THE INSTITUTE FOR YOUTH MINISTRY

Legalized Marijuana:
Coming Soon to a Neighborhood Near You

Youth ministers are expected to guide young people through the hazardous terrain of substance use and abuse, often with the expectation that they will convince young people to abstain. Given the sharp uptick in the number of states that have legalized marijuana, this conversation is no longer framed in terms of legality. In many states marijuana is available recreationally at a certain age. What are the implications for youth ministry? How has legalization changed the perceptions of young people? How can youth pastors walk with young people who dabble, use, abuse, or abstain? In this month’s issue of Engage, anonymous youth tell whether legalization alters their perceptions of marijuana. Gather insights from a theologian, a chaplain, a pastor, a social worker, a young adult, and a medical expert.

Lucas Novak
Lucas is an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ. When he isn’t ministering to patients in the hospital, he finds himself on rock faces, mountaintops, and occasionally the couch with his wife, dog, and two cats.

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Sarah Morice Brubaker
Sarah Morice Brubaker is Assistant Professor of Theology at Phillips Theological Seminary. She and her family live in Tulsa, OK where they are regularly snorgled by a needy yellow lab and a neurotic mastiff.

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Garrett Mostowski
Garrett Mostowski served as a youth coordinator for a mid-size church in Western Colorado for three years. He is a first-year student at Princeton Theological Seminary. He has smoked pot.

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Anonymous Youth Respond
We asked young people, “Would / Does the legalization of marijuana change your perception of it? Why or why not?” Here’s what they had to say.

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Christian Thurstone
Christian Thurstone, M.D., is a child psychiatrist and addiction psychiatrist. He is the medical director of a busy adolescent substance treatment program and an associate professor of psychiatry at the University of Colorado. His research focuses on developing effective treatments for adolescents with addiction.

View response…

Alix O. Rea
Alix Rea-Feagaiga is a freshman at Westminster College studying Political Science and Economics with a minor in International Studies. Alix is Christian who is passionate about helping those around her and aspires to one day join the peace corps while building a career in nonprofit.

View response…

Eric Hearst
Eric Hearst is a social worker and lay minister in the Washington, DC area. He is a graduate of Howard University, a doctoral candidate at Argosy University, and is enrolled in the Certificate in Youth and Theology program at Princeton Theological Seminary.

View response…

Lucas Novak
Lucas-Novak

Lucas Novak

WWJDT? What would John Denver think? Those were my initial thoughts as I drove down Colfax, passing a shop called “Rocky Mountain High” after having just moved to Denver in 2010. A few doors down, “Sacred Seed” displayed its sign, advertising its product. The running joke (and fact) at the time was there were more medical marijuana shops in town than there were Starbucks. Pot was ubiquitous. Always has been. Shops like these were in places you would otherwise find nail salons. The medical marijuana industry was alive and well in Colorado.

Then came the vote. Amendment 64 legalized recreational pot for people 21 years of age and older. Essentially, regulating it just as they do alcohol. No longer do you need a medical reason to legally carry and consume marijuana. The people spoke and their voices were heard.

The reality, apart from legalization, is that marijuana has always been ubiquitous. The only difference now is the ability of an industry to publicly advertise their product. This is the larger issue of concern for us. Pot as a substance and plant is its own entity. The marketing of that plant, however, is its own entity too, and perhaps the more pernicious issue that we as people of faith ought to engage.

As a hospital chaplain in Colorado, I have had no shortage of ministering to cancer patients for whom marijuana was an appetite stimulant and nausea-reducer as they tried to thwart the side effects of multiple drugs and therapies. Married to a pediatrician, I have heard no shortage of stories of families seeking CBD oil to offset their child’s seizures. But I have also worked at an addictions center and seen the ways in which substances consume peoples’ lives.

All of this brings me back to the notion of marketing. Whether or not marijuana is good or bad seems to me morally neutral. It is a plant. How that plant is marketed, however, is the issue. How that plant is marketed in a world full of questions and ambiguity, a world where the human tendency is to seek answers before we give ourselves a chance to live into the questions, is the issue. And for our youth, rarely do we cultivate their ability to live into their questions, cultivating a comfort with ambiguity as any of us naturally seek certainty. We are too quick to say “No, don’t do it!” than we are to ask, “What about it appeals to you?”

