The place of drugs in religion is much more complicated than most people recognize. Let us figure out whether marijuana is a God’s plant or evil’s work and what the world’s principal religions actually think about the drug.
In the mystical bygone eras, Muslims were regularly using cannabis in an effort to connect with the divine. Countless followers of Mohammed’s faith, from fakirs to simple believers, used the drug in search of elusive Allah. But marijuana was not as prevalent at the time as it is nowadays.
Like the Bible, the Qur’an contains numerous prohibitions on behavior, particularly the pleasure-seeking kind. Because the Qur’an speaks specifically of wine, Muslims had to figure out Islamic positions on other substances. There is no direct mentioning of cannabis neither in the Qur’an nor in the opinions of the Companions. Therefore, many scholars claim that it has to be dealt with by deductive analogy known in Islam as Qiyas level. They believe that if wine is an intoxicant (kharm) and is forbidden (haram), then all intoxicants belong in the category of wine. Because wine is haram, then so must be marijuana.
Other Muslims interpreting the religious text argue that no one has the right to prohibit what the Qur’an itself does not. They claim that the fact cannabis and wine share certain qualities does not mean that they both should automatically fall under the same category. They also point to a strong undercurrent of cannabis use throughout the long history of Islam. Sufis, Islam’s great mystical branch, expanded the use of the drug as a religious vehicle throughout the Islamic world during the early centuries of the new millennium. According to the legend, the Persian monk, Haydar, who founded the Sufis, came across the plant in AD 1155 in the Persian mountains.
Generally, in orthodox Islam, conservative and Salafi scholars consider cannabis an intoxicant. The Hadith, the book of saying of the Prophet Mohammed, states: “If much intoxicates, then even a little is haram.” The Message of Allah refers to every single substance that impairs the ability to think, pray, and take care of family regardless of the form and method of consumption. As Allah forbids alcohol consumption for its intoxicating effect, anything that similarly intoxicates is also forbidden. For this reason, the Ummah has unanimously held the impermissibility of substances like marijuana. Moreover, any interaction with cannabis, whether it is the use or the selling and trafficking, is haram.
As for the medical use of marijuana, the issue is even more disputable. Based on the fact that the drug is not allowed, its usage for medical purposes is also prohibited. Many religious leaders clearly state that any narcotic substance is absolutely forbidden. Some Muslims ask about the use of the drug for treating certain medical conditions. In such cases, medical use of marijuana comes under the same ruling as other intoxicating drugs, such as cocaine and morphine. It is halal (allowed) if it is prescribed by a physician and if there is a medical necessity for it.
Despite all religious prohibitions, countries of the Middle East have a long tradition of recreational use of marijuana and hashish. They also have some of the most drastic drug laws that apply to all psychoactive substances. Corporeal punishment, life imprisonment, and death penalty are common in the region. For instance, Iran leads the world in executions per capita, and drug offenses usually result in a death penalty sentence. Under Saudi Arabia’s interpretation of Islamic Sharia law, drug trafficking is punishable by death. Iraqi drug traffickers may face life imprisonment and death penalty.
There are some things that are neither illegal (forbidden by government) nor sinful (forbidden by God) but simply unwise. For example, eating a cornflakes box instead of the food it contains is neither illegal nor sinful—it is just foolish. Similarly, the Bible speaks not only of sin but also of folly.
The Bible does not specifically mention marijuana, cocaine, heroin, cigarettes, or any other drug. However, its condemnation of drunkenness is evident. “And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery.” (Ephesians 5:18)
Some Christians believe that marijuana usage is wrong in all circumstances because the reason people use it (to get high) stands in contradiction to Christian principles. They appeal to 1 Thessalonians 5:6-8 and argue that Christians must be sober: “For those who sleep, sleep at night, and those who get drunk, are drunk at night. But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, having put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation.” Anyone who is affected to any extent by cannabis is not sober.
The second argument against marijuana use is that your body is not your own. “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body” (1 Corinthians 6:19-20). “Whether therefore you eat, or drink, or whatsoever you do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Corinthians 10:31).
However, there are Christians who support cannabis use and favor legalization. They quote Timothy 4:4, which reads that “everything God created is good.” So why, they wonder, should marijuana be bad? Another most commonly cited pro-cannabis verse, Genesis 1:29, says: “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.”
What about marijuana’s purported medical value? Most believers think that marijuana could be allowed if it were used in a genuinely medicinal way. While there is lack of scientific research on cannabis and its compounds, products derived from the plant, specifically prescribed ones like dronabinol, appear to be helpful. The Presbyterian Church’s position on marijuana smoking notes that Matthew 25:35 calls people to give aid to those who are suffering. A variety of Christian denominations has supported the legalization of medical marijuana and its use under the supervision of a doctor. The Episcopal Church’s 1982 resolution even delved into politics by urging the Congress and all states to adopt statutes providing that the use of cannabis be allowed when deemed medically appropriate by licensed medical practitioners.
