In My Own Words: Legalizing marijuana

By: RABBI RACHEL ESSERMAN, EXECUTIVE EDITOR

My friends know that I have very strong opinions about most issues. However, there is one, recent exception and that’s the question of whether or not to legalize marijuana. I don’t mean medical marijuana because that is clearly a Jewish issue of pekuat nefesh (the saving of a life). So I have no problem with that. However, I’m torn about whether or not to legalize recreational marijuana.
Before sharing my thoughts, it’s important to note that I have never used marijuana. (It feels weird to call it that since almost everyone I know still calls it pot.) Yes, I know I went to high school and college in the 1970s, but I’ve never used an illegal drug. (I’m not even fond of legal ones, something to which my doctor can testify.) Anything that messes with your brain scares the wits out of me (and that’s an understatement). However, over the years, I’ve had many friends who smoked pot and were then, and are now, wonderful people.
I’m not going to discuss the economic issues because they feel irrelevant to an ethical debate on the subject. Of more interest are pot’s effect on people and society. Are the actions of people on pot any worse than people on alcohol? Not that I’ve been able to determine. That means the laws putting people in jail for smoking a joint are not an example of a punishment fitting the crime. If you want to talk about pot’s harmful effects on people’s health, then shouldn’t you also outlaw cigarettes since their medical toll is very high? If we say it’s OK to harm your health with cigarettes and booze, then why should we object to pot?
On the other hand, I’ve read that car accidents have gone up in states that have legalized marijuana. That does scare me. However, we already have people who drive when they’ve had too much to drink, so perhaps what we need are stricter laws and ways to prevent people from driving when they are impaired by anything, including prescription drugs.
Pot is often seen as the gateway to harder drugs and, while that may be true for some people, it’s not true for everyone. After all, not everyone who drinks becomes an alcoholic. I’ve even known people who can casually smoke a cigarette now and then, and not become addicted. While most drug addicts have tried a variety of drugs, that doesn’t mean they would never have used those drugs if they hadn’t smoked pot. They might have just tried the harder ones first.
When doing some research on this issue, I found that Jewish opinions about marijuana are split. Some say the drug is harmful and takes time away from Torah study – meaning it should not be used. Others say it allows them to achieve a higher form of spirituality and therefore is important to their religious practice. So, there is Jewish thought promoting both sides of the debate.
Even if pot is legalized, I have no desire to try it for the same reason I don’t like getting drunk: losing control scares me. My main concern, though, will be making certain smoking pot is covered by the same laws as cigarette smoke. Those of us who have breathed freer and easier since the stricter smoking laws took effect should also be protected from marijuana smoke.