The Briefing, Albert Mohler

Wednesday, January 27, 2021

It’s Wednesday, January 27, 2021.

I’m Albert Mohler, and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.

Part I

Marijuana as Moral Barometer: How Has Legalized Marijuana Affected Canada and the United States?

Just how big an issue is marijuana? How big an issue is it that marijuana, including what’s called recreational marijuana, is being increasingly normalized in the United States? And it’s not just the United States, it’s in other nations as well, particularly of our interest, in Canada. But the answer to that question depends upon your moral worldview. Do you consider something like marijuana to be a big issue or not? One of the things we’re going to note is that marijuana right now represents a very interesting moral barometer, a very interesting test case in terms of moral change in the United States. The moral change is indeed dramatic. If you were to go back a half-century in American history, marijuana was considered, on a bipartisan basis amongst the elites and amongst common voters, it was considered to be a huge issue, but it’s not anymore.

And it’s not just that the elites have changed their position on marijuana. Increasingly the popular opinion about marijuana, the popular moral judgment, has been changing as well. How is that explained? It’s also interesting to note something else. When you look at the normalization of same-sex sexual behaviors and relationships, when you look at the legalization of same-sex marriage and its acceptance, you’ll notice that there is a very clear correlation. Now a correlation just means that if you’re plotting both of these developments on a graph, they roughly track one another, they move up and down in analogous positions, correlation doesn’t mean causation. That’s a very important intellectual principle, but correlation does raise interesting questions. And just because something is correlated doesn’t mean that there is not a causal connection. Now I’m going to argue that there is a causal connection. It’s not that the issue of sex and drugs are always combined.

It is the fact that the fundamental moral change that has allowed the legalization and normalization of same-sex behaviors, the entire LGBTQ array, is a moral liberalism that has transformed the culture and it opened the door for other major liberalizing trends as well. And as you’re looking at the issue of marijuana, the graph really does follow to a remarkable degree the acceptance of LGBTQ issues. You’re looking at about 30 years of the most crucial change, the last 30 years between 1990 and 2020, a transformation of the culture. But as you’re looking at a moral revolution, time and again I point to the definition by the British thinker, Theo Hobson. He says that a moral revolution, a complete change in morality, requires three different steps. First, what was condemned must be now celebrated, and then what was celebrated must be now condemned. And then those who will not celebrate themselves must be condemned.

Just look at it this way. The idea is this, it was homosexuality that was condemned, but now it’s homosexuality that is to be celebrated. Those who had held to a position of moral judgment on homosexuality now are the ones who are condemned. That’s the way a moral revolution works. All three steps have to work together. It’s interesting to note that on the issue of the acceptance of cannabis or marijuana, that third step hasn’t happened yet, but the second step is becoming more visible before our eyes. The fact that moral opposition to marijuana is now being dismissed as rooted in something else, including racism. Hold a footnote there, there is an important question to be asked about that, but as we’re thinking about the normalization of marijuana, some very interesting developments. One of them actually does come from Canada. The Canadian government under the liberal prime minister, Justin Trudeau just a matter of years ago, did legalize marijuana. How’s that worked out?

Well, The New York times recently ran an analysis with the headline, “Successes and Failures of Legalizing Cannabis in Canada.” Ian Austin is the author, and what he tells us is that “the recreational use of cannabis was legalized in Canada two years ago, and when the government of prime minister, Justin Trudeau made its legalization pitch to the country, it was stories about lives derailed by a possession charge that most resonated with many Canadians.” That is to say, just hold on a minute. It wasn’t so much that people said, “Hey, we want to legalize marijuana.” As they said, far too many people are getting criminal records because they’re breaking the law when it comes to marijuana. The article goes on to say, “Legalization, the government vowed, would address the inequalities in a criminal justice system where marijuana and hashish penalties and prosecutions and the lifelong burdens they impose had fallen disproportionately on marginalized communities, particularly black Canadians and indigenous people.”

