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01 November 2010


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I'm no Latin scholar but the way I take the operative phrase in the CCC is "the use of drugs to numb or stun". That would also make sense given that drinking alcohol even to the point of "hilarity" is licit, according to Aquinas, but that drinking to the point of stupefaction is NOT OK because it is against human dignity to do this. Use of alcohol should not “destroy the use of reason”.

Tobacco doesn't really induce stupefaction. Its harm tends to lie elsewhere, with detriments to health. This is me talking off the top of my head.

The addictive qualities of something aren't per se reasons to legally outlaw that thing. Every good thing can be abused. It may be a good reason to put that thing off-limits for you personally, but not necessarily to make a law against it.

I don't know enough about marijuana to know if it harms human reason and dignity in even a small amount, as some of the hard drugs definitely seem to do.

I'm a California voter but I am sort of undecided on the prop because of my lack of knowledge of the effects of the thing . I'm inclined to vote against it. I do not see it as promoting the common good at the moment in our troubled state. In many ways it seems like an essentially frivolous issue to me compared to the real struggles the state is facing. Plus, it seems weirdly inconsistent in light of punitive CA tobacco regulations and taxes, etc. So I feel like there's some hidden agenda and would rather wait till the situation is clearer to me before voting in a new random element.


If it's "the use of drugs to numb or stun," that doesn't seem to include recreational use to, bluntly, get a buzz. "numb or stun" sounds like drinking/using oneself partly or completely into oblivion, or self-medicating.

Willa, I freely admit that my desire to see Prop 19 pass in CA is in part because, living as I do in MN, I don't expect to be directly affected for better or worse by it, so it's easy for me to say, "Gosh, it'll be interesting to see how it turns out if it passes... will we see an increase or a decrease in drug-related problems, and would any increase be offset by the intangible benefits of less regulation?" As far as I am concerned it doesn't seem obvious that it will go either way.


Yes, I like your engineering model of the "50 laboratories of laws" but of course, CA would not exactly be a controlled experiment for other states to draw conclusions from either way. LOL.


With Willa, I think "use of drugs" is a poor translation of "Stupefactivorum medicamentorum usus". But to say, as you did, that it refers only to "use of illegal drugs" is also a poor translation as the Latin does not at all specify as to legality. It strikes me that that's an equivocation that is sometimes useful but not strictly accurate and for the purposes of this discussion best put aside.

Like Willa says, stupefacio = "to make senseless, benumb, stun". So I'd agree with Willa that a good colloquial translations might be "use of drugs that stupefy". But then that begs the question of how to define "stupefy" and what specific drugs are included in that category. My gut feeling is that any psychoactive drugs except alcohol and tobacco would be included in that category.

Why do I think alcohol and tobacco are in a separate category from all other drugs? Because the text from the CCC itself seems to say they are by listing them as separate items from "medicamentorum" instead of merely specifying "food and drugs".

To take a step back for a minute, I'm going to look at what seems to be the intent of the passage in terms of the virtue of temperance. It's interesting to me that the text specifies: "the abuse of food, alcohol, tobacco, or medicine." So I think the question comes down to drawing a distinction between legitimate use and abuse. What is an abuse of food and what is a legitimate use? What is an abuse of alcohol and what is a legitimate use? What is an abuse of tobacco and what is legitimate use? What is an abuse of medication and what are legitimate uses?

With food it's clear that legitimate use is for nourishment; but I'd also add that there is a legitimate use for enjoyment, conviviality. I think we can all agree that sometimes it's legitimate to eat cake and drink soda pop that have no little or no nutritional value. Or even to eat a bit more than we should of nutritive foods on a feast day such as Thanksgiving or Christmas.

Obviously there is a very solid Biblical tradition in favor of use of alcohol with meals and at festive occasions. So there is a legitimate use in its enjoyment as a recreational accompaniment to celebration. By including it in the list after alcohol, the CCC seems to suggest the same for tobacco.

