Why Is Quaffing an Ale Fine, but Smoking a Joint Not?

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(The following was recently published on LifeSite, in response to the setting up of a marijuana store – a ‘pot shop’ – in the small community in which the writer lives, and it may prove of interest to readers here, if you have not already perused. The argument for why alcohol is permitted, but drugs are not, is a subtle one, but worth following along, methinks, for the distinctions apply to many things in life and, when applied, make live all that more enjoyable, in the true and good sense).

It’s coming up on two years since marijuana was legalized in Canada. Reader may recall back on October 17th of 2018, Justin Trudeau made good on one of his many bad election promises, making Canada at the time only the second sovereign nation to let loose the reins of law on the notorious drug (the other being Uruguay, with other nations taking a more incremental approach). Nine of the United States have also approved recreational use: Colorado, the entire western seaboard, Washington, Oregon, California, along with Nevada, then, on the east, Vermont, Maine and Massachusetts (funny how they all voted Democrat in the last election), with 21 others approving use medicinally. Federally, marijuana is still illegal across the United States, creating quite the tension, making our friendly border perhaps a bit less friendly.

It’s now hitting close to home, as in the small town where I happen to dwell, they are putting in a fancy pot store a few doors down from my own house, and another in the even smaller town 10 miles down the highway.

October 17th is the memorial of Saint Ignatius of Antioch who, as far as I know, had no connection to the green weed; on the contrary, the early bishop and martyr comes across as rather abstinent. He wrote in his famous seven letters on his way to be torn apart by lions for his faith, his deepest desire was to ‘be ground like wheat for Christ’. Overall, the plant was unknown to the Romans and Greeks, being indigenous to central and south Asia from earliest recorded history. It is not mentioned in the Bible, although the ancient Assyrians, who are mentioned, and who gave much trouble to the Israelites, are recorded as dabbling in the mind-altering substance.

So, the plant has been around for a long time, but in the current milieu is connected most with the cultural revolution of the Sixties, when getting ‘high’ was all the rage, and may explain in some way the bizarre moral and metaphysical perspectives of those youths who grew up to become baby boomers. Then again, perhaps with Clinton, they didn’t inhale.

Is it intrinsically immoral to smoke, or in some other way ingest, what some call ‘the demon weed’? The question is fraught, for people will often ask what the difference be between alcohol and marijuana: If both give you a euphoric ‘buzz’ – for want of a more accurate term – albeit in different ways, why should we not be able to choose what kind of substance-induced euphoria we seek, and by what means? This seems to be the perspective of most Canadians, including our own Prime Minister, who admitted to partaking of the illegal drug while a sitting member of Parliament, although one hopes not in Parliament (but one never knows).

Trudeau, as a Catholic, would do well to listen to the Magisterium (as in numerous other areas), which has taught that although the imbibing of alcoholic beverages is permitted – with their consequent effects, recreational drug use is intrinsically immoral, and her wisdom has been proved in the fruit thereof. As the Catechism states:

The use of drugs inflicts very grave damage on human health and life. Their use, except on strictly therapeutic grounds, is a grave offense. (par. 2291)

Note that alcohol is classed separately in the preceding paragraph, permitted within the bounds of moderation:

The virtue of temperance disposes us to avoid very kind of excess: the abuse of food, alcohol, tobacco, or medicine. (par. 2290; emphasis added)

We could just obey this guidance of the Church, accepting wine and even tobacco as gifts from the good God, to be used in moderation. As Belloc has it:

Wherever the Catholic sun doth shine,

There’s always laughter and good red wine.

At least I have always found it so,

Benedicamus Domino!

But when we peer at the arguments behind this teaching, in the notion of having a ‘reasoned defence’ (apologia) of our faith – they are subtle, with some grey areas, and it is requisite that we have some reasoned defence of the faith we profess.

We may begin with Aristotle, that intention is first in the order of execution. Before we ingest something, we should ask, however dimly, why we are doing so. Allow me to propose four reasons we may imbibe or ingest a substance: For nourishment, for taste, for its euphoric effects, or as therapy for some medical issue.

To begin with the last, we take aspirin, for example, not for its taste, but simply because it eases pain. Children are forced to their broccoli for nourishment. But we should drink alcoholic beverages primarily for their taste. Hence, we should buy fine stuff, for quality, and not the cheap, for quantity, unless, you may afford no better. There are more efficient ways of nourishing oneself than wine or beer, and its euphoric effect should be minimal, controlled and willed only in a secondary and ancillary way.

If we may apply an analogy, the ‘pleasure’ we derive from a glass of wine or pint of beer – that is, its inebriating effect, prescinding from the pleasure of its taste, but the two go together, as anyone who has tasted de-alcoholized variety discovers – should not be sought as a primary end, much as the ‘pleasure’ in the marital act, whose primary purpose is procreative and unitive.

