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Father Raymond de Souza

The difference between drugs and alcohol

Voices Dec. 5, 2018

The moral problem with drugs is they aim directly at compromising the reason, altering the perception of reality and the capacity to think clearly, writes Father de Souza, who likens their use to alcohol abuse. (Unsplash photo)

Father de Souza wrote this column Oct. 18, the day Canada legalized the use of marijuana.

Marijuana becomes legal in Canada today. But it still remains, to use the proper word, a sin.

What advice should pastors and parents give now that cannabis is legal? Does legalization change the morality of it?

Yes and no. 

Yes. Some things are morally neutral in themselves, but because a legitimate authority proscribes them, it becomes sinful – contrary to God’s will – to do it. Not because of the thing in itself, but because of the disobedience to legitimate authority (cf. Romans 13:1) The best example might be traffic laws. There is nothing inherently immoral in driving on the right or left side of the street, or yielding to or merging with flowing traffic. Yet the regulations, when passed by legitimate authority, mean it is wrong to disobey them – even if one does not get caught.

But there are also things that are immoral even if there is no law against them. For example, before there were “distracted driving” laws against using electronic devices when driving, was it immoral to do so? Not in terms of obedience to the law. But if such behaviour was reckless and led to endangering others, it was wrong to do so even if no laws were broken. 

More relevant to marijuana, there is no law against drinking to great excess, just as there are not laws against adultery or being rude at work, or being ungrateful to your mother. But all remain sinful behaviours.

That marijuana is legal means that it is no longer immoral to use because it is against the law. Pastors and parents who said marijuana use was immoral because it was illegal can no longer use that argument. Prospective users who were put off by its illegality no longer have that barrier.

So why is marijuana use still immoral?

The Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops (CCCB) issued a statement when the Cannabis Act was passed last June, saying that “it is lamentable that the federal government has decided to facilitate the provision and use of an addictive substance that will have disastrous effects for so many people.”

Indeed, the Canadian Medical Association, the Canadian Psychiatric Association, and the Canadian Paediatric Society have pointed out how the use of cannabis is linked to addictions, depression, anxiety, psychosis, damage to brain development, and lung problems such as asthma and emphysema. 

But cannabis use is not immoral because it has foreseeable negative health and social consequences. So does alcohol, not to mention eating fried chicken while playing video games.

Rather, there is something about using cannabis in itself that is contrary to the moral law. 

“With the exception of cannabis use for medicinal purposes, consuming marijuana violates the virtue of temperance and should be avoided,” said Msgr. Frank Leo, general secretary of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Why does cannabis use violate the virtue of temperance? One might consider what the Catechism of the Catholic Church says on the matter: 

(#2290) The virtue of temperance disposes us to avoid every kind of excess: the abuse of food, alcohol, tobacco, or medicine. Those incur grave guilt who, by drunkenness or a love of speed, endanger their own and others’ safety on the road, at sea, or in the air.

(#2291) The use of drugs inflicts very grave damage on human health and life. Their use, except on strictly therapeutic grounds, is a grave offense. Clandestine production of and trafficking in drugs are scandalous practices. They constitute direct co-operation in evil, since they encourage people to practices gravely contrary to the moral law.

Here the Christian tradition links drug use to the excessive – “intemperate” – use of food and drink. But there is something different about drugs, namely that it is not the “excess” that is sinful – gluttony, drunkenness – but the use itself.

It is helpful to think about alcohol here. Drinking alcohol in itself has not been considered sinful by the Christian tradition; quite to the contrary, both the Scriptures and the long Christian tradition of worship look favourably on the “fruit of the vine”. That being said, the problem of drunkenness appears early in the scriptures (Noah) and the (minority) Christian tradition of abstaining entirely from alcohol has venerable roots, both ancient and modern.

At what point does alcohol pass from being a pleasant enjoyment of God’s bounty to a sinful indulgence? When does it cease to be temperate? The traditional answer was refined during the scholastic period by authorities such as St. Thomas Aquinas. Alcohol consumption becomes immoral when it compromises our reason, that rational faculty which makes us distinctively human. The line can be a fine one, though often enough it is quite obvious.

When wine or spirits or beer help us to be more convivial, or even help us to relax us or appreciate the goodness of Creation, they are to the good. When they corrupt us – in reason, in speech, in behaviour – drinking is a moral problem. There are those for whom even the smallest drink is likely to lead to those effects, so they are wise to be completely abstemious.

Thus the moral problem with drugs is that they aim directly at compromising the reason, altering the perception of reality and the capacity to think clearly. With marijuana, it is often this hallucinatory effect that is the principal purpose of the use. Drug use is thus better likened to alcohol abuse, a violation of temperance, not simple alcohol use.

I wrote recently that with the legalization of cannabis today, the sum of human misery in Canada will increase.

That’s a good reason not to legalize it, but not an argument why the use of it is immoral for a particular individual. It would be better if this social scourge were prevented by both civil law and the moral law. Now Canada will have to get by with only the latter.

From Convivium. Reprinted with permission.

The B.C. and Yukon Bishops released a statement on marijuana use Nov. 30.