As Michigan’s marijuana industry grows, what does the Church teach on cannabis?

A mom and toddler pass by a medical marijuana dispensary in Santa Monica, Calif. Since 2019, when Proposal 1 legalized recreational marijuana use in Michigan, the state’s cannabis industry has exploded, reaching $3.2 billion in revenue last year. (Tom Tracy | CNS photo)

Marijuana use is covered by the Catechism’s teachings on physical and emotional health as a gift from God, local moral theologian says

DETROIT — In Michigan, the signs are everywhere. 

Driving down Interstate 94 in either direction, drivers are confronted with a host of billboards advertising specialty cannabis, kush delivery services, 1-800-get your medical marijuana card here –– it’s hard not to notice. 

Michigan legalized medical marijuana in 2008, and 10 years later, Proposal 1 passed, allowing for the legalized sale of marijuana beginning in 2019. At the time, Michigan was the 10th state to pass such a law; today, 19 states allow recreational use, plus Guam and the District of Columbia. 

In a recent study led by the Anderson Economic Group out of East Lansing, as commissioned by the Michigan Cannabis Manufacturers Association, Michigan had a nearly $3.2 billion cannabis market in 2020, including both recreational and medicinal usage. 

For all intents and purposes, the marijuana industry is blooming in Michigan, and its prevalence is nearly impossible to ignore. 

So where does the Catholic Church stand on this increasingly polarizing topic, and how should the 1.3 million Catholics in the Archdiocese of Detroit respond when asked whether medical and recreational marijuana is morally and ethically permissible?

The answer, like its subject, can appear hazy, but in fact is rooted in the Catechism of the Catholic Church’s teachings regarding physical and emotional health as a gift from God.  

Although marijuana is not explicitly mentioned by name, Fr. Peter Ryan, SJ, professor of moral theology at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit, said the Catechism addresses the topic under its treatment of respect for life and health. A person’s physical health is a gift that ought to be taken care of for the person’s benefit and for the benefit of others, Fr. Ryan said. 

“We have to respect the life of the body, and at the same time, we have to avoid excesses with respect to various things, including food, alcohol, tobacco or medicine,” Fr. Ryan said. 

Specifically, paragraph 2291 of the Catechism touches on the use of drugs outside of a therapeutic setting, Fr. Ryan said. 

A marijuana leaf is displayed in 2012 at the Canna Pi medical marijuana dispensary in Seattle. (CNS photo/Anthony Bolante, Reuters)

“It says the use of drugs inflicts very grave damage on human health and life –– it means the use of it when it’s not warranted,” Fr. Ryan explained to Detroit Catholic. “Their use, except on strictly therapeutic grounds, is a grave offense, (as is) clandestine production of and trafficking in drugs or scandalous practices. And so, they obviously have to be avoided.”

Fr. Ryan said this passage extends to any psychoactive substance, which can include the mildest such as coffee, tea and aspirin, to the severe, such as LSD, heroin and cocaine. While some of these substances can be used within reason –– Fr. Ryan was careful to point out that not all of them can be used reasonably –– the use is often a matter of context and purpose, especially if used to promote health. 

“Even when you’re using them rightly to promote health, you have to be very concerned about side effects,” Fr. Ryan said. “Any merely emotionally motivated choice to use some substance, including cannabis, is an abuse.”

In other words, Fr. Ryan said, if a person is doing it without some good in view, and is simply seeking the altered state of consciousness as an end in itself, then that itself is unreasonable use. 

However, if used reasonably for medical purposes, it can be permissible in some cases, although Fr. Ryan expressed doubts as to whether medical wellness was Michigan’s true purported reason for legalization. 

Marijuana is a Schedule 1 substance, which is defined as a substance with a high potential for abuse, no current widely accepted medical use in treatment in the United States, and a lack of accepted safety for use under medical supervision. 

In a statement before an audience with the 31st International Drug Enforcement Conference in June 2014, Pope Francis stated explicitly that the use of illicit drugs is an evil where there can be “no yielding or compromising.”

