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A New High

‘“All things are lawful for me,” but not all things are beneficial. “All things are lawful for me,” but I will not be dominated by anything.’ (1 Corinthians 6:12)

I support legal pot the way that I support legal cigarettes. It makes sense that those who buy it should not be considered criminal and that those who sell it should be regulated. I can get behind motivations that include weakening the black market, offering quality control and decluttering our court systems. Although I have yet to see comprehensive research on the long-term effects of consuming pot, and I am alarmed at the available research detailing the problems the drug can cause for youth, I can still be glad for the anecdotal evidence of how cannabis offers desperately-sought relief to people with a variety of complicated medical needs, and I can agree that this relief should not come with the price tag of stigma attached. Finally, I can appreciate that I am being hypocritical if I don’t acknowledge that, as a recreational drug, pot is not so different from alcohol — that it might actually be safer in some key ways from a glass of wine, and that now that it is able to be consumed openly and legally it is even more likely to take on the same trappings of leisure and culture that we associate with, say, a nice merlot.

My problem then is not with legalization, nor is it particularly with the choice to consume. My problem is how we are talking about this new development in our country’s history.

Having seen in my lifetime the urgent campaign waged against tobacco, which has so successfully moved cigarette smoking from a common cultural phenomena to a fringe and frowned-upon habit, I had assumed that pot would be treated more like this: if you are going to smoke it, it’s available, but we’re not making it easy for you. Instead, our public language about weed suggests that we collectively believe that now it’s here, we’re all going to be imbibing; that this will become a normal and everyday part of our cultural landscape. For months now, I have been listening to news reports detailing the fanfare and celebration, the range of available products and what they offer, and the anticipated shortages of supply in anticipation of the October 17 legalization date. I can’t believe these same news outlets don’t understand the free advertising they are offering this newly legal industry. Each and every report subtly reinforces the assumption that everyone of legal age will consider it normal and attractive to want this new high for ourselves too.

Meanwhile, nobody is talking about addiction. I know, pot isn’t nearly as addictive as cigarettes and alcohol, blah, blah, blah. I’m not necessarily talking about the masses of people, hooked on a long list of possible substances, cycling in and out of AA programs and rehab centres at appallingly low rates of long-term recovery. Although surely their struggle deserves our compassion and attention. Rather, I am talking about how we as a society are addicted to escaping, numbing and augmenting our lives. The people I see struggling daily with the demon of addiction — and in a downtown church, the long-term effects of substance abuse are stunningly visible — are coddled and enabled in that addiction by a whole society of people who really just want to get high. We want to calm down, rev up, ignore our problems, lubricate our relationships, reward ourselves, thrill ourselves, soothe ourselves, and manage pain of all sorts. And we are offered a vast landscape of consumable goods to do these things, each good promising relief, release, thrills, acceptance, belonging and satisfaction: not just wine and beer, but also sugar and fat and anti-aging creams and a non-stop stream of noise and distractions, affirmation and titillation, through our omnipresent screens. Now we have one more way of rewarding ourselves with the numbness of escape and the excitement of altering our brains. As as a society, we are willing to accept with only the quietest of protests that all we can do is join the rush of the masses pouring through that now open floodgate.

Because what we really wouldn’t want to do is ask questions. We wouldn’t want to question the pervasive and perhaps even escalating rates of mental illness which exists in stark contrast to our endlessly amusing and materially rich culture and the promise that it will all make us happy. We wouldn’t want to talk about the shocking and traumatic rise of death by suicide (2 in our small city within a week, 5 within a month on the train lines into Toronto). And we wouldn’t want to wonder if all of the variety of products we have to escape our own lives are really medicating our hurting psyches or making the problem worse.

Our Indigenous Canadian communities have been considering these questions deeply for years now because the crisis before all of us has been so severe for them that they can’t not ask the whys and wherefores. Their rates of depression, addiction, and most especially suicide have, in some communities, been the highest in the world. They have identified a history that systemically removed from them their spiritual roots — their beliefs, their stories, their language, their relationships with one another and the land they live on — as being at the heart of their troubles. Furthermore, their most powerful leaders of today are leading movements that are primarily spiritual in nature, recognizing that the most important component of health in their people will be reconnecting with beliefs of how our lives participate in something (or Someone) bigger than ourselves.

As our National Indigenous Anglican Bishop, Mark MacDonald, says, we all need to pay attention to the problems our First Peoples are facing and the insight they are offering. Because their story is ours too.

We also (albeit by our own volition, it would seem) have become disconnected from our spiritual roots, from the stories and beliefs that informed our ancestors. We worship at the altar of secular materialism, not exactly believing it, but acting as if our stuff will save us. And if that leaves us feeling a little hollow, then we have an endless array of entertaining options for temporarily filling the void. If we can concede that Alcoholics Anonymous was right all of those decades ago when they identified the addiction problem as spiritual in nature, and therefore the road to recovery as a radical reclaiming of, and surrendering to, that spiritual reality, then perhaps we can also see that a similar reclaiming and surrendering could offer a way forward out of our spiral of cultural addiction.

I don’t pretend that such a conversation would be easy. Even Alcoholics Anonymous struggles with whether it can really push what is increasingly seen as a “God agenda” to a people who have so well been taught that religion is tolerable only if it is never presented as anything other than a private choice. (I am told, interestingly, that the success rate of the program has continually decreased as its spiritual content has been watered down).

The conversation won’t be and isn’t easy. But I’m always a fan of baby steps, of starting somewhere, even if it is small. Let’s start with questioning, calling out, or even just noticing, not the legalization of pot, but the addictive language, the addictive assumptions, the addictive advertising surrounding it. Maybe if we can start there, then we’ll also begin to wonder whether we’re not being sold a great big false bill of goods. And whether or not what we really want is something more.