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Logo of linacreThe Linacre Quarterly
Linacre Q. 2016 May; 83(2): 158–173.
PMCID: PMC5102207

A virtue analysis of recreational marijuana use


Several empirical studies suggest that recreational marijuana is popularly perceived as an essentially harmless rite of passage that ends as young people settle into their careers and their adult intimate relationships. Is this perception accurate? To answer this question, we evaluate the morality of recreational marijuana use from a virtue perspective guided by the theological synthesis of St. Thomas Aquinas. Since the medical data reveals that recreational marijuana use is detrimental to the well-being of the user, we conclude that it is a vicious activity, an instance of the vice of intoxication, and as such would be morally illicit.

Lay summary

In contrast to its medical use, the recreational use of marijuana cannot be justified for at least three reasons. First, as scientists have amply documented, it harms the organic functioning of the human body. Second, it impedes our ability to reason and in so doing does harm to us. Finally, it has lasting detrimental effects on the user and his neighbor, even when it occurs in a casual setting. Intoxication is always contrary to the integral good of the person. Thus, the use of marijuana is never warranted even for good, non-medical reasons.

Keywords: Marijuana, Recreational use, Virtue, Vice, St. Thomas Aquinas, Intoxication


With the flair of a poet and the insight of a great psychologist, Charles Baudelaire famously named the chief effect of cannabis ingestion: he said it produced les paradis artificiels, artificial paradises (Baudelaire 1921). His concern was the use of hashish; ours is recreational marijuana. In both cases, the issue is cannabis and its moral implications for the recreational user. Recreational marijuana is one of the most widely used illicit drugs in the world (Degenhardt et al. 2014, 6). In the United States, nearly half of 12th graders have tried marijuana, and 6 percent use it daily (Jacobus et al. 2009, 559). Between 2007 and 2010, marijuana users in the U.S. increased from 14.4 million to 17.4 million. According to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, in 2012, among adults, 51.1 percent of males and 40.4 percent of females have used it at least once in their lifetimes. In Canada, a third of all university students use pot (Fischer et al. 2013, 135). The 2007 European School Survey Project on Alcohol and Other Drugs (ESPAD) reported that life-time use of cannabis among students (age 15–16 years) in Europe ranged from 3 percent in Armenia to 45 percent in the Czech Republic with an average of 19 percent among 35 countries (Hibell et al. 2009).

Studies have shown that recreational marijuana is popularly perceived as essentially harmless, a rite of passage that typically ends as young people settle into careers and adult intimate relationships (Chen and Kandel 1998; Duncan et al. 2006). But is this common perception accurate? To answer this question, we will evaluate the morality of recreational marijuana use from a virtue perspective guided by the theological synthesis of St. Thomas Aquinas. We will begin by distinguishing the medicinal from the recreational use of marijuana, within a Thomistic conceptual framework. We then turn to an investigation of the physical, mental, and psycho-social effects of recreational marijuana use on the user. Since the medical data reveals that recreational marijuana use is detrimental to the well-being of the user, we conclude that it is a vicious activity, an instance of the vice of intoxication, and as such would be morally illicit.

Contrasting the Medicinal and the Recreational Use of Marijuana

In considering the morality of marijuana use, we can begin by delineating what marijuana is as a substance. Among substances that are ingested or assimilated by the body, marijuana does not fall into the category of food. The primary characteristic of food is that it is edible, that is, its component parts can be digested primarily in the stomach and act as a source of essential nutrients for the physical organism. Secondary characteristics of food include flavor, odor, and texture. A tertiary characteristic of food is its non-nourishing direct effects on bodily experience: the herb mint, for instance, makes the mouth tingle. In light of these characteristics, it is clear that marijuana is not food. Studies showing that marijuana increases appetite assume that marijuana itself is not a kind of food (Di Marzo and Matias 2005). New users report extreme discomfort when ingesting marijuana (Kalant 2008), indicating that it is not sought for the sake of its flavor, odor, or texture. Rather, the general aim in using marijuana is to receive its non-nourishing direct effects on bodily experience.

