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Mile High City’s archbishop issues warning against marijuana

Young guys sharing a joint

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John Burger - published on 12/11/23

Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila issues pastoral letter detailing Catholic concerns about increasing acceptance of drugs.

Colorado is one of the most progressive states when it comes to legalizing marijuana and other drugs. But the Catholic archbishop of Denver is calling attention to serious problems that have arisen because of the legalization of pot, and is urging Americans to reconsider the increasing embrace of so-called “soft drugs.”

In a pastoral letter, “That They May Have Life,” Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila brings together natural law, Catholic ethical teaching, and medical data to argue that legalizing drugs is a mistake. 

In 2012, Colorado voted to legalize recreational marijuana, and in 2014, it became the first state to permit its sale. The Centennial State also recently legalized psychedelic mushrooms.

Aquila’s letter also comes in the midst of news that more and more Americans are dying of drug overdoses, particularly from synthetic opioids such as fentanyl. He points out that 106,699 Americans died from drug overdoses in 2021. 

“As more states follow (as of this writing, recreational and medical marijuana are legal in 23 and 38 states respectively), there is a need to speak about the devastating effects of drugs such as methamphetamine, fentanyl, opioids, and others that we have witnessed,” Aquila writes. “We now have an overwhelming amount of data that reinforces what we have known to be true all along: The legalization of marijuana and cultural acceptance of drug use have been disastrous to our society.”

Hinders ability to know and love

Aquila cites traditional Catholic teaching in stating that man was created to know and love God. But drugs “hinder our ability to know and to love,” he says.

“Drugs diminish our self-possession by harming the very faculties that make us human: drugs inhibit our use of reason, weaken our will’s orientation toward the good, and train our emotions to expect quick relief from artificial pleasure. These effects severely limit our ability to freely give ourselves to another.”

Anything that diminishes man’s use of reason and will assails his dignity as a human person and is therefore harmful, Aquila writes. Quoting the Pontifical Council for Health Pastoral Care, the archbishop says that drug use “seriously reduces the freedom of a person, sometimes to the extent of canceling it completely.” It diminishes man’s ability to make free choices because it impedes the intellect and dulls judgment, while simultaneously weakening the will and sapping moral energy

“Pope St. John Paul II went so far as to say that taking drugs ‘is always illicit, because it involves an unjustified and irrational renunciation of thinking, willing, and acting as free persons’ …. He additionally stressed that drugs frustrate a person’s capacity for communion and self-gift, which is her very reason for being.”

Aquila also quotes Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who said 30 year ago, “Drugs are an attempt to fill … the thirst of the soul.” 

“If we are Christians who use drugs, we must ask ourselves hard questions about what emptiness in our souls we are trying to fill or what pain in our lives we are seeking to numb,” Aquila says.

Is weed harmless?

The archbishop seeks to counter arguments that marijuana is basically harmless and on a par with alcoholic beverages. He cites studies saying that in Colorado marijuana use disorder, which Yale defines as the continued use of cannabis despite significant negative impact on one’s life and health, affected 3.3% of the population as of 2019, double what it was in the early 2000s, when it affected just 1.6% of the population. The drug causes deficits in the brain’s executive functioning, temporarily impairing coordination, concentration, working memory, and inhibition, he says. 

“The CDC warns that ‘people who use marijuana are more likely to develop temporary psychosis (not knowing what is real, hallucinations, and paranoia) and long-lasting mental disorders, including schizophrenia (a type of mental illness where people might see or hear things that are not really there),’” he said.

“A host of studies and health agencies has confirmed this alarming connection. The National Institute on Drug Abuse warns, ‘Recent research suggests that smoking high-potency marijuana every day could increase the chances of developing psychosis by nearly five times compared to people who have never used marijuana.’ The connection between psychosis and heavy marijuana use is especially frightening when we consider that about 20% of cannabis users consume it almost daily. As Dr. Tyler J. VanderWeele of Harvard University summarized, ‘Cannabis use disorder is not responsible for most schizophrenia cases, but it is responsible for a non negligible and increasing proportion.’”

The Gospel and the family

In response to the drug crisis in America, Christians need to proclaim the Gospel more completely, the archbishop says. 

“It is through the love, mercy, meaning, and hope found in Christ that people will be deterred from drug use or inspired to break free of its influence,” Aquila writes.

“As Pope St. Paul VI wrote, the Church must ‘evangelize man’s culture and cultures …, always taking the person as one’s starting point and always coming back to the relationships of people among themselves and with God.’ Since relationships are so pivotal, lay people have a unique opportunity and responsibility to evangelize and transform the temporal order. The proclamation of the Gospel suffuses the Church’s three-pronged effort against drugs: prevention, suppression, and rehabilitation.”

The family is very important in this, he says, quoting the Pontifical Council for Health Pastoral Care, which notes that “The family is one of the first places for the prevention of drug use …. Developing the inner life of youth, with the help of prayer, the sacraments, and above all the celebration of the Eucharist, offers them a glimpse of the eternal and blessed life of Christ, thus revealing a fuller sense of human existence.”

“All Christians — whether they are parents, relatives, or friends — can help inoculate against drug use by sharing their faith and the difference it makes day-to-day,” Aquila sums up. “A crucial piece often neglected is the role of redemptive suffering. Everyone can find some meaning in their pain and hardships by uniting those sufferings with Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross to rain down blessings. Doing so often changes the experience of pain, as grace transforms souls that draw so near to the Suffering Servant.”

BishopsCatholic LifestyleHealth and Wellness
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