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A Church Analogy That Puts Cannabis Correlations in Perspective

By David Jenison on February 14, 2017

In a recent article titled “Marijuana to the Glory of God,” a Christian pastor from Oregon discussed whether or not cannabis use was “biblically permissible.” His verdict: a passive maybe for medical cannabis, a hell no for recreational and a definite yes for booze. He backed up his conclusions with surreal lines like “There is a reason that marijuana has long been associated with the couch, a bag of chips, and a television remote,” “Unlike alcohol, regular cannabis use is strongly correlated with mental health disorders” and “Unlike alcohol, cannabis was not used by Jesus in his Last Supper.” 

The pastor mentioned (but did not cite) studies he felt characterized cannabis as dangerous on the basis of associations and correlations, i.e., evidence that suggests a connection without proving either variable caused the other. The article disingenuously treated the correlations as verified health risks, but ironically, applying the same model to the church provides a sharp analogy as to why people should not conflate correlation and causation. Thanks to stereotypes and stigma, yes, cannabis is associated with remote controls and couches, but the criminal justice system suggests an association between the church and child molestation, typically of the man-on-boy variety. 

The Nature and Scope of Sexual Abuse of Minors by Catholic Priests and Deacons in the United States, better known as the John Jay Report, looked at pedophilia in the church between 1950 and 2002. Per data cited in the study, two percent of Catholic priests “could be considered pedophiles,” and about four percent are or were “sexually preoccupied with adolescent boys or girls.” So, one in every 25 ministers fantasized about child sex, and one in 50 dove right in per this study commissioned by (no, not heathen liberals) the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. Sexual Abuse in Christian Homes and Churches, Texts of Terror, Sexual Violence: The Unmentionable Sin, “Devastated Spirituality” and other books and clinical studies suggest the child molestation problem also extends to other forms of Christianity. 

The “Marijuana to the Glory of God” pastor said, “Regular cannabis use is strongly correlated with mental health disorders.” Well, according to the findings in the 2004 study, church leadership is strongly correlated with child rape. Fortunately for both pot and priests, correlation is not causation. 

In terms of church-based child rape, one can reasonably argue that certain individuals who suffered from unwanted desires and impulses joined the church and/or the ministry in hopes that faith would heal them. In many cases, these people failed to complement their spiritual help with professional treatment, and the unrelenting child lust—paired with extreme moral expectations—led to shame cycles and warped psychosexual development. In such cases, no, the faith did not cause these church leaders to become child molesters even though a correlation exists. Rather, they used spirituality to self-medicate their thoughts and impulses, which ultimately failed to treat their disorders effectively. 

Guess what? The same problem exists with cannabis and mental health disorders. Yes, there is a correlation, but individuals with undiagnosed mental health disorders commonly turn to cannabis, opioids, sedatives, stimulants and “biblically permissible” alcohol to self-medicate the symptoms. Whether through substances or spirituality, self-medication often masks the symptoms as the disorder itself grows worse, delaying much needed comprehensive treatment from mental health professionals. This is a concern for all forms of self-medication, but suggesting that self-medicating substance use or spirituality is the cause of the problem based purely on correlation is very bad science. 

So, if churchgoers want to cite mental health correlations as reasons why cannabis is bad, others can cite sex-crime correlations as reasons to avoid the faith. Neither is fair or accurate. Moreover, such inaccurate scapegoating is a sin in that involves bearing false witness (Exodus 20:16), and it can be dangerous when it ultimately promotes riskier substance use. 

Let’s go back to the pastor who said moderate drinking is biblically permissible but recreational cannabis is a no-no. A 2015 study published in the Scientific Reports journal found that alcohol is 114 times more likely to kill you than cannabis. In fact, the study provided a comparative risk assessment for a wide range of substances (e.g., alcohol, tobacco, cocaine, MDMA, heroin, meth), and the only substance classified as “low risk” was cannabis.  

Still, this is not the only church prohibition that sometimes leads to behavior considered worse by conservative standards. Old Testament all-stars like David and Solomon had sex slaves (i.e., concubines), but the modern church strongly prohibits pre-marital sex. Well, a study published in the Journal of Adolescent Health in 2005 found that abstinent-until-marriage “pledgers are more likely to engage in noncoital oral-genital and anogenital sexual behaviors.” In layman terms, saving oneself for marriage correlates to higher rates of oral and anal sex, creating a phenomenon called technical virginity. The study also said “pledgers who became sexually active were less likely to use condoms at first sex,” and a study published that year in the same journal found that adolescent pledgers experienced the same rate of STD infections as non-pledgers. 

Furthermore, biblically permissible alcohol consumption can make this “promiscuity” worse. A study published by BioMed Central Public Health in 2014 found that having multiple sexual partners in a single year has “a statistically significant association with alcohol use on all levels (global, situational and event) for both males and females.” Alcohol is also associated with inconsistent condom use. Women who consumed alcohol are twice as likely to have sex without a condom with someone they just met. 

To recap, church leadership correlates with higher rates of child molestation, and pledging not to have sex before marriage correlates with higher rates of anal sex, oral sex, unsafe sex and sexually transmitted diseases. Throw in a little Last Supper vino, and the correlation includes a higher risk of unsafe sex with multiple partners. The point: The church should be careful in condemning cannabis based on correlation since this risk-assessment model cuts both ways, and the correlations associated with church leadership and morality can be far more damning. 

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