A recent study, paid for by a cannabis advocacy group, is touting the positive economic impact of legal marijuana in Colorado. The group’s goal is to convince voters in cities like Colorado Springs to allow for the recreational sale of the drug. There are smart, thoughtful people on both sides of this debate and perhaps even more who do not give it much thought. Yet, from a Catholic perspective as well as that of an agency working on the front lines with our poor and homeless, it is clear that legalizing marijuana is bad for our community, and it is particularly bad for those we serve.
It should come as no surprise that the main argument for legalization focuses on money. Since Amendment 64 was brought before voters in 2012, the public has been told that tax revenue from the regulated sale of marijuana would be a fix for the state’s economic woes. But the focus on revenue alone tells only half the story. The other side of the economic impact has been the cost to health and human service providers and the associated human cost.
The reality we see is people are moving to Colorado because of legalization, and the use of marijuana is impacting the motivation for change among many who live on the street. When someone’s plan is to arrive in town, find legal weed, a place to stay and a job, it turns out that acquiring the drug is the easy part and it makes the second and third goals nearly impossible.
To be clear, these situations are about personal choices, and we do no one any favors by making excuses for their decisions. The problem with marijuana is it perpetuates a cycle of bad decisions because of its effects on the brain. Reduced learning, impaired memory, and overall reduction in cognitive function are all attributed to marijuana use. Coincidentally, the stress and trauma of living in poverty has almost identical detrimental effects on the brain. Pot and stress are a nefarious mix, together attacking precisely the tools people need to break the cycle of poverty.
Yet despite these side effects, our community ends up trumpeting marijuana by virtue of legalization. The marketing mechanism has been turned to full blast to entice visitors — the state flag has been plastered onto shirts and hats with a marijuana leaf in the middle of the “C.” Those who are unnerved by the fact that legalization is now an overwhelming component of our state and local (unofficial) brands are right to be bothered.
This newfound glorification of a drug that is so devastating to the poor should make us profoundly uneasy. While there is ample scriptural discouragement for the effects of marijuana, the most profound guidance comes from Catholic social teaching. Look to the church’s definition of “human dignity,” which states, in part: “(T)he social order and its development must invariably work to the benefit of the human person.” The definition for “common good” is “(T)he sum total of social conditions which allow people, either as groups or as individuals, to reach their fulfillment more fully and more easily.” Legalized marijuana creates a social order that undermines the human person: it results in a social condition that makes it harder for people to reach fulfillment.
There is some cause for encouragement in the fact that Colorado Springs and Douglas County have thus far refused to allow the sale of recreational marijuana. We need to stand behind the voices of opposition like Mayor John Suthers who recently said in a Colorado Springs Business Journal article: “Nobody’s going to change my mind on this.” When advocates are claiming that revenue from sales could solve every financial issue the city faces, saying “no” can be an unpopular position. Colorado’s mistakes around legalizing marijuana have already had a massively negative impact on our poor and homeless and on the systems that support them. We should be looking at ways to end this mistake rather than add to its reach.