And now the interesting thing about the United States situation is that on both the right and the left, there’s a bipartisan consensus that there is a racial imbalance when it comes to marijuana convictions, drug convictions in general and criminal records and all that follows from those kinds of criminal records. The reality is that there’s a different level of policing in minority neighborhoods that has led to an incommensurate percentage of arrests. The same thing’s true in Canada. The point here is however, that Justin Trudeau, the liberal prime minister of Canada…. And when I say liberal there, I mean that, yes, he’s socially and politically liberal. But more importantly, he is head of what is officially the liberal party in Canada. Now, the most important issue in this analysis in The New York Times of the situation in Canada is that even as the decriminalization, the legalization of marijuana means that the criminal charge issue has largely disappeared. The fact is that all of the promises about rectifying inequities are basically unfulfilled.

Now, that’s a pattern by the way, that we see on both sides of the American/Canadian border. You have politicians who promise that all kinds of good things will happen and all kinds of bad things will no longer happen if marijuana is only decriminalized or legalized, but in almost every case, the promises go unfulfilled. As Austin reports, “The for-profit cannabis industry the law created has struggled, pot sales outside the legal system still thrive, indigenous communities feel their needs are being ignored, and the injustices that came from criminalizing pot in the past have yet to be fully remedied.” Austin then goes on to say this, “As more of the United States legalizes marijuana with voters in New Jersey, South Dakota, Montana, and Arizona this past November backing recreational use, joining about a dozen other States, here’s a look at the Canadian experience two years into its national experiment.”

So Austin is promising a look and he’s pointing out that it should have direct relevance with those states in the United States that are considering or have considered following the Canadian example. One of the things that quickly comes to light is the fact that even as the promises came that this would lead to fairness and equality, it hasn’t actually turned out that way. For one thing, you can’t go back and undo an entire economic pattern and act as if it didn’t exist for a number of decades. And then there’s another problem, and this one just shows up with huge worldview significance. It turns out that when you take something like marijuana that has been illegal, and by the way is still illegal to sell without a license, the fact is that the black market still exists.

The promises are made that if you will just legalize marijuana, two things are going to happen. Number one, the criminal traffic in marijuana is going to disappear, because we’ll make it legal. But making it legal means making licensed, it means adding taxes. Because the second thing that’s promised is that if you will just legalize marijuana, we will tax it like crazy and there will be so much demand for it and the sales will be such that there will be millions and eventually billions of dollars coming into the state coffers. Now, to his credit, and I say that rather reluctantly, the Canadian prime minister knew enough not to promise huge tax windfalls, but nonetheless, they did promise that the black market would largely disappear. That is the liberal government. But the fact is it hasn’t disappeared and it hasn’t disappeared for a couple of reasons. Number one, it turns out that the most consistent, heaviest users of marijuana like the illegal stuff, not the legal stuff.

Now, another one of the interesting promises made by the government, if you’ll just legalize cannabis, we will do quality control to make sure it’s not mixed with other substances. Quality control, the same way we do with other products, such as tobacco products and alcohol products, you name it. But the reality is, it turns out that many of the users of marijuana, by some counts most of the heaviest users of marijuana, like the illegal stuff, not the legal stuff. Furthermore, and here’s a huge lesson for us all, if you legalize something and then you say that the only way to buy it is if you buy it through a licensed dispensary and it’s going to be taxed, well, people will go around the licensing and around the legal dispensaries in order to avoid the tax.

The summary of the situation in Canada is that there are many marijuana users in Canada who liked the illegal stuff, because it is a greater variety, it is more powerful and it is cheaper and more easily available. Why in the world would they buy the legal stuff if the illegal stuff is so plentiful? And by the way, the police aren’t really going to police this very much, because if you make recreational use of marijuana illegal, even if you try to put a cap on the quantity that someone can grow or own, the reality is that there really isn’t much of a way to investigate, criminalize and prosecute almost any dimension of the marijuana business unless there is something that is particularly egregious. When it comes to the equality or equity and justice issue as is used in the argument for the legalization of marijuana, the argument is that minority communities that had suffered disproportionately because of the criminalization of marijuana ought to benefit proportionally because of its legalization. But it just doesn’t turn out that those promises can often be realized. It certainly hasn’t taken place in Canada.

