by Monte Sahlin
By Adventist Today News Team, January 22, 2014
Marijuana has recently become legal in Colorado and Washington, and voters may legalize it in Alaska, Arizona, California and Oregon by the end of the year. That would mean that the entire west coast of the United States and some of those states have long permitted medical use of marijuana. How are Adventists relating to this wave of change?
Nearly three out of four Americans say they favor legalizing medical marijuana, according to a 2010 Pew Research Center survey. And 41 percent think all marijuana use should be legal, up from 35 percent in 2008 and 12 percent in a 1969 Gallup Poll.
The Adventist movement from its earliest days has taken a position against the use of alcohol and tobacco, which are common practices in many cultures. The Seventh-day Adventist Church Manual, in the chapter on church standards of behavior (page 140, 2010 edition) states, "we abstain from all forms of alcohol, tobacco, and addictive drugs." This is part of the commitment that each person makes when they are baptized into membership. In the chapter on "Discipline," among the 13 items for which a member may be kicked out or put under censure is "The use or manufacture of illicit drugs or the misuse of, or trafficking in, narcotics or other drugs."
When marijuana is legalized, is it still an "illicit" drug? Is off-label prescription by a physician "misuse" of a drug? When the language in the Church Manual was originally crafted in the 1930s, these questions were likely not discussed because today's regime for regulating various substances did not exist. At least, a quick search of the online archives of the denomination did not find such a discussion.
Seventh-day Adventists with cancer are using marijuana in places where medical marijuana is legal. The widow of an Adventist who died in 2012 from cancer that included tumors in the throat told Adventist Today that it was prescribed by one of his doctors to help him deal with the pain and the discomfort of chemotherapy. He was also using other "natural therapies," as well as conventional medical treatment. She said that she really did not like it, it made him "talkative … silly," but "we grasped at everything."
This cancer patient used a liquid form of marijuana that was injected into his feeding tube as were other natural supplements. "I didn't like that it was in the house," the widow said. "I was afraid we'd get in trouble even with his license. But, if it helped him, then it was fine with me."
Did her husband consult his pastor when he was making a decision about using marijuana? "No. He didn't feel it was an ethical issue. For him, it was a need to feel better and hopefully help cure him."
It is clear that many other Adventists have had similar experiences. Adventist Today talked to a number of pastors across the country who said they had members who have used medical marijuana. "There is basically no biblical reference to this issue," said one pastor from a state where medical marijuana is legal. "People make these things religious [issues], when in reality, they are not." It is "only the opinions of people who need to draw lines and make boxes."
"If I was dealing with chronic pain, I don't think I would personally use it because I would want my mind clear," said another pastor, also in a state where it is legal. "But, if I were dying of cancer and dealing with the side effects of chemo, I think I might try it."
Another pastor stated, "If we start monitoring our peoples' medical treatments, then we either need to … start monitoring them all … or realize that it's largely none of our business." Many pastors questioned their expertise when it comes to talking to church members about substances prescribed by physicians as well as the appropriateness of intervening in this area.
At the same time Adventist experts on substance abuse expressed deep concerns on the topic. "If it is a medicine," said Dr. Duane McBride, director of the Institute for Prevention of Addictions at Andrews University, "it needs to be integrated into the medical distribution system. … Would you grow your own penicillin on bread at home if you need an antibiotic?" He pointed out that some users of marijuana, especially adolescents, have terrible consequences.
Dr. Mihran Ask, a board-certified internist and Fellow of the American Society of Addiction Medicine who heads the Addiction Medicine Fellowship program at Loma Linda University, told Adventist Today that THC, the active ingredient in marijuana, has been available in pill form through pharmacies for a long time, but he believes it has limited usefulness. It may be useful in some cases with AIDS or cancer patients who are underweight and have little appetite, or rarely for chronic pain or dementia. "This does not require any change in the law."
He sees the push for medical marijuana as a "ploy" by those who seek the legalization of recreational use of marijuana. He also points out that most people do not know that marijuana commonly available in the 1960s had a half percent to a full one percent of THC while "marijuana has now been bred to 12 to 15 percent THC" making it more dangerous.
"We need to keep educating people about the reasons to abstain from alcohol, tobacco and recreational use of mind-altering legal substances regardless of what they are," a retired church administrator told Adventist Today. "But I hope we do not get into the business of using church discipline to deal with cancer patients who use marijuana with the supervision of a physician. That would not be Christ-like. People who are seriously ill need compassion, not discipline, even if they make what we believe to be bad decisions."