Legalized marijuana 'disastrous to our society,' Denver archbishop says in new pastoral

(OSV News) -- Legalized marijuana and a broad cultural acceptance of drug use have been "disastrous to our society," said Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila of Denver.

The archbishop issued the warning in his pastoral letter "That They May Have Life," released Nov. 10 and published to the Archdiocese of Denver's website.

The 62-page document -- the title of which references Jesus Christ's words in John 10:10 -- draws on Scripture, medical and social science data, papal encyclicals and church teaching to address the soaring toll of drug use, both legal and illegal, in Colorado and across the U.S.

"I write to you out of pastoral concern for the salvation of souls," wrote Archbishop Aquila. "I am convinced of the need to address the impact marijuana use is having on individuals, families and society in general."

With Colorado the first U.S. state to legalize recreational marijuana in 2012 -- and with both recreational and medical marijuana now legal in 23 and 28 states respectively -- efforts to mainstream illicit drugs have backfired tragically, leading to tremendous human suffering, said the archbishop.

Along with marijuana, "there is a need to speak about the devastating effects of drugs such as methamphetamine, fentanyl, opioids and others, that we have witnessed," said Archbishop Aquila. "In Colorado, we are now a decade into this experiment. As more studies come out and more deaths from fentanyl pile up, we now have an overwhelming amount of data that reinforces what we have known to be true all along."

In the U.S., which is the world's largest consumer market for illegal drugs, more than 109,000 died from drug overdoses in 2022, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The agency also reported that drug overdose deaths have contributed to a decrease in life expectancy in the U.S., which has reached its lowest level since 1996.

Archbishop Aquila said his letter was intended "to help Catholics intelligently dialogue with the 70% of Americans who currently believe marijuana should be legal."

While "there are many legitimate uses of therapeutic drugs (such as) medicines that assist in restoring the body to health," illicit drugs -- which are "any kind of psychoactive substance that is recreationally used to artificially cause significant changes in consciousness" -- seek to replace an authentic relationship with God, said Archbishop Aquila.

Drugs are immoral for two foundational reasons, said the archbishop: first, the human person's eternal value makes the use of any harmful substance wrong; and second, "anything that diminishes man's use of reason and will assails his dignity as a human person and is therefore harmful."

As a result, drugs "hinder our ability to know and to love" by "harming the very faculties that make us human," said Archbishop Aquila. "(They) inhibit our use of reason, weaken our will's orientation toward the good, and train our emotions to expect quick relief from artificial pleasure."

Regarding medical marijuana, Archbishop Aquila noted the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has so far approved only four marijuana-based medications: Marinol, Cesamet and Syndros, which are used to treat the side effects of chemotherapy; and the anti-seizure drug Epidiolex, which unlike the other three does not contain THC (tetrahydrocannabinol), the psychoactive component of cannabis, and instead relies on the seemingly non-addictive component CBD (cannabidiol).

"As far as medical marijuana is genuinely effective, it should be treated like any other medication" -- that is, administered in a medicinal form under a physician's care, with daily dosage limits and with "the intention of trying to restore health to the body," said the archbishop.

At the same time, "much of the research on cannabis and related substances has been plagued by low quality and insufficiently broad studies," he said.

Archbishop Aquila dismissed the distinction between "hard" and "soft" drugs as "subjective," pointing out that "at the pharmacological level such a distinction does not exist."

He quoted St. John Paul II's observation that such a distinction "downplays the risks inherent in taking any toxic product, especially behavioral dependency, which is based on the psychic structures themselves, the blurring of conscience and the loss of one's will and freedom, whatever the drug."

Archbishop Aquila noted that in Colorado, marijuana use disorder more than doubled in 20 years, jumping from 1.6% in the early 2000s to 3.3% as of 2019.

Along with dependence, marijuana users are at risk for temporary psychosis and long-lasting mental disorders, including schizophrenia, he noted, citing data from the CDC and other agencies.

The archbishop also cited research indicating IQ decline and spikes in suicide among marijuana users, as well as an increase in marijuana-related traffic accidents -- which in Colorado rose from 676 in 2014 to 1,513 in 2020.

The effects of marijuana have been compounded by a dramatic increase in its levels of THC (tetrahydrocannabinol), the psychoactive component of cannabis -- which has grown from 4% in the 1990s to at least 15%, and which can reach levels of 85-90% in the THC oils used in vaping, he said.

Economic arguments for the legalization of marijuana and other drugs also have failed, said Archbishop Aquila.

With U.S. medicinal and recreational sales reaching $33 billion in 2022, marijuana may appear to be a cash cow for tax revenue, but "society spends much more than the government collects once all the related costs are calculated" -- among them, health care, crime response and environmental impact, Archbishops Aquila said.

He noted one study that found for every dollar Colorado gained in tax revenue from legalized marijuana, the state's population spent about $4.50 to mitigate the effects of the drug.

Contrary to advocates' arguments, legalization has enhanced rather than deterred the illegal drug market, said the archbishop, as "both Colorado and California have seen massive growth in the marijuana underground market since legalization."

Alcohol also can be abused with severe consequences, said the archbishop, although its significantly lower potency in contrast to current THC levels, along with current consumption patterns, indicate that "clearly Americans are using alcohol and marijuana very differently," arguing the latter is used more explicitly for immediate and sustained intoxication.

Ultimately, drug use centers on "a crisis of values" and a lack of connectedness to others, said Archbishop Aquila.

"Drug use is much more likely when a person lives without purpose and does not believe life has meaning," he said.

"The most important thing we can do as Christians in response to a drug culture is to proclaim the Gospel," said the archbishop. "It is through the love, mercy, meaning, and hope found in Christ that people will be deterred from drug use or inspired to break free of its influence."

Laypeople play a pivotal role in helping the church to prevent and suppress drug abuse, and to rehabilitate those wounded by it, he said.

Amid a culture of quick pleasure, a new emphasis on "the role of redemptive suffering" is crucial, he said.

"Everyone can find some meaning in their pain and hardships by uniting those sufferings with Christ's sacrifice on the Cross to rain down blessings," said the archbishop. "Jesus wants to give us a fullness of love, joy, and peace that remains constant in the face of life's peaks and valleys. Rather than reaching for chemicals when we are feeling weary and burdened, Jesus invites us to turn to him, who promises rest and abundance."

- - - Gina Christian is a national reporter for OSV News. Follow her on X, formerly Twitter, at @GinaJesseReina- - - NOTES: The full text of "That They Might Have Life" by Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila of Denver can be accessed on the Archdiocese of Denver's website at