In the beginning, God created cannabis and (like all plants) saw that it was good (Genesis 1).
For millennia, the psychoactive qualities of marijuana have brought a modicum of goodness to struggling souls; easing pain, quieting anxiety and lifting spirits. And like alcohol, cannabis can — if used wisely — be a gift.
The challenge, of course, is defining “wisely.” According to the government of Canada, wisdom looks like boundaries similar to those we place on alcohol (you must be an adult and don’t drive while under the influence). But are age and safety the only categories to define wisely? What about moral, ethical or spiritual considerations?
What wisdom can religion bring to the conversation?
As a faith leader, I have to admit that my first thoughts on this topic also went to “boundaries.” The Apostle Paul writes, “All things are lawful for me, but not all things are helpful. All things are lawful for me, but I will not be dominated by anything.” (1 Corinthians 6:12, ESV). For some, cannabis use is unhelpful. Because of their genetic makeup and life experience, they are vulnerable to over-use and addiction. Even legal cannabis can lead to a dominating impairment.
Cannabis use can also detrimentally impact a growing brain. According to University of Lethbridge neuroscientist Dr. Robbin Gibb, “Marijuana is something you won’t want to try until you’re finished developing your brain.” Female brains (she goes on to say) finish developing at age 25 and male brains at closer to 30.
Of course, the decision to use cannabis doesn’t just impact your own life.
Rev. Dr. Phil Reinders, from Knox Presbyterian Church in Toronto, asks, “How might our cannabis use influence our teen-aged neighbour who struggles with a lousy self-image, anxiety, and the burden of peer-pressure? How might our free use of cannabis harm those prone or vulnerable to substance dependencies, or those who feel stripped of dignity and are already inclined to seek any form of solace to numb their pain?”
Freedom for one person can be a stumbling block for another. We need to live out our cannabis-consuming freedom in a way that understands and respects the vulnerabilities of others (like how we self-limit our alcohol consumption when socializing with alcoholics).
One way to wield that freedom rightly is to ensure that you are using cannabis in a healthy way. It’s here that churches, mosques and temples can be of aid.
Western University campus minister, Dr. Michael Wagenman, asks what it could mean if the church was a place that helps people process their experiences with drugs. Imagine faith-based institutions engaging people’s relationship with drugs at a deeper spiritual level and asking people what they are searching for when they make a decision to use cannabis.
As a teenager, I desperately wanted to fit in, to matter, to belong. The yearning was so powerful that I would do anything to satiate it — including joining the stoner crowd. This hazy high school community provided a means of psycho-induced relational freedom, joy and peace. Even though the feeling was temporal, it was something — and I clung to it.
Human beings are made to feel that they have a place and that they matter. As highly relational beings, we’re meant to feel secure, wanted, known and confident. These things help us to become most fully ourselves.
And until we get there, we continue to search.
Looking back, I can now see that what drove me to drugs as a teen is the same thing that drove me to God in my late 20s. St. Augustine confessed, “Thou hast formed us for Thyself, and our hearts are restless till they find rest in Thee.” (Augustine, Confessions, 4th c.)
Take the whole business of getting high. Neuroscientific studies are now showing that drug-induced ecstatic experiences stimulate the same neural circuits as God-induced ecstatic experiences. So, claiming to have had a religious experience while on drugs may not be that far off. As a faith leader, I believe that human beings are actually wired for ecstasy (the feeling, not the drug!). We are made to feel transcendence, glory and otherworldly bliss.
So perhaps it is no surprise that Canadians (living in a country where fewer and fewer go to church, mosque or temple) are among the highest cannabis users in the world.
Maybe pot is replacing what used to happen in the pew.
Instead of re-centring via the re-engagement of one’s creatureliness at church, we partake in the sacrament of edibles. Instead of dealing with our sins through the rituals of confession and absolution, we alter our consciences and mask our disintegrated states. Instead of combating loneliness by participation in a faith community that (at its best) is built on love and acceptance, we dull our isolation with a joint.
Cannabis is one alternative when facing these circumstances, but is it the best one?
Imagine feeling so psychologically and spiritually healthy — so high on life — that you wouldn’t want to alter your consciousness. Wouldn’t that be a great way to live?
Imagine being genuinely free and uninhibited; not as the result of some artificial stimulant, but because you’ve done the hard work of figuring yourself out with the help of a group of people who are trying to figure themselves out as well.
Imagine feeling all of the good things that cannabis artificially brings to life as part of your natural state — feeling great while still being wide awake. Is impairment the best way to become more alive? Can I really listen, love, or serve better when I’m stoned? Can I solve that big relational, business, scientific or societal challenge while high?
There are lots of ways to feel more fully human.
While cannabis can be (and is) one way to help us through life, we should never let it become our only way.
There are other remedies for life’s pain, boredom and meaninglessness and faith-based institutions have been prescribing them for millennia.
John Van Sloten is a pastor, teacher and writer who lives in Calgary.