Given that marijuana is sought as a means toward a chemically altered experience, one can distinguish between its medical and its non-medical use. For St. Thomas, the medicinal use of any substance is its use ordered towards the health of the patient: “Health, with which medicine is concerned, is the end of all the medications prepared by the art of the chemist” (Aquinas 1955, 59). In more contemporary language, one can define the use of medicine as the intake of a biochemical agent for the sake of altering the mechanism of the subject's molecular structure and function to obtain or to preserve his bodily health and, as an extension, his personal well-being (cf. Sgreccia 2012, 583).

Marijuana, here understood as botanical cannabis as distinct from plant extracts and pharmaceutical cannabinoids, has been used as a medication for centuries up to our own time. At the turn of the millennium, the Institute of Medicine in the United States concluded that marijuana could be recommended for pain relief, appetite stimulation, and nausea and vomiting control (Mack and Joy 2000). In more recent years, the medical use of cannabinoids has been linked to the management of neuropathic pain, hypertension, post-stroke neuroprotection, multiple sclerosis, epilepsy, and cancer, among others (Greydanus et al. 2013, 42; cf. Sznitman and Zolotov 2015). Because medicines have healing or minimizing the negative effects of an illness or an injury as their end, they are good for the human person even if they have deleterious side effects. Thus, chemotherapy to treat a cancer is justifiable by the principle of double effect even if it leads to the foreseen but unintended detrimental consequences of nausea, hair loss, and fatigue (Cataldo 1995). This essay does not address or evaluate the legitimacy of the medical use of marijuana. We note, however, that there are significant blurred boundaries between medical and recreational uses: multiple studies have found that those who used marijuana for purported medical reasons also used it for recreational reasons (Ware et al. 2005; O'Connell and Bou-Matar 2007; Reinarman et al. 2011; Bostwick 2012). Furthermore, patients without recreational experience of marijuana have trouble tolerating its psychoactive effects and often reject continued medical use (Kalant 2008).

In contrast to medicinal use, the recreational use of a substance is ordered, not to the health of the person, but rather to his leisure, or to put it another way, to his recreation. For St. Thomas, the virtue of eutrapelia is the virtue of recreating well (Aquinas 1947, II-II, q. 168, aa. 2–4; Herbst 2003). Recreation, or “play” understood in the broad classical sense, is necessary for the overall well-being of the human person, because it facilitates rest, relaxation, refreshment, and strengthening, with a view to enabling him to fulfill the duties of his state of life:

Just as man needs bodily rest for the body's refreshment, because he cannot always be at work, since his power is finite and equal to a certain fixed amount of labor, so too is it with his soul, whose power is also finite and equal to a fixed amount of work  Now such like words or deeds wherein nothing further is sought than the soul's delight, are called playful or humorous. Hence it is necessary at times to make use of them, in order to give rest, as it were, to the soul. This is in agreement with the statement of the Philosopher that “in the intercourse of this life there is a kind of rest that is associated with games”: and consequently it is sometimes necessary to make use of such things (Aquinas 1947, II-II, q. 168, a. 2).

We may note that as St. Thomas explains, and as our everyday experience confirms, recreation necessarily involves experiencing of pleasure in some way: “Just as weariness of the body is dispelled by resting the body, so weariness of the soul must needs be remedied by resting the soul: and the soul's rest is pleasure” (Aquinas 1947, II-II, q. 168, a. 2). We play to experience delight. Clearly, however, not all play and not all recreation is virtuous. Therefore, according to St. Thomas, one has to keep the following three guidelines in mind to pursue virtuous recreation that truly delights the soul (Aquinas 1947, II-II, q. 168, a. 2). These principles ensure that our recreation is in accordance with right reason and the perfecting of human nature. First, one should not pursue a pleasure that is indecent or directly injurious in word or in deed. Next, one should not pursue a pleasure that destroys the harmony and balance of one's life and of one's mind. Finally, one should seek the delight of the soul in a manner that is well-ordered and appropriate to the person and occasion. If one violates any of these guidelines during recreation, then one has erred. One has engaged in deleterious and vicious rather than virtuous recreation.

