The Recreational Use of Marijuana

By Gerald D. Coleman, P.S.S.


In Weed the People, the author argues that “America is changing its mind about marijuana. For the past 80 years we’ve treated it as a ruinously dangerous drug, a public health menace, an addictive and illegal scourge. This is changing, and more quickly than many of us once thought possible. At the end of 2014 the U.S. reached a tipping point: for the first time ever, a majority of Americans lived in states with some form of marijuana legality.”[1]

The public perception of marijuana has been steadily shifting over the past decade. Gallup polls in the early 2000s found that about one-third of Americans favored legalization. That climbed to 44% in 2009, 48% in 2012, and 58% in 2013. A major factor behind this surge was the growing approbation of medical marijuana. By 2013 medical marijuana use was seen as helpful and safe.[2] Seventy-seven percent of Americans believed marijuana had legitimate medical uses and 83% thought doctors should be able to prescribe limited amounts for patients with serious illnesses.

One moment crystallized the nation’s new openness to marijuana when on August 8, 2013 CNN chief medical correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, publicly changed his mind on the positive effects of medical marijuana. Gupta said that he “mistakenly believed the Drug Enforcement Agency listed marijuana as a Schedule I substance because of sound scientific proof. In fact, the DEA had no such proof. Though government continued to deny it, marijuana has very legitimate medical applications. In fact, sometimes marijuana is the only thing that works.”[3]

The doctor-prescribed use of medical marijuana has led to the worrisome assumption that the recreational use of marijuana enjoys the same level of safety and oversight. This conjecture has led to an increasing number of states to legalize or hope to legalize the use of marijuana for reactional purposes.

This assumption needs careful critique.


The California Marijuana Legalization Initiative (Proposition 64) will be on the November 8, 2016 ballot in California. Referred to by supporters as the ADULT USE OF MARIJUANA ACT, the initiative is designed to allow adults 21 years of age or older to legally grow, possess, and use marijuana for recreational purposes. Legalization means lifting or abolishing laws banning the possession and personal use of recreational marijuana, allowing the government to regulate and tax marijuana use and sales.[4] Most of the revenue from these taxes would be required to be spent for specific purposes, e.g., youth programs, environmental protection.

Proponents place great emphasis on cost-savings and increased revenue connected to the legalization of marijuana, e.g., net reduced costs of millions of dollars annually to state and local governments primarily related to a decline in the number of marijuana offenders held in state prisons and county jails.

Supporters further claim that the passage of Proposition 64 amounts “a game changer, an antidote to the failed and racist war on drugs,” contains “sufficient protections” for potential effects on children,[5] and funnels tax money to strapped law enforcement agencies. The Legislative Analyst’s Office reports that California enforcement and justice systems might save $100 million each year if Proposition 64 passes because minor possession would be legal and penalties reduced on a number of marijuana related crimes. It is further purported that local tax revenues from the production and sale of marijuana could reach more than $1 billion.

The National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) is “especially excited” about the ballot measure for the legalization of recreational marijuana in California since it is the most populous state in the country and the sixth largest economy in the world. NORML testifies that “California really is the linchpin for hemispheral legalization,” which will “trigger a snowball of legalization throughout the country.”[6]

Does California really want such a distinction?

While the provisions surrounding recreational retail businesses would not become functionally effective until the state begins issuing licenses on January 1, 2018, recreational use and cultivation in private residences could begin as soon as the day after the election. As a result, it is imperative for concerned public agencies to consider, and to enact, regulations surrounding recreational use of marijuana prior to Election Day.[7] Yet nothing has been done to prepare for the eventuality of legalized marijuana in California.

While Proposition 64 provides a number of measures in an attempt to surround the recreational use of marijuana in an aura of safety (e.g., the establishment of the Bureau of Marijuana Control to regulate and license the marijuana industry, and allowing local governments not only to enforce state laws and regulations, but permitting them to ban or reasonably regulate recreational marijuana businesses), it makes no mention of broader concerns about the recreational use of marijuana. As one significant example, California’s Legislative Analyst’s Office writes that “there is some evidence that smoking marijuana has harmful effects, e.g., marijuana smoke is among a list of substances identified by the state to cause cancer.”[8]