One of the cities mentioned in this New York Times analysis is the Canadian city of Vancouver. We are told that at one point Vancouver had more marijuana dispensaries than Starbucks locations. Americans shouldn’t grin too much at this point because at another recent point in history, the city of Denver, Colorado was reported to have more marijuana dispensaries than Starbucks and McDonald’s added together. At another point in the article, we read this, “In its latest survey released just over a year ago, Statistics Canada, the census agency, found that 28% of Canadians shop for marijuana exclusively at legal stores and websites, while 58% used a mix of legal and illegal sources.” Now, what does that tell us about human nature in a fallen world? It tells us that you can legalize something that has the moral weight of marijuana, but the illegal sale is going to actually vastly outnumber the legal sale. That’s the numbers we have here.

Let me just go back to the report. Canada’s own census bureau says that only about 28% of Canadians purchase exclusively from legal stores. You can do the math. If that’s 28, that means that what remains is 72.

Part II

How Does Moral Change Happen in America? The Legalization of Cannabis Is an Enlightening Test Case

But moving back to the United States, The Wall Street Journal ran an article on Tuesday of this week with the headline, “Cannabis Companies Are Set to Roll.” Why are they set to roll? Because the Democrats are now in control of the United States Senate. It’s a very thin majority, but nonetheless, this is a political change that cannabis growers, the cannabis industry in the United States see as a great opening. As a matter of fact, The Wall Street Journal begins its article this way: “The haze is finally clearing for US pot companies. Since Democrats won control of the Senate earlier this month, many in the cannabis industry are betting on a more rapid path to full federal legalization and to pick up and deal-making as companies rush to scale up. The Global Cannabis Stock index, which tracks US-listed marijuana stocks, has climbed 31% since the start of the year.”

Now, just in case you weren’t paying attention, yes, there is a Global Cannabis Stock index, and yes, there are publicly traded United States marijuana stocks. And yes, we’re told that market did climb an average of 31% since the start of this year. There’s a lot of money to be made in marijuana, and The Wall Street Journal is the newspaper of record if you’re interested in making money. Of course, there’s a political angle to this. The Democratic control of the Senate has now promised as a potential opening so much so that there is optimism in the cannabis markets. This article in The Wall Street Journal gets to the legal, illegal issue, “Progress on this gore….” That means cutting down on the black market. “Progress on this gore remains slow. An estimated 78% of us sales still happened in the black market in 2020.” According to the canvas-focused SOJE Fund, states thirst for new sources of tax revenue amid the pandemic provides an extra incentive to increase the size of the legal sector.

The article in The Wall Street Journal also mentions that there are heightened expectations because of the incoming Biden administration. According to the article, these expectations, “Have already helped cannabis companies strengthen their finances.” This means in particular strengthening their relationship posture with banks and other lending institutions. Of course, there’s one huge problem in the United States. Even as we just talked about the fact that Canada two years ago legalized marijuana, even recreational marijuana, in the United States, the federal government still considers marijuana possession and sale to be against the law, to be crimes. Marijuana is still listed as a class-1 drug, but while we’re thinking about the numbers, recognize that it was 72% as the figure of the black market there in Canada, 78% in the United States. We’re talking about the vast majority of cannabis buyers and cannabis sales being in the black market, the illegal market, rather than the legal markets.

Again, what does that tell you? It’s also interesting that just in the course of this month in the state of Arizona, the recreational use of marijuana became legal. As The Associated Press reports, “Legal sales of recreational marijuana in Arizona started this month. A once unthinkable step in the former conservative stronghold that joins 14 other states that have broadly legalized pot.” Later, the article states, “The march toward decriminalization in the Sun Belt state was long. Approval of the legalization measure came four years after Arizona voters narrowly defeated a similar proposal, although medical marijuana has been legal in the state since 2010.” Again, this is tied to a political shift. Not only did Arizona voters on marijuana vote differently than four years ago, they voted differently than four years ago when it came to the presidential election. Republican in 2016, Democrat in 2020, there are two things to note here.

