The president was asked about the movement to legalize marijuana amid a lengthy interview with The New Yorker. "As has been well documented, I smoked pot as a kid," Obama responded, "and I view it as a bad habit and a vice, not very different from the cigarettes that I smoked as a young person up through a big chunk of my adult life. I don't think it is more dangerous than alcohol."
When pressed whether marijuana is less dangerous than alcohol, the president said yes, "in terms of its impact on the individual consumer."
Obama said legalization of recreational marijuana use in Colorado and Washington is an important "experiment" and may help remedy the disproportionate number of marijuana-related arrests and incarcerations among minorities in America, where marijuana is classified as a schedule 1 drug, the same category as heroin and ecstasy.
"We should not be locking up kids or individual users for long stretches of jail time," the president said, "when some of the folks who are writing those laws have probably done the same thing."
Still, Obama said he has told his daughters that smoking marijuana is "a bad idea, a waste of time, not very healthy."
R. Albert Mohler Jr. responded that "any parent who reduces the arguments is a parent that better be ready for his children or her children to smoke marijuana or to do whatever he supposedly doesn't want them to do but can muster only an argument that it is a waste of time, a bad idea and not very healthy."
Obama's statement "really doesn't get at the heart of the issue," Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, said Jan. 21 in his daily podcast The Briefing. "It doesn't even get to the issue of intoxication whatsoever. It doesn't deal at all with the reality, as has now been well documented, that in the adolescent brain marijuana has a very dangerous and long-lasting, if not permanent effect. It doesn't deal with the whole issue of impairment. It doesn't deal with the potential of addiction, which again goes way up when you're dealing with adolescent smoking."
Mohler acknowledged that Obama "holds up a pretty good model of fatherhood" and likely said "a great deal more to his daughters than he told The New Yorker" in the mid-January article. But it is troubling that the president did not make a stronger public argument against marijuana use, he said.
When asked about the president's statements, White House press secretary Jay Carney said Jan. 22 that Obama remains opposed to nationwide decriminalization of marijuana and has not changed his position on the issue. Carney underscored the president's argument that minority Americans are prosecuted for marijuana use disproportionately.
Mohler agreed that America's drug laws need to be reformed, but he said it is illogical to imply that no users should be punished because not all users are punished. Obama seems reticent to take a strong stand against marijuana at least in part because of his own drug use growing up, Mohler said, a common mistake among parents in recent generations.
"If only the sinless can talk about the avoidance of sin and the reasons for avoiding sin, then we as a human race are doomed, because as the Bible says emphatically clearly, 'All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,'" Mohler said, referencing Romans 3:23.
Lonnie Wilkey, editor of the Tennessee Baptist and Reflector, said it sends "mixed signals" to younger Americans when society condemns cigarette smoking but leaders dismiss marijuana use as merely "a vice."
"As to whether marijuana is 'no worse than alcohol,' that's up to debate," Wilkey said on his blog. Abuse of either substance "impairs your thinking and potentially endangers others."
Before Obama's comments were published, J. Lee Grady, contributing editor of Charisma Magazine, offered five reasons why "legalizing marijuana stinks":
-- Marijuana is highly addictive.
-- Marijuana "can ruin your future," leading to school dropouts, auto accidents and a general lack of motivation.
-- Marijuana can ruin children's lives. Among other negative consequences, adolescents who smoke pot risk brain damage, according to an article in the journal Neuropsychopharmacology.
-- Marijuana causes serious health problems, including heart attacks and lung cancer.
-- Marijuana "can ruin your sex life," leading to impotence, infertility and testicular cancer.
"People from every side of the political spectrum have called for decriminalization of pot -- from Pat Robertson and Sarah Palin on the right to Bill Maher and Rachael Maddow on the left," Grady wrote. "I understand their concern: Huge numbers of people are in prison today for drug possession -- and the cost of caring for our inmate population is overwhelming. But why do we have to swing the pendulum to the other extreme and treat marijuana like it's a mild, over-the-counter medication?"
Meanwhile Russell D. Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, said in a podcast released Jan. 23 that even so-called "medical marijuana," which is legal in 18 states and the District of Columbia, poses ethical problems.
On one hand, it is not a sin for an ill individual to use marijuana prescribed by a physician, Moore said. He cited Proverbs 31:6, which references giving alcohol to someone who is dying or in great distress.
"There are all sorts of mind-altering drugs that are given to severely ill people in order to correct their illness, and sometimes even to put them out of consciousness. I would think of morphine, for instance. I think that's ethically alright," Moore said in the Questions and Ethics podcast.