Marijuana refers to the dried leaves, flowers, stems, and seeds from the hemp plant, Cannabis sativa. The plant contains the mind-altering chemical delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinolis (THC) and other related compounds.[9] Commonly known by its Mexican colloquial name, marijuana, it goes by many names such as grass, reefer, pot, dope, weed (because it grows quickly), Mary Jane, and hippie lettuce.[10] For centuries, the cannabis plant has been used in the Americas and other parts of the world such as Asia, Africa, Europe, and the Middle East for its psychoactive and perceived health benefits.[11]

A new and very dangerous form of synthetic cannabinoid called K2 is believed by some users, mostly between ages 13 and 18, and 83% male, as equivalent to marijuana. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has noted the sharp rise between 2010 and 2015 of poisoning caused by K2, commonly known as spice, Black Mamba, Bliss, Bombay Blue, Genie, and Zohal. Synthetic cannabinoids can be anywhere from two to 100 times more potent than THC. K2 has no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse. K2 and synthetic cannabinoids can also have lasting harmful effects as the chemicals in them can damage the DNA within cells causing mutations. In the long run, the consequences of using these drugs may be cancer or other diseases. Patients brought to hospitals after using K2 have been agitated, with some showing signs of delirium or psychosis, some arriving in a coma. The legalization of recreational marijuana will give some users the erroneous impression that the use of K2 is a legitimate form of a recreational drug. It is not.

The Federal Government classifies marijuana as a Schedule I controlled substance,[12] along with heroin, ecstasy, and LSD, implying that it has a high potential for abuse. Marijuana is composed of at least 85 diverse chemical compounds, with THC being the primary psychoactive compound that stimulates the brain to release dopamine, creating euphoria, while often inducing hallucinations and delusions.

In his 2002 book Smoke Signals: A Social History of Marijuana – Medical, Recreational, and Scientific, Martin Lee concludes that marijuana is by far “the most popular illicit substance in the U.S., with 10,000 tons consumed yearly by Americans in their college dorms, suburban homes, housing projects, and gated mansions. Pot smoking cuts across racial, class, and gender lines.” It is estimated that 2 million Americans use marijuana every day for either medical or recreational use. A new study indicates that San Francisco has the highest rate of marijuana use in the country.[13] The number of young people in the U.S. who believe that the use of marijuana is risky has been steadily decreasing.[14] Too often, however, the negative and worrisome use of marijuana is overlooked, as demonstrated in a 2016 study published in JAMA Psychiatry which showed how the brain of marijuana smokers is “hijacked by the drug.”[15]

Marijuana smoke contains many of the same toxic compounds found in tobacco smoke, including cancer-causing aromatic hydrocarbons. In a large case-controlled study at John Hopkins University, researchers found that their evidence “does not favor the idea that marijuana as commonly used in the community is a major causal factor for head, neck, or lung cancer in young adults.” However, smoking marijuana can cause a build-up of toxicity in the lungs which can lead to certain types of cancer. Marijuana smoking has also been linked to an elevated risk of bronchitis and respiratory infection.


Colorado’s recreational use of marijuana became effective on January 1, 2014, where an ounce costs about $200 or more (nearly double the price of medical marijuana). Since this time, a number of toddlers and children under three in Colorado are showing up in emergency rooms and poison control centers after eating edibles such as marijuana-infused brownies, some children having to be placed in intensive care. Marijuana edibles are very potent. Some studies have shown a marked reduction in white blood cell response, the body’s prime defense against infection. Most of the edible products came to children from family and friends. These children tended to have symptoms such as drowsiness, agitation and vomiting, with some experiencing difficulties in breathing (respiratory depression). In some cases, children were required to use a ventilator.[16] School officials believe that legalizing the use of recreational marijuana in Colorado and elsewhere has been sending a message to kids that marijuana is a safe and accepted recreational activity. It is not.

School personnel in Colorado are pointing out that kids are smoking marijuana before school and during lunch breaks. Many have become brazen. One study has concluded that “marijuana is a significantly growing problem in schools” and documents that between 2012 and 2013, 720 students were expelled from public schools across Colorado, 32% due to marijuana use. The National Institute of Drug Abuse found that marijuana use has climbed among 10th – 12th graders nationally, while the use of other drugs and alcohol has held steady or declined.[17] This is a “red flag” which warns against the use of recreational marijuana.

