A former Sunday school teacher and 65-year-old grandmother, Carol Francey doesn't fit the typical stereotype of a political activist lobbying for marijuana legalization.
But that's what the retired social worker says is her calling now. Francey lives in British Columbia, a Canadian province where marijuana is widely used but still illegal. Like many healthcare workers throughout the United States, Francey says she's encountered patients with multiple sclerosis, Parkinson's disease, and cancer who have benefited from the pain-relieving effects of the drug. She's used it herself for myriad ailments, such as migraines, asthma, muscle pains, and depression. It also offers stress relief, she says, as well as benefits related to relaxation, recreation, and "communing with God's nature," she explained in an e-mail. She says it has enhanced her experiences of listening to music and sharing laughter with others.
A decade ago, revealing her stance and advocating for drug legalization would have seemed impossible as a Christian, Francey says. But throughout Canada and the U.S., the cultural climate has started to shift. Since 1996, 20 states and Washington D.C. have passed laws allowing smoked marijuana to be used for medical conditions. In 2012, voters in Colorado and Washington State also passed initiatives legalizing recreational use of marijuana for adults 21 and older. Additionally, advocacy groups such as the Marijuana Policy Project are pushing for the drug to be legalized for medicinal and recreational purposes in more than a dozen new states throughout the next few years.
In a 2013 Gallup Poll, 30 percent of American women admitted to having tried marijuana, while 6 percent say they currently smoke it. And for the first time in more than 40 years, results from a 2013 Pew Research Center study indicate that more than half of Americans (52 percent) believe marijuana should be made legal, while 45 percent said it should not. For adults born after 1980, the number in support of legalizing marijuana jumped to 65 percent.
Opinions vary among Christians. While 58 percent of white, mainline Protestants favor legalizing the use of marijuana, only 29 percent of white, evangelical Protestants support the measure, according to a 2013 poll from the Public Religion Research Institute.
Part of the debate centers around how the drug compares with other mind-altering substances. It's not an easy conversation to navigate, because perspectives—even medical ones—often differ.
Differences and dangers
Many advocates of marijuana say the drug is not habit-forming. In her experience, Francey says she's never come close to developing an addiction. "I have ceased altogether many times," she says, including a period of several months when she was away at a camp teaching.
Yet drug recovery centers, such as Cornerstone in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, say the idea that marijuana is not addictive simply is untrue. "Though the rate of marijuana dependency is not as high as it is in other drugs, about 9 percent of people who use marijuana become dependent on it," Cornerstone explains on its website. "Taken alone, this number may not seem high, but the number increases to about 16 percent among those who start using it at a young age, and to 25 percent to 50 percent among daily users."
President Obama spoke out about marijuana earlier this year, telling the New Yorker that while he believes marijuana is not healthy, "I don't think it is more dangerous than alcohol." His comments drew criticism from drug enforcement agencies, including California's Narcotic Officers Association, which said his statement would only further the agenda of marijuana advocacy groups who want to legalize "yet another addictive substance that will inevitably be commercialized and marketed to children."
Ed Welch, a counselor with the Christian Counseling and Education Foundation and author of several books on addiction and mental illness, agrees that problems associated with marijuana don't compare to those associated with alcohol. Yet as marijuana is legalized in more states, he believes more people will use the drug, promoting a larger market demand. "There will be people very skilled at growing marijuana who will grow marijuana that has THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) content beyond where it is right now, so it's going to become increasingly potent," he predicts. THC is the mind-altering chemical found in the cannabis plant.
"With increasingly potent marijuana, there will be a small section of the population that doesn't do well with it," Welch explains.
While he personally prefers that recreational marijuana not be legalized because he thinks it will promote greater use, Welch believes medicinal and recreational marijuana are here to stay. "When states realize they can get certain tax revenues from marijuana, they will begin legalizing it," he says. Already, Colorado's marijuana taxes could add more than $100 million a year to state revenue, according to a recent article in The New York Times.
More common . . . More acceptable?
In recent years, opinions about alcohol have relaxed in some Christian circles. But whether or not using recreational marijuana will ever be viewed as something similar to having a beer or a glass of wine is up for debate. "Alcohol has been such a part of American history that it will always be our country's predominate drug of choice," says Welch. "People would rather drink than smoke something, for the most part."
It's likely, however, that generational experiences could shape thinking on this issue over time, says Jennifer McKinney, professor of sociology at Seattle Pacific University. "If Christians haven't used marijuana in the past, they're likely not going to use it in the future," she explains. "But as it becomes more common, younger generations who grow up in a culture where it's always been legal are not going to see it as different from alcohol use and will be more likely to do it."
After recreational marijuana was legalized in Washington State, Seattle Pacific University reaffirmed its expectation that students not "smoke, use or possess alcohol or tobacco products on or off university property or as part of any of its activities," according to the school's Lifestyle Expectations code, McKinney explained.
"Even though it's legal in Washington State, it's still illegal from a federal guideline," she says. "And since we are federally funded in some ways—some of our money comes from federal student financial aid—we're just going to follow the federal guidelines."
McKinney doubts the new law in Washington State swayed any students who were on the fence about using marijuana for recreational purposes. "If they're curious about those things, there's a good chance they would try them regardless of the legality," she says.
Discerning the deeper questions
Yet for those Christians looking to new laws to determine what is permissible when it comes to marijuana, they may be missing the point, says Ryan Murphy, assistant professor of Christian thought and social ethics at Colorado Christian University.
"A certain intellectual laziness appeals to the line of thinking that argues, 'If something is legal, it's okay, or if it's not legal, it's not good for you,'" Murphy says. "When we go down this path, we allow the state to do our thinking for us."
He adds, "On any given day, we can hop on a plane and travel somewhere where the laws are different from our own. Whether it's alcohol, marijuana, prescription drugs, or food, the fact that these things are legal doesn't tell me what I should want to do. The questions a Christian needs to ask are: What do I want to do with my body, regardless of what the state thinks? How do I make sense of God's intentions for me? What's driving me to do this?"
Welch, in his work as a Christian counselor, observes that his clients have turned to drugs such as marijuana for three main reasons: hardship, boredom (seen more among teens and those in their 20s), and anxiety. Welch isn't as much concerned with a debate over the morality of marijuana—which he says could be compared with other anxiety-calming substances such as alcohol or Xanax—as he is with the motivation underlying a person's desire to use it.
Whether or not Christians themselves decide to use recreational marijuana may largely depend upon how they determine to cope with life's harsh realities, Welch says. How Christians try to understand themselves and God amid hardships is key. "The questions we have to consider are: How can we grow in being able to turn well to Jesus in the midst of the difficulties of life, rather than turn to other people, activities, or substances?" suggests Welch. And, "How can we turn to Jesus in our difficulties in a way that's appealing and good?"
The changing landscape regarding drug use gives Christians the opportunity to honestly discuss our pressure-filled society and what it means to find rest in the person of Christ, Welch says. As marijuana becomes more acceptable throughout the U.S., Christians face both the challenge and opportunity to acknowledge the reality of brokenness and suffering, while offering an attractive alternative to the escape found in mind-altering drugs.
Corrie Cutrer is a writer who lives in Tennessee with her family. She's also a former assistant editor of Today's Christian Woman and recipient of several EPA writing awards. She is currently a regular contributor for Today's Christian Woman.