People wait for the "high noon" grand opening at Cannabis City July 8, the first day of legal retail marijuana sales in Seattle in 2014. (CNS photo/Jason Redmond, Reuters)

“To think that harm can be reduced by permitting drug addicts to use narcotics in no way resolves the problem,” Pope Francis said at the time. “Attempts, however limited, to legalize so-called ‘recreational drugs’ are not only highly questionable from a legislative standpoint, but they fail to produce the desired effects.”

When Michigan’s ballot proposal was before voters, the Michigan Catholic Conference — backed by the bishops of the state’s seven dioceses — urged a “no” vote, citing negative consequences for emotional and physical wellbeing in other states, particularly among teenagers. 

Regarding marijuana as an acceptable alternative to “harder” drugs, Pope Francis was clear that any drug use for recreational purposes is illicit. 

“Substitute drugs are not an adequate therapy but rather a veiled means of surrendering to the phenomenon,” the pope said. “No to every type of drug use. It is as simple as that. … But to say this ‘no,’ one has to say ‘yes’ to life, ‘yes’ to love, ‘yes’ to others, ‘yes’ to education, ‘yes’ to greater job opportunities. If we say ‘yes’ to all these things, there will be no room for illicit drugs, for alcohol abuse, for other forms of addiction.”

Is prescribing medical marijuana ethically and morally permissible? 

For Dr. William Chavey, a Catholic physician practicing in southeast Michigan, the use of marijuana for medicinal purposes has not been proven to the point where he believes it can be morally justified and ethically prescribed. 

“We need better understanding of the risks and benefits of medical marijuana before we can answer whether it is ethically permissible,” Dr. Chavey told Detroit Catholic

Dr. Chavey, who practices with Emmaus Health Partners in Ann Arbor, said some attempt to use the social and legal acceptability of alcohol to justify the legalization and use of marijuana for both medical and recreational purposes. But while the science surrounding the risks of alcohol is widely available, marijuana research is not as robust. 

“With marijuana, I am not aware of any data that is complimentary,” Dr. Chavey said. “There are a lot of purported benefits of marijuana in terms of things like anxiety and well-being and things like that. The literature is mixed; I am really not seeing an evolving consistent pattern in the literature that marijuana is helpful in those regards, and so for the most part I would say that marijuana is more recreational than it is medicinal.”

Some physicians prescribe medical marijuana to treat pain, nausea and spasticity, but Dr. Chavey said the research regarding whether such treatment actually helps is unclear. While an individual might feel benefits, and some medical fields have found more use for it than others — Dr. Chavey referenced oncology as an example — Dr. Chavey said as a physician, he is making decisions based on aggregate data. 

An employee measures and fills 1-gram bags of marijuana for retail sale at Sea of Green Farms in Seattle. Medical and recreational marijuana laws have expanded nationally in a relatively short period. (CNS photo/Jason Redmond, Reuters) 

“I think as the literature becomes more robust, we will have a better sense of the risk-benefit ratio,” Dr. Chavey said. “And I think as we understand the risk-benefit ratio, we will be better able to answer the question of whether it would be ethical to prescribe medical marijuana.”

Considering the lack of research and the Church’s teachings on the use of drugs and other mind-altering substances, Fr. Ryan said Catholics should avoid ingesting marijuana for medical or recreational purposes. 

“You’ve got to ask yourself, all things considered, ‘What's the most likely thing to help with my health and help me with the health issue that I’m dealing with?’” Fr. Ryan said. “I think it’s going to be hard to say that the most likely thing that’s going to help me is marijuana. 

“If you really do come to that conclusion after actually weighing the issue, and you’re excluding emotional motivations and simply are just really trying to deal with the issue as well as you can, and you don’t have any other way of attaining the good end you’re seeking, then it could be OK. However, I’m skeptical that a person is likely to be able to come to that conclusion.”