Colorado has also become a “battleground” where criminals are seeking to breach marijuana businesses.[18] Denver has 421 marijuana growing-houses and shops and in 2015 reported 192 burglaries and thefts at these businesses. As of this date, one guard in Aurora, Colorado, was killed. Recreational marijuana businesses are prone to danger due to their cash-heavy operation and provide lucrative opportunity for criminals. A pound of marijuana worth $2,000 in Colorado can be sold for $4,000 or $6,000 across state lines.

Before approving Proposition 64, California voters should seriously think about this evidence from Colorado that shows delirious effects on children, and has invited organized crime to marijuana businesses.


The safety of recreational use of marijuana is poorly understood. Researchers are concerned that both short- and long-term use of marijuana for recreational purposes may harm the body and mind. Marijuana’s escalating popularity and use among teenagers raises particular concern because the drug might hinder the ongoing maturation of the adolescent brain. The high dosages of THC in recreational marijuana increase its potency and suggests the real possibility of cannabis addiction.

Between 1993 and 2008, the average concentration of THC in confiscated marijuana jumped from 3.4 to 8.8%. Meanwhile hospital and rehabilitation center admissions rates for minors abusing marijuana soared by 188% between 1992 and 2006. Studies have already shown that marijuana use slows reaction time and impairs distance perception, a serious problem for driving a vehicle. THC, the primary psychoactive compound in recreational marijuana, mimics the structure of molecules called endocannabinoids that the human body produces naturally.

When THC strikes specific cannabinoid receptors, e.g., those that help regulate appetite, mood, and memory, it triggers domino chains of interacting molecules in neurons that culminate in both unusually elevated and abnormally low levels of various neurotransmitters, the molecules that brain cells use to communicate with one another. The result is the well-known “high” of marijuana. Suddenly, the mundane seems hilarious and ordinary foods taste delicious. People generally feel merry, relaxed, and introspective, although undesirable effects such as paranoia and irritability are common as well.

Marijuana also temporarily impairs an array of mental abilities, especially memory and attention. Cannabis blunts concentration, weakens motor coordination and interferes with the ability to quickly scan one’s surroundings for obstacles. Studies have shown, e.g., that persons on marijuana are slower to hit the brakes and worse at changing lanes safely. Unlike alcohol, marijuana cannot be detected with a relatively unobtrusive Breathalyzer test. There is currently no practical method for law-enforcement officials to collect blood samples from suspected DUI cannabis drivers in a timely manner.

A recent study conducted by a clinical psychologist at Duke University found that people who began using pot earlier in life and used it frequently over the years experienced an average decline of eight IQ points by the time they turned 38.[19] Numerous studies have linked marijuana with schizophrenia.[20] Seventeen percent of adolescents who use marijuana regularly become addicted to its use. Roughly 36% of 12th graders reported having used marijuana in 2013. This is a serious moral and social issue that legalization will only exasperate, no matter what safeguards are in place.

Marijuana use may have a wide range of effects, both physical and mental, e.g., breathing problems due to lung irritation, increased heart rate which can lead to the chance of a heart attack, problems with child development during and after pregnancy, hallucinations, temporary paranoia (extreme and unreasonable distrust of others), depression, anxiety, suicidal thoughts, lower life satisfaction, more relational problems, higher likelihood of dropping out of school, job absences, accidents, injuries.[21]

Over the past 20 years, the use of cannabis has become almost as common as tobacco among adolescents and young adults. A new review by Professor Wayne Hall from the National Addiction Centre at King’s College London summarizes the scientific evidence gathered between 1993 and 2013 on the effects of cannabis use on mental and physical health.

Professor Hall, who is also Director of the Center for Youth Substance Abuse Research at the University of Queensland, writes:  “Over the past 20 years, we have seen a large increase in the number of people smoking cannabis. As would be expected, we’ve also seen a large increase in the number of research studies on cannabis. What’s clear is that cannabis, especially when users smoke it regularly and from a young age, can have a detrimental impact on people’s mental health.

We are seeing larger numbers of people becoming dependent on cannabis, and it is now difficult to argue that cannabis dependence does not require professional attention. While the mental and physical impact of cannabis dependence is less severe than alcohol or heroin dependence, the number of people who are able to stop smoking cannabis completely following treatment is still very low.”

