If you haven’t noticed, a new form of Refer Madness is sweeping the nation. Starting with full legalization of recreational marijuana use in Washington and Colorado in 2012, numerous other states have loosened regulations in subsequent years. At the time of writing this article, seven states have broad laws concerning marijuana use, including recreational use. A total of twenty-six states have laws allowing some form of medical marijuana use (Governing, 2017). Considering that prior to 1996 marijuana could not be legally consumed for any purpose, in any state of the union, the American cultural shift on this issue has been rapid. How is it that our nation has pivoted so quickly on this issue? And how, as Christians, should we feel about it?
The point of this article is not to make the case against marijuana but rather to point out the economic issues that surround it, how easily these issues affect the viewpoints of mainstream America and, thereby, the Church. That said, one cannot write an article like this without laying out their own position. First and foremost, I believe that followers of Jesus have no business using pot recreationally. Secondly, harkening back to Genesis 1:30, I believe there are legitimate industrious uses for the cannabis plant. Hemp, one variant of cannabis, is legal in most industrialized countries and has a million and one uses. However, due to its very low THC levels, smoking it to get high is not one of them. Lastly, I believe there are likely some medical uses of marijuana that are legitimate. However, I say this with less confidence than my other claims and with a high level of caution. Now, if any of that vexes you feel free to leave comments, and I will respond. Onward to the issue at hand.
State governments are slowly but surely embracing the formerly anathema plant. In large part, they are responding to Americans sentiment on this issue. According to the latest Gallup poll, sixty percent of Americans now believe that marijuana should be legalized (Swift, 2016). Yet, despite its en vogue status, marijuana remains a highly controlled substance within the United States. Even in states where pot is legal a person can only buy so much of it, and even that small amount comes at a very high cost in comparison to other consumer products. The states of Washington and Colorado have provided us a good four years of observations to assess how well this experiment has worked. In some respects, that experiment has gone exceptionally well. In 2015 the pot industry in Colorado created a $2.39 billion economic impact, which created or supported more than 18,000 jobs. Though this may seem like fairly small numbers in a state that hosts nearly three million jobs, we must recall that the industry did not exist three years prior. Now, it is larger than both residential home construction and child day care services (Light, 2016).
This is all welcome news for politicians but not enough to get them to champion a controversial bill that many moralistic constituents would oppose. There is yet another green leafy substance that makes them drool. In 2016, pot-related tax revenues in Colorado are expected to exceed $140 million. In Washington, they are closer to $270 million (Henchman, 2017). By making pot legal, not only are state governments able to collect tax revenue but additionally, because of its perception as a dangerous substance, they are able to jack up tax rates astronomically. Government agencies have long known that the public’s tolerance for taxation is much higher concerning items that are considered frivolous or even potentially harmful. The term used by economists for this phenomenon is a “sin tax.” Within the United States, sin taxes are levied against substances as varied as alcohol, candy bars, casinos, and even tanning booths. In states where marijuana has been legalized, effective tax rates range between twenty-five percent and thirty-seven percent (Henchman, 2017). By comparison, sales tax on goods in general are typically in the range of six to seven percent (Walczak, 2017). In short, those who want to legally puff a joint are paying two to six times more in taxes than people buying other products.
Now, to return to the point, how is it that we’ve moved from zero states with legalized marijuana twenty years ago to twenty-six states today. If you legislate in a cash-strapped state like California, you stand to gain between $861 million and $1.076 billion if you legalize and tax it at a rate comparable to other states (Henchman, 2017). There is yet another aspect to the fiscal argument as well. When marijuana is legalized, one of the biggest reasons for incarceration has also been removed, saving another several million dollars that can be added to the bottom line for politicians. And, it gets better yet! All that new money acquired from taxing pot can be used to fund wholesome programs such as public schools and community health centers. We begin to see how pot has gone from villain to hero status in such a hurry.
I was driving through Oklahoma the other day and saw a billboard for a lawyer featuring a giant cannabis leaf. The caption read, “Until it’s legal.” Regardless of where you live within the United States, I guarantee there are politicians whispering in back rooms about how bud can be made legal. Whether you like it or not, you need to prepare yourselves and your children for a world where marijuana is culturally acceptable.
The first point that we must acknowledge is that there is a difference between behavior that is legal and behavior that is God-honoring. There are many things that are legal and/or generally accepted in our culture that are not honoring to God. Consider: which of the items in Paul’s catalog of the “works of the flesh” could somebody legally get away with in your state. To take it a step further, which of these things are celebrated within your state: “sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these” (Gal. 5:19-21). The opposite is also true. How many God-honoring things can one do that actually are illegal your state? And this is a list that grows ever longer with each ream of paper added to state legal codes.
Many Christians get anxious over the possibility of legalized marijuana. There are many reasons for this and some are better than others. For those who are concerned about their own children and family members rushing out to get high, this reveals just how much we rely upon culture and the state to define what is acceptable behavior. Many Christian parents fear that when pot is legalized, they will not have an adequate response to, “Everyone else is doing it.” They would rather have the state tell their children the difference between good and evil.
As Christians, we should have a higher standard of behavior than not getting arrested. There is a law that is greater than the law of our land, one that we should meditate on both day and night (Ps. 1:2). Scripture makes it clear that passing on a high respect for this higher law is one of the primary roles we play as parents. “You shall therefore lay up these words of mine in your heart and in your soul…You shall teach them to your children, talking of them when you are sitting in your house, and when you are walking by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise” (Deut. 11:18-19). My hope as we move into an increasingly secularized society is that Christian would not cede the responsibility for teaching our children righteousness to anybody outside the Church, especially not to those whose moral decisions are based how much money they can haul in at the stroke of a pen.
Swift, Art. “Support for Legal Marijuana Use Up to 60% in U.S.” Gallup.com. http://www.gallup.com/poll/196550/support-legal-marijuana.aspx. October 19, 2016. Accessed June 13, 2017.
“State Marijuana Laws in 2017 Map.” Governing.com. http://www.governing.com/gov-data/state-marijuana-laws-map-medical-recreational.html. March 23, 2017. Accessed June 11, 2017.
Light, Miles, Adam Orens, Jacob Rowberry, and Clinton W. Saloga. The Economic Impact of Marijuana Legalization in Colorado. Issue brief. Denver, Colorado: Marijuana Policy Group, 2016.
Joseph Henchman, and Morgan Scarboro. “Marijuana Taxes: Lessons from Colorado and Washington.” Tax Foundation. https://taxfoundation.org/marijuana-taxes-lessons-colorado-washington/. February 16, 2017. Accessed June 11, 2017.
Walczak, Jared, and Scott Drenkard. “State and Local Sales Tax Rates in 2017.” Tax Foundation Fiscal Fact 539 (January 2017): 1-7. https://files.taxfoundation.org/20170131121743/TaxFoundation-FF539.pdf. Accessed June 13, 2017.