One of the first (and best) concerts I ever attended was to see Peter Tosh perform in San Luis Obispo. I was 16, visiting my older sister who lived nearby and was excited to go. If you’re not familiar with him, Peter Tosh is one of the most acclaimed reggae performers, one of the original Wailers (along with Bob Marley and Bunny Wailer); he was tragically murdered during a home invasion in 1987. His Equal Rights album is framed and hanging on the wall in my powder room. His songs are all about equality, decriminalizing marijuana, dealing with poverty, and maintaining a live and let live philosophy.

There is currently an initiative on the ballot in Arizona to decriminalize small amounts (1 ounce) of recreational pot for adult recreational use. The Church has published a letter to encourage members to vote against this initiative. Having read the letter, here’s my question: why? The Church letter seemed to take it for granted that we are all going to agree, but it didn’t address the concerns that are driving this legislation: 1) the large prison population of minor drug offenders, particularly black people, 2) that the science on marijuana, CBD and THC are looking like it’s more beneficial than damaging, 3) the wasted police resources trying to punish minor personal-use drug offenses, and 4) that we don’t have to legislate morality. The Church isn’t seeking to close down all coffee shops or prevent the sale of alcohol (because last time they tried that it failed big time). We live in a pluralistic society. Not everyone has to follow Mormon rules. Not even Mormons do. It’s voluntary.

I’m not personally interested in smoking pot. I’m not currently suffering from an ailment that would improve by its usage, either medically or recreationally. Those who say it’s like alcohol are probably close to right in my book. This initiative will not change my life at all either way. According to my teenage daughter (my go-to source for what these youngsters are up to nowadays), stoners smoke pot, but it’s not like some gateway to other things, as Nancy Reagan and other pearl-clutchers warned us in the 80s, and it’s mostly just appealing to a subset of Pineapple Express kids. Those who want to get high will get high either way. Alcohol and vaping are far more popular these days. In many ways, marijuana is far less of a problem than underage drinking. For example, sexual assault has a long history of association with underage drinking (and drinking in general), and there is no such association with marijuana usage. It’s also not linked to crime (aside from the crime of possessing it). It also doesn’t prevent you from going to work the next day.

The people I know who currently smoke pot are mostly black working class people who want to relax after a hard day. Criminalizing pot is one of the biggest reasons we have so many black people incarcerated in this country.

Black people are 3.64 times more likely than white people to be arrested for marijuana possession, notwithstanding comparable usage rates. In every single state, Black people were more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession, and in some states, Black people were up to six, eight, or almost ten times more likely to be arrested. In 31 states, racial disparities were actually larger in 2018 than they were in 2010.

Decriminalizing it seems like a good way to reduce that inequity in jailing. In a Church trying hard to distance itself from a racist past, this seems like an issue we should be on the right side of. Aside from these folks, I know others who consume edibles the same way others use a glass of wine in the evening, to unwind before bed. It’s not my jam, but it seems far less addictive and harmful than ambien which is legal.

I suppose my biggest question is, why does the church even care about this? If we claim (as we like to do) political neutrality, then why shouldn’t we encourage people to read up on these issues and vote based on good information? The letter published to Church members in Arizona also encouraged us to publish our dislike for it on social media, but there were no arguments provided that explained why we should oppose it on moral grounds or otherwise. It’s not like it being legal (like cigarettes and alcohol) means Mormons will suddenly use it[1], any more than Roe v. Wade means Mormons will flock to abortion clinics. There are plenty of legal things that are not permitted in the church.

