Is consuming cannabis a sin? A religion expert weighs in
Throughout most of the United States, cannabis is legal for at least medicinal use, and in nearly half of the states, for recreational purposes as well. For many Americans, there are no longer legal barriers to consuming cannabis. However, there are many substances that are legal to use but might not be moral to use, leading some people to ask, “Is smoking weed a sin?”
People have moral objections to many legal products, such as those that involve environmental harm, animal suffering, or the oppression of workers. The law and morality often diverge, so even in the case of legal products, people must make a personal decision about whether or not their use is moral.
There are many possible sources of morality, but one of the most important for many people is religion. When reflecting on choices and actions, many religious people will want to know not only whether it is lawful but also if it’s sinful.
This question has been asked in numerous internet forums, and whether or not one is religiously observant, it is worth reflecting on this question. As a professor of religion, I have often been asked, “Is smoking weed a sin?” Responding to this query requires careful theological reflection, but in the end, I believe the answer will be clear.
The word “sin,” like any theological term, has a range of meanings. Before we answer the question of whether or not cannabis use is sinful, we must develop a working definition of “sin.”
The word “sin” goes back to Old English and, beyond that, is related to proto-Germanic and earlier forms of Indo-European languages, including Latin.
In most contexts throughout its history, “sin” has been connected most strongly with Christianity, and it has been considered a transgression against God’s law. A sin is an immoral act and, moreover, an offense against God.
The meaning of the word has expanded over time and been applied in many ways (e.g., we can talk about a writer committing a “literary sin” or even something as being “sinfully delicious”).
For the purposes of this reflection, we will focus on the meaning of sin in Jewish and Christian contexts as indicating an act in some way contrary to God’s will, which means that, to a large extent, it will contradict biblical commands or prohibitions.
We can certainly think about whether or not cannabis use would be considered wrong or bad in other religious or philosophical traditions, but here we will focus on biblical ways of approaching the question.
However, if we are going to be using the Bible to help us answer the question, we have to recognize that the word “sin” is not used in the original languages of the Bible. The language of the Old Testament is Hebrew (English-speaking Jews call the text The Hebrew Bible, not The Old Testament), and the language of the New Testament is Greek.
So, if we really want to get at the biblical concept of “sin,” we must look at the biblical words in the original languages. When we do this, we discover two different ways of thinking about the concept of sin, which can guide us in answering the cannabis question.
Is consuming cannabis a transgression against God?
The word that corresponds to “sin” in the sense of transgressing against divine law is captured by the Hebrew word “pesha”. Professor Earl Schwartz, an expert in biblical Hebrew, explained in personal correspondence that pesha “connotes intention to violate or transgress against someone or some standard.”
If one has the intent to transgress against God’s law, or if someone intentionally violates a biblical commandment, the word “pesha” would apply.
Therefore, one way to answer the question of the sinfulness of cannabis use is to determine whether or not the use of cannabis violates any of God’s commandments. Is there anything in the Bible that instructs us not to use cannabis? The clear answer to this question is No.
In fact, it is probably the case that smoking marijuana is not specifically mentioned in any Bible verses. Some scholars have argued that the biblical term “kaneh bosem” (literally “reed of sweet spice” or “fragrant/aromatic cane,” listed as an ingredient in holy anointing oil) might refer to cannabis, but the claim is somewhat tenuous (other possible meanings are “balsam” or “calamus”).
However, cannabis is undeniably mentioned in a foundational Jewish religious text, The Talmud, with the word “kanabus,” and in Jewish texts throughout the centuries.
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Archeological evidence has demonstrated that cannabis was used in Israel as early as 750 BCE. The researchers who excavated a site 35 miles south of Jerusalem found the remains of burnt cannabis on an altar.
They concluded that “cannabis inflorescences were burnt there, conceivably as part of a ritual that took place in the shrine. It seems feasible to suggest that the use of cannabis on the Arad altar had a deliberate psychoactive role.”
Boston University Professor Carl Ruck writes, “There can be little doubt about a role for cannabis in Judaic religion.” Cannabis is believed to be among the oils used for anointing, and Ruck states, “Obviously the easy availability and long-established tradition of cannabis in early Judaism would inevitably have included it in the [Christian] mixtures.”
So, while Ruck might be overstating the case (I would question the claim of a “long-established tradition of cannabis use”), there is clearly evidence for the use of cannabis by Israelites going back millennia, and there is no evidence that the ancient Israelites, or the Jews of Jesus’ time (or Jesus himself), condemned cannabis in any way.
While it is uncertain whether or not cannabis is mentioned in the Hebrew Bible, it is safe to say that, from a biblical perspective, God did not deem any plant evil, nor did God prohibit the consumption of any plant —with one notable exception of a particular tree in the Garden of Eden. Otherwise, humans were given all plant life to consume (which is why all plants are kosher).
The Book of Genesis proclaims the goodness of all plants and their availability for use by humanity: “The land produced vegetation: plants bearing seed according to their kinds and trees bearing fruit with seed in it according to their kinds. And God saw that it was good” (Gen 1:11-13).
Then God said, “I give you every seed-bearing plant on the face of the whole earth and every tree that has fruit with seed in it. They will be yours for food” (Gen 1:29). (Anyone who used cannabis before the emergence of dispensaries overflowing with perfectly trimmed buds knows all too well that cannabis is indeed a “seed-bearing plant”).
In texts throughout Jewish history, cannabis is mentioned in the context of farming, clothing, medicine, and even warding off evil spirits. Rastafarians, whose worldview is thoroughly biblical, believe that cannabis is the plant referred to as “the healing of the nation” (Rev. 22.2), and they consider its use sacramental.
