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Election News: Weed on the ballot: two states legalize recreational marijuana while three reject it

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At the midterm elections on Tuesday, voters in Maryland and Missouri chose to accept ballot measures to legalize marijuana for recreational use. The decisions came despite the objections of the Catholic bishops of both states, who noted the Church’s teaching on the physical and spiritual harms of drug use and decried the adverse effects of drugs on society and the family.

In contrast, voters in Arkansas, North Dakota, and South Dakota rejected measures put before them to legalize recreational pot. All five states with marijuana on the ballot already had medical marijuana programs in place, and all but one were solidly Republican states. Catholic bishops in all three of those states, too, had spoken out to urge voters not to legalize marijuana within their borders.

Marijuana, which remains illegal at the federal level, has now been legalized for recreational use in 21 states and the District of Columbia over the past decade. In early October, President Joe Biden issued a proclamation granting pardons for all federal marijuana possession convictions.

The Catholic Church teaches that the use of drugs apart from strictly therapeutic reasons is a “grave offense.” It also states in paragraph 2211 of the “Catechism of the Catholic Church” that the political community has a duty to protect the security and health of families, especially with respect to drugs. Pope Francis has spoken out against even the partial legalization of so-called “soft drugs.”

Missouri law goes into effect Dec. 8

Missouri’s Amendment 3 passed on Tuesday, the AP projected, with 53.1% of the vote. The amendment removes “state prohibitions on the purchase, possession, consumption, use, delivery, manufacture, and sale of marijuana for personal use for adults over the age of 21.” It also will lead to the expungement of records of past arrests and convictions for certain nonviolent marijuana offenses, with the exception of offenses for DUIs or selling to a minor.

The new law goes into effect Dec. 8, but because of licensing processes, the earliest that recreational weed could actually be sold in the state is February 2023 and could be as late as fall 2023, the Kansas City Star reported.

Ahead of the election, the state’s Catholic bishops had issued a joint statement urging voters to reject the proposal, expressing serious concerns about the societal costs of legal marijuana, which they said would likely outweigh the benefits of the revenue the state would collect by taxing the industry.

“We know that regular marijuana use has been connected to respiratory problems; mental health issues (including increased anxiety and suicidal thoughts); and learning, memory, and attention loss,” the Missouri bishops stated. “In addition to impacting worker productivity and safety, increased marijuana use could hinder individuals’ ability to find or keep meaningful employment, especially in jobs that require drug testing.”

Legalization sends the message — especially for young people — that marijuana is safe and socially acceptable and will likely increase teen usage rates, the bishops said. They urged, instead of legalization, the addressing of underlying social and economic issues that can lead to substance abuse.

Jamie Morris, executive director of the Missouri Catholic Conference, told CNA he was “disappointed, but not surprised” at the measure’s passage. He noted that the specific wording of the proposal had proven unpopular with a broad and eclectic coalition of groups, including the Missouri Baptist Convention and Pro-Choice Missouri, partly because of concerns about the licensing process for dispensaries.

Despite a “broad and bipartisan skepticism on Amendment 3,” the “no” side was “outfunded quite tremendously” by the “yes” side, Morris said. More than 85% of contributions to the campaigns to pass the measures in Missouri and Arkansas came from donors associated with companies holding medical marijuana licenses, according to an Associated Press analysis of the most recent campaign finance reports.

Post-legalization, Morris said the bishops of Missouri will continue to support initiatives to address the root causes of drug addiction. He also said that while the Church in Missouri does support criminal justice reform, there are better ways to achieve justice than to support a measure like Amendment 3.

“We’ve tried to be very consistent in our approach to criminal justice issues … we have always supported criminal justice reforms and expungement, but our view is that you can do that outside of this [amendment], and you can decriminalize without completely legalizing,” he said.

Maryland Catholic Conference has ‘deep concerns’

Maryland’s Question 4 passed Tuesday with nearly two-thirds of the vote. It will add a new article to the state Constitution that would allow individuals 21 years of age or older, starting in July 2023, to use and possess marijuana and to authorize the Maryland General Assembly to “provide for the use, distribution, possession, regulation, and taxation of cannabis within the state.” It also will make changes in criminal law and create automatic expungements of past marijuana possession convictions, the AP reported.

The Maryland Catholic Conference had on Oct. 24 released a statement noting that marijuana legalization has historically been viewed in Maryland through a racial lens, as many of the people incarcerated for marijuana possession in the state belong to minority communities.

“The Maryland Catholic Conference recognizes the concern that the enforcement of cannabis policies has had a disproportionate impact on minority and marginalized communities in the past and that legalizing marijuana has been proposed as a way to address this historic inequity,” the statement read.