Peter Tosh’s arguments to legalize it are more cogent than the Church’s letter from what I can see:

Legalize it

Legalize it
Don’t criticize it
Legalize it, yeah yeah
And I will advertise it
Some call it tamjee
Some call it the weed
Some call it marijuana
Some of them call it ganja
Never mind, got to legalize it
And don’t criticize it
Legalize it, yeah yeah
And I will advertise it
Singers smoke it,
And players of instrument, too
Legalize it, yeah yeah
That’s the best thing you can do
Doctors smoke it
Nurses smoke it
Judges smoke it
Even lawyer, too
So you’ve got to legalize it
And it don’t criticize it
Legalize it, yeah yeah
And I will advertise it
It’s good for the flu
Good for asthma
Good for tuberculosis
Even numara thrombosis
Go to legalize it
Don’t criticize…

To wit, his arguments are: 1) everyone uses it, including “respectable” people in medical professions, 2) it helps people with various medical conditions, and 3) he just lists a bunch of other cool names for it. This argument’s biggest flaw is that medical marijuana is already legal here, although it does require a card. In small amounts like those in this proposed legislation, there’s no real reason to believe that we will suddenly land in Reefer Madness, the ridiculous black and white movie that asserts that pot smoking leads to both murder and maniacal piano playing (they get the vibe of this drug exactly opposite).

By contrast, a Mormon I know posted on NextDoor that we needed to vote down this ballot initiative because if it passes, our precious little ones will suddenly start smoking pot. This argument is dumb for a few reasons I can see: 1) the initiative makes it legal for adults not kids, 2) pot is actually kind of passe for kids compared to other things out there unless they belong to that specific subset I mentioned, and 3) taking away the forbidden nature of something usually makes it less desirable to rebellious teens, not more desirable. No teen is out there coveting their dad’s dandruff medication or their mom’s hypertension pills. The more it becomes associated with parental behavior, the less likely it seems cool.

In a different discussion about the ballot initiative, a neighbor claimed that marijuana leads to schizophrenia and homelessness (the reefer madness argument with a twist?) and then another neighbor counter-argued:

No one has ever proven causation. This assertion is patently false propaganda pushed by the private prison lobby. You are either complicit or misinformed. Legalize it, don’t criticize it.[2]

This argument poses another question, though. Why are we still criminalizing drugs rather than addressing drug addiction through public funding? Do we really want to ruin people’s lives over drugs (through imprisonment) rather than having public programs to help them overcome addiction (if they are addicted)? One of these things is in the public interest, and one of these things is in the interest of private prisons, a corrupt lobby currently protected by conservatives.

I know there are many who would argue that the Church should lose its tax exempt status for lacking political neutrality, and while I personally believe that’s something that should be revisited for ALL religions, the Church is usually more politically neutral than most other faiths, this letter notwithstanding. Many Evangelical churches do openly support specific political candidates, something the Church never fully does[3].

The problem I have with letters like this coming from the Church is that they seem to imply that we should be voting as a monolith, they provide no rationale (on the contrary, arguments are weak sauce an unscientific), and they don’t treat these as serious multi-faceted issues. If we aren’t going to engage with the real issues, then we shouldn’t be telling people how to vote. To me, this feels like what I see conservatives doing in general, trying to oppose progress without evaluating current information or understanding how societal trends have changed. For example, in a recent conference talk a speaker blamed out-of-wedlock pregnancy on the sexual revolution, a stance that’s laughable. Is he really implying that out-of-wedlock pregnancy just started in the 1960s?? Last I checked it’s been around since the dawn of time. On the contrary, the sexual revolution improved sexual responsibility by engaging women’s issues for the first time: access to birth control, sex ed, reproductive rights, and taking rape seriously. Out-of-wedlock pregnancies are at an all-time low.

  • Are you for or against legalizing recreational marijuana in small amounts? Why?
  • Should the Church try to get Mormons to vote as one block on policy issues or encourage members to read up on issues and vote accordingly?
  • Is the Church making itself irrelevant by not providing a rationale for political arguments like this? Is it creating a credibility problem for Church leaders or do most members agree with their arguments without any rationale being provided?


[1] Although coming to Church high would have to be an improvement. Based on That 70s Show, smoking pot makes the most mundane things seem deep.

[2] Yes, my neighbor just quoted Peter Tosh lyrics.

[3] Even if we all dig through every stray political comment for a mite of evidence that they have done so, one way or another.