I suppose the rub then is the question of what are legitimate uses of medicine and especially of "medications that "numb or stun", which the CCC seems to distinguish from food, alcohol, and tobacco by dedicating a new separate paragraph just to their use and abuse. In other words, it seems to me that we cannot lump alcohol and tobacco in with other drugs precisely because they are listed as separate from "medicamentorum" with a specificity that especially as they are listed with "food" necessarily implies the existence of a moderate use that is not abusive. But the CCC then seems to imply that the only legitimate use of "medicamentorum" is therapeutic. That is there is no separate classification for moderate use of recreational drugs, except for tobacco and alcohol.

To me the CCC doesn't seem to imply that there are other drugs which may also have a non-medical recreational use which is not abuse.

The CCC seems to single out tobacco and alcohol. They are substances that have a long history of use in moderation and are an integral part of many cultural celebrations. While I've seen some people suggest a parallel possibility for pot, I'm not entirely convinced that there is a social, non-medical use which is not an abuse. Of course, I don't know much about its history of social use; but nothing I've read tends to sway me to the view that pot is somehow more akin to alcohol and tobacco than to other drugs.

In additional to the weight of cultural tradition, which should weigh heavily in a Catholic understanding, what leads me to lean toward thinking that pot does stand apart from alcohol and tobacco the fact that in addition to being classified as a stimulant (as tobacco is) and depressant (as alcohol is), marijuana is also classified as a hallucinogen.


Melanie, to clarify -- you said: "But to say, as you did, that it refers only to "use of illegal drugs" is also a poor translation as the Latin does not at all specify as to legality"

I didn't say that "stupefactivorum medicamentorum usus" refers to use of illegal drugs. I noted that the second part of paragraph 2291 refers to illegal drugs -- that's the "clandestine" part.

Do you agree with me that "stupefying" modifies the use, and not the drug? That the passage says what's gravely wrong is "stupefying use of drugs" rather than "use of stupefying drugs?"


Bearing, Sorry, I see that I wasn't actually addressing the point you were making.

But I'm still a bit unclear on the legality vs morality point. It seemed there are two points there: 1. that the use of stupefying drugs is gravely harmful to both human life and dignity and 2. that therefore the clandestine production and trafficking of them is scandalous. Thus the fact of whether the drugs are illegal or not doesn't seem to have a bearing on their morality. Rather it is their abuse (i.e. use for non-therapeutic purposes) that is gravely wrong. And because of that trafficking them is also wrong. But maybe I'm once again misreading your point.

I don't agree that "stupefying" modifies "use" though. It's an adjective not an adverb. "Usus" is a nominative noun "medicamentorum" is a genitive noun, "stupefactivorum" is a genitive adjective. And the placement of the two genitives next to each other also strengthens the idea that they are linked. If they weren't meant to modify each other the word order would be different. Thus yes I would insist on translating it as: "the use of stupifying drugs inflicts..."

Of course the very fact that the CCC doesn't give a list of specific drugs means there is room for discussion on the subject of whether pot specifically falls into the category of "Stupefactivorum medicamentorum". I tend to lean toward lumping it in there; but I'm open to an argument that it isn't. So far I haven't been persuaded strongly one way or the other.


I was wondering if "medicamentorum" implied a medication? I thought that "stupefying" might be reasonably translated in modern language as "psychoactive" (otherwise it would only be depressants or hallucinogens...)

It's just that the CCC is generally pretty crisp about categories, and it seemed weird that recreational "drugs" would be inherently wrong but somehow nicotine and alcohol gets a pass *without* a mention of it as a separate class.


It would be interesting to get a catechism scholar input... maybe the distinction was much more simple and was referring to man-made drugs that are classified and sold as such.

Outside of that, what constitutes classification as a stupefying drug? Certainly not the plant itself, as it has many non-stupefying uses (e.g., rope, clothing, etc). It is only a specific preparation of it that causes it to be considered "drug"... as is the case with fruit that is prepared in a certain way to become alcohol and tobacco leaves to become cigarettes, cigars, chewing tobacco, etc. and poppies to become opium.

And so where would misuse of other natural and man-made products such as model airplane glue, cough suppressants, motion-sickness pills, tree toad slime, or whipped-cream canisters fit in?


Shirley, I think all of those examples in your last paragraph would be pretty well covered by the idea expressed int he first paragraph that the virtue of temperance leads us to avoid excess and that we incur grave guilt when we endanger ourselves and others.