“While the harm caused by the disparate application of laws is wrong, the Maryland Catholic Conference has deep concerns with Question 4 and the legalization of recreational use of marijuana in Maryland. Recreational marijuana use will adversely affect families, communities, workers, and health outcomes … The social costs of legalizing recreational marijuana use far outweigh any increase in state revenues that may occur.”

The Maryland Catholic Conference did not respond by press time to CNA’s request for additional comment Wednesday.

Arkansas voters reject amendment

Arkansas’ initiative, Amendment 4, would have legalized the possession and use of up to one ounce of marijuana for 21-year-olds, enacting a 10% tax on marijuana sales, and requiring the state Alcoholic Beverage Control Division to develop rules to regulate marijuana businesses. The amendment failed on Tuesday, 56.2%-43.8%.

Bishop Anthony Taylor of Little Rock, Arkansas’ sole diocese, had noted in a Sept. 29 statement that “the Church has no moral objection to the medical use of marijuana, just like any other drug, when used for a genuine medical purpose.”

“Legalization of the recreational use of marijuana, on the other hand, would be a disaster for our state,” Taylor continued, citing medical evidence on how marijuana negatively affects developing brains and statistics on the rise of various societal problems, such as road accidents caused by impaired drivers, in states that have legalized weed.

“Legalizing a drug for recreational use that causes these effects on the human body, particularly our youth, is not a path civil society should choose to take,” Taylor said.

Dennis Lee, chancellor for administrative affairs for the Diocese of Little Rock, told CNA on Wednesday that Taylor’s statement was crafted to express opposition to the legalization of recreational marijuana in general and did not mention the specific ballot measure. Activist groups will likely attempt to legalize marijuana again, Lee noted, but Taylor’s statement against legalization “is going to speak for itself.”

Measures fail in the Dakotas

The Dakotas both rejected separate ballot measures to legalize recreational marijuana. North Dakota voters would have allowed people 21 and older to legally use marijuana at home, possess and cultivate restricted amounts of cannabis, and would have created a regulated industry. The measure failed approximately 55%-45%.

South Dakotans had actually voted to legalize marijuana possession before — in 2020 — but the state Supreme Court later struck down that result. This time around, the measure failed by 3%.

The Catholic bishops of South Dakota in a September statement had urged voters to reject Measure 27 due to “the harms that legalizing marijuana will bring to individuals, families, and our state.” The bishops of neighboring North Dakota released a similar statement, saying legalization “does not advance the common good and poses harm to families, children, our most vulnerable, and the community. Instead, it signals that marijuana is safe, without regard for those families and communities it leaves behind.”

Bishop David Kagan of Bismarck released a more detailed statement in late October, noting that “the experience of other states that have legalized marijuana shows that legalization does more harm than good, especially when it comes to the health, safety, and well-being of our families and children.”

“The problems with recreational marijuana are well-documented. States with recreational legalization have the highest teen usage rates. When recreational use for adults is legalized, youth increasingly believe that marijuana is not harmful, despite medical evidence that marijuana has a greater negative impact on youth than adults,” Kagan wrote.

“Marijuana can contribute to the breakdown of the family. There is substantial evidence that when marijuana use begins before adulthood, drug dependence arises more quickly. As these individuals become parents, dependence issues can produce chaotic and stress-filled homes, which harms child well-being,” he continued, going on to mention the evidence of harms to unborn babies caused by marijuana use and exposure during pregnancy.

Kagan also detailed the mental problems that can arise from marijuana use, such as suicidal thoughts and memory loss.

“Companies in states with legalized recreational marijuana have struggled to find employees who can pass drug tests, especially for federal jobs, industries that require the operation of heavy machinery, or jobs requiring truck driving. Research shows employees who tested positive for marijuana in pre-employment drug tests have higher rates of industrial accidents, injuries, and absenteeism,” the bishop wrote.

“California’s experience shows that rather than reducing illegal activity, legalization of marijuana has led to more illegal growing, more marijuana-related crime, more violence, worker exploitation, and environmental devastation.”

Jared Staudt, a theologian and professor at the Augustine Institute in Denver, told CNA in October that one of the reasons the Church opposes drug use is that it degrades one’s ability to take responsibility in life and turn to God for strength.

“​​If something is harmful to one’s bodily, moral, and spiritual health then the Church must oppose it for the good of the soul. Society also has a responsibility not to affirm as good something that is actually harmful, which is happening all too often,” Staudt said.

“When something is legalized, it communicates a message that it is not problematic. The penalties associated with the use of drugs, however, is another matter, and it is possible for someone to hold that the penalties for marijuana use have been too harsh.”

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Election News: Weed on the ballot: two states legalize recreational marijuana while three reject it