A colleague and friend of mine who works as an addictions chaplain said to me, “The people looking to make money off of pot in this industry are the ones that are going to exploit the most vulnerable, namely late teens and early twenty-somethings. Just as their brains are developing, these drugs are going to be advertised to appeal to them, because that’s where the money is.”   That’s where the money is and that’s where our focus needs to be. As a faith community, we must help our youth identify a golden calf with a joint in its mouth as a kitschy statue and nothing more. And we must treat our youth not as commodities but as the living, breathing, body of Christ they are.

Lucas is an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ. When he isn’t ministering to patients in the hospital, he finds himself on rock faces, mountaintops, and occasionally the couch with his wife, dog, and two cats.

Sarah Morice Brubaker
Sarah Morice Brubaker

Sarah Morice Brubaker

Confession One: I’ve never used marijuana.  Socially, this is only a little embarrassing.  It’s a curiosity, like admitting you’ve never seen “Spaceballs.” People wonder how you’ve never gotten around to it.

Confession Two: The reason I’ve never gotten around to it is that for a long time I really believed that drugs would ruin your life and make Nancy Reagan disappointed in you.  (Hi, member of Gen X here!)  So, I Just Said No.  And then, after college, I worked on an anti-drug media campaign designed to discourage drug use in youth.

Do you know what it’s like to be a low-level communications professional working on an anti-drug campaign?  People – vastly more important than you – decide what the message strategy is. Then it’s your job to help make the stuff that ferries the message to its intended recipients.  So, you’ll be asked to do things like, “Find stuff that makes marijuana use seem uncool,” or “Look up some statistics we can use to make kids think drugs will ruin their lives.”

Well, this is manipulation.  “Let me find some factlet that will convince you to do what I want” is not the strategy one tends to adopt with those one respects.  Fortunately, as most youth ministers surely know, youth are not so easily manipulated.  They can detect horse doodie more easily than Megan the spaniel can detect contraband ganja in a Vera Bradley clutch.

Especially now that pot has been decriminalized, it’s probably not going to be persuasive to simply tell your youth that marijuana is bad because of reasons.  So what else is there to say?  I’d like to suggest that marijuana is a great topic to bring up with youth, as a way into further theological reflection.  It’s a ‘gateway topic,’ if you will.

(Sorry.)

Seriously, though, marijuana opens up a number of rich theological directions for youth.  For example:

  1. Sometimes looking up Bible verses isn’t enough.  The Christian scriptures simply do not address marijuana use.  It’s not there.  If you want to look for guidance on marijuana use in the Bible, you’ll need to contend with your role as an interpreter: someone who reads the scriptures and decides how to apply them in a very different context than the one in which they were written.  Isn’t taking responsibility for their faith exactly what we hope for church youth?
  2. Society casts some people as good and some people as bad.  This changes over time.  When gin was associated with the lower classes, many people believed gin had uniquely life-ruining powers.  It turns out the moral panic was really about “those people,” not gin.  The last thirty years suggest that this is true of marijuana as well: it was life-ruining when it was something stoners did, but now, maybe not so much. Think your youth might be interested in talking about social outcasts and stereotypes?  Think it might lead to other discussions about Christian discipleship?
  3. Institutions are not always to your liking.  Using marijuana can still get you suspended from school or (in some states) arrested.  Whether or not that’s fair, it’s the case.  Now, I have heard that there are some adolescents who have a lot to say about institutions with rules they perceive as unfair or outdated.  Perhaps some of those might be in your youth group?

Sarah Morice Brubaker is Assistant Professor of Theology at Phillips Theological Seminary. She and her family live in Tulsa, OK where they are regularly snorgled by a needy yellow lab and a neurotic mastiff.