The Short-term and Long-term Effects of Recreational Marijuana Use

Human flourishing includes both physical and mental health, and a complete analysis of the morality of recreational marijuana use should take both of these dimensions of a person's well-being into consideration. As we will see, in contradiction to the commonplace belief that marijuana used recreationally is essentially harmless, medical science has now shown that it in fact damages the user's physical and mental health in both the short and the long-term. Thus, recreational marijuana is not harmless. It is not safe.

The short-term effects of recreational marijuana use can be directly linked to its most psychoactive ingredient, delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol (D9-THC). When marijuana is smoked, D9-THC makes its way from the lungs to the bloodstream and thence throughout the body to all of the user's organs including his brain. As it circulates, D9-THC binds to cannabinoid receptors (CBRs), which are ordinarily activated by molecules such as 2-AG (2-archidonoyl glycerol) and AEA (arachidonoyl ethanolamide or anandamide) (Hall and Degenhardt 2009). Part of the body's endocannabinoid system, these endogenous molecules are involved in regulating a variety of emotional and cognitive behaviors in the human organism. D9-THC can over-stimulate a person's cannabinoid receptors, thereby causing the “high” or “stoned” feeling and the other effects associated with the use of cannabis (Hall and Degenhardt 2009; National Institute on Drug Abuse 2012). Importantly, there is data that suggests that the marijuana “high” itself is harmful: Within moments of its ingestion, cannabis decreases cortical dopamine levels, which are critical for high cognitive functions (Stokes et al. 2010). Often this “high” can be accompanied by other effects, including, among others, sensory distortion and hallucinations, panic and anxiety, poor coordination and lowered reaction time, inhibited learning and memory, and increased heart rate (Stokes et al. 2010).

In addition to the short-term effects, there are long-term effects on the recreational user of marijuana, most if not all of which are adverse to the well-being of the user. These detrimental effects are both physiological and cognitive in nature.

Physiologically, marijuana use has numerous adverse effects throughout the body. For example, cannabinoids have been linked to immunosuppression, i.e., the lowering of the activity of the user's immune system, which not surprisingly makes him more vulnerable to infection and to disease (Klein et al. 2003; Tanasescu and Constantinescu 2010). Chronic marijuana use can also lead to extensive airway injury and impairment, and alterations in the structure and the function of the pulmonary macrophages (Tashkin 2001; Aldington et al. 2007). Thus, it is not surprising that chronic users of marijuana have a higher risk for long-term pulmonary diseases including bronchitis and emphysema (Beshay et al. 2007). Finally, among the negative physical effects associated with or caused by smoking marijuana, cardiovascular harms are among the most concerning (Thomas et al. 2014). These include increased risk of myocardial infarction (heart attack), angina (chest pain), and fatal stroke (Jones 2002). However, because of the small number of studies there is still insufficient evidence to assess whether the all-cause mortality rate is elevated among cannabis users in the general population (Calabria et al. 2010). Thus, there is a need for long-term cohort studies that follow cannabis-using individuals into old age when detrimental effects of cannabis use are more likely to emerge among those who persist in using cannabis into middle age and older.

Next, cognitively, researchers have cataloged a growing number of adverse effects in frequent and/or long-term users of marijuana. Compared to demographically matched controls, marijuana users demonstrated relative cognitive impairments in verbal memory, spatial working memory, spatial planning, and decision-making (Schweinsburg et al. 2008; Tait et al. 2011; Crane et al. 2013; Becker et al. 2014). Even users who do not appear or feel intoxicated continue to manifest impairments over the course of the workweek (Wadsworth et al. 2006b). A meta-analysis suggests that, after chronic and long-term cannabis use, brain size will decrease in affected areas (Rocchetti et al. 2013). In addition, a study has revealed that even casual pot use causes major alterations in the human brain, though it is not clear if these changes are associated with apparent adverse effects in cognition or behavior (Gilman et al. 2014). This is one of several studies showing that regular use of cannabis is associated with altered brain morphology (Lorenzetti et al. 2014).