In short – from a biblical perspective, God deemed all of the natural world “good,” and there is no reason to believe that any particular plant should be considered forbidden to human beings.
Rabbi Baruch HaLevi said, “There is no such thing as a bad plant. All plants are deemed ‘kosher’ according to the simple reading of the Creation story, period.”
“Missing the mark”
But this is not the end of the story. There is another concept that can be understood as “sin” in the Bible, and that is captured by the word “Hata’ah” in Hebrew and “Hamartia” in Greek. The meaning of this word is “missing the mark.”
There are many ways that our actions can fail to hit the mark, such as doing things in the wrong way, at the wrong time, to excess or deficiency, or in a way that impacts others negatively. What leads us to miss the mark? We can go astray due to ignorance, thoughtlessness, or lack of wisdom; we can be dominated by our appetites and led by selfishness.
The first use of the word “hata’ah” in the Hebrew Bible is in the story of Cain and Abel, which involves jealousy that culminates in murder, after which God warns, “If you do not do what is right, Hata’ah is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must rule over it” (Gen 4:7).
In other words, if we do not control our impulses, emotions, and appetites, they will control us. In the New Testament, Paul says, “We are slaves to sin” (Romans 6:16; the Greek here comes from “hamartia”).
Being a “slave” to something is an oft-used metaphor for addiction, which involves compulsive behavior that harms oneself and/or others. One becomes controlled by a substance or activity rather than being in control of it.
If the use of a substance compromises one’s judgment or makes one incapable of carrying out essential activities safely or effectively, we are at risk of hata’ah. This is why, although the Bible does not explicitly prohibit cannabis, aspects of biblical morality and law are relevant when they address forms of intoxication that can impair judgment and action.
Christians who argue that cannabis use is sinful often use these kinds of arguments. While the New Testament does not mention cannabis, there are numerous warnings against drunkenness and intoxication. In some cases, Christian thinkers associate cannabis use with sexual immorality.
In Ephesians 5:18, the Apostle Paul says, “And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit.” In Corinthians, drunkards are considered one of the categories of people who will not “inherit the kingdom of God” (Corinthians 6:10).
The caution against drunkenness is expanded by some Christians to all substances that cause intoxication. Brandon Sutton, Associate Pastor of The Journey Church, writes, “The main point is that intoxication in general is a sin. We are not to be controlled by any substance, ‘but be filled with the Spirit.’ Marijuana use causes intoxication. Therefore, it is a sin.”
Sutton goes on to make a highly questionable claim – that any cannabis usage would lead to compromised judgment (although he believes that this is not true of alcohol use, which he argues can be done responsibly).
Sutton’s attempts to treat cannabis and alcohol differently here are unconvincing, but we can see the reasoning behind the argument against forms of intoxication that lead to poor judgment.
Another problematic aspect of Sutton’s argument is that he implies that the effects of marijuana (or any substance that alters consciousness) will somehow prevent one from being “filled with the spirit.” Within the Abrahamic traditions, there is often this kind of suspicion about mind-altering substances or activities.
However, many religious thinkers (certainly many mystics) from a variety of religious traditions would argue that the usual “sober” state of mind itself is often in the grips of self-centeredness, greed, anger, etc.
This is why so many traditions believe that our ordinary mind must be transformed or opened up in some way, whether by meditation, contemplation, ritual, music, or dance, so that we can gain greater access to wisdom and truth.
One of the most widely used paths to consciousness transformation is the use of plants, including cannabis. So, it is worth thinking about whether the effect of wisely used cannabis can be enhanced wisdom rather than impaired judgment.
Surely, unskillful use of cannabis or alcohol can lead people astray. Isaiah 28:7 warns that those who “reel with strong drink” also “err in vision, they stumble in judgment.” We can extend this to unwise cannabis use. But skillful use can bring significant benefits.
We must ask ourselves – Is cannabis use enhancing our lives, providing us with insight or a deeper engagement with the world? Or is it causing harm to my body or mind, to others around me, or to my work?
So, is smoking weed a sin?
We can now revisit the question: “Is smoking weed a sin?” I would argue that it depends entirely on how cannabis is used (the same can be said for virtually any substance).
No plant can be inherently bad, and the use of any plant to heal others or ease their suffering is entirely in accord with Jewish and Christian morality. It would be virtually impossible to imagine a convincing biblical argument against the medicinal or therapeutic use of cannabis.
Rabbi HaLevi writes, “We have a moral duty to explore, perfect, and provide any plant and every plant if it has medicinal benefits. It’s a mitzvah to alleviate suffering, heal, and save lives.”
What about non-medicinal use? Here, we can draw on the notion of “missing the mark.” Instead of using a Puritanical way of thinking, a view of good and evil, of suspicion of any kind of pleasure, which leads to a prohibitionist mindset, we can think about what kinds of uses are wise, skillful, responsible, or helpful, as opposed to those that lead to poor judgment, harmful action, and irresponsibility.
I believe that forms of religion that deem sensory or embodied pleasures to be inherently sinful (e.g., those that reject music or art, condemn sexual pleasure for its own sake, and emphasize purity and self-denial) too often lead to an impoverished form of life, psychological damage, and behavior warped by unsatisfied desire or guilt.
We should instead think about cultivating virtues found in almost all religious traditions – wisdom, compassion, moderation, self-discipline – so that we can, as far as possible, avoid actions that “miss the mark.”
If we use cannabis, and all of the plant life with which we are blessed on this earth, with wisdom, we can use it to enhance life, ease suffering, and bring joy. Because such use “hits the mark,” and because any theist must agree that cannabis is the product of divine handiwork, we cannot conclude that all cannabis use is sinful.
This article was submitted by a guest contributor to GreenState. The author is solely responsible for the content.