by Jack Hoehn

Ever read a good book that started out like this? “My life was going nowhere; my relationships were falling apart. I lost my job, was restless, unhappy, and frequently out of control.  But finally I started drinking alcohol and smoking pot, and everything got way so much better…”?  — me neither.

Adventists who have learned that the details of their church’s “Health Message” are inspired good advice and not divine oracle (once they learn that mustard, spices[1], tea and coffee[2] may have actual health benefits, and pescatarians have some survival advantages over vegans[3]) may be in danger of throwing out everything their culture taught about the so called “Adventist Lifestyle.”

We could remember, however, that a substantial proportion[4] of the “Health Message” given to 19th-century Seventh-day Adventists through the writings of Ellen G. White has become universal health advice for everyone on the planet in the 21st century. We just had it 150 years before the Harvard/Mayo/Cornell/Hopkins/NIH health letters got the word out.

For this reason Adventists have been in danger of thinking because the “Health Message” was graciously given to us, we own it or at least have patent rights! But no, it was given us to give away. Happily, that has largely happened. No sane physician now prescribes mercury, strychnine, or arsenic, as was being done when Ellen was told, “No poisonous drugs.” Every restaurant I recently visited in London, England, now offers vegetarian or vegan options on their menus. (This was not so when I lived in London as a student[5] in the 1970’s.) The plant-based diet is no longer our little—Battle Creek, MI-Loma Linda, CA—Worthington OH—Collegedale, TN—Takoma Park, MD, or Weetabix—secret.

What could still belong to Adventists is the religious conviction that not only should you care about your own health, but God cares about physical, as well as spiritual, health. Our checkered denominational history may still show that God cared enough to vision Ellen White in the right direction. God cared enough to motivate early Adventists to shell out for institutions where alternatives to the severe errors of 19th-century medicine could be avoided (and also inaugurating a huge health care industry of economic significance to thousands of present-day Adventist health care workers).

All Things Herbal

I find two kinds of Adventists at risk of minimizing the spiritual and health vigor of an uncompromising SDA anti-intoxicant stand. The first “at risk” is the Adventist Healthetarian found in every church who is for 100% vegan and gluten-free potlucks, evangelism through cooking schools, worried about anything prescribed by a physician and sold in a drug store, and head-over-heels for all things aromatic and “natural.” Now although I am guilty of having a MD degree, I do see the benefits of massage therapy and I seriously avoid eating things with a face or a mother. But although I have tried to keep an open mind, attended all the lectures, read all the scientific literature I can on the subject, and do enjoy herbal teas, I consider the acceptance of any form of “hemp leaves as a great blessing and harmless pleasure”—a huge risk. Please, please, please don’t jump on the bandwagon that marijuana or its derivatives is a great boon to mankind only denied by the pharmaceutical industry and their drug-pushing doctors! To date, the scientific evidence that marijuana has “many proven health benefits” and should be prescribed for “medical therapy” because it is safe, pure, or effective is just NOT there.

Pot Pure?

First, as even its advocates acknowledge, natural marijuana is not pure and of constant chemical or physical constitution. Bag to bag of leaf, bottle to bottle of drops of concentrate, are NOT equivalent and reproducible. The marijuana plant is grown in thousands of circumstances, harvested at different times, stored and prepared in non-uniform conditions. And the plant has thousands of different chemicals in it made for different intelligently designed and adapted purposes such as discouraging or killing insects that might eat it. A few of the many chemicals in the leaf have been extracted and are the subject of the “medical use” of marijuana.

Pot Effective?

Of the so-called “proven health benefits” of marijuana or its components (cannabidiol, or CBD, being the one most often touted) careful examination of the data show that there is surprisingly little evidence. It is the well-known “placebo effect” that causes people trying any substance promoted as beneficial to feel or claim improvement and help at least 30% of the time—from proven worthless substances, such as injections of salt water, or colored pills filled with starch.

There is no shortage of “studies” on CBD used for special kinds of epilepsy, but of the 91 studies claiming benefit, only 35 were scientifically reliable, according to a recent analysis of the evidence by the British Medical Journal.[6] CBD was not found to be a useful stand-alone drug for epilepsy, and was only sometimes of benefit if used in combination with the older standard drugs.[7] CBD has not been useful in the common kinds of epilepsy, only in a few rarer but very difficult-to-control forms of epilepsy (such as the Dravet or Lennox-Gastaut syndromes).

How effective is CBD? Carefully done studies show that if you treated eight children with that kind of epilepsy, one child out of the eight would have at least a 50% reduction in the number of seizures every day. If you treated 100 of those seriously epileptic children, eight to nine out of 100 (8.5%) would be able to become seizure-free using all their usual older drugs plus added CBD.