Significantly, marijuana use promotes addictive behaviors. Human and animal studies show that the THC in cannabis supports “the acquisition and maintenance of robust drug-taking behavior in subjects with no history of exposure to other drugs” (Justinova et al. 2005, 295). Furthermore, marijuana use affects a user's way of perceiving pleasure. The phenomenology is similar to that of other addictive drugs, especially in the way it reinforces pleasurable feelings of reward: As a person continues to use addictive drugs, he resets his threshold for stimulation of reward to a higher level (Wenger et al. 2003; Hyman et al. 2006; Panagis et al. 2014). This hijacking of the brain's reward pathways reduces the ability of natural rewards like food, relationships, and sex to trigger delight (Covey et al. 2014). Thus, the marijuana user distorts his ability to enjoy life and all that reality offers.

Among the most significant cognitive and psychiatric dangers posed by marijuana usage is its association with psychosis. Here we understand psychosis as a state of mind characterized by the inability to distinguish between what is real and what is not (Russo et al. 2014). The risk of developing psychosis roughly doubles for regular cannabis users (Van Winkel and Kuepper 2014). It is not clear why this is so. Some suggest that cannabis use is a causal factor for schizophrenia while others suggest that schizophrenics are more likely to use cannabis (Degenhardt et al. 2003). However, there is data that suggests that, unlike alcohol, marijuana use actually precipitates schizophrenia and other psychotic disorders in a significant number of users (Large et al. 2011). Swedish investigators uncovered a dose–response relationship between frequency of cannabis use and risk for schizophrenia in a cohort of just over fifty thousand conscripts (Zammit et al. 2002). These findings have been corroborated by studies undertaken in other parts of the globe (Henquet et al. 2005; Moore et al. 2007; Chadwick et al. 2013).

Finally, the effects of marijuana use extend beyond the user. For example, a recent study published in the Annals of Emergency Medicine has suggested that decriminalizing pot will likely lead to an increase in cases of children being unintentionally exposed to the drug, as measured by increased call volume to poison centers in the United States (Wang et al. 2014). Not surprisingly, some data suggests that cannabis amplifies risk factors associated with accidents and injuries, especially within the first sixty minutes after use (Wadsworth et al. 2006a; Pulido et al. 2011). Recreational marijuana use impacts not only the personal good of the user but also the common good of his family and his community.

A Virtue Analysis of Recreational Marijuana Use

As we noted, for St. Thomas, recreation is virtuous if it is according to right reason. Pursuing recreation that damages the self and others to a grave extent is not reasonable. Thus, because it damages persons gravely, recreational marijuana use to experience the “high” is a vicious activity. More specifically, in our view, it is an instance of the vice of intoxication.

Intoxication from alcohol is usually called “drunkenness,” while intoxication from a drug is often called a “high.” It is a result of the inordinate desire for and voluntarily excessive use of an intoxicant, such that the user is deprived of reason. An intoxicant is an ingested substance that gives the user a feeling of exhilaration, elevation, and delight according to the mode of its chemical composition: cocaine acts in one way, wine in another, other intoxicants in other ways, different for each chemical composition. Intoxicants affect the entire person but particularly target the brain, consequently affecting neurological activity and in certain circumstances entirely impeding rationality. Intoxication is complete when the user's use of his reason is completely impeded.1 This happens, for example, when after drinking a large amount of alcohol the user acts in a plainly irrational manner, such that he cannot distinguish right from wrong and cannot remember his notable actions later. Intoxication is incomplete if the mind is altered for a short time, if rationality is impeded to a noticeable degree, if the person retains some mastery over himself, and if he does not do anything contrary to reason because of the intoxicant.

