Catholic figures weigh in on California’s marijuana legalization measure

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A measure to legalize marijuana is on the ballot in California. While the state’s Catholic bishops have not taken an official position, the Bishop of Oakland has warned the measure could increase young people’s permissive attitudes to the drug, whose use counters the need to care for the body.

Proposition 19 would legalize the drug under California law and would permit local governments to regulate and tax its commercial production, distribution and sale. It also reestablishes as a felony the sale or provision of cannabis to a minor.

Fr. Gerald Coleman analyzed the initiative in a May 5 commentary in the online edition of Catholic San Francisco.

He reported that marijuana is the most widely used illegal drug in the United States, with more frequent use than all other illegal drugs combined. It is estimated that more than two million Americans smoke it every day.

According to Fr. Coleman, there is “substantial evidence” that habitual and heavy marijuana smoking may cause chronic bronchitis, damage the pulmonary system and produce cancers in the mouth, throat and lungs though short-term effects seem to be no more harmful than moderate alcohol consumption.

A quarter to half of the marijuana used in the U.S. is grown in the country, with an estimate crop value of between $4 billion and $25 billion.

While proponents of Prop. 19 have said the measure would help meet revenue shortfalls by taxing and regulating the drug, Fr. Coleman noted the moral considerations of the drug use. Changes to the law could result in permissiveness among the young, he cautioned.

The priest also cited the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Health Care Ministry, whose pastoral handbook “Church, Drugs, and Drug Addiction” teaches that cannabis use is “incompatible with Christian morality” because it is an intoxicant that dims reason and potentially is damaging to the integrity of one’s body and soul.

Fr. Juan R. Velez, an Opus Dei priest in the San Francisco area, spoke about the proposal with CNA.

“As a former physician and presently a Catholic priest I can affirm that both medicine and moral thinking argue against the legalization of marijuana.”

Marijuana “alters brain function” and for the most part has “harmful effects” on mood, consciousness and behavior.

“It poses a physical and mental danger to its users and to those exposed to the lives and actions of users. Marijuana causes addiction and opens the way to addiction to many other drugs. For any citizen this should be sufficient to advise against legalization of marijuana,” he commented.

Carol Hogan, pastoral projects and communications director with the California Catholic Conference, told EWTN News that the bishops chose not to take a formal position on any of the nine initiatives on the California ballot.

However, taking no position is not the same as taking a neutral position, she explained.

“The agreement among the bishops when as a group they decline to take any formal position is that individual bishops are free to either take a position or to offer pastoral counsel regarding any or all of the initiatives,” she added.

Both Fr. Velez and Hogan noted Bishop of Oakland Salvatore Cordileone’s Oct. 22 pastoral reflection on Prop. 19. The bishop wrote that the need to care for our bodies is a natural consequence of the dignity of the human person created in the image of God.

Prop. 19 threatens to “seriously erode the good these principles uphold.” According to the bishop, the primary rationale of Prop. 19 backers is economic. They say it would raise revenue and save law enforcement costs.

Bishop Cordileone said such reasoning is “overly-simplistic and off-target,” in part because the true economic impact is debatable. Legalization could lead to higher health costs and more accidents, while a continuing black market will appeal to those who do not want to pay taxes.

But deeper problems rest on the fact that that ingesting brain-altering chemicals cannot be “good stewardship of our earthly lives.”

The law also functions as a teacher and may encourage some to believe that if an activity is legal it must be socially and morally acceptable.

“Of course such a judgment is flawed, and young people are especially subject to this kind of persuasion,” the bishop commented.

“We have all witnessed the devastating effect substance abuse has had on our communities and our families, which often started with recreational marijuana use and then progressed to more seriously harmful drugs and narcotics. Do we really want to implicitly invite our young people to go down this road, rather than give them the constant and consistent message, ‘Just say “no’ to drugs’?” he asked.

He reiterated that economic issues cannot be the only concern for voters. Moral considerations must be “first and foremost,” he commented.

“Please pray for wisdom as you form your conscience in anticipation of voting on the propositions on our state’s November ballot,” Bishop Cordileone advised.

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