Going to pot: How Arkansas Baptists can respond to legalization of medical marijuana

May 14, 2019

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WITH MEDICAL marijuana approved by Arkansas voters about two-and-a-half years ago and the first medical marijuana sales expected to begin across the Natural State in mid-May, many Arkansas Baptists have questions and concerns about long-term implications as well as Christ-like response regarding marijuana legalization.

The Medical Marijuana Amendment (Issue 6), approved by Arkansas voters in November 2016, was ardently opposed prior to its passage by Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson, Arkansas Surgeon General Greg Bledsoe, and Arkansas Department of Health (ADH) Director Nate Smith, according to the Arkansas Democrat Gazette .

“We all want those who are ill or suffering to have the right kind of medicine, but there is a reason we have an [Food and Drug Administration] approval process for new medicines,” Hutchinson said in a 2016 statement, reported by the Democrat Gazette . “We don’t vote on cancer cures, and we should not set a new pattern for determining what is good medicine at the ballot box.”

Despite such opposition from high-ranking Arkansas officials, the amendment passed, with 53.2 percent of voters approving the amendment and 46.8 percent opposing it, as reported by The New York Times . Arkansas voters narrowly defeated an initiative to legalize medical marijuana in 2012.

Arkansas is one of 33 states approving medical marijuana usage, with 10 states approving recreational marijuana usage, according to procon.org. Marijuana remains illegal under federal law.

The amendment approves medical marijuana for the following conditions: cancer;

glaucoma; HIV/AIDS; hepatitis C; amyotrophic lateral sclerosis; Tourette’s syndrome; Crohn’s disease; ulcerative colitis; post-traumatic stress disorder; severe arthritis; fibromyalgia; Alzheimer’s disease; cachexia or wasting syndrome; peripheral neuropathy; intractable pain which is pain that has not responded to ordinary medications, treatment or surgical measures for more than six months; severe nausea; seizures including without limitation those characteristic of epilepsy; severe and persistent muscle spasms including without limitation those characteristic of multiple sclerosis; and any other medical condition or its treatment approved by the Department of Health, as listed on healthyarkansas.gov.

Those seeking to use medical marijuana must complete an application with physician certification in order to obtain a medical marijuana identification card. As of April 25, 2019, 10,877 approved medical marijuana identification cards have been granted, as reported by healthyarkansas.gov.

“In Arkansas, we are likely to experience what other states have gone through. Many ‘patients’ will feign illnesses and medical conditions, such as chronic pain, as a way to legally obtain for personal use an otherwise illegal substance,” said Larry Page, executive director, Arkansas Faith and Ethics Council.

Thirty-two medical marijuana dispensaries are located in eight zones throughout Arkansas, also reported by healthyarkansas.gov.

In December 2016, the five inaugural members of the Arkansas Medical Marijuana Commission were named, with each member serving a four-year term. For a list of those serving, go to mmc.arkansas.gov.

In February 2019, the ADH issued a public health advisory, warning Arkansas about risks associated with the use of cannabis, including marijuana and hemp. First on the list is, “Marijuana is addictive.” However, some advocates for medical marijuana dispute that claim. Additionally, the advisory stated, “Marijuana use is associated with adverse health outcomes, including the development of psychoses like schizophrenia and increased risk of motor vehicle crashes.”

Such risks are cause for concern, said Page, “We need to continue to view smoked marijuana as a dangerous drug. If there are actual medical benefits to some of the components of marijuana as many claim, medical science needs to continue to innovate and develop ways to deliver those beneficial components in ways other than smoking – ways that do not get the user ‘high,’ don’t cause respiratory ailments as smoking does, and otherwise are sensible, effective, and without harmful side effects.

“What is sorely needed is much more solid, empirical research into this whole issue of marijuana use for medicinal purposes. Only then can reasonable, safe, legitimate use (if research reveals such use) and tightly regulated trade be achieved,” he said.

First step to recreational marijuana?

Many Arkansans, particularly those in the Christian community, are fearful that the legalization of medical marijuana is a first step toward legalizing recreational marijuana. Their concerns may be justified. “The most important thing to keep in mind is that the medical marijuana amendment was intended to be and is a prelude to a proposed amendment to legalize recreational marijuana. Many of the proponents of Arkansas’ medical marijuana initiative stated that that was their intent; they are already at work readying an amendment for that purpose to be presented at the 2020 general election,” said Page.