I think the distinction is that alcohol and tobacco can be used in moderation without any harm. And cough suppressant and motion sickness pills have a legitimate therapeutic use when taken for their intended purpose in the appropriate dosage. Their abuse is in using them for non-medical reasons or in using them in excess of the appropriate dosage. While model airplane glue and whipped cream canisters are not meant for human consumption at all but causes damage to the human person. Tree toad slime seems a bit more slippery to me; I think I'd have to know more about the use (or abuse) of it to be able to categorize it.

Most of these are questions of prudential judgment. As in fact is the consumption of alcohol and tobacco. Most people can safely drink one or two drinks, especially with food, with no impairment. Many people can smoke occasionally without being addicted. I'd guess an occasional cigarette would cause minimal harm for most people. (Me, I'm asthmatic so even being in a room with a cigarette could cause me quite a bit of harm depending on how my breathing is going on a particular day.) If you find that you addicted to either alcohol or tobacco then obviously prudence dictates you should abstain completely.

It seems to me that what is truly a matter of debate when it comes to pot is whether its use in any amount is in itself harmful and thus an abuse or if it can be used in moderation without causing harm. And there medical experts seem to disagree. From what I've seen, some experts interpret the data to claim that it can be used safely and others say that it cannot. Some medical professionals are in favor of using it therapeutically and some say that there is no legitimate use for medical marijuana. Both the legal question and the moral question would be much clearer if there were a consensus from the medical establishment.



As far as crispness of categories.... To step back and look at the big picture context of the CCC paragraphs, the focus is really on the virtue of temperance not on being a handbook for deciding legal policy, so the level of vagueness seems appropriate to the didactic intention of the text as guiding the soul that is seeking to grow in virtue. As with most moral questions, the Church tends to lay out broad guidelines and then leave it to individual conscience to determine prudential behavior in specific circumstances. It's up to us to inform our conscience as best we can and then act accordingly. The Church tells us not to allow intemperate use of medication (or food or alcohol or tobacco) to harm ourselves or others and then leaves it up to us to decide what is harmful and what is not. So it seems to me that a large part of the decision about how to use various medications temperately is rooted in medical knowledge of what is safe and what is harmful, which is constantly changing and which is not the purview of the Church. In that vein categorization of pot would seem to be more a task for a scientist than a theologian.

From both the medical and a Catholic moral perspective the belief that alcohol drunk in moderation can be used temperately seems to me to be on fairly unshakable ground and I can't see that pot's status would challenge that at all. There is an overwhelming landslide of Biblical evidence in favor of drinking wine throughout the Old and New Testaments. I have no idea how the Southern Baptists justify their argument that any amount of alcohol is a sin, except to willfully mistranslate wine as unfermented grape juice. Jesus himself always seems to be drinking wine and telling parables about wine and vineyards and wineskins. His first public miracle was to make water into wine for a wedding feast and one of the Eucharistic species is wine. So I'd have a hard time buying any argument in favor of bringing back Prohibition. Of course, if you are an alcoholic, temperance means total abstention; but just because some portion of the population cannot safely imbibe doesn't mean that no one can or that alcohol isn't in general able to be used moderately.

The social and medical consensus in the Christian West has generally been in favor of treating tobacco in the same way as alcohol, though in the last 50 years that has been gradually changing as the medical establishment racks up more and more data about the carcinogenic and addictive qualities of tobacco. So I wonder more about the question of temperance there than I do about alcohol.

For marijuana there doesn't seem to have ever been as broad a social acceptance for its recreational use as there has been for tobacco. It seems to have always been marginal at best. Nor does medical data on its harmfulness and legitimate use seem clear cut. For me it seems to be in a very similar category to tobacco. But it is very interesting to me that we are pushing closer and closer to the point of declaring that there can be no safe use of tobacco and are moving more and more toward marginalizing its use if not outlawing it outright while at the same time we toy with the idea of legalizing marijuana.

I suppose to me the bottom line is that it seems to be an open question whether marijuana can be used moderately but the burden of proof would seem to be on those who favor its legalization rather than on those who favor maintaining the status quo. And the prudence of its legalization might well be a question that rests not only on the moral question of temperance but also on economic and social factors as well. I think the best the CCC will get us is to the conclusion that this is a matter of prudential judgment on which people of good will can disagree.