By 2018 how many children with these rare forms of epilepsy had been carefully studied in all the world? 306. When you read statements such as “medical marijuana has been proven to be a great blessing” for children with epilepsy, for those few children helped, that is true. Of the 306 studied children with severe epilepsy 26 (8.5%) were cured. 38 were much improved (1 in 8) by adding CBD. Did it help those seriously ill children? Yes, it did. Does marijuana “cure epilepsy?” Hardly.

But, Dr. Jack, isn’t marijuana supposed to help relieve multiple sclerosis, irritable bowel syndrome, muscle spasms, fibromyalgia, endometriosis, interstitial cystitis, migraines and insomnia? And hasn’t it been published that it even slows down cancer cell growth in rats? So, even if it is not proven a great deal better than a placebo, perhaps it is a good placebo. Why not just let people just try it? After all, isn’t it safer than narcotic drugs? Isn’t it better than alcohol? Isn’t it just a “natural herb?”

Pot Safe?

Yes, the marijuana plant is a natural herb. Tobacco is a natural herb; poison oak, poison sumac, oleander, and deadly nightshade are all natural—and dangerous—herbs. What about marijuana and its extracts? In the CBD epilepsy studies one out of every three children given CBD had a side effect, such as drowsiness, staggering, or diarrhea. While not severe enough to stop treatment in most, it clearly was not free of side effects. But what about other uses of whole, natural marijuana itself?

Marijuana chemicals are powerful and active in the developing brain of both experimental animals and in humans. The strongest reason I know to have an anti-intoxicant policy in the Seventh-day Adventist church regarding marijuana is to protect the development and futures of children, teenagers, and young adults.

Unlike the few “health benefits,” the large danger to growing brains is very well documented with studies of thousands of people.  Here are a few facts:

  • “Regular marijuana use in adolescence is associated with altered connectivity and reduced volume of specific brain regions involved in a broad range of executive functions such as memory, learning, and impulse control compared to people who do not use.” 7
  • “In the Young Adults Study tracked over a 25-year period until mid-adulthood, cumulative lifetime exposure to marijuana was associated with lower scores on a test of verbal memory… The effect was sizeable and significant even after eliminating those involved with current use and after adjusting for confounding factors.”[8]
  • “A large longitudinal study in New Zealand found that persistent marijuana use disorder with frequent use starting in adolescence was associated with a loss of an average of 6 or up to 8 IQ points measured in mid-adulthood.”[9] (This loss was permanent and did not improve when the young people stopped using marijuana as adults.)
  • “In this 15-year follow-up study on over 45,000 Swedish conscripts, the relative risk for schizophrenia among high consumers of cannabis (defined as having used cannabis on more than 50 occasions) was 6.0 compared with non-users. This figure was determined even after allowance for other psychiatric illnesses and social background, thus indicating that cannabis is an independent risk factor for schizophrenia.”[10] .
    • Marijuana users are at risk if they have the risky configuration of the COMT gene or ATK1 genes. This puts 8% of the population at risk of schizophrenia by marijuana use!
    • Similar studies from Spain, Switzerland, UK, and the USA all show an increased incidence of schizophrenia illness related to early and frequent marijuana use by adolescents.

The facts are there—young users of the marijuana plant, a natural herb, are at increased risk for schizophrenia, permanent lowering of IQ, and may show permanent altering of the growth and development of their brains. Surely this suggests that making recreational marijuana available to 21-year-olds is not safe. And even if rational laws restricted its sale to customers 25 years of age and over, the reality is that increased availability to “adults” spills over to youth.

While decriminalizing marijuana use is surely defensible, the moral position opposing open recreational availability and use of this complex and potentially dangerous herb seems to still be the rational and spiritually responsible high road.

Awash in Alcohol

No Adventist supports drunkenness or alcoholism, but wine especially seems Biblical—although most Biblical references to it are cautionary.[11] So my second concern is those Liberated Adventists, unburdened by the oppressive use of Ellen White’s behavioral advice,  who may consider total abstinence from alcohol an excess of our past.

Especially is this so in our alcocentric world awash in enthusiasm for this useful fuel, universal solvent, potent antibacterial, and huge economic engine (for example, of Ellen White’s Elmshaven home area of the Napa Valley, my own Walla Walla, Washington—a “new Napa,” and the seven million more wine-growing hectares of France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Africa, and Asia)!