Garrett Mostowski
Garrett Mostowski

Garrett Mostowski

Garrett Mostowski[/caption]

Here are five pastoral starting points for legal pot:

  1. Focus on the church not pot.

Anxiety about cultural trends can shift our focus from the work of the church to the perceived decadence of society. The hope declared in the resurrection of Jesus Christ offers rest for our anxiety. No matter the trends of decline we may perceive, Jesus is still Lord of all. Our future is hidden in him. Let’s start with the church and its potential to work in the world. Don’t ask, “What will marijuana do to my community?” Instead ask, “Who is my church to my community? What work are we already doing?”

  1. Why pot?

People smoke pot for a lot of different reasons. For some, it is medicinal. No, really, it actually is medicinal, and they need it. Sure, some have abused it under the auspices of medical cards but not everyone does this. Others use it for pleasure, and I think most Christians really struggle with marijuana use for this reason. For still some, it may be social. Why one uses marijuana may reveal more about who they are and what makes them tick. Instead of condemning the use of marijuana as wrong or passively ignoring it, pay attention to how others use it and adapt to its presence. It might teach you a lot about those in your community and provide opportunities for connection and ministry. One of the students in my youth group smoked at parties. It was a social lubricant. Another student smoked to cope with a loss. Why they smoked mattered because it revealed their places of need and provided opportunities to speak into their lives. If we simply condemn or ignore the use of marijuana, we will almost always miss those deeper realities.

  1. Watch your response to responses.

This issue is destined to be polarizing, especially in Christian circles. I know that was the situation at churches in Colorado. Watch your responses to responses. Are you angry at some that are acting like the Pharisees of the Gospels and counting sins and condemning others? Are you frustrated with the hippies who have lost moral standards and appear more akin to culture than the church? These responses matter and it is good to be aware of them as we seek to engage such an issue and the individuals involved.

  1. Develop a robust, theologically informed position to share with others.

It’s not enough to say, “God created everything and called it good, therefore, we should partake in smoking pot.” It’s also not enough to say, “The Bible says avoid drunkenness, so we shouldn’t smoke pot.” Being drunk and high are different. We need to go deeper than cheap, biblical justification. What do we believe about human freedom? What do we believe about Christians and pleasure seeking? What does “in moderation” mean when smoking pot? What do our experiences with pot and alcohol teach us? It’s critical to form a nuanced approach and move forward from there.

  1. How will my response form young people?

This is the most important question of all. Young people will grow up in a world where marijuana use is as ubiquitous as alcohol use. Our response matters. If we don’t respond appropriately, how will it shape them? What legacy are we leaving?

Garrett Mostowski served as a youth coordinator for a mid-size church in Western Colorado for three years. He is a first-year student at Princeton Theological Seminary. He has smoked pot.

Anonymous Youth
Anonymous Youth

Anonymous Youth

Young people in New Jersey and Colorado to responded to this question: “Would / Does the legalization of marijuana change your perception of it? Why or why not?”

I’m totally for legalization. It wouldn’t change my view on it because it is already readily available. If I want to get some I easily could even though it is illegal. Although adults may view it as taboo for high schoolers, it is just as taboo as drinking a beer, which is miniscule. If anything legalization would make it significantly safer and become a major source of income via taxation. – Mike, age 18

Ok, so marijuana being legalized did kinda change my point of view on it, ‘cause when it was illegal it just seemed so bad. But now it doesn’t seem like it’s such a big deal. And I go to a school where 60-70% of the students smoke pot so it doesn’t seem as bad as it used to. – Theresa, age 18

Actually no for me it doesn’t. Only because I really only know of younger kids still smoking it. Like my age. So I still see it as bad as I did before it was legalized for 21 and over. – Tim, age 16

My views on marijuana were always on the side that looked down on it. Weed can be used to relieve pain and can be used medically and it was legal if you had a permit to use it with discipline. But using any substance to get you high or lift you up is wrong. Strength should be able to be gained from Christ and relying on God. If you use it to “replace” good feeling than what you should be able to get from Christ I believe that is idolizing the drug and any drug for that matter. My views don’t really change on it because it was legalized except for the fact that it will be harder for people to restrain from it. It could be a test maybe from God to strengthen to full choice and commitment of not letting it get addictive over you. – Melissa, age 17

I think it will change how future generations think about it. But to me, having grown up with it being a “forbidden” item, I think I would always consider it to be a solely recreational drug with some negative connotations. – Sam, age 17

