I got into an argument today over whether or not weed is moral or immoral and whether it should be legalised. Unfortunately it was two against one and I totally lost the argument, however it put me in a reflective mood for the rest of the day.
At one point I brought up the fact that alcohol is legal and yet it is by all accounts more harmful than weed; my opponents response was that alcohol is physically harmful whereas weed is mentally harmful (as if this makes any difference). After some protestation from me, they made a point which completely stumped me: It’s all about the intention. The intention when you drink a glass of wine is not to get drunk, whereas the intention when you smoke weed is to get completely baked “off your tits”. I was unable to answer this point. It raised the question for me, “Is it really sinful to smoke weed with the intention of getting high?” The Catholic catechism would seem to imply so. However after some reflection, I have come up with the answer “not always”.
Context is an important factor in the discussion. Is it wrong to intend to get high? I say “no”, so long as you are in an appropriate context. An appropriate context would be a weekend off from work or study, where you don’t have any other obligations to attend to and can well and truly kick back and relax. If as part of this recreational Sabbath you desire to alter your state of mind – via chemical assistance or otherwise – that is completely ok. People have many ways of altering their brain chemistry for the purposes of recreation, including dancing, listening to music, eating, drinking etc. In this sense, smoking weed is just another form of recreation.
An inappropriate context for smoking weed and intending to get high would be if you are about to pilot a passenger aircraft loaded with people. The mild dissociative effects could be disastrous and cause you to crash the plane. Another inappropriate time to smoke weed would be right before your wedding, or before an important exam. There is a time and place for everything, however the time and place for weed is during recreation; not during everyday life. Exactly the same arguments can be applied to the responsible use of alcohol. It would be entirely inappropriate to turn up to work or your own wedding inebriated.
This principle can be extended to almost all drugs. No drug is intrinsically immoral so long as it is taken in a recreational context. If you have a weekend free and have no obligations to meet, then by all means take LSD and enjoy the profound spiritual experience that it provokes. If you are going to a music festival and there is some MDMA on offer, then by all means feel free to partake (Although MDMA is a complex drug and there is more to say about it).
Drunkenness is an interesting case, seeing as St Paul explicitly names it as a sin in his epistles. Speaking from experience, there have been times when I have socially drunk to the point of drunkenness, and yet I didn’t do anything sinful, feel any increase in temptation, say anything stupid. I just felt on a slightly different plane of reality. There have of course also been other times when I have been drunk and done lots of stupid things. And being drunk to the point of vomiting is a sign that you are physically disrespecting your body, which is the temple of the lord. However the state of mind of being “drunk” is not inherently sinful. It’s only if you get “totally wasted” and start saying and doing stupid stuff, vomiting etc.
Of course context is not the only consideration when tossing up the morality of taking drugs. Something else to consider is the side effects. If the drug is known to cause severe physical and mental harm even with casual use, it should not be taken – even in a recreational context – unless there is some way to offset this harm. For example MDMA is known to cause slight-yet-notable, permanent brain damage if it is taken alone. This is because MDMA works by increasing the rate of serotonin consumption in the brain to a point where the brain literally runs out of serotonin. At this point when there is no more serotonin, the receptors that would usually receive serotonin start to eat the dopamine in the brain instead. However dopamine is toxic to these receptors and ends up killing them off, leading to brain damage and an extreme hangover. All of this can be avoided simply by taking a serotonin supplement at the same time as the MDMA. In this way you get an awesome high and no hangover, no brain damage, no harmful effects. One friend of mine reported that he actually felt even healthier after the MDMA wore off than before he had ingested it, solely because he had also taken a serotonin supplement.
The sin with drugs is not so much the taking of them as it is the addiction to them. Smoking a casual joint every 3 months with some mates is completely fine. However if you get to a point where you are craving weed at every hour of the day and are sneaking out of the office at regular intervals to light up a fat one – this is a habit that is interfering with your life. It is similar to alcoholism: having a casual drink with the boys after work is fine, but once you’re addicted to booze it starts to invade every other aspect of your life.
Addiction is also relevant when it comes to some of the harder drugs: Heroin, Cocaine and Methamphetamine. In these cases, the drugs are actually physically addictive because they target the addiction center of our brain (The dopamine system). Theoretically it is possible to take these drugs casually without becoming addicted to them, and I have heard anecdotes from people who have successfully tried them without getting hooked, however the common story is that these drugs lead to total addiction and an utterly ruined life. In this situation you have to ask the question “am I tempting fate by taking this drug?” and the answer is very much “yes”. In this way, taking these harder drugs is immoral, because they are inherently addictive and as such are much more likely to lead to addiction and a ruined life.
Every drug has side effects which need to be considered too. For example excessive marijuana use can lead to schizophrenia. Excessive psychedelic use can activate latent bipolar. Excessive cocaine use can lead to mania and psychosis. None of these dangers make casual use of the drug inherently immoral, however they must be taken into account when assessing whether or not it is “tempting fate” to take the drug in any given situation. “Tempting fate” is definitely sinful.
The conclusion of the matter is that it is ok to desire to change your mental state (read as: get high), so long as it is in a recreational context and you have assessed the risks in your personal situation and found ways to mitigate them. For example when taking psychedelics it is advised to find a good “set and setting”, otherwise you run the risk of having a bad trip. Or as mentioned, when taking MDMA it is highly advisable to take a serotonin supplement such as 5-HTP so as to avoid brain damage. There is nothing inherently sinful about striving to change your mental state: monks do this all the time during intense contemplative prayer. Chemicals can be used to assist the process and so long as they are used in a responsible manner, there’s nothing sinful about them.