ROME – Weed dispensaries will exist alongside casinos, strip clubs and 24-hour liquor stores as Nevada joined the growing number of states in America allowing the legal use of marijuana for recreational purposes on July 1.

Catholic teaching has strongly opposed this cultural shift, denouncing the use of all drugs as causing “very grave damage on human health and life” and describing their use as a “grave offense,” except on strictly therapeutic grounds.

But this time, what happens in Vegas might not stay in Vegas. Marijuana is already legal in the states of Colorado, Washington, Alaska and Oregon, and an increasing number of people have favorable views on its use and legalization.

“The Church’s concern is always with the human person and with the deleterious effects of addiction and the loss of one’s rational faculty,” Father Robert A. Sirico, founder of the Acton Institute, a Michigan-based think tank promoting free market principles based on Christian and Catholic morality, told Crux in an interview.

Pope Francis has often spoken out against drug use. During a conference in 2014 he called it an “evil,” adding that attempts “to legalize so-called ‘recreational drugs,’ are not only highly questionable from a legislative standpoint, but they fail to produce the desired effects.”

But Sirico underlined that “there’s a whole spectrum of drug use, and the way to analyze it is to identify principles and not demonize a particular substance,” noting that marijuana itself is not evil.

“(The pope) is a pastor, and if I were speaking to a general congregation I would offer some really strong language in regard to the potential danger of dependency and the destructive effect of drugs,” he said.

Cultural differences between alcohol and drug use in the Church

According to Sirico, there’s a cultural aspect when it comes to discussing marijuana use. Wine, for example, which also impairs human rationality in high doses, is culturally accepted not only in our society but also within Catholicism.

Historically, monks have been at the forefront of alcoholic beverage production, notably the Don Perignon champagne, and wine itself is an important part of Catholic liturgy.

“The Church has had 2,000 years, and if you link us with Judaism it goes back to 3,000 years, of experience with wine,” Sirico said. “As a whole, Western civilization has not had the kind of cultural engagement with drugs in the way we have with alcohol.”

There is an etiquette when it comes to alcohol consumption, prohibiting people from showing up to work inebriated for example, or going to dinner parties drunk.

The cultural divide is more obvious when comparing Catholic behavior toward spirits with other religions.

“If I sat down with a number of Protestant friends, particularly Baptist or Pentecostal friends, and had a bottle of wine at the table, it would be horrific from a cultural standpoint,” Sirico said, adding that in that situation serving wine would be perceived as “sinful and scandalous.

“I think in some ways marijuana is burdened with that context and we don’t have broader cultural understanding of that,” he said.

Though recognizing that this might be due to a cultural factor, Sirico added that “that’s not something you can just dismiss and say it’s not important.” He also pointed to the qualitative differences between alcohol and other types of drugs.

When St. Thomas refers to inebriation, he considered it to become morally problematic when the person loses the faculty of reason, but in the case of marijuana “that boundary is different,” according to the priest.

This becomes even more relevant when referring to ‘harder drugs,’ where the addictive qualities occur with smaller doses and shorter periods of time.

“A person takes a while to become an alcoholic, it doesn’t take that long to become a crack or heroin addict,” Sirico said.

Legalization as a path to end illegal trafficking

While recognizing the risks of drug addiction, Sirico believes that some form of regularization or legalization can cut into the profits of the illegal drug trade.

“What people don’t appreciate about illegal drug trafficking is how it empowers the drug dealers,” he said.

He went on to address the fact that many young people who lack economic opportunities or stable employment surrender to the temptation of making large margins of profit by selling drugs.

“They don’t see themselves as having a future, so this risky enterprise is something that will pay them, and pay them well,” Sirico said.

Another point made by those in support of legalization and decriminalization of drugs is that by acting outside of the legal framework, those selling drugs do not settle their disputes peacefully but resort to violence as well as corrupting the legal and policing system.

“I don’t see how that is necessarily helped by criminalizing the behavior and putting people in long prison terms, giving them a track record that makes it difficult for them to get out and reform their lives,” Sirico said. “I think that’s better handled in a therapeutic and pastoral way than it is in a criminal way.”

Despite being open to considering a legal option for marijuana, Sirico does not believe it coincides in any way with the promotion or encouragement of drugs.

“We should culturally and morally discourage the general use, and the non-necessary use, of chemicals to stimulate ourselves, while at the same time having different attitudes about how we go about minimizing the effect of drugs in the society, both in terms of criminality and finance,” he said.

Millennials for Marijuana

Support for weed legalization in the United States has been dramatically increasing in recent years. More than half (57 percent) of Americans believe that the state should allow the sale and consumption of marijuana, compared to the 32 percent who were in favor a decade ago.

Behind this surge in numbers are Millennials, born between the late 80s and early 2000s, who overwhelmingly support legalization (71 percent), according to a 2016 study by the Pew Research Center.

According to Sirico, this trend is not reflected in the Millennial priests who are just now joining the ranks.

“I found that many of the young priests have never used marijuana while men in my generation might have because we grew up in the 60s and 70s,” he said.

Support for legalization has also increased among baby boomers, according to the Pew study, reaching 56 percent.

Sirico himself, before joining the Catholic Church and becoming a priest, says he delved into smoking weed. When he was young, he was involved with the political left, for whom he describes the use of marijuana as “very casual.” On one occasion, he said, he slipped a joint to actress and political activist Jane Fonda, with whom he was working to register voters.

“That’s not something I am proud of, certainly not something I advocate and certainly nothing I would do today, but that’s more than a 40-year-old memory,” Sirico said.

He also added that his personal experience with marijuana use allows him to understand the issue more in depth.

While acknowledging that smoking weed “dulls the keenness of one’s mind,” he also knows that “smoking it once isn’t going to put you in a boat to China to some opium den. The harsh stereotypes of the thing, which are so absurd, really turn young people off, because you don’t know what you are talking about.”