The viciousness of intoxication is a common theme in the Sacred Scriptures. For instance, with an acute phenomenology of the dangers of intoxication, the book of Proverbs gives a sharp warning against drunkenness:

Who has woe? Who has sorrow? Who has strife? Who has complaining? Who has wounds without cause? Who has redness of eyes? Those who tarry long over wine, those who go to try mixed wine. Do not look at wine when it is red, when it sparkles in the cup and goes down smoothly. At the last it bites like a serpent, and stings like an adder. Your eyes will see strange things, and your mind utter perverse things. You will be like one who lies down in the midst of the sea, like one who lies on the top of a mast. “They struck me,” you will say, “but I was not hurt; they beat me, but I did not feel it. When shall I awake? I will seek another drink.” (Prov. 23:29–35)

This biblical passage brilliantly describes the varied and detrimental effects of an intoxicant from the perspective of an abuser: it harms the physical organism and endangers health (“redness of eyes”); it fascinates the user (“it sparkles”); it harms the person in general (it “bites” and “stings”); it creates a false reality (“your eyes will see strange things”); it destabilizes the user and at times makes him nauseous (“like one who lies at the top of the mast”); it dulls the physical senses, especially the sense of touch (“they beat me but I did not feel it”); and it creates dependency and addiction (“when shall I awake? I will seek another drink”). Another passage from Sacred Scripture rounds out the detriments of intoxication: “Wine drunk to excess is bitterness of soul, with provocation and stumbling. Drunkenness increases the anger of a fool to his injury, reducing his strength and adding wounds” (Sir. 31:29–30). This highlights an ironic effect of intoxication: it is often sought for the sake of pleasure, but it ends in bitterness and provokes a person morally to stumble. Instead of leading to communal peace and authentic recreation, it is associated with violence and anger, wastefully dissipating a user's strength. It also endangers a person's fortune and thereby wounds the common good. In sum, intoxication is detrimental to the human person, and it undermines his dignity and his relation to others in many ways. In light of this, Christ counseled his disciples: “Take heed to yourselves lest your hearts be weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and cares of this life” (Lk. 21:24).

To understand why intoxication is a vice from a philosophical perspective, we return to St. Thomas to discern how it violates his three guidelines for virtuous recreation. First, instead of truly refreshing the person, intoxication harms the organic functioning of the body. As we saw above, this has been amply documented by researchers investigating the effects of recreational marijuana use. Next, intoxication causes a person's rationality to be obscured or abandoned. Aristotle famously insisted that rationality is part of our very essence. In fact, it is the characteristic that separates us from beasts. Rationality encompasses more than mathematical calculation. It also includes the use of wit, of imagination, of memory, of contemplation, of meditation, of prudential deliberation. To impede our rationality therefore is to do harm to ourselves. As we saw above, recreational marijuana use has numerous adverse effects that impede human cognition. Finally, intoxication can never be appropriate to any persons or circumstances because of its lasting detrimental effects to the user and his neighbor, even when it occurs in a casual setting. We have seen that marijuana use entails a high, which indicates some level of intoxication. Thus marijuana is contrasted with alcohol, which can be consumed moderately without the user becoming intoxicated; in fact, moderate alcohol use has been linked to beneficial health effects (Collins et al. 2009). Aside from medical uses, then, marijuana cannot be consumed in a morally legitimate way. Therefore, the recreational use of marijuana is always a vicious activity.

