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Marijuana Methodism

Thanks to a single retired minister, Rocky Mountain high takes on new meaning in Colorado.

By 10.19.12

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Colorado is voting in November on whether to legalize marijuana for recreational use. It's already permissible for ostensible medical reasons. Naturally many traditional religious leaders are opposing Amendment 64. But the Huffington Post quotes a United Methodist minister who supports a pot friendly Colorado.

"How we punish people and what we punish them for are central moral questions," explained Rev. Bill Kirton, who is identified by HuffPo as being with Denver's United Methodist church, though the article doesn't explain which one. "If a punishment policy fails to meet its objectives and causes harms to humans, I believe we have a moral obligation to support change."

Building on his argument that legalizing marijuana is a moral cause meriting clergy support, Rev. Kirton declared: "Our laws punishing marijuana use have caused more harm than good to our society and that is why I am supporting replacing marijuana prohibition with a system of strict regulation with sensible safeguards." 

And Rev. Kirton sermonized: "As we seek to teach compassion and love, it seems inconsistent to support, in cases of private personal adult marijuana possession, the use of police, guns, and courts." After all, he said, "The faith community, parents, peers, and educators are the appropriate institutions in society to address this kind of personal behavior."

Actually, although unmentioned in HuffPo, Rev. Kirton does not evidently pastor a church and is apparently retired from active ordained ministry. According to the group's website, he currently works for the Rocky Mountain Employee Ownership Center, whose mission is to promote the "employee-ownership model as an important business option." The group advocates "'shared capitalism' as a viable alternative to conventional notions of free enterprise." And it espouses "democracy as an alternative to corporate rule." Previously Rev. Kirton worked for the Interfaith Alliance, which is a Religious Left group founded in the 1990s to combat the Religious Right.

Rev. Kirton is among a group of about two dozen clergy publicly endorsing Colorado marijuana legalization. Almost all the signers are Unitarians or liberal Mainline Protestants. Nearly one third are United Methodist pastors. It's probably safe to assume that none of them preside over any of Colorado's larger congregations. There are also several Jewish rabbis, but no Catholic or Orthodox clergy.

"I do not support smoking pot. I do not like the stuff," Rev. Kirton told the Associated Press, which identified him as a retired minister. "But the harm it does is much less than sending more and more people to prison. And I think it's time to legalize marijuana." The AP reported Kirton "chuckled that many of his former parishioners had probably tried marijuana." Bu he lamented that most clergy find it difficult publicly to address marijuana legalization.

"A lot of pastors are, because of the toxic nature of current politics, they're hesitant to speak out on issues," Kirton told AP. "I think there's some hesitancy to speak out, but I think most of my peers would agree with me." In its official policy statements, the United Methodist Church urges "abstinence from the use of any illegal drugs," which are cited as factors in "crime, disease, death, and family dysfunction." Another church statement describes "marijuana as a "precursor to the use of other drugs" and urges abstinence from it unless legally prescribed for a medical condition. Although it supports "strong, humane law-enforcement efforts against the illegal sale of all drugs," apparently there's no specific denominational official stance for or against actual legalization. The absence of a stance is a little surprising, as Methodists were the original Prohibitionists. Undoubtedly most United Methodists would be a little stunned by one of their clergy publicly pushing for marijuana legalization.

Both the AP and HuffPo stories cited mostly evangelical clergy who are opposing Amendment 64 in Colorado. About 10 pastors spoke at an anti-legalization press conference this week. "Is this really what we want for children? I don't think it is," said one Denver pastor, according to AP, which described the ministers citing Colorado's 12 years as a medical marijuana state with dire consequences. "We help folks with a medical marijuana card and have seen it being abused," complained one pastor in the AP story. "We've seen it end up in the hands of children."

Some of the quotes from anti-legalization clergy emphasize God's disapproval of mind-altering drugs. The liberal clergy supporting Amendment 64 seem not to dispute the inadvisability of mind-altering drugs but think regulation of them like alcohol might more effectively control their use. The traditional clergy are on stronger ground when citing the already experienced abuse of medical marijuana laws. Stronger theological insights into what the civil state could and should ban versus regulate would be helpful.

Much of the pro-legalization side assumes a pseudo-libertarian perspective that wants law enforcement out of "personal" life. Clergy who believe in creating a more just and godly society need to argue for maintaining a healthy common culture of mutual responsibility that guards against vice without exceeding the state's proper vocation. 

Meanwhile, fiery old Methodist prohibitionists, from their dry heavenly mansions, may now be fretting over Rev. Kirton and his Colorado United Methodist clergy colleagues who've endorsed Amendment 64. 

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About the Author

Mark Tooley is president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy in Washington, D.C. and author of Methodism and Politics in the Twentieth CenturyYou can follow him on Twitter @markdtooley.