Alcohol does not in general make for good medicine, although there are extreme cases where this purpose may apply (as, for example, a hasty anaesthetic in any number of Westerns). If we start drinking to ‘heal the pain’, we’re entering into trouble. As Chesterton put, we should always drink to remember, never drink to forget.

When partaken simply to escape reality, and avoid the normal struggles of life, alcohol can indeed be used as a drug, if one seeks solely, or even primarily, its euphoric and intoxicating effects. Then we using it as a drug, which is immoral, and an incipient path to alcoholism. We should not drink to ‘get drunk’. Imagine for a moment injecting bourbon straight into your bloodstream; why bother with ingestion through the stomach? Or why not frequent bars such as this one I stumbled across (on-line, not in real life) where a vaporous alcoholic mist ensures every patron has an alcoholic buzz equaling two beverages. I would also suggest that ‘shots’ alcohol, as in chasing it down the gullet without even tasting it, is also approaching drug use of this otherwise legitimate, even noble, substance.

What now, of marijuana? This substance has no nutritive effects, and one would hardly seek out its taste (prescinding from artificially-laced ‘brownies’ and such). Rather, its use is only as a drug, as a means of achieving the euphoria it produces which, again, sought for its own sake is illicit.

Marijuana, with other drugs, may be used medicinally and therapeutically, even if there is still some debate over whether other more-controllable drugs are in some cases more effective.

Such, to my mind, is the essential, a priori argument against marijuana and other stronger drugs.

One could also argue a posteriori, from the effects of alcohol and marijuana. Both substances affect the brain, but in vastly different ways. There are numerous active ingredients in marijuana, the primary being the psychoactive molecules tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD), which have not well-understood cascading physiological and psychological effects, but amongst them a deleterious influence on behaviour, memory loss, diminution of will-power, mood changes, paranoia, hallucinations, raised heart rate and blood pressure, as well as a strong link to psychosis, especially schizophrenia, primarily amongst younger users. No one quite knows how long it resides in the body, where it accumulates in the fatty (lipid) tissue of our brains. And the stuff nowadays is significantly more potent than what was available a half-century ago, and is still increasing. The ‘munchies’ are the least of our worries.

Yes, immoderate use of alcohol is also detrimental, on a number of levels (as anyone from an alcoholic home can evince), but there is evidence to support moderate use of alcohol as a good and even virtuous thing in its own way (although not required, even if Saint Paul advocated that Timothy take a little for his stomach).

On the contrary, there is no ‘moderate’ recreational use of drugs. Their effect is invariably debilitating to some degree, especially over the longer term. So, we’re back to the Church’s perennial teaching on the immorality of drugs, echoed in the Eighties by Nancy Reagan: Just say no.

What of the controverted question of legalization? As Saint Thomas rightly states (I-II. Q. 96, a. 2), not everything immoral should be illegal, for the State cannot possibly forbid all vices; as he says, even if it were to try, far greater evils would ensue. This is the argument sort-of made by Eric Schlosser in his 2003 Reefer Madness, that making marijuana possession a federal offense has filled up prisons across America with desperate people, who will go on to have permanent records, leading to a vicious cycle of poverty and recidivism (I say ‘sort of’, since one cannot tell whether he is an advocate of the stuff, or just thinks that making it illegal is baneful).

The problem with full-out legalization (as opposed to, say, a quiet sort of de-criminalization of some minor offenses, already practically in effect) is that, regardless of one’s libertarian leanings and desire to limit the reach of the State, most people now equate ‘legal’ with ‘moral’ and ‘good’. Again, to Saint Thomas, who emphasizes the pedagogical effect of law, which not only forces us to do the right thing, but (should) teach us the right thing to do. Hence, without any sort of law against drugs such as marijuana, we will see a lot more stoned Canadians, especially young people who may otherwise have not been so, with little capacity to work, to perfect themselves, to transcend their current milieu; more wards of the State, as marriages crumble, or never exist in the first place; as psychosis, depression, anxiety and addiction increase. Who knows what ‘demons’, metaphorical or literal, may enter one’s soul in abandoning one’s reason to drugs? Communities, such as my own, are not benefitted from pot stores. The short-term evanescent economic gains are followed by longer terms intractable problems. Even if some avoid these more deleterious effects, there will invariably be overall a lot less human striving for excellence in this once prosperous nation.

As a final literary aside, I can’t help but be reminded of soma, the euphoric mind-numbing drug Aldous Huxley invents in his 1931 novel Brave New World to keep the enslaved populace subdued and compliant. The only one who resists is, ironically, the ‘Savage’ John, raised on the works of Shakespeare, an outsider who perceives what somnabulent, immoral zombies people have become. The ‘true, north, strong and free’ may have to invent a new string of less admirable adjectives, except the geographical one, where we’re going to need a few more virtuous Savages.