Pope St. John Paul II would agree. He describes the difference between temperate drinking of alcohol and drug abuse in the following way:

Whereas the moderate use of alcohol as a drink does not, in fact, clash with moral prohibitions, and only abuse is to be condemned; taking drugs is, on the contrary, always illicit because it involves an unjustified and irrational renunciation of thinking, willing, and acting as free persons (John Paul II 1991)

Precisely because complete intoxication severely diminishes or entirely incapacitates rationality, St. Thomas regarded it as a grave fault:

With regard to drunkenness we reply that it is a mortal sin by reason of its genus; for, that a man, without necessity, and through the mere lust of wine, make himself unable to use his reason, whereby he is directed to God and avoids committing many sins, is expressly contrary to virtue (Aquinas 1947, I-II, q. 88, a. 5, ad 1).

Though St. Thomas directed his argument against intoxication caused by wine, we are convinced that he would have condemned intoxication caused by marijuana as well, and for the same reason.

Next, it is important to establish the intended purpose behind the use of recreational marijuana. The widely used Marijuana Motives Measure (MMM) identified five kinds of motives for using botanical cannabis, namely: enhancement, social, coping, conformity, and expansion (Simons et al. 1998). These findings have been confirmed in later studies (Benschop et al. 2015), along with an additional motive, “routine,” which includes reasons of boredom, habit, and/or addiction. It should be noted that the identified motives are non-exclusive, that is, many overlap and a single user often has more than one motive at the same time. For example, “enhancement” centers around positive experiences with reasons such as “because I like the feeling”; this broad motive partly matches with the “social” reason, “because it helps me enjoy a party,” for the latter reason names a specific context in which a pleasurable, enhanced feeling is sought. Similarly, while “expansion” centers on intellective goods such as “to know myself better,” “to expand my awareness,” it also includes “to be more open to experiences,” which could match with the “social” and “enhancement” motives previously listed since presumably few if any users would want to open themselves to unpleasant experiences.

When pot smokers, proposing that they use marijuana for one or more of the aforementioned motives, experience pleasure, they justify their action by noting that these ends are good for the person. In response, we will discuss how some of these motives and their specified reasons are good, some are unequivocally negative, most are morally ambiguous, and at least two are rather concerning.

No reasonable moral analysis would argue against the goodness of reasons such as the desire to know oneself better, to be sociable, to celebrate a special occasion, to be more creative, or to relax and release stress. However, in the context of marijuana use, these goods are sought by means of or at least alongside of its intoxicating effects. One researcher suggests: “For recreational users, access to marijuana has always been about getting intoxicated” (Bostwick 2012). Even if this is an exaggeration, it points to an important truth: the primary and well-known effect of marijuana is the high, or intoxication, that it produces. If someone seeks a good without intoxication, then (aside from ignorance) he will not use marijuana. There are a myriad of ways to be creative, to relax, etc., without marijuana. If he seeks a non-intoxicating good through the use of marijuana, then the intoxicating side effect will render his decision morally deficient. As we have already shown, intoxication is always contrary to the integral good of the person. Thus, the use of marijuana is not justified even for good, non-medical reasons.

Among the morally negative reasons for using marijuana, “to get high” is, in our assessment, the same as “to be intoxicated.” Here we can recall our previous discussion on the morally problematic nature of intoxication. Furthermore, we note with misgiving that growers of cannabis in the United States, Europe, and Australia have been continuously developing strains of marijuana with greater D9-THC content (Cascini et al. 2012). While acknowledging many factors that affect THC levels, an Australian study showed that THC levels were the highest on record, at an average 15 percent, with one sample at about 40 percent (Swift et al. 2013). This is a marked increase from an average of 3.4 percent in the US in 1993 and 8.8 percent in 2008 (Mehmedic et al. 2010). Because THC is a psychotropic chemical, its increase entails an increase of all of the negative effects of “higher highs,” whether a user seeks them exclusively or not, making modern strains of marijuana that much more damaging for users.