The legalization of pot would not greatly change my view of it. I see it as a drug that can be used or abused, similarly to alcohol. I think my perspective wouldn’t really change because I’ve already been exposed to pot, forcing me to draw my own conclusions and view of it. I believe it can be used responsibly and irresponsibly. And that it innately isn’t bad but it can be abused. – Lisa, age 18

I think that it would change the way that I view it because as children we are taught that weed is one of the drugs that you need to stay away from. With the legalization of it all of the “bad” things we assume come with the drug would change to the same as cigarettes where there is risk but it is up to you to decide to use it or not. Now would I use weed if it was legal is a different question but health classes and all of the negative connotations that come with weed would have to be changed because the legalization would mean that there must be some health benefits for some people. I would view weed as a drug that is still dangerous but if you want to take the risk or if you have a medical issue there is no legal ramifications for the drug. The view would continue to change as generations grow up with it being legal. The legalization wouldn’t change my opinion on it. It has health benefits for some people but also health risks. Some people just enjoy using it. These things are true for many other things in this world as well, things like alcohol and cigarettes which are legal. – Sarah, age 17

Personally, yes, it would become more of a temptation being less risky. But my opinion on it would be the same as would my decisions. – Colin, age 16

Christian Thurstone
Christian Thurstone

Christian Thurstone

Here are the top 5 things I think youth, parents and youth pastors should know about marijuana.

  1. Marijuana isn’t good for kids. Using marijuana is risky to adolescent brain development. Scientists used to think that the brain was fully developed by six years of age. Now, we know that the brain is developing until the mid-20¹s (Gogtay et al., 2004, Proc Natl Acad Sci 101:8174-8179). For this reason, the adolescent brain may be permanently altered by marijuana exposure. For example, research shows that adolescents who use marijuana are more likely to experience serious mental health problems later in life (Hall and Degenhardt, 2009, Lancet 374:1383-1391). We also know that frequent marijuana exposure beginning in adolescents predicts up to an 8-point drop in IQ (Meier et al., 2012, Proc Natl Acad Sci 109:E2567-2564). Furthermore, because of their developing brains, youth are also much more likely than adults to develop an addiction to marijuana (Hall and Degenhardt, Proc Natl Acad Sci 109:E2567-2564).
  1. Marijuana isn’t great for adults either. Marijuana has multiple effects on the heart and lungs. For example, the risk of heart attack increases four-fold in the hour after using the drug (Mittleman et al., 2001, Circulation 103:2805-2809). We also know that youth whose parents use marijuana are 2 times more likely to use marijuana themselves (Kandel et al., 2001, Parental influences on adolescent marijuana use and the Baby Boom Generation: Findings from the 1979-1996 National Household Survey on Drug Abuse, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration). After all, young people learn about life by watching the adults around them. They may also gain access to the substance by finding their parents’ stash.
  1. Don¹t believe everything you hear about marijuana. According to the Washington Post, the legal marijuana industry had revenues of $1.5 billion in 2013. This kind of money buys powerful marketing to make us think that marijuana is healthy and safe. This marketing and advertising especially targets young people. That’s why in Colorado, where marijuana is legal, we see marijuana gummy bears and candy bars as well as advertising that includes cartoon characters. The strategy of targeting young people with advertising for addictive substances is not new. The reason for it is that the bulk of alcohol, marijuana and tobacco company profits come from frequent users and frequent users tend to start at a young age.
  1. It’s not a given that young people will use marijuana. For example, 80% of high school students didn¹t use marijuana in the last month (Johnston et al., 2014, www.monitoringthefuture.org). So, stay strong and hold your ground. In the long run, your kids will respect you for it. While it may not seem that young people listen to their parents, a clear expectation against substance use has been shown to be effective.
  1. While it’s important to be firm, it¹s also important to know that the best way to interact with young people about marijuana and other substance use is with empathy and understanding . First try to understand what the young person is thinking and feeling. Communicate this understanding and show unconditional love. Doing these things does not mean you agree with the other person’s point of view. However, these things are crucial for developing open, honest communication and warm, caring relationships. These are ultimately the most powerful tools that adults and parents have for preventing substance abuse (Kumpfer et al., 2004, Substance Use and Misuse 39:671-698). Youth pastors should read more about these concepts in a counseling technique called “Motivational Interviewing (Miller and Rollnick, 2012, Motivational Interviewing: Helping People Change, 3rd edition, Guilford Press).” By mastering these techniques, youth pastors will be able to counsel young people more effectively.