Yet medical marijuana, contrary to the claims of its advocates, is not primarily a drug prescribed for people in unbearable pain or on the verge of death, Moore said. Quoting a CNN article, he said only 2 percent of those prescribed marijuana in Colorado suffer from cancer and only 1 percent from HIV/AIDS. Ninety-four percent cite "unspecified pain" as the justification for their pot prescriptions. The average user of medical marijuana in California "is a 32-year-old white man with no life-threatening illness but a long record of substance abuse," Moore said, quoting CNN.
Medical marijuana "is not something that is being given to people with terminal cancer, fighting off in a hospice sort of situation those last stages of pain," Moore said. "It's something that is being given very indiscriminately with a substance that has a long cultural history in this country of essentially inducing a kind of immediate drunkenness, which of course is prohibited in Scripture for a believer."
Moore said he would vote against medical marijuana if he lived in a state where it was on the ballot.
"It's not because I don't have compassion for people who are dealing with difficult illnesses," he said, "nor is it saying that some terminally ill person who takes marijuana at a doctor's order is personally sinning. I don't think that's the question. I think the question is: What does the normalization of marijuana usage do to people?"
Moore continued, "Wherever we have medical marijuana coming in, we have marijuana usage going up. That is not a good thing. I think that most of us can agree marijuana doesn't do anything good for a work ethic, for someone's life, and the people who tend to get hurt in all of these situations aren't those who are in the cultural elite, who often are the ones who are normalizing these things culturally."
Moore added that legalization of recreational marijuana also is ill-advised.
"Just as big tobacco was an industry that had a cheap product that was able to hook people in, we have the same sort of industry involved here with marijuana," Moore said. It is "simplistic" to argue that legalization would eliminate the black market and reduce use. "I don't think that bears up in terms of history," he said.
Ministering to users
Meditating on Scripture is perhaps the best path to overcoming marijuana use, according to an e-book by Baptist Press editor Art Toalston. He urges drug users and others mired in such ills as pornography to focus in particular on Matthew 5:6, "Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God."
"Begin memorizing these words, which were spoken by Jesus," Toalston writes in "Meditation and Morality: Praying for a Better Way." "In doing so, you will be engaging in a form of meditation. Even if it's just for a few moments, or several times during the day, this simple form of meditation on the words of Jesus will begin to nurture a winsome, intriguing morality in your soul. These words will have an effect, perhaps dramatically, perhaps subtly, perhaps both, even as your struggle or your affliction with immorality may continue to fester or rage."
Users of marijuana and other harmful drugs already "meditate" on their drug-induced "euphoria," musing on past and future use, Toalston writes. But their meditation often ignores the negative aspects of their behavior and needs to give way to a more positive form of contemplation.
"Sadly, their meditation may not stretch toward ruthless drug cartels and gangs who murder and maim in order to amass illicit fortunes through the delivery and sale of drugs to distant users oblivious to the mayhem," Toalston writes. "Sad, too, is the stunted meditation that drug use is relatively harmless, dismissive of research showing that medical harm from marijuana can be similar to cigarette smoking or research demonstrating the toll marijuana-impaired driving can take, akin to drunk driving, on innocent victims killed or injured by a drug user's thoughtlessness."
Ultimately Toalston advocates new spiritual birth as the antidote to marijuana use and other struggles with immorality. He explains how to turn from sin and trust Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord, an act that will make drug use begin to lose its appeal.
"Supernatural results then begin to unfold," Toalston writes. "These may occur dramatically or perhaps imperceptibly until weeks or months later when you begin to see how your life is being transformed and the lure of immorality is waning. Some of the changes may seem monumental; others may be part of an incremental process."
Other resources related to drug use are available on the ERLC website, erlc.com.
Moore urged Christians to prepare for both political engagement with marijuana advocates and ministry to individuals affected by the drug.
"On the left there is a progressive acceptance of marijuana use that comes out of the counterculture," Moore said. "And then on the right there is a libertarian understanding of decreasing law, of personal autonomy, individual autonomy and those sorts of things. Those two things come together to make marijuana legalization for various reasons more and more likely in this country. So even if you're not addressing this where you are, you probably will be soon."
David Roach is a writer in Shelbyville, Ky. To send "Meditation & Morality" by Art Toalston to a marijuana user, go to Amazon's page for the e-book, http://bit.ly/Amazon-Meditation-Morality, and click Give as a Gift. To print a a paper copy of Meditation & Morality for a marijuana user, go to http://bit.ly/Meditation-Morality and use the Delivery Format option to select PDF (reading on PC/Mac). Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress) and in your email (baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).
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