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Spiritual Health and Prohibition: Is Pot a Rerun of Alcohol?

June 7, 2014

As any observant American today knows, there are rapidly changing attitudes and changing laws around the use of marijuana.  The issue deserves deeper reflection and broader education than it is currently getting!  What, for example, can we learn from our history of managing alcohol use, including its legal prohibition for 13 years (1920-33) during “Prohibition”?  9087_wpm_lowres2

There is some controversy and a lot of ignorance about whether or not pot use, in any amount, is safe or can be of positive value.  (That is, aside from clear cases where medically necessary, as the best or only effective treatment for serious ailments.)

For this article, I’ll leave this debate aside and, for current purposes, we will assume that there is at least a rough parallel with alcohol: certainly a high potential for abuse and harm and relatively little harm, at least in the short term, from occasional careful use.  We’ll leave open the question of whether there is spiritual, emotional or any health benefit that may equal or outweigh the likely detriments of even moderate use or marijuana, particularly of intake by smoking it.

So then, can we look to the history of alcohol use for clues toward optimal ways to handle marijuana as a society? I’d say a qualified “Yes”! (And we should!) Certainly there are some parallels.  But there are also many differences so any comparisons must be made carefully.  Sticking mainly to the broad and common sense principles we can observe at play in attitudes and social/legal practices around alcohol use, we should be able to apply some insights.

We have a rapidly changing situation around pot use.  It requires active attention by us all… and right now.  It is important that we not just react out of opinion, off the top of our heads, about what we think is best for society.  If our preference is that people never use marijuana, or only for genuine medical need, the best fulfillment of that may not come through its prohibition.  The real need is to act (vote, propose regulations locally, educate, etc.) based on both facts about marijuana, its effects in different situations, and knowledge about social management. We must make some effort to learn about societal effects of alcohol and of various ways we’ve collectively sought to manage alcohol use.  It takes an historical look to do this.

This goes beyond Prohibition – to earlier as well as more recent periods.  This is what I’d call both a rational and a spiritual way to approach the problem….  It involves the search for truth core to the Bible and other religious texts, and a willingness to express judgment and compassion where each belongs – neither in unthinking rejection nor unqualified acceptance of all pot use and users.

I will refer you to an excellent article that covers how society and Christians in particular approached the social management of what had become, by the early 19th century, a major problem of massive (compared to today) consumption of alcohol, mainly as hard liquor.  I normally do not link to articles by Christianity Today, as is this one, in that my approach to Christian faith is often quite different than theirs.  However this article, found hereis an excellent, well-researched review of many factors involved in movements for total abstinence and other approaches, Christian and societal, to problems associated with alcohol consumption.  (Unfortunately, one has to be a subscriber to read most of the article online, as of this writing, as CT changed its availability just after I’d read it.  Or you can somehow find the print edition [probably June, 2014… not sure], often available in libraries.  It is well worth reading for anyone, regardless of their faith or lack thereof.)

One point of interest to note is that the author gives statistics of liquor consumption per person, nationwide, to show that Prohibition, on that limited measure, did work. However, the drop in overall consumption it achieved was maintained afterward and has actually continued to decline further to the present day, despite our serious problems with alcoholism, binge drinking, etc.  The author also points out that family and social benefits of either moderation or abstinence were obtained by other means, particularly as part of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, begun almost 50 years before Prohibition.  Despite our cultural memory of the ax-wielding Carrie Nation, most of the movement was non-violent and focused on education as well as confrontation.

I don’t know that anyone is pushing the idea that pot consumption will actually drop if it is legalized in more states than the current two.  But I don’t think we can assume that it will necessarily rise significantly, either, or at least in the longer term. In other words, legislation against use of a substance is only one way for a society to put reasonable controls on the incidence of use.  And if people have allowed the existence of laws against pot use to excuse their lack of knowledge about present-day marijuana and how it can best be managed personally, in a family, or in society, maybe it won’t be bad to change them.

I’m not sure what else will get people more actively involved in educating themselves and others and developing effective ways to combat abuse of marijuana.  

What do YOU think? 

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