One of them is that moral change often comes by sheer persistence of one side trying to change the status quo. This has happened on any number of issues, including the question of divorce in the United States, but now we see it happening on marijuana. Notice that article in The Associated Press said that Arizona voters had defeated a similar measure just four years ago. Well, how does it end up back on the ballot just four years later? Well it’s because the forces that have sought to legalize marijuana are working a lot harder than the forces that would resist that legalization. That points to another thing that Christians need to keep in mind. It’s a part of the pattern of how moral revolutions happen. Moral revolutions happen because there is more focused energy on the change than there is on resisting the change. That explains why on so many issues American culture has been transformed over the course of just the last several decades.

It was never true in any of these cases that in the beginning, a majority of Americans supported them. Indeed, on almost every one of these issues, just take same-sex marriage for example, a vast majority of Americans opposed the moral change until the resistance wore them down. The persistence and the focused strategic energy of those trying to bring about moral change often has dramatic effects. And there we need to understand something that has been recognized sociologically as the Pareto principle. You may hear this principle summarized with people saying 20% of the people do 80% of the work, 80% of the people do 20% of the work. In a church, sometimes you’ll hear 20% of the people give 80% of the budget, 80% of the people give 20% of the budget. There seems to be a repetitive pattern of this 20 and 80, but actually Vilfredo Pareto, who came up with the principle in the early decades of the 20th century, saw something else.

He saw the fact that if you are looking at social change, when that pressure for social change reaches about 20%, the 20% becomes, in some cases, far more powerful than the 80%. Why? It’s because the 20% who are ardently for the change actually have a lot more energy than the 80% who are in some sense against the change. Another thing you need to think about here is the fact that in social capital terms, at some point it becomes more socially expensive to resist the change than to accept it. As you look at the issue of same-sex marriage, just think about people in the business world. At some point, it became just too expensive in simple commercial terms for them to oppose same-sex marriage. It’s just a lot easier, even in financial terms to go along with it. Social capital means socialist team. Just think of a college student on a college campus.

How expensive socially is it to oppose the LGBTQ revolution? It’s horribly expensive. Just one final thought on the marijuana issue, should a Christian use marijuana? Can a Christian use recreational marijuana? My answer would be no. Morally speaking based on a biblical worldview we are to understand that God having made us in His image made us rational creatures, and we are to do nothing to impair that rationality. We are to do nothing to alter our consciousness by some kind of substance use. We’re to do nothing to try to induce a state of calm or a state of wellbeing by the use of something like marijuana. As the governor of one state not seeking to speak out of a Christian worldview at all, but nonetheless affirming it’s truth is, one governor who was on the losing side of this argument in his state had argued the last thing we need is more people in this state who are firing on fewer brain cells.

Christians understand that doing that intentionally can’t be faithful to the Christian worldview. It can’t be faithful to the biblical conception of God’s purpose for us, the biblical vision of the good life and our understanding of what it means that God made us rational creatures with a consciousness, a consciousness for which we will give an answer as stewards. And that stewardship seems to be absolutely incompatible with the use of recreational cannabis or marijuana. By the way, that final point is actually linguistic. Those who have been pushing for the legalization of marijuana have done their best to shift the nomenclature to cannabis, the Latin term as if you speak Latin it’s not going to have the moral problems that come with the word marijuana. Well, you can change the vocabulary, but it still smells and works the same, dude.

Part III

Big Worldview Significance in What Didn’t Happen Yesterday: Baseball Writers Fail to Elect Any New Players into Hall of Fame Due to Issues of Character

But finally, there’s big worldview significance and Christians ought to recognize it in what didn’t happen yesterday. What didn’t happen yesterday? Not one baseball player was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame. Not one. The Baseball Hall of Fame is kind of synonymous with American culture. It goes back to 1936 when the first five inductees were Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth, Honus Wagner, Christy Mathewson and Walter Johnson. Since then the number has arisen to 333. The vast majority of the members of the Hall of Fame are players themselves.

