A moral argument — and course of action — for legalized marijuana in 2020

As cannabis becomes legal in more states, religious leaders should be truth-tellers of the racialized history and disparate impact of the war on drugs in recommending how their congregations and communities should respond.

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Every so often, a story comes along that needs no in-depth prologue, masterfully written introduction, or Pulitzer-Prize-winning lead-in, and this is it. Marijuana legalization is coming to Illinois in 2020, and it will directly impact the state in ways we can only begin to imagine (including generating potentially $170 million in tax revenues). We are witnessing the impact of legalization in nearly a dozen other states and the District of Columbia. That number will probably continue to increase in the next election cycle. 

But as the world seeks to engage this reality head-on, many pastors, religious leaders, congregational communities, and people of faith in general struggle to make sense of it all. How do you agree with an illegal drug now becoming legal? What do you tell your children? How do you reconcile the ethical use of controlled substances? What do you preach in 2020 when folks show up smelling like they were practicing their “new freedoms” on the way to church? And I know well the challenges as a clergyperson because I too have struggled to make sense of marijuana for nearly all my life!  

I don’t profess to have all the answers but I do believe there is more to be said. So I’d like to raise three questions and recommend three courses of action to take as we approach cannabis legalization.

Do we know the history? 

Bible studies and sermons are rife with commentary and interrogation of the histories surrounding the events folks preach from the pulpit. Nearly every sermon, homily, or speech delivered will at some point drive into some historical pitstop. Growing up, my mother challenged me continually to consider what historical truths might be hidden behind the public, sanitized lessons that were taught about people who looked like me. When it comes to marijuana, much work needs to be done to reveal the truth hidden in its history, too.

In the early days of American colonization, hemp (a strain from the cannabis plant, albeit with a lower quantity of THC) was quite pervasive and, in fact, encouraged by the government to be grown. In 1619, Virginia passed legislation requiring hemp to be grown by every farmer, notably for its use in rope, paper, and clothing. For nearly 250 years, from the early 1600s to the late 1800s, cannabis was an economic staple (and even considered legal tender in some states) until after the Civil War when cotton gained much more prevalence and cannabis usage had shifted into the medicinal scene.

Post-Reconstruction and post-Mexican Revolution, however, the roots of cannabis’ modern-day criminalization, fear culture, scientific distortion, and historical stigmas were planted. Instead of hemp or cannabis, the label “marihuana,” utilized by Mexican immigrants entering the U.S. in the early 1900s, was appropriated by American politicians to instigate anti-Mexican sentiment amongst white Americans. By the 1930s, marihuana (later marijuana) was used to describe all plants in the cannabis family.

The prize for creating a century-long racial paranoia around marijuana goes to Harry Anslinger. As the first commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics (a predecessor to the Drug Enforcement Administration), along with publishing and pharmaceutical companies, he demonized the plant and institutionalized its connection to race.

While it may be remarked that the economic viability of hemp versus cotton was a source of marijuana prohibition, it was through casting blatant lies, spreading fake news, and propagating completely fabricated science, that Anslinger catalyzed a glut of false news articles, public service announcements, and even feature films like “Reefer Madness” (or the 1936 trailer, ), “Marihuana: The Devil’s Weed” (1936), and “Marihuana: Assassin of Youth” (1937) that were nothing short of propaganda tools to demonize marijuana and undeniably racialize it.

In 1937, the Marihuana Tax Act was passed and enforcement of the drug was placed in the hands of Anslinger’s Federal Bureau of Narcotics. As a result of the act, individual sale and distribution were made de facto illegal. Medical use was permitted with an expensive taxing system and requirements that anyone the product was prescribed to had to have personal information reported to the Bureau, and fines of up to five years in prison and/or a $2,000 fine could be given for violations. Behind the taxation, however, was an even greater authority. The Bureau was also granted absolute regulatory, administrative, and policing power to enforce the law against whomever they desired. 

Anslinger’s rhetoric in speeches and writings was highly charged and very specific:

“Marijuana is the most violence-causing drug in the history of mankind. Most marijuana smokers are Negroes, Hispanics, Filipinos, and entertainers. Their satanic music, jazz and swing, result from marijuana usage. This marijuana causes white women to seek sexual relations with Negroes.”

“…the primary reason to outlaw marijuana is its effect on the degenerate races.”