Such a strategy to legalize recreational marijuana has succeeded in other states. “Marijuana supporters continue to succeed with their plan to legalize this dangerous drug across the country. Their strategy is quite obvious. They begin by playing on the public’s compassion with medical marijuana, and then follow up with their true agenda: the widespread legalization of recreational marijuana,” stated Barrett Duke, state executive director of the Montana Southern Baptist Convention and former vice president for public policy and research for the Southern Baptist Convention’s (SBC) Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC), in a 2014 online article, “The Church must respond to marijuana’s destructive march.”

“No state has legalized recreational marijuana without first legalizing medical marijuana,” he said. He further stated, “Apparently it takes about 15 years to desensitize the public enough to the dangers of marijuana to achieve the next step toward full legalization,” citing Colorado, which legalized medical marijuana in 1998, and Washington State, which did so in 2000, with both states legalizing recreational use of marijuana in 2012.

Some national health leaders question if medical marijuana is even an accurate term. “There really is no such thing as medical marijuana. … There is no FDA approved use of marijuana, a botanical plant. I just want to be very clear about that,” said U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar in Ohio in March 2018.

In November 2015, Chuck Rosenberg, then head of the Drug Enforcement Administration, said, “What really bothers me is the notion that marijuana is also medicinal – because it’s not. We can have an intellectually honest debate about whether we should legalize something that is bad and dangerous, but don’t call it medicine – that is a joke.”

Christian response

Although many Arkansas Baptists agree that turning a blind eye or remaining silent regarding medical and/or recreational marijuana use is not an acceptable response, some are left questioning specifically how to respond.

John McCallum, pastor of First Baptist Church, Hot Springs, encourages his fellow Arkansas Baptists to be non-judgmental and to minister to those who may make the choice to try medical marijuana.

“While most Arkansas Baptists (including me) probably voted against medical marijuana in 2016, it won't do anybody any good to continue to lament its passage and sit in judgment on those who were in favor of it or who will use it for medical purposes. It's important that we understand people with chronic pain, including some of our church members, are desperate for relief and will reach for any potential help, so we should avoid harsh, judgmental language as we talk about the issue with others,” he said.

“It's important to minister to our church family who may make the choice, per doctor's advice and prescription, to utilize medical marijuana in their treatment plan. They need our love and compassion and prayer,” said McCallum.

“At the same time,” he continued, “as Christians we can pray that the watchdogs among us will be vigilant in seeing that medical marijuana growers and dispensaries live within the restrictions placed on them by the law or even work to amend or repeal the laws based on data gained over time once the law is in force.”

Paul Chitwood, newly elected president of the SBC’s International Mission Board, argued against marijuana legalization in 2015, when he served as executive director of the Kentucky Baptist Convention. In an online article titled “Kentucky Baptists and marijuana,” he wrote, According to the Pew Research Center, 53 percent of Americans now say the drug should be made legal, compared with 44 percent who want it to be illegal. Opinions have changed dramatically since 1969, when Gallup found that just 12 percent favored legalizing marijuana .” For him, the issue was personal. He described his foster son, who began using marijuana in the fifth grade. The boy’s parents lost their parental rights because of addictive drug use.

“In the bedroom down the hall is a little boy struggling with all of the challenges common to middle school adolescents but multiplied by the reality of living in a stranger's home and knowing his parents are still alive but not even being allowed to talk with them. On good days, his pain is masked behind dark curls, brown eyes and an infectious grin. On bad days, it is unleashed in self-destructive decisions and unyielding defiance,” he wrote, adding that “most” addiction begins “with the decision to ‘smoke a little weed.’”

For Duke, also, the issue is personal. The Baptist leader, who described himself as “one whose life was nearly destroyed by drug use as a teenager and young adult,” offered four suggestions for Southern Baptists grappling with the legalization of marijuana.

First, he wrote, “Christians must make sure they balance their compassion with discernment. While we want to do all we can to help people, we must see through what has become the obvious goal of legalizers.”

Second, he suggested, “Christians must not allow themselves to be persuaded that marijuana is an acceptable medical remedy.”

Third, he said, “Christians must stay engaged in local debates and politics to help keep their communities as drug-free as possible.”

Finally, he wrote, “Churches must engage their communities,” promoting “healthy lifestyles.” In addition to modeling drug-free lifestyles, Christians and churches “should provide services that can help people in their communities overcome drug addiction and reclaim their lives. Jesus not only saves the soul; He also restores broken lives.

“As a world steeped in confusion follows a path to destruction, God’s people should be like Daniel and his friends who chose a healthy lifestyle over the king’s table. A watching world will take notice that our lives are healthier and more fulfilling lived in obedience to the Lord. We can make a difference. For the sake of millions of people around us and the glory of God we must.”

Contact Margaret Colson at margaret@arkansasbaptist.org .

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