Reasons provided for using marijuana recreationally are very often morally ambiguous. Without more information, one cannot make an accurate ethical assessment of reasons such as, “because I like the feeling,” “because it helps me enjoy a party,” “to be liked,” and “to be open to more experiences,” or the more prosaic “out of boredom” and “out of habit.” One could name such reasons for deeds of kindness as much as for acts of cannibalism. With respect to pleasure, the virtue of temperance comes to the fore. Pleasure is morally neutral; it is good insofar as it is sought in a “tempered” way, as a natural mechanism made to enhance human functions. The intemperate pursuit of pleasure, contrastingly, is morally corrupted insofar as it is attached to an action that is contrary to human flourishing. A similar analysis shows that to act out of habit is only good insofar as the habit is directed toward a good end, using good means, in the fitting circumstances. In the case of motives of conformity with one's social group, we must distinguish between positive peer pressure that urges a person toward virtue and the negative side of peer pressure that tempts a person toward vice. An adequate moral assessment of marijuana use therefore must ask questions such as, “Do the feelings the marijuana user seeks promote human flourishing? Is being open to intoxicating experiences a disordered desire?” The answers to these questions would then lead to our analysis above that showed that marijuana may not legitimately be used as a means to a good end. In sum, morally ambiguous motives do not justify the recreational use of marijuana.

We are particularly concerned about reasons for using marijuana such as, “it helps me when I feel depressed or nervous” and “it cheers me up when I am in a bad mood.” Reasons like these give voice to those who use marijuana to self-medicate their psychosis (Kavanagh et al. 2004; Schofield et al. 2006). The correlation between psychosis and regular cannabis use is concerning enough (Os et al. 2002; Ruiz-Veguilla et al. 2013), but several reasons compound our alarm. For example, studies show that adults with serious psychological distress and depression were more likely than adults without these symptoms to use marijuana, however they were also equally or more likely to attempt to quit or self-regulate their marijuana use and at the same time were less successful in their attempts (Shi 2014). In other words, a significant number of hurting people use marijuana hoping it will help their depression or distress, but they come to find not only that they want to quit using it, but that they cannot quit using it. As we noted above, regular marijuana use tends to foster addictive behaviors (Justinova et al. 2005). This is especially disturbing in light of how cannabis can exacerbate negative consequences associated with psychotic disorders (Green et al. 2004; Moore et al. 2007). In addition, with the rise of marijuana legalized for medicinal use, there is good reason to think that adolescents will begin to use it as part of their self-medication strategy: a multinational adolescent cohort study showed that 20.4 percent of males and 14.8 percent of females self-medicated with prescription antianxiety drugs (Shehnaz et al. 2014, table 2).

The final concerning motive for using marijuana centers around reasons such as, “to forget my worries” and “to forget about my problems.” A full 91 percent of users reported the latter as a motive for their use (Simons et al. 1998). This result fits with the finding that “escape and avoidance of negative affect is the prepotent motive for addictive drug use” (Baker et al. 2004, 33). This is unfortunate for many reasons. From a pragmatic perspective, this behavior will be ineffective. Any drug used for the sake of escape cannot achieve its purpose, since after the effects of the drug wear off and reality reasserts itself. As one researcher observed, “The weight of the evidences indicates that cannabis creates cognitive dulling rather than reduction in anxiety, indifference rather than relaxation, and amotivation rather than inner peace, all closer to psychopathology than to well-being” (Svrakic et al. 2012). Furthermore, individuals with avoidant behavior have been found to lack awareness into their own emotional state (Stevens 2014), and individuals with anxiety disorders often avoid facing their fears even if they miss potential rewards (Pittig et al. 2014). Here the virtue of fortitude comes to the fore: it helps a person to develop responsibility toward the mundane duties of one's state in life, including responsibility toward one's neighbor. Individuals do not have a right to abdicate their personal dignity or to harm themselves (PCHCM 2001). The Pontifical Council for the Family rightly notes, “it is not drugs that are in question, but the human, psychological and existential issues implicit in this kind of behavior [i.e., in drug abuse]” (PFC 1997, no. 6). The Pontifical Council goes on to say: “It is not the product that creates the addiction, but the person who feels the need for it” (PFC 1997, no. 6). Or to put it another way, “Drugs are not the drug user's main problem. Drug consumption is merely a deceptive answer to the lack of a positive meaning of life” (PFC 1992). From this perspective, the persistent use of marijuana at times indicates an attempt to medicate oneself from reality; it would then be an act of despair. Pope St. John Paul II explained,

A correspondence has to be recognized between the deadly pathology caused by drug abuse and a pathology of the spirit which leads a person to flee from self and to seek illusory pleasures in an escape from reality, to the point that the meaning of personal existence is totally lost (PFC 1992).