Christian Thurstone, M.D., is a child psychiatrist and addiction psychiatrist. He is the medical director of a busy adolescent substance treatment program and an associate professor of psychiatry at the University of Colorado. His research focuses on developing effective treatments for adolescents with addiction.

Alix Rea-Feagaiga
Alix Rea-Feagaiga

Alix Rea-Feagaiga

Let’s take a moment to recognize the insane amount of temptation that we are surrounded by every waking moment: Drugs, Sex, Alcohol, and more recently, Marijuana. There is no deliberate action taken to limit young adults’ exposure to these seemingly “bad” activities. Yet, as a young adult, I find it very disturbing that the adult world does not recognize the effect adult decisions and actions have on the younger generation. In this specific case, we begin to focus on the legalization of marijuana. Living in Colorado, I have first-hand experience with friends who take part in the glory of recreational marijuana use, something that people are just beginning to deem as “acceptable.” But is it really acceptable to advertise yet another “perk” of turning 21? What are the actual effects of Cannabis abuse? And most importantly, what does God have to say about being high on life?

Let’s begin with addressing the current marijuana frenzy. Over twenty states allow medical marijuana use while four states along with Washington D.C, allow complete recreational use over the age of 21. Now, when you allow something to be accepted as an adult, you open a gateway for teenagers and children to begin thinking that this particular thing is good, acceptable, or okay once they are of age. It even can give the impression that it’s “okay if I minimally participate in this activity now because I will be an adult soon.” These aren’t things adults necessarily think about when they dive in to the marijuana debate. Marijuana, pot, or weed is commonly known around the country by kids starting at the age of ten, and with its legalization, growing marijuana will soon be as common to a child as the term “beer”.

People are quick to point out that marijuana is in fact not an addictive drug, but using it one time makes it easier to use it again. A common misconception is that the drug itself is not addictive, but although this may be factually true, the addiction comes from the way the drug makes a person feel. So, what impact does this have on a Christian’s life? In 1 Peter 5:8 of the KJV Bible, God says, “Be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil, as a roaring lion, walketh about, seeking whom he may devour.” God warns us that temptation is around us, and he urges us to be of a sound mind, able to think, and decipher right and wrong at all times so we are able to live righteous lives. Marijuana is just one more form of temptation that prevents young adults from having a sound mind, and the vast legalization is adding to the already corrupted views of society. In order to encourage those around us, we must understand what attacks our own light, and drugs will only continue to dim our spirits if we do not live with a sound mind.

Alix Rea-Feagaiga is a freshman at Westminster College studying Political Science and Economics with a minor in International Studies. Alix is Christian who is passionate about helping those around her and aspires to one day join the peace corps while building a career in nonprofit.

Eric Hearst
Eric J. Hearst

Eric J. Hearst

“Rise during the night and cry out. Pour out your hearts like water to the Lord. Lift up your hands to him in prayer, pleading for your children, for in every street they are faint with hunger.”
– Lamentations 2:19 (NLT)

This passage of scripture references the plight of Israel during severe famine and desolation. For this article, this scripture will be used as a reference point for discussing contemporary ills affecting youth and young adult ministry; more specifically, the recreational and habitual use of marijuana by adolescents and young adults. The passage instructs readers to lift their hands and plead for their children who are faint for hunger. We have to ask – hungry for what? Perhaps that hunger, in an applied sense, is for something meaningful, life sustaining, spiritually rewarding, and full of hope. It is a hunger that can never be satiated by the consumption of that which is false, empty, and incapable of providing true satisfaction.