Caroline Knapp writes in her Drinking, A Love Story[12],

Liquor stores loom out at you on every street corner, people holding glasses of wine or tumblers of Scotch jump out at you from TV and movie screens, and you realize how pervasive alcohol is in our culture, how it’s absolutely everywhere, how completely foreign it is to abstain. Can I get you something from the bar? Here’s the wine list. Anything to drink? You can’t go a week without hearing phrases like that.”

Knapp remembers,

Liquor creates delusion. It can make your life feel full of risk and adventure, sparkling and dynamic as a rough sea under sunlight. A single drink can make you feel unstoppable, masterful, capable of solving problems that overwhelmed you just five minutes before. 

“Uncap the bottle, pop the cork, slide into someone else’s skin. A liquid makeover, from the inside out. Everywhere we look, we are told that this is possible; the knowledge creeps inside us and settles in dark corners, places where fantasies lie. 

“We see it on billboards, in glossy magazine ads, in movies and on TV:  we see couples huddled together by fires, sipping brandy, flames reflecting in the gleam of glass snifters; we see elegant groups raising celebratory glasses of wine in restaurants; we see friendships cemented over barstools and dark bottles of beer.

“We see secrets shared and problems solved, romances bloom. We watch, we know, and together the wine, beer, and liquor industries spend more than $1,000,000,000 each year reinforcing this knowledge: drinking will transform us. And it does, at least for a little while.”[13]

Sober Health Science

In the 1990’s scientific studies were widely reported to have shown fewer cardiovascular deaths in those who moderately drink alcohol. This apparent justification of the world’s favorite intoxicant was widely discussed in media, thanks to very intentional ethanol beverage support.   Cash-strapped magazines were led into relaxing previous restrictions on alcoholic advertisements, for after all, “In moderation it’s good for you, isn’t it?”

Red wine was postulated by two wine-enjoying scientists as explaining why the French have fewer heart attacks than their American relatives (the so called “French Paradox”), and based mostly on this speculation became a widely believed truism.[14]People are enthralled with the idea that drinking alcohol might actually be good for us. Any ‘evidence’ that corroborates the confirmation bias in favor of alcohol’s benefits tends to appeal to a wide audience.”[15]

Fast forward to 2018, with much more data, and impeccable methods, involving 195 countries or territories, 694 data sources and 594 prospective or retrospective studies over 16 years, funded by Bill and Melinda Gates, and the facts are completely clear:

“We found that the risk of all-cause mortality, and of cancers specifically, rises with increasing levels of consumption, and the level of consumption that minimizes health loss is zero.”[16]

The United Kingdom has revised their safe drinking recommendations to half of previous recommended levels for men, identical to those for women, of 14 “units” a week, which is six or fewer standard alcoholic beverages a week using American measurements.[17] And this is not a level that has no health risks, but just “acceptable” risks, about a 1% increase in mortality or 20 more breast cancers in women per 1,000 women light drinkers.[18]

Alcohol Morality

But I am not writing just about health. I am writing about the spiritual concerns of drinking alcohol. The spirituality of alcohol indulgence can use the Bible to support your views on either side. You can quote many cautionary texts, “Wine is a mocker…,”  “Be not drunk with wine…”[19]   And you can also quote, “Use a little wine because of your stomach…”[20]

But moving beyond proof texting and dogmatism, there remains the morality question for those able to drink moderately, versus those unable to drink moderately. Sarah Bessey discusses this concern. After 10 years of total abstinence she and her husband decided there could be a “Christian moderation” place for alcohol in their lives.

“I decided I wanted to have wine with dinner like civilized grown-ups. I wanted the lovely glass of red beside me as I read my books. I wanted to know about the world of wine: tastes, bouquets, tannins, regions, all of it. Brian began to enjoy craft beer. He would buy a six-pack of beer and it would last for six months. I would buy a bottle of red and it would last for a week. We sipped wine occasionally and turned the radio to NPR. For ten years, we drank alcohol in this way: occasionally, barely, and with interest. We liked to learn about it. We liked the world of craft beer and wine.”[21]

But life moves on.

“..Slowly I began to drink more than my husband. His rare growler of beer still lasts but my bottle of wine on the sideboard began to disappear a bit sooner and then the bottle became a bigger bottle of cheaper variety and then the big bottles became a box of wine. I kept it in the kitchen cupboard. My [non-drinking] parents grew accustomed to my drinking, even accepting. I never drank in front of them out of respect for their journey. They listened to my reasonings about social drinking and moderation and our freedom in Christ. I grew to love the imagery of wine in Scripture, to see it as an emblem of the New City and of heavenly banquets. I liked the sophistication of wine, the theology of wine, the metaphor of wine, the community around wine at the table. I liked the celebration of champagne, the warmth of a cabernet, the summer light of chardonnay.  Without noticing, I was drinking almost every night now. It didn’t bother me in the least.”[22]