The key conclusions from the report, published in the journal Addiction, are:

  • Driving while intoxicated with cannabis doubles the risk of road traffic accidents. In comparison, being intoxicated with alcohol increased the risk of a crash 6-15 times.
  • Approximately 9 percent of people who have ever used cannabis become dependent, compared to 32 percent for nicotine, 23 percent for heroin, and 15 percent for alcohol.
  • Maternal cannabis use during pregnancy modestly reduces birth weight.
  • Daily cannabis users double their risk of experiencing psychotic symptoms and disorders, especially if they have a personal or family history of psychosis, and if they start using cannabis in their mid-teens
  • Daily cannabis use that begins in adolescence and continues through adulthood appears linked to cognitive impairment, but the mechanism and whether this is reversible remains unclear.
  • People who smoke cannabis daily as teenagers are more likely to use other illicit drugs, but some evidence suggests the relationship may be due to shared risk factors.
  • Smoking cannabis increases the risk of cardiovascular disease, mainly because most cannabis users have smoked, or still smoke tobacco as well.[22]


Proponents of the legalization of the recreational use of marijuana justify their support on the grounds of its safety, its economic prosperity for state and local governments, and its positive effects on current legal penalties. There is no mention of the real dangers connected with its use as a recreation drug. Additionally, there is no recognition of the dangerous fact that the amount of THC in marijuana has been increasing steadily over the past few decades.[23] Exposure to higher levels of THC creates a much higher chance of harmful reactions. Higher levels of THC also lead to a greater risk of addiction. Research suggests that 30% of users develop some degree of problem use which can lead to dependence and addiction.[24] Dependence becomes addiction when a person cannot stop using marijuana even when it interferes with one’s daily life.

Marijuana is a drug and an intoxicant potentially damaging to the integrity of one’s body and personal integrity. Recreational marijuana use too easily slides into an abuse of the virtue of temperance. The Catholic moral tradition teaches that for human persons to flourish, we must use our reason to decide what is for our well-being. If any activity undermines or degrades our rational capacities, we have moral reasons to avoid that activity. The THC level in recreational marijuana often induces hallucinations and delusions, diminishes the use of one’s full reasoning abilities, and its potency suggests the real possibility of addiction.

Addiction can be extremely harmful, and in some cases, fatal for those individuals ensnared by it.[25] It can be seriously disruptive and damaging to those around them. Individuals caught in the web of addiction objectively fall prey to a loss of personal freedom. Their will becomes weakened, and they become enslaved in a way that limits their ability to recognize the right order of goods in one’s life. By repetitively choosing the addictive behavior, it becomes ingrained, and the ability to choose better, alternative behaviors becomes enfeebled, if not seemingly impossible. For these reasons, there is almost always diminished personal responsibility in situations of addiction. To be accountable for our acts, we must freely choose those acts, but the internal pressure and downward spiral of the addiction may have already co-opted the individual’s ability freely to choose otherwise.

This radical loss of freedom lies at the heart of the tragedy of addiction. Because we are creatures of habit, the choices we make, either for good or for evil, form us in one direction or the other, so we become individuals who are either capable or incapable of choosing the good freely. Virtue is a habit of good, while vice is a habit of evil. Early choices leading down the road toward addiction, freely made, can quickly snowball into vice and a loss of freedom.

While there may have been significant moral culpability at the beginning of an individual’s descent into addiction, it is still critical for us to never stigmatize, patronize or abandon those who are in the throes of addiction. They may feel they are defined entirely by their addiction, unlovable and wretched, rather than seeing that they are, in fact, human beings who are precious to God and those around them, and even now endowed with some tiny space of remaining freedom. That tiny space will become key to determining whether they ultimately choose the behavioral changes needed to improve their situation and recover the human freedom that is rightfully theirs. We should support, encourage and love them in ways that will help lead them toward those good choices and successful outcomes.

Speaking at the International Drug Enforcement Conference in Rome in 2014, Pope Francis strongly opposed the legalization of marijuana for recreational use. He told the conference participants that “the scourge of drug use continues to spread inexorably, fed by a deplorable commerce which transcends national and continental borders.” At World Youth Day in Rio de Janeiro (2013), Francis also addressed this concern: “…it is necessary to confront the problems underlying the use of these drugs, by promoting greater justice, educating young people in the values that build up life in society, accompanying those in difficulty and giving them hope for the future.”

