One of the stories coming out of the recent United States elections was the decriminalization of marijuana in two states: Colorado and Washington. Voters in my hometown - Grand Rapids, Mich. - and several other Michigan cities also voted to make marijuana possession a civil infraction rather than a criminal charge.
How should we think theologically about the movement to decriminalize marijuana? To do so, it’s helpful to ponder the phrase “substance abuse.” This phrase, commonly used to describe drug abuse, can also be read as a theological explanation of both the goodness of creation and the nature of sin.
A proper doctrine of creation reminds us that material substances are not evil in and of themselves. In philosophical circles, “substance” simply describes any particular thing, including material things. In contrast, sin is not a physical substance, like a germ or bacteria that infects us. This may seem counterintuitive because we often associate evil with material things. As G. K. Chesterton points out, however, “The work of heaven alone was material; the making of a material world. The work of hell is entirely spiritual.” In other words, sin is the abuse of something that was created to be used properly. This is true for all things in creation, not just marijuana. Recognizing this, we have to ask the question: what is the proper use of this thing that God has created?
For starters, the distinction between medical and recreational use is important. Theologically, we have no reason to make medical use of marijuana illegal. We use all kinds of other drugs that are potentially dangerous if uncontrolled. The improper use of something good does not mean that any use is illegitimate (see: sex, drugs and rock n’ roll).
We also have to ask how our political framework affects our response to marijuana. Just because something is immoral does not necessarily make it illegal. Many forms of “substance abuse” (understood broadly as misusing something created good) are legal as long as they do not adversely affect the liberty of other citizens. Being an alcoholic is not illegal, but drunk driving is. Being greedy or being a workaholic is not illegal, but stealing and fraud are. Being a glutton who develops diabetes is not illegal, but stealing food and refusing to pay medical bills are. Some substances, however, have such adverse consequences when abused that mere possession of them is illegal. This also is as it should be, because, for some substances, the proper “use” is not to use them at all.
In general, Paul’s practical guidance to Christians is clear: not everything is beneficial and the Christian should not be mastered by anything. So whether we are thinking about marijuana or any other good thing that God has made, Christians are called to be aware of the perennial temptation toward “substance abuse” and the perennial responsibility to make sure that “whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God.”
It may be far easier to make something illegal (think Prohibition) than to develop a community that voluntarily and carefully discerns proper and improper uses of something. As image-bearers, our call is neither to absolute abstinence nor to unthinking indulgence. Rather, we are called to conscientious participation in the goodness of creation, so that God will look upon our wise use of His gifts and say, “It is very good.”