At first. But she then began
“to sense that this Thing that used to be okay is no longer okay. The Thing that used to mean freedom has become bondage. The Thing that used to signal joy has become a possibility of sorrow. The Thing that used to mean nothing has become something, perhaps everything… I began to see how alcohol-centric our culture has become. To see how much of our version of fun revolves around wine or beer or some form of alcohol. To see how unhealthy our dependence is. To see the industry around it, capitalizing and marketing and selling and manipulating and exploiting. I began to see what those no-fun teetotalers a hundred years ago had seen – how the victims of alcohol were almost always the ones who were most vulnerable, how it impoverished families and lives, how it threw a lit match into powder kegs of longings.” [23]

Neighbors

D.L. Mayfield is a woman who moves with her family into a ministry to the poor.  In that context she is forced her to re-evaluate her own moderate use of alcohol.

“We have neighbors who eat raw chicken when they are drunk and get terribly sick; others who suffer from alcohol-related psychosis and bang symphonies on the trees outside our window at all hours of the night. People knock on our door with candy for my daughter, waving and talking to her even though she is asleep in the other room. People break windows, or almost fall out of them. Empty vodka growlers line the living room of one; another almost sets our building on fire when he forgets about the chicken-fried steak smoked to smithereens on his stove. There are people in our building who die because of alcohol—cirrhosis of the liver, asphyxiation from their vomit, slow-sinking suicides everywhere we turn. And suddenly, alcohol is no longer fun. Instead it is a substance that changes my friends and neighbors, making them unpredictable and unsafe; it leaves me feeling helpless and afraid and vulnerable.”[24]

D.L. reviews the known but often ignored facts:

  • 1 in 6 Americans has an alcohol problem (either alcoholic or problem drinking).
  • 1 in 10 children have one parent who abuses alcohol.
  • 80% of college students use alcohol, and half of them binge drink.
  • Alcohol is racist; minorities suffer disproportionately from alcohol diseases.
  • Rape and sexual abuse are now widely discussed, but alcohol’s significant contribution to these abuses is often ignored.
  • An astonishing 70% of children in the huge foster care system suffer from some form of prenatal alcohol damage.

D.L., facing the spirituality of her own moderate, responsible drinking, considers perhaps the single most important Bible text on alcohol:

“It is better not to eat meat or drink wine or to do anything else that will cause your brother or sister to fall.” Romans 14:21.

“Perhaps no substance fits the definition of ‘causing some to stumble but not others’ quite like alcohol does. As our contemporary understanding of alcohol abuse grows, so too should our understanding of Christian liberty. We know that some just can’t drink in a responsible way that doesn’t end up harming themselves and others. This, at the least, should give pause…”[25] 

Adventist Abstinence

So, here we pause.  Because Love demands more than indulgence; it demands responsibility not only for our own benefit and pleasure, not only for our own progressive life styles; Jesus asks us not only to be as wise as serpents, but also to be as harmless as doves.

Seventh-day Adventists in the past felt that alcohol caused much of their world’s woe and were prophetically driven to a position of total abstinence and social activism on behalf of prohibition. Seventh-day Adventists in the present may need to try different political tactics to reduce today’s alcohol-fueled suffering.[26]

The long-established personal and institutional total abstinence from alcohol, tobacco, marijuana and other chemical distractions is surely a counter-cultural strength of our faith. Alcoholics need to be helped to be liberated by becoming “stone-cold-sober.” But Adventists have been given, and may well wish to preserve, the distinct privilege of remaining aggressively abstinent, or “red-hot-sober,” for so very many responsible social, moral, spiritual, as well as important health reasons.

Footnotes:

[1] https://www.bmj.com/content/351/bmj.h3942 A landmark British medical journal study over 3,500,000 person-years showed that people who ate spicy foods less than once a week had a HIGHER mortality than those who did eat spicy foods one to two times a week, three to five times a week, or almost daily. The best survival was with the MOST spice. Drinking alcohol, however, mostly wiped out most benefits of spicy foods.

[2] “Big Issues Over a Small Cup” by Jack Hoehn, Adventist Today magazine, Fall 2017. https://atoday.org/at/wp-content/uploads/2017/11/AT_Fall-2017.pdf

[3] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4144107/ The Adventist Health Study-2 published analysis in 2013 showed Adventists following vegan diets had less obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, and total cancers than lacto-ovo-vegetarians or those who had fish at least once a month (pescatarians). But all-cause deaths were LOWER in pescatarians (81% of expected deaths for age, sex, habits) than vegans (85% of expected deaths) or lacto-ovo-vegetarians (91% of expected deaths for matched nonvegetarians).