“Marijuana is an addictive drug which produces in its users insanity, criminality, and death.”

“Reefer makes darkies think they’re as good as white men.”

But in the midst of an America that was crafting laws to prevent ethnic redistribution in the U.S., redefining who was worthy or unworthy of immigration, and very active Jim Crow laws at the time, he, alongside a great many others, was quite effective in crafting a horrific narrative and instigating a strict prohibition against cannabis.

Even stricter laws were enacted in the 1950s through the Boggs Act of 1952 and Narcotics Control Act in 1956 which established mandatory sentences and increased first-offense sentencing to 2-10 years and fines of up to $20,000.

In 1971, the war on drugs was officially proclaimed by the Nixon administration, endorsed by Republicans and Democrats, and sustained by every federal administration since. And, by way of the confessions of John Ehrlichman, advisor and right-hand to President Richard Nixon, the war on drugs was firmly established as a war on race

“The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. … We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin [and marijuana], and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.

Do we know the science?

With the passage of Nixon’s Controlled Substances Act in 1970 five categories, or “schedules”, were used to classify drugs based on standards for medical use and potential for abuse. Schedule 1 drugs were designated the most dangerous with very high risks of addiction and no currently accepted medical treatment use. Since then, marijuana has been placed in a list alongside heroin, LSD, and ecstasy, when, in actuality, it is in no way as dangerous as any of those substances. 

Two years later in 1972, at the direction of Congress, Nixon’s own Shafer Commission issued a report declaring that there was scientific, philosophical, sociological, and legal oversimplification regarding marijuana, and further recommending personal use be decriminalized. Nixon rejected the recommendations, and, since then, the government has successfully impeded the scientific community from engaging in research. Whatever research has been allowed, has been through a special Drug Enforcement Agency controlled process by way of the National Institutes for Drug Abuse. No other Schedule 1 drug has had to overcome the barriers that marijuana has. 

No person has ever died from a cannabis overdose ⁠— ever. 

There is no record in the extensive medical literature describing a proven, documented cannabis-induced fatality …  the record on marijuana encompasses 5,000 years of human experience … twenty million to fifty million Americans routinely, albeit illegally, smoke marijuana … Yet, despite this long history of use … there are simply no credible medical reports to suggest that consuming marijuana has caused a single death.”

(Schaffer Library of Drug Policy) 

Even the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shares this finding. Compare this to the 50,000 people who die annually from alcohol poisoning or the 400,000 from tobacco smoking

Scientific and medical research also confirm its benefit for treating a number of conditions like Alzheimer’s and Crohn’s diseases, epilepsy, glaucoma, multiple sclerosis, chronic and extreme pain, and cancer. And to dispel a few other scientific myths, marijuana usage does not reduce IQ nor is it the gateway drug we hear it is, either. 

Do we know the impact?

Hands down, cannabis prohibition has caused a culture of punishment, particularly over the past 50 years levied against African Americans, and African American communities. America’s drug war has produced an incarceration rate of 2,336 Black men per 100,000, compared to 397 for White men. Although usage is the same between Blacks and Whites, Black men and women have historically been over 3.5 times more likely to get arrested nationally (over 7 times more likely in Illinois) and Black men are six times more likely to be incarcerated than White men.

Even as public sentiment is expanding around the issue, and states are beginning to decriminalize, still in 2018, nearly 700,000 people were arrested for a marijuana law violations and 600,000 were charged with possession only. Despite making up 31.5% of the population, 46.9% of those arrested for drug violations were still Black or Latino.

As people of faith, we should also be concerned that hard-heartedness and hypocrisy surrounding a false narrative have sustained the creation of mandatory minimums that extend the time for individuals serving in prison, have caused over-policing in Black communities across America, deprived countless people of a resource that can justifiably be used for the treatment of a number of medical disorders, and wastes over $3 billion of taxpayer’s money annually on a half-century-long war on drugs that has conclusively failed.

So what do we do? 

In true Baptist pastor fashion, I have three points to share for religious and non-religious leaders, alike:

1. Tell the truth

For those clergypersons who have a responsibility to preach and deliver messages from a pulpit, truth-telling is core to the work. But truth-telling comes with the task of rightly-dividing history, information, and data, too. Given the decades of unscientific, paranoid, and racist propaganda, a new narrative needs to be bravely engaged — from the pulpit. Yes, it will be challenging, requires risk, can be quite controversial, and, honestly, may come at the expense of a job if congregations are not willing to process what is communicated, but these realities are a core part of our occupation. 