Marijuana is a Schedule I narcotic according to the United States Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA). It can be consumed either via smoking or through digestion, and the effects of its usage can usually be felt within a few minutes and are often followed by periods of drowsiness and sedation. The resulting physical and cognitive side effects of using marijuana include impaired judgment, impaired motor coordination, and the impairment of both short and long-term memory. Marijuana is also reported to have negative effects on the immune system, the heart, the lungs, the reproductive system, and has been classified as a carcinogenic agent.

The reasons why adolescents and young adults use marijuana are myriad and specific to each individual who uses; however, some of the most commonly reported reasons for marijuana usage are curiosity, the desire for acceptance in social groups, relief from stress, and as a coping mechanism for dealing with anxiety, depression, and boredom. The true challenge is realizing that the use of marijuana and related substances is often a short-term answer to long-term, systemic, and spiritual problems. This is the hunger to which Lamentations refers– the hunger for something true, real, meaningful, satisfying, and long lasting.

In the decade that I have worked directly with students providing substance abuse education and counseling, I have encountered many young people whose search for something real and tangible, sadly, led them to embrace the false intimacy offered by drug use. Incidentally, a large portion of those same students were actively involved in church youth groups. In response to this issue, I have had the privilege of collaborating with local youth pastors by providing information about substance abuse to ministry leaders, leading information sessions for parents at area churches, receiving direct referrals to work with students from youth pastors and workers, and helping local agencies to design community-based interventions that provided alternatives to substance use. These efforts have had some success over the years; however, the hunger mentioned by Lamentations still has not been satisfied. There are scores of adolescents and young adults, many of whom have faith commitments, who continue to wrestle with the challenges of chemical dependency, and its temporary pleasures.

How is this hunger to be satisfied if marijuana and similar substances truly have no long lasting benefit? Jesus, in his discourse with the Samaritan woman, stated, “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life” (John 4: 13-14). All youth ministers and workers who are leading students who wrestle with substance use, abuse, and addiction must make the case for not substituting the imitation for the authentic and, in so doing, point their students in the direction of Jesus. Jesus beckons them, and all of us for that matter, to “open your mouth(s) and taste, open your eyes and see—how good God is. Blessed are you who run to him” (Psalm 34:8 MSG). The development and ongoing enhancement of a personal relationship with Jesus Christ offers true peace, happiness, a more abundant life, and acceptance without any harmful side effects or related consequences.

Eric J. Hearst is a social worker and lay minister in the Washington, DC metropolitan area.  He is also a participant in the Certificate in Youth and Theology program at Princeton Theological Seminary.

Engage Your Youth

Downloadable Lesson

Discussion Questions:

  1. Do any of the anonymous youth responses surprise you or resonate with you? Would / Does the legalization of marijuana change your perception of it?
  2. Are young people more likely to use / abuse marijuana than older people?
  3. Do you think marijuana is dangerous? Safe? Why or why not?
  4. Would being at a party or in another social context make you more likely to use marijuana?
  5. Were humans created by God to use substances like marijuana?
  6. How have your ideas about marijuana been formed and informed by targeted marketing campaigns? As a Christian, what does your use or rejection of marijuana communicate (market) to others who know about your faith? Your church?
  7. How has the church informed your decisions about marijuana use? What are the stereotypes surrounding the Christian faith about whether or not one should use marijuana (medically, socially, as a coping mechanism…)? Where do you think these stereotypes come from?
1 reply
  1. Zach Wooten
    Zach Wooten says:

    Thank you to everyone for sharing your thoughts. I found Dr. Christian Thurstone’s reflections particularly helpful in discerning my stance on this issue. We as youth ministers have the responsibility of cultivating a grace-filled community. Nonetheless, knowing that (as said by Dr. Thurstone) “Using marijuana is risky to adolescent brain development,” gives me the confirmation I need to stand firm. I cannot encourage drug use among youth in my care (especially when illegal by geographical or age restrictions). As mainstream culture begins to tear down the walls of stigmatized marijuana use, I appreciate that the IYM is choosing to address such controversial issues. Understanding the reasons why our youth are turning to marijuana *as suggested by Garrett Mostowski) is certainly helpful in attempting to find the brokenness in our young people. Attending to such brokenness with the hope given to us by Jesus Christ is my number one concern.

    Reply

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