None of the arguments I've read in favor of legalization seem to be as solidly rooted in medical data as I'd like them to be. Instead the focus seems to be much more on the question of drug trafficking. That makes me a bit suspicious.


"Both the legal question and the moral question would be much clearer if there were a consensus from the medical establishment."

Definitely -- too bad it's extremely hard to do research on the stuff...

"None of the arguments I've read in favor of legalization seem to be as solidly rooted in medical data as I'd like them to be. Instead the focus seems to be much more on the question of drug trafficking. That makes me a bit suspicious."

Whereas the way I see it, the effects of drug trafficking and all other effects that stem directly from the law are extremely relevant to the question of relaxing the law. Every law has intended and unintended consequences, costs as well as benefits. It is a legitimate and important question -- probably equally important to the question of how harmful the stuff is -- whether drug trafficking and associated crimes are worse *because of* the drug's legal status quo.

As for the morality, I started the discussion to push back against the notion (promoted by a commenter on the thread at TAC) that the recreational use of all drugs other than tobacco, nicotine, and alcohol was in the category of *inherently* gravely wrong (which would imply, regardless of level of use, regardless of scientific consensus...). My instinct is, like you, to suggest that it's an area of prudential judgment, which is why it seems odd to me that the CCC appears to use such language.


But the experiment has already happened. Alaska legalized cannibis in 1978.

They repealed it 12 years later because half of all high school students were using.

It's an interesting idea to have 50 laboratories, but I live in that laboratory and would rather not have it even more polluted.


Regarding the difference between alcohol and cannabis: what is the intention of the user?

A person smoking pot wants to get high. A person drinking usually is not trying to get drunk (college students and alcoholics excepted).

To intentionally impair judgment would be a moral dividing line.


"A person smoking pot wants to get high. A person drinking usually is not trying to get drunk (college students and alcoholics excepted)."

I agree with you that "to intentionally impair judgment" is indeed a moral dividing line.

Where I don't agree -- and only because I know of no data, only anecdotes, that support this -- is in the assertion that all people who smoke pot want to intentionally impair their judgment.

People keep telling me this like it is patently obvious that the whole point of using pot is to impair one's judgment. Maybe it is true that this is the whole point. Obvious? Evident? That, it is not.

Not only do I know of no data regarding this topic, but even the anecdotes are suspect, because the people telling me this (so far) have all been non-users who presumably have no experience having an intention to use pot.

The whole discussion is long on assertions and very, very short on data.


I have smoked pot. I have been around those who smoke pot. The beach town I live in has several stores that sell "tobacco paraphernalia" often used for smoking marijuana. This is still all anecdotal, I know.

But I would be mad if the state paid for a study to determine whether pot smokers smoked marijuana in order to get high. Why else would cannabis have 25x more THC now than in the 60s? That was not an accident.

Perhaps there exists some impartial studies regarding Amsterdam? It would be great to see.

But, social experiments aside, our state is bankrupt, we keep electing the wrong people, and the last the CA needs is for pot to be legal.


"Whereas the way I see it, the effects of drug trafficking and all other effects that stem directly from the law are extremely relevant to the question of relaxing the law. "

Sorry, Let me clarify, to me they are very relevant; but they are second tier considerations that can come into play only after the basic health and safety questions have been satisfactorily answered. If you don't have consensus on those then to me it seems imprudent to jump over it to argue about the ill effects of trafficking and associated crimes.

Angela C.

I called Catholic Answers Live about three years ago to find out how the Church views the difference between using recreational drugs versus drinking alcohol. The answer I received was that alcohol can be used without it impairing rational judgment, whereas drugs will always impair judgment. Essentially, we are not permitted to impair our reasoning, and since drugs are meant to do that to us, they're sinful when used illegitimately. I apologize for any clunkiness in my wording but it is late where I am.


AngelaC said it better than I did: it is intent.... regardless of whether the object is legal or illegal.

If I intend to use the hemp to make a rope, I am not sinning. If I intend to use the hemp to relieve pain, I am not sinning. If I intend to use the hemp to get high, I am sinning.

If I intend to use the glue to put together the model airplane, I am not sinning. If I intend to use the glue to get high, I am sinning.


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