Panel group warns of marijuana’s dangers

In mid-July, Washington became the second state to sell marijuana for recreational use, following closely on the heels of Colorado, which opened its first “pot shops” Jan. 1.

In November, voters in Oregon and Alaska will have the opportunity to join the growing trend of legalizing recreational marijuana by casting their votes in the states’ general elections.

These legislative moves reflect changing public opinion when it comes to marijuana and its main active ingredient, cannabis tetrahydrocannabinol, commonly known as THC. According to a Gallup poll released October 2013, 58 percent of Americans now support legalizing marijuana, up from 50 percent in 2011 and just 12 percent in 1969, when Gallup first posed the question.

Medical marijuana alone is legal in 23 states and the District of Columbia.

With this increased legalization and availability, the Church is getting many pastoral questions on how to address marijuana, said Father Michael Warren, parochial vicar of Holy Ghost Catholic Church, during a panel discussion held at the church in Denver in early July.

The first thing people need to do, he said, is to inform their consciences about the subject.

“If we’re going to be in the New Evangelization, we have to be current on the issues at-hand in our greater society,” he said. “We need to be educated on these matters.”

What doctors say

In November 2013, the American Medical Association, comprised of physicians and medical students, reaffirmed its opposition to marijuana legalization, calling cannabis “a dangerous drug” and “a public health concern.”

While some medical professionals acknowledge benefits and are in favor of using marijuana for medical purposes, they and others also acknowledge its risks.

On its website, the Mayo Clinic lists a plethora of potential side effects, including “effects on almost every organ system in the body, including the central nervous, heart, endocrine and immune systems.”

In addition, the California Society of Addiction Medication, citing surveys, reports that the offspring of marijuana smokers may suffer specific birth defects including ventricular septal defects. It also reports that fetus exposure to marijuana can lead to behavioral problems in children by age 10.

What the Church says

Theologically speaking, marijuana is not supported.

Because human cognition is a precondition to making choices, altering our consciousness is wrong from the moral theological standpoint, said Dr. E. Christian Brugger, a professor of moral theology at St. John Vianney Theological Seminary in Denver and a member of the panel.

“Choices are the foundation by which we cooperate with God and with grace, or deny God and grace,” Brugger said. “Morally conscientious people know that even when they’re at the top of their game, acting well is difficult: acting with modesty and treating members of the opposite sex with dignity and respect, speaking with due moderation, maintaining the reputation of others, not drinking to excess or eating to excess, being faithful to daily prayer, keeping faith in the face of difficult circumstances.

“Even if your mind is clear and your body’s strong, it’s hard to do all those things every day,” Brugger added. “Getting high lowers our inhibitions. Marijuana makes it easier to cut corners on all of those things.”

One common argument, Brugger said, is that if alcohol is harmful and it’s legal, why can’t marijuana be?

But, he said, “the fact that something else is legal is not necessarily an argument that we should make something else legal if they both have destructive effects.”

For many, using cannabis is appealing because they believe it opens a window into what they consider to be profound contemplation. Father Peter Mussett, pastor of the St. Thomas Aquinas Center, serving the University of Colorado at Boulder, said that type of thought is destructive. “The primary thing is the forgetfulness,” he said. “Everything that you gain while being high is stolen. Jesus says anybody who does not enter through the gate is a thief coming to steal. So the contemplation brought, the awe and wonder brought in the time of being high is ultimately a stolen moment.”

The heightened state of being high is already gained by being present in the Church and natural law, Father Mussett said. Many of the people he encounters who have smoked marijuana find despair and loneliness.

Safety concerns

According to the Rocky Mountain Poison and Drug Center, hospital emergency visits recently have doubled in Denver for the male 18-25 age group. In Colorado, marijuana was once the third highest drug-related hospital discharge reported between 2007 and 2010; now it is the second highest. The marijuana-related hospital discharge rate from 2007 to 2012 increased by 57 percent for Denver County and 47 percent in the Denver metro area.

“Kids are ingesting this stuff thinking that it is just a regular old brownie or cookie,” said Assistant U.S. Attorney Mary Jo Menendez, another member of the panel. In reality, many derivatives of marijuana can offer highly concentrated doses. One of these, called “shatter,” is consumed by “dabbing,” which vaporizes the drug concentrate on a heated surface. As a result, Colorado is the “epicenter” for severe burns and fires, Menendez said.

“In 2014, we have had 30 butane explosions, and we outpace all the other states,” Menendez said. “Whole houses blow and apartment complexes blow.”

Personal story

Geoff Bennett is all too familiar with the issue. Bennett said he lived 16 years of helplessness as he watched his oldest daughter roll down a path of destruction that started with marijuana use.

It began when his daughter was 15. She started hanging out with the wrong crowd and was given marijuana to try.

Eventually, she became addicted. Wanting a stronger high, she advanced to other narcotics, finding a favorite in prescription drugs. She began failing in school and spending weekends away from home. When she was home, her drug-induced behavior would make the rest of the family — including four other children — feel so unsafe that they’d all sleep in the same room, with kitchen knives at their sides. Then one day, she was just gone. For three or four years, she returned only to ask for money, sell her body for drugs and lose her children to a state system.

Last November, Bennett’s daughter, now 31, completed time at a Christian rehabilitation center in Arkansas. He only hopes she stays clean.

“It started with the marijuana because she wanted to be popular, but it was never enough,” said Bennett, vice president of shelter and community outreach at Catholic Charities of Denver. “She had to keep doing more and more and more because it didn’t fulfill the high she was looking for. She’ll tell you today she lives every day trying to keep herself from falling back into that pattern.”

The case of Bennett’s daughter is not a solitary instance. Ten percent of marijuana users become addicted, Bennett said. And while not a particularly large percentage, it’s big enough.

“Obviously, not everybody falls,” he said. “But ... if 10 percent of people (in society) fell off a cliff ... would it be worth it?”

Anna Maria Basquez writes from Colorado.