This piece ran as an op/ed at the beginning of May, 2021.
So Virginia has voted to allow marijuana (a.k.a. cannabis) to join the list of mind-altering drugs that are legal for adults to use.
This decision recognizes a truth America learned the hard way nearly a century ago: that Prohibition is a losing approach to a drug that people want, like Alcohol in the 1920s, and Marijuana more recently. Prohibition enriches criminal organizations, ruins lives, and doesn’t work well besides.
Even though alcohol remains a dangerous drug – benign in some lives, but destructive in others – it has been legal for generations, and is an important part of life in America.
(Countless gatherings of friends, combined with the imbibing of alcohol to help dissolve social inhibitions and foster conviviality, illustrate the possibility of that drug’s being used in wise and constructive ways.)
Then there’s the nicotine in our various tobacco products (a drug more addictive than alcohol).
Nicotine is also psychoactive, which is why the U.S. Army gave out so many free cigarettes to the G.I.s fighting World War II. (Nicotine is known to be an anti-anxiety drug and, for men routinely facing death, the cigarette was a handy means of self-medicating.)
And for generations, American life has included a central place for the cup of coffee.
Of these three legal psychoactive drugs, caffeine seems the one that’s come out the best. True, it is also physically addictive. However, the current science says that you are actually increasing your life expectancy the more coffee you drink up to four and a half cups a day!
Meanwhile, millions of Americans sing the praises of the psychoactive effects – brightening, energizing– of that morning coffee.
Just about everywhere you look, and throughout our history, we Americans have been using psychoactive drugs. Each drug has its own qualities, taking our consciousness in certain directions.
And now another legal drug is coming to Virginia—marijuana/cannabis, which takes consciousness in its own directions.
While it won’t be difficult for legalization to be an improvement over the previous policy of marijuana Prohibition, our society still faces the challenge of maximizing the benefit, and minimizing the harm, of the role cannabis plays in our society.
Marijuana is like alcohol in having the potential to enhance life.
(And it has the advantage of being clearly a less dangerous drug than alcohol, which kills nearly a hundred thousand Americans a year, is implicated in a great many automobile accidents, and increases the tendency to violence.)
Whether the beneficial potential of marijuana is realized depends on people understanding how to use it wisely. The wisest use of psychoactive drugs, I would argue, has a “sacramental” aspect—a view that shows respect for those drugs having an impact on the human spirit.
We know that alcohol has long been used sacramentally. (Wine is part of Christian communion, and is a central part of the Passover seder, the holiday meal that was Jesus’s Last Supper).
We know that tobacco was used sacramentally by the Native Americans (the first peoples to incorporate that drug into their culture). Ceremonial use, not chain-smoking.
And even caffeine has an important place in the history of Western consciousness, as shown by the pivotal cultural role played by Europe’s early coffee houses.
So what would the sacramental use of cannabis look like in the lives of adults?
For many Americans exposed to the demonization of marijuana – starting with the infamous “Reefer Madness” a few generations ago – it likely will seem strange to think that this drug could have any spiritual value.
It might be useful, in the context of that cultural demonization of the drug, to contemplate the implications of a recent archaeological discovery. In ancient temples of the Kingdom of Judah, from Biblical times, the residue of burnt offerings have been analyzed. One altar was used for frankincense. The other for the burning marijuana—because, the archaeologists believe, the psychoactive effects were considered to enhance the worship experience.
The effects of cannabis can be varied – from relaxation and good-feeling (as some use a beer or glass of wine after work), to the quickening of awareness.
Perhaps the main way marijuana differs from alcohol, caffeine, and nicotine, is that marijuana enables a person to escape habitual thought patterns and see things in new, creative ways.
Taking a break from one’s habitual ways of thinking can be meaningful and liberating. (What has become merely “habitual” tends to get drained of its meaningfulness. E.g. the proverb becomes shopworn, and no longer packs the punch it had when some creative person first came up with it.)
Seeing things freshly can make one feel more profoundly in touch with one’s reality.
Creativity can make one feel more deeply alive.
(Another recent scientific finding might mean something: analysis of a pipe found on the grounds of Shakespeare’s home in Stratford-on-Avon found residues of cannabis.)
In addition, the “habitual” can mean being “stuck.” Seeing things in new ways, therefore, can enable one to get “unstuck.” And getting unstuck can open the door to spiritual, emotional, or intellectual growth.