Friday, April 21, 2006
The Church should be pro-pot*
The New York Times has a news item today about the federal government's judgment of the medical benefits of smoking marijuana. That judgment, as you can see, was negative.
My question: so what?
The issue of "medical marijuana" is a serious moral one. Here's why.
It is a fundamental Catholic principle that those who are ill are entitled to receive palliative care and pain relief. Of course, if the patient can be helped to recover, that is the primary goal; but if that isn't at issue -- if a patient is still dying, either of a specific condition, or simply because of old age -- then the goal is to sustain life in a human way; we don't hasten death, but it can be allowed to come naturally. So someone facing a terminal cancer need not pursue further treatment whose prospects are uncertain; but neither should that person's death be "sped up," either; and ordinary care, such as food, water, bathing, comfort, pain relief, should continue as long as they can do some good, and don't do any harm.
But along the way, a suffering person should be helped to deal with suffering, and when the condition is terminal, certain common-sense things come into play.
For example: if someone is dying, and smoking cigarettes provides comfort, who cares about the health risks of tobacco, at that point?
Or, if someone is in pain, you give morphine; the patient can have more of it, even where it has other negative effects, so long as the intent is pain relief, not inducing death. Thus, you don't say to a patient, in pain -- "Sorry, but if we give you more morphine, that will inhibit breathing, and you might die. Keeping you alive is more important than relieving pain." No, the Church's answer is, intention is key: if the intent of another shot of pain-killer is to hasten death, or deny someone consciousness, that's immoral; but if the purpose is to provide comfort and ease; that's moral.
So, what's this have to do with "medical marijuana"?
Well, there are folks who say that marijuana provides comfort care. Are they all liars?
But, you say, experts tell us it doesn't help.
My response is, the expertise that matters most is the patient. If a patient says, smoking pot makes me feel better, on what moral basis should we deny that patient a joint? Is smoking marijuana immoral in a way that morphine, or, say, heroin, is not?
A legitimate response would be, the marijuana is unnecessary--as, apparently, heroin is. That's a legitimate response, if true -- i.e., we know that we can provide pain relief through other drugs, so yes, we don't use heroin for it (but recall, that's why heroin was invented).
But my concern is that the government has, in all this, seemed dismissive of this part of the question. The federal government's argument has been, we say marijuana is illegal, and our law must be upheld. Go find a substitute for marijuana!
That's not a position I can support from Catholic moral teaching.
Consider: when someone is facing this sort of terminal illness, here's what happens. A patient is wracked by a combination of pain, nausea, and inability to eat properly. In such situations, you try to find anything that helps, and you don't get clinical or "scientific" about it. "The only thing mom can hold down is such-and-such brand of ice cream--no other." You don't care why that's true, or if clinical trials can substantiate a special quality to brand-A ice cream; you just go buy all you can of it, and give it to mom as long as it works.
So the government says, "there's no reason why marijuana should help!" Yes there is, one reason, and it's enough -- the sick person says it helps!
Am I saying the government has no legitimate authority to regulate drugs? Not at all.
But I would say this -- it is the government that must prove why something must be illegal; not the citizen who must prove why something must be legal. I.e., I reject the present situation, requiring individual citizens having to battle the federal leviathan (note: states have attempted to deal with this, and the federal apparatus -- legislative, executive and judicial -- have acted as one to thwart that), to prove why different behaviors should be treated differently -- why using marijuana for relieving the suffering of dying people might be justifiably exempt from the "Drug War." I reject the idea that such suffering is an acceptable price to be paid for some larger purpose, which is . . . what?
So my point is, the federal government needs to accept these distinctions, and accommodate them. Will that make fighting drugs harder? Assume it would -- so what? Our Bill of Rights makes it (significantly) harder to punish rapists, murderers, even terrorists. Is it immoral to keep the Bill of Rights? Would it be more moral to scrap it, so less impedes our pursuit of criminals?
You tell me: if someone you loved is in misery, and said, "I wonder if a little pot would help?" -- what would you do? Would you:
a) Download the latest FDA study, and cite it to explain why expecting marijuana to help is illusory.
b) Explain the need for following the federal government's lead in the "Drug War".
c) Go figure out how to buy some pot?
* Update: it occurs to me some might fail to realize my headline is meant to be provocative, as in: feel free to discuss, herein, the proposition represented by the headline. Yes, I do tend to favor that position; but my purpose here is to discuss that proposition.