In his 2015 encyclical Laudato Si’, Francis describes the destruction of the environment as a sin which arises from personal selfishness and a “throw away culture.” “We must resolve to live differently,” the Pope wrote, and this resolution must include care for the environment of our persons made in God’s image. The dangers connected with the recreational use of marijuana are disturbing warning signs that “party pot” lessens our human wholeness and endangers our body-soul-mind integrity, and too easily slips into addiction. Laudato Si’ teaches that there is a “social breakdown” in society which leads to “drug trafficking” and a “growing drug use by young people, and the loss of identity.” These are signs of “social decline.” (no. 46)

The CALIFORNIA MARIJUANA LEGALIZATION INITIATIVE is an invitation to degrade the environment of who we are as persons. Proposition 64 should be rejected on both humane and moral grounds.

Gerald Coleman, P.S.S., Fr. Coleman is a member of the United States Province of St. Sulpice (the Sulpicians).  He is presently an adjunct professor of ethics in the Graduate Program of Pastoral Studies at Santa Clara University.  He formerly served as corporate ethicist for the Daughters of Charity Health System, a six hospital system located in California and was an ex officio member of the bioethics committees for the hospitals in the Daughters’ system.  Fr. Coleman also served as President-Rector of St. Patrick’s Seminary and University in Menlo Park, CA, and on Catholic hospital governing boards.  He has published and lectured extensively on bioethics questions. 

[1] Bruce Barcott, Weed the People, Time Books (2015), p. 6.

[3] Gupta’s full analysis can be viewed his documentary entitled Weed.

[4] The State intends to enact a 15% sales tax as well as a cultivation tax of $9.25 per ounce for flowers and $2.75 per ounce for leaves, with exceptions for qualifying medical marijuana sales and cultivation.

[5] State-licensed businesses could “generally” not be located within 600 feet of a school, day care center, or youth center “unless allowed by a local government.” This provision is hardly a safety net for the protection of children.

[6] Aaron Smith@AaronSmithCNN, June 29, 2016.

[7] See on July 27, 2016.

[8] Legislative Analyst’s Office, “Proposition 64: Marijuana Legislation,” July 20, 2016, p. 13.

[10] The English language contains more than 635 terms for marijuana.

[11]Hemp is a variety of cannabis that is grown for the fiber and seeds. Industrial hemp was the desired fiber used to manufacture rope, canvas, paper and clothing until alternative textiles and synthetics for these purposes were discovered. Hemp seed also has high nutritional value. Hemp foods include, e.g., hemp energy bars, hemp salad dressing, hemp milk, hemp protein shakes, hemp oil gel caps.

[12] During the Nixon presidency, Congress drafted the Controlled Substance Act as part of a larger Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act. This Act separated drugs into five tiers known as schedules. Drugs were listed from least restricted (Schedule V) to most restricted (Schedule I) according to their abuse potential, harmfulness, known effect, and level of medical use.

[13] Rachael Rettner, “Here’s the US City with the Highest Pot Use,” Live Science, July 28, 2016.

[14] Johnston L., O’Malley P., Miech R., Bachman J. and Schulenberg J., “Monitoring the Future National Survey Results on Drug Use: 1975-2015, Overview: Key Findings on Adolescent Drug Use, MI: Ann Arbor: Institute of Social Research, University of Michigan, 2015.

[15] JAMA Psychiatry, online June 1, 2016.

[16] JAMA Pediatrics, July 25, 2016.

[18] “Veterans Find A Mission in the Marijuana Industry,” New York Times, September 9, 2016, A11 and A16.

[19] Roxanne Khamsi, “How Safe is Recreational Marijuana? Scientific American, June 1, 2013.

[20] Kathleen Doherty, “Recreational Marijuana: Are There Health Effects?” WedMD Health News, December 11, 2012.

[21] JAMA 264:20 (1990), 2639-2643.

[22] Wayne Hall,” What Has Research Over the Past Two Decades Revealed about Health Effects of Recreational Cannabis Use?” Addiction 10:1111/ad.12703.

[23] Journal of Forensic Science 55:5 (2010), 1209-1217.

[24] JAMA PSYCHIATRY 10 (2015), p. 1858.

[25] See “Making Sense of Bioethics,” Tad Pacholczyk, National Catholic Bioethics Center, January 2016.


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