At the same time, certain churches remain suspicious of the drug. For instance, the United Methodist Church considers cannabis a gateway drug. The Catholic Church says that drugs “constitute direct co-operation in evil.” The Vatican has condemned legalizing “soft drugs” like cannabis. The Mormon Church (whose members consider themselves Christians) has no established position on medical use of marijuana but strongly advise people not to use the drug.
The common Jewish perspective on the recreational use of marijuana is unanimous—it is forbidden.
The Talmud, the central text of Rabbinic Judaism, states that “the law of the land is the law,” meaning that the law of the country is binding. But what if state and federal rules on cannabis are different? The drug is currently legal in 25 states and D.C. but prohibited under federal law. Some states like California and Washington have legalized the medical and recreational use of the substance, but many users still rely on the black market. Finally, nine states will vote on marijuana this fall.
The Jewish attitude to pot is ambivalent. On one hand, Judaism insists on responsibility for our actions, meaning that using intoxicants is forbidden. Actually, any drug that harms the body is forbidden—according to the Jewish tradition, God owns our bodies, so we have a fiduciary relationship to take care of ourselves. On the other hand, cannabis may be more akin to alcohol than tobacco. In the Scriptures, wine is described as a holy beverage that brings “joy to G-d and man” (Judges 9:13), and observant Jews may take alcohol in moderation. Smoking tobacco is considered to be dangerous and highly addictive and therefore forbidden.
But when it comes to medical marijuana, Israel is among the most progressive countries. In the 1960s, Jewish scientists Raphael Mechoulam and Yechiel Gaoni isolated the active component of hashish and its psychoactive component, THC, as well as anandamide, the natural human analog of THC synthesized by the human body. The Israeli scientists also developed a strain of cannabis without THC. According to the Israeli health ministry, some 11,000 Israelis, particularly those with Parkinson’s disease and post-traumatic disorders, are currently using medical marijuana.
The debate around kashrut of marijuana has been continuing in the Jewish community for many years. Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, who died in 1986, forbade Jews from using the drug arguing that it was addictive and mind-destroying. In 2013, Rabbi Efraim Zalmanovich admitted that medical marijuana could be kosher if used to treat illnesses and relieve pain. He said that if a doctor prescribed the drug, there was no reason not to take it.
Unlike other major monotheistic religions, the Jewish doctrine includes a principle called Pikuach Nefesh. This principle implies that the preservation of human life overrides virtually any other religious consideration. It means that when the life is in danger, any commandment of the Torah (except three) becomes inapplicable. You can also violate any other law in order to save a life.
Jews are meant to enjoy the life and spiritual pursuit, and any moderation should improve that experience. They refrain from marijuana as well as from other intoxicants, but if they discover that it could improve their lives, there is no reason not to take advantage of it.
Well, now you can relax and take a breath—there is no death penalty danger or any taboo on marijuana use in Hinduism. On the contrary, not one religious festival or worship in honor of Shiva can be held without the ritual smoking of Charas (Indian name for high-quality hashish made from certain parts of hemp).
The earliest mention of marijuana was found in The Vedas, sacred Hindu texts that were compiled as early as 2000 to 1400 B.C. According to The Vedas, it was one of the five sacred plants, and a guardian angel lived in its leaves.
In Hinduism, cannabis is associated with Lord Shiva, a deity who is often regarded as the religion’s supreme god. Certain passages in ancient Hindu scriptures describe a plant with spiritual properties that Shiva brought down from heaven for humans to consume. The deity is usually depicted with a popular among Hindus smoking pipe known as a chillum.
Cannabis is an integral element of the yogi culture. Hindus believe that its psychoactive properties make them sensitive to the energies in their bodies and facilitate meditation. It is interesting that the drug is not habit-forming—its use during Holi is similar to the tradition of drinking eggnog during Christmas.
Although marijuana is regarded as an illegal drug in most Hindu countries, the governments mostly tolerate it to some extent and allow personal use of the plant during festivals.
In Tibet, marijuana is an important crop. Modern Tibetans use the plant as a staple for textile fiber and an ingredient in butter tea, a beverage that is a fundamental part of Tibetan life.
Generally, canonical Buddhist doctrine prohibits the use of intoxicants of any kind. This includes alcohol and all recreational drugs that cloud the mind and detract from the ability to truly see things as they are. Buddhist practice culminates in “waking up” (the term “Buddha” means “the awakened one”) and unlocking the shackles of ignorance. That is why it is not a rigorous prohibition but rather a “principle of training” that encourages people to avoid alcohol and drugs because they fog the mind.
The use of intoxicants also does not fit with the practice of mindfulness, the capacity to be fully present and attentive to whatever is happening around, regardless of whether it is troubling or enjoyable. Buddhists believe that those who use drugs to relieve emotional distress choose avoidance.
During an interview in Mexico, the spiritual leader of Buddhists, Dalai Lama, said that although Buddhism forbids recreational use of marijuana, he believed that medical cannabis was permissible if it benefited a person’s mental or physical heath.