Bishops warn legal marijuana could make opioid crisis worse

Capitol News

ILLINOIS (WCIA) — As the movement to legalize marijuana for recreational use gains momentum in the statehouse, the Catholic Conference of Illinois wants lawmakers to know the Pope is against pot.

“The Catholic bishops of Illinois are committed to the common good, and therefore advise against legalization,” an email from a group representing the six Illinois bishops said on Monday.

The statement included a quote from Pope Francis himself, who in 2014 sought to steer paritioners away from the temptations of the devil’s lettuce. 

“… To say this ‘no,’ one has to say ‘yes’ to life, ‘yes’ to love, ‘yes’ to others, ‘yes’ to education, ‘yes’ to greater job opportunities. If we say ‘yes’ to all these things, there will be no room for illicit drugs, for alcohol abuse, for other forms of addiction,” the pontiff said at the time.

Zachary Wichmann, the Director of Government Relations for the Catholic Conference of Illinois, explained why the bishops took the rare step to publicly oppose the plan that has already gained bipartisan support and is backed by Governor J.B. Pritzker. 

“We believe that it can be addictive,” Wichmann said. “Also, we believe it’s a gateway drug, that it leads to abuse of more dangerous drugs.”

The statement from the bishops compared cannabis to “the opioid crisis and the lives it claims. If marijuana is legalized, it will only add to the problem.”

“I think that the facts they cite are incorrect,” bill sponsor Kelly Cassidy (D-Chicago) responded.

According to data compiled at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there are no records indicating anyone has ever fatally overdosed on marijuana.

The Catholic Conference pointed to a study from the National Institute on Druge Abuse to support its claim. The study, however, only found some users experience withdrawal symptoms when they stop using cannabis. The research found marijuana use only rises to the level of addiction in “severe cases.”

The state representative from Chicago’s north shore did not dispute that some users may develop addictive behaviors, but argued the health risks of consuming cannabis pale in comparison to those associated with using legal substances like alcohol or other prescription narcotics.

“I’m not going to say something is not addictive, because that’s what’s habits are,” Cassidy said. “You can get addicted to bubble bath or drinking Coca-Cola every day. But in the list of top ten most dangerous abused substances, marijuana isn’t on it.”

Wichmann said the bishops “have a real problem with the commercialization aspect of this. It’s kind of unseemly that not only do we want to legalize [marijuana], we sell it by saying, ‘Well, the state is going to make a bunch of money off it and then we’ll be able to fund all of these other things, one of them being drug abuse.'”

“When people talk about revenue, we pivot away from that,” Cassidy said. “We can change lives. We can create a more diverse industry. We can restore communities that have been devastated by the war on drugs.” 

“That’s our driving force, our motivation,” she said.

Cassidy argues in favor of statewide regulation of the marijuana industry because it could produce a safer consumer experience, she says. Her plan would also introduce new penalties for youth caught with cannabis, and keep penalties in place for dealers who sell to underage buyers.

“I live in a neighborhood where I’ve seen drug deals go down,” she said. “I’ve never seen one of those guys card anybody.” 

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