away in a haze of smoke and sun, taking refuge from time to time in coffee shops and apartment complex foyers to crash or charge their iPods and smartphones.

I suspect this isn’t what the public signed up for in approving the legalization of recreational marijuana use. Legal is one thing. In your face is another.

Not that the old way of criminalization was working.

On the one hand, I know a sweet little old lady, one who taught Sunday School her whole life, who bought pot on the black market some years ago in order to bring relief to a loved one dying of cancer. On the other, when I was a teenager, pot was far easier to obtain than alcohol, and I smoked more weed than it is comfortable for me to admit. I know firsthand the quiet despair of the drug-addled soul. But more than the regrets I have today over the harm my actions caused to myself and others, I’m haunted by the goodness I missed out on.

The War on Drugs has had, at best, mixed results. According to one report,

Drug convictions went from 15 inmates per 100,000 adults in 1980 to 148 in 1996, an almost tenfold increase. More than half of America's federal inmates today are in prison on drug convictions. In 2009 alone, 1.66 million Americans were arrested on drug charges, more than were arrested on assault or larceny charges. And 4 of 5 of those arrests were simply for possession.

Most agree that this incarceration epidemic has created more problems than it has solved. This is largely why Colorado, Washington, Oregon, Alaska and the District of Columbia have legalized recreational use of marijuana. Other states will likely follow suit.

But legalization and over-crowded prisons aren’t the only solutions. It’s not either/or. It seldom is. Indeed, the necessity of prison reform throughout the history of the modern prison system (a relatively recent invention in human civilization) has been the mother of social invention.

Now is the time for the kind of creative solutions to a drug and prison problem that will advance human flourishing and social good. The failed War on Drugs—and the counter-response of more liberal drug laws that may also be poised to fail—offers a great opportunity for the church, once more, to cut a clear path between justice and mercy to the abundant life.