A month ago, as I was receiving an award for Clergy for a New Drug Policy in their work on drug policy reform, I shared a conversation with Illinois Rep. Kelly Cassidy. She remarked how she’d been fighting for Illinois cannabis legislation reform for nearly a decade, and we were finally on the verge of legalization and regulation in Illinois in 2020. Legislators like her, reporters and journalists, educators, and health professionals across the country have been engaged in the risky work of challenging the untruths, confronting the injustices, and seeking to change the status quo. Pastors and church leaders have that same responsibility. 

If you don’t believe me, do your own research and see what you find. My very own personal journey over the past eight years of my life has taken me into the data, into the impact, and into the narratives. I believed legalization was wrong, was ignorant to the history, denied the impact of our government, and followed a false moral narrative. Upon doing my research and talking to a lot of people, I emerged with the truth and a personal conviction to change how I engage this work publicly and in the life of my congregation. 

2. Educate your congregations and communities, and direct them to resources

I recently engaged in conversation with a member of my church who shared an interest in gaining access to the retail marijuana market. I’m certain they were surprised to find that I had information and could share how Illinois was actively seeking to provide ways for Black businesses to access the retail market and opportunities for communities most impacted by the War on Drugs to benefit from future revenue streams, and, not to mention, the possibility of clemency and clearing of convictions for nearly 800,000 people in the state.

If preaching is the first step, then in-depth education may very well be the next. It is important to understand that aside from independent funding sources, systemic, rigorous, public education programs for a controlled substance cannot occur until public funds are allocated by the state or federal government. Think of the public education programs for alcohol. My children — in high school and elementary school — know well the dangers and limitations of how to approach alcohol because they are educated about it everywhere: television, online, media, in their public schools, and even religious communities. Through these outlets, our society — adults and children — know the dangers of over-consumption, driving under the influence, how drinking influences sexual misconduct, and much more. 

Marijuana has lacked that pervasive educational force since it has been illegal. I’m quite encouraged to see that with the new legislation in Illinois, funds from marijuana tax revenue are also slotted for public education and safety programs that come along with the regulation.

But religious communities don’t have to wait for the state public education — they can begin on their own. What better way to make the church relevant than by choosing to engage with the communities around our congregations and offer a public education program? And you don’t have to do the work yourself. Begin by talking with a legislator who supported the recent legislation or partnering with a university or nonprofit engaged in this work to provide a town hall at your church. 

Feel free to discuss the freedoms and the challenges in an open venue, and even provide guidance as you would if educating about alcohol or tobacco. If possible, you can even provide opportunities for people to engage the process of ensuring funds get redirected back to communities most impacted by policing and share opportunities for aspiring communities to gain economic access to the retail chain.

3. Set standards for your family and loved ones

The last thing I want anyone to believe is that I am directly compelling anyone to go out and consume cannabis. The issues we’ve been discussing are about truth and paranoia, not what is right and wrong. Again, being a good Baptist and holding my Congregational Church convictions, I’m very wary about forcing anything.

What I will offer is that the same way in which families and loved ones should come together to set rules and boundaries for what gets consumed in their homes for tobacco, alcohol, and other substances, so should it be done for marijuana.

In my home we have rules. No illegal drugs are allowed. No one smokes in the house. If we have friends over that want to smoke, or if I choose to smoke a cigar, it happens outside. Alcohol is OK. For marijuana, we’ve agreed that adult friends cannot smoke indoors (as per the smoking rule), but may bring consumables. 

With our children, smoking and vaping are not permitted. They cannot drink alcohol that may be in the home unless we (their parents only) offer them something like a glass of wine during a special meal or event. Regarding marijuana, we have already set the standard that marijuana use isn’t permitted until they are of legal age and choose to do so on their own outside the house. (And to be totally honest, both my children have been nauseated by smelling marijuana so often having lived on a college campus for half their lives, they don’t desire it anyway.) 

These are our standards. What are yours? As religious leaders, we should share our standards and aid our congregations to set standards for their families and loved ones as well.

Moving into the future let’s move beyond the paranoia, speculation, and the “I heard that …” about marijuana. Instead, let’s tell the truth, educate our congregations, and set standards for our families in 2020.