[4]  McMahon, Don S. Acquired or Inspired? Exploring the Origins of the Adventist Lifestyle. Signs Publishing Company, Victoria, Australia. 2005. McMahon suggests Ellen White’s 19th-century health advice is over 80% substantiated by 21st-century health consensus.

[5] Attending the University of London, School of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene, 1977 Diploma Course gave Jack the chance to sit an examination of the Royal College of Surgeons and earn the wonderful initials D.T.M.&H. (London) besides his C.C.F.P (Canada) and M.D. (Loma Linda University)!

[6] https://jnnp.bmj.com/content/89/7/741 Evidence for cannabis and cannabinoids for epilepsy: a systematic review of controlled and observational evidence, British Medical Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery, & Psychiatry 2018; 89:741-753.

[7] Ibid, “Cannabinoids were used as an adjunctive therapy rather than as a standalone intervention, so at present there is little evidence to support any recommendation that cannabinoids can be recommended as a replacement for current standard AEDs [Anti-Epilepsy Drugs].”

[8] Auer R, Vittinghoff E, Yaffe K, et al. Association between lifetime marijuana use and cognitive function in middle age: the Coronary Artery Risk Development in Young Adults (CARDIA) Study. JAMA Intern Med. February 2016. doi:10.1001/jamainternmed.2015.7841.

[9]Meier MH, Caspi A, Ambler A, et al. Persistent cannabis users show neuropsychological decline from childhood to midlife. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2012;109(40):E2657-E2664. doi:10.1073/pnas.1206820109.

[10] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2931552/   Adolescent cannabis use and psychosis: epidemiology and neurodevelopmental models, British Journal of Pharmacology, June 2010.

[11] Unless you are sure that the vintage Jesus provided the wedding guests was not the first taste they had ever enjoyed of excellent “varietal grape juice,” but 120 to 180 gallons of miraculously fermented intoxicant. In which case it would be hard to claim that Christian drinking needs to be “moderationist.”

[12] Knapp, Catherine; Drinking, a Love Story, page 152; 1996, The Dial Press, New York.

[13] Ibid.  pages 60, 61.

[14] Serge Renaud and Michel De Lorgeril published a paper in Lancet entitled “Wine, alcohol, platelets, and the French paradox for coronary heart disease.”  Lancet. 1992 Jun 20;339(8808):1523-6.

[15] https://medium.com/s/story/why-do-we-think-booze-is-healthy-5cad640fd708

[16] Lancet. 2018 Sep 22;392(10152):1015-1035. doi: 10.1016/S0140-6736(18)31310-2. Epub 2018 Aug 23

[17] An alcohol “unit” is 10 ml (2 tsp) of pure alcohol.  Different beverages have different dilutions. One standard small serving of 12.5% red wine (150 ml) has 18 ml of alcohol, or “1.5 units.” A large “snifter” of wine (250 ml) has 31 ml alcohol or “3 units.”

[18] For non-drinking women, 150/1,000 women will get a breast cancer; for women drinking six or fewer drinks/week (over three or more days) 170/1000; for those drinking more the rate goes much higher.

[19] Proverbs 20:1; Ephesians 5:18. Also Proverbs 23:21; Proverbs 31:3,4; 1 Peter 4:3; Romans 13:13.

[20] 1 Timothy 5:23. Also Ecclesiastes 9:7; Psalm 104:15 (although the Old Testament word is “squeezing,” so it can apply to the fresh unfermented, as well as the fermented, grape beverages if you need the Bible to stand behind your abstinence. I haven’t find any “pro-strong drink” texts except for hospice care in Proverbs 31:6).

[21] Sarah Bessey, “So I Quit Drinking.”

[22] Ibid.

[23] Ibid.

[24] D.L. Mayfield,   https://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2014/june/why-i-gave-up-alcohol.html .

[25] Ibid.

[26] President Herbert Hoover’s 1928 description of Prohibition as “a great social and economic experiment, noble in motive and far-reaching in purpose” entered the popular lexicon as “the noble experiment.” It was unfortunate for the entire nation that the experiment failed as miserably as it did.”  http://www.pbs.org/kenburns/prohibition/unintended-consequences/  See that site for more discussion of “the noble experiment.”


Jack Hoehn is a frequent contributor to both the print and online versions of Adventist Today. He has served on the Adventist Today Foundation board since 2012. He and his wife Deanne live in Walla Walla, Washington. He has a BA in Religion from Pacific Union College, and an MD from Loma Linda University. He was a licensed minister of the Adventist church for 13 years when serving as a missionary physician in Africa. 

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