Hence, a viewpoint of faith indicates that the motives undergirding drug abuse and chosen intoxication are ultimately of a spiritual nature.


Reality is an adventure that calls for our full engagement. If we try to reach God, the ultimate reality, through the magical key of drugs, we will find that we have only locked ourselves into a dungeon of our own making. Unfortunately, it seems that the drug culture does not recognize this crucial truth. Prof. Michael Pollan, described by The New York Times as a “liberal foodie intellectual” (Kamp 2006), perceptively shows how the account of Adam and Eve's fall can be interpreted from the perspective of the drug culture. According to Pollan, natural man and woman looked to the tree of knowledge of good and evil for enlightenment and godhood: “There was spiritual knowledge to be had from nature, from a plant” (Pollan 2002, 18). But, he continues, God “can't pretend the tree of knowledge doesn't exist, not when generations of plant worshipping and consuming pagans know better.” Consequently, the tree continues to grow, but is ringed about in a powerful taboo — “taste it and you will be punished” (Pollan 2002, 18). According to the biblical account, the illicit use of the plant brought about the experience of pain, emotional disorder, and difficulty in working the land. Pollan calls this classic account “the drug war's first victory” (Pollan 2002, 19). Instead of believing this account, he suggests that we should let nature “have her way with us now and again,” because using psychoactive substances could check our pride and perhaps help develop insight and creativity (Pollan 2002, 19). In the end, Pollan's position amounts to the claim that drugs can be used to gain enlightenment. As we have seen, however, this exalted vision for drug use is a mere illusion.

Cardinal Ratzinger summarized the issue well: “Drugs are the pseudo-mysticism of a world that does not believe yet cannot rid the soul's yearning for paradise” (Ratzinger 2010, 26). The user entertains a fantasy of tasting divinity, and the final result is subversion of reality. Baudelaire came to a similar conclusion. After describing the moral erosion of the regular user of cannabis, he noted that the hashish high created a delusion of grandeur but resulted only in hot air: “I will not describe the heavy fantasies of one high on hashish: who would read them with pleasure? Who would agree to read them?” (Baudelaire 1921, 234). In other words, the foolishness of drug-induced writings indicates the emptiness of the recreational cannabis user's experience: what seems to be an insight turns out merely to be a chemical high; what seemed to be the Muse was in fact muddled thinking. Drugs, including the recreational use of marijuana, dull and destroy human flourishing. They take the human person out of the world in which he lives: Out of his body; out the world of responsibility; and out of the difficult but beautiful search for ultimate happiness. Baudelaire reminds us that even ugliness and pain have something to teach us; they call for redemption, not escape. He preferred to wonder at our disturbing reality rather than to wander in an artificial paradise, and he invites us to do the same. If we find that all is not well, that we are cast out of Eden into a world marred by sin, this too is helpful. “The only dreadful thing in life is to be content with life,” Bede Jarrett insisted, for God alone can satisfy us (Jarrett 1935, 26). As the Pontifical Council for the Family said, “Only in Christ can every person find his true treasure, the real and definitive reason for all his existence. The words of Christ take on an extraordinary meaning with regard to the drug user: ‘Come to me, all you who are weary and find life burdensome, and I will refresh you’ (Matt 11:28)” (PFC 1992).

End Notes

1.For further discussion, see the analysis of sobrietate and ebrietate in Prümmer (1958, 516–522).


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