The current rules are very simple. The Baseball Writers Association of America’s voting members must vote by a margin of 75% for someone to be elected to the Hall of Fame. The player must have played 10 years in Major League Baseball, must have retired at least five years before the vote or deceased for at least six months. And then the player may stay on the list for 10 years, but times out after 10 years. If the player on the list times out after the 10 years, there’s a final possibility through what is known as the Veterans Committee. Late last night, Tyler Kepner reporting for The New York Times tells us, “The Baseball Hall of Fame voters pitched a shutout rejecting all 25 candidates for enshrinement in Cooperstown, New York, but some of the players they passed over should not despair.”

Well, he goes on to say that there have been some who’ve been on the ballot for nine years, and we’re also looking at the fact, by the way, that they’re some of the biggest names in baseball who are about to time out. Now, there’s been a lot of controversy about the Hall of Fame before. It goes back to arguments over baseball, but also, and this is what’s so important, arguments over character and morality. Just think about the controversy concerning Pete Rose. But the fact that the baseball writers didn’t elect anyone to the Hall of Fame when it came to the voting that was announced yesterday has less to do with baseball as a sport and more to do with a big moral question hanging over America. In a secular age, in a morally confused age, the question is this, just how much is character supposed to matter? For example, in voting for inclusion in the Hall of Fame.

There was no athletic reason. There was no statistical reason why no player was elected to the Hall of Fame yesterday. It has everything to do with morality, everything to do with character. The Wall Street Journal’s Jared Diamond ran an article even before the vote anticipating that there would be no player elected to the Hall of Fame. The headline in this article that ran on Monday, “Hall Vote Becomes Test of Character.” The subhead is very interesting, “Almost every good candidate on this year’s ballot falls short in the integrity and sportsmanship department.” Now there’s a fascinating debate right now going on inside baseball, no pun intended, as to the extent to which moral questions are supposed to really matter here. There are some who are arguing that unless a player was officially suspended or expelled from baseball, he should be eligible for election to the Hall of Fame.

It’s just a matter of statistics. It’s just a matter of athletic achievement. That’s all they argue that should really matter. Then you have other people saying no, other factors have to matter. But how much? Well, we’re not sure. What issues? Well clearly we’re not ready to say yet. There have been three huge moral issues that have come to fore in Hall of Fame voting in decades past. The oldest has to do with betting involvement. And then the second oldest now has to do with substance abuse, in particular steroids and other performance enhancing substances. The more recent issue is basically the hashtag me too. Now here’s just something for us to think about. There’s no easy way to answer this question, particularly in secular terms. How in the world are you going to come up with some kind of grid? Some people, as I say are arguing that it should just be athletic achievement.

Others are saying no, we have to take character into consideration, but there’s no common understanding of character. There’s no common moral grid out of which even these sports writers are operating. Furthermore, you have many sports writers who say it’s actually unprofessional for sports writers to be a part of making the news. We’re supposed to merely report the news. The New York Times, for example, doesn’t allow its sports writers to participate in the voting. We’re living in a morally confused time, and frankly, as you look at the secular culture, there’s really no equipment for that culture to use in coming up with any kind of stable moral platform for determining character. And let’s face it, that’s not just true about baseball, but what makes baseball particularly interesting is that of all the sports in all of human history, it is one of the most statistically thick. There are so many statistics about baseball.

You can argue so many different things, but eventually when it comes to athletic achievement, one of the things you simply have to deal with are the numbers. But there’s no numerical problem when it came to the election to Cooperstown yesterday, the election that didn’t happen. It’s not a numbers problem, it’s a morals problem. We’re living in a secular society that still quite clearly doesn’t know what to do with these big moral issues. Let’s face it, as Christians it’s difficult to unpack all of this ourselves. It’s difficult to know exactly how we ought to weigh all of these issues, but it’s a reminder to us that the moral character issue can never be invisible. It can never not matter. How much it matters, in what way, on what grid, in what situation, balancing this and that in a fallen world, that becomes very, very difficult and the baseball writers aren’t alone in shouldering that burden.

But here’s a good reminder to all of us as Christians. When we come to the great throne of God and God’s final judgment, it’s not going to be fundamentally a matter of the numbers. Before the throne of God, there’s going to be only one plea and that is mercy, the mercy of Christ.

Thanks for listening to The Briefing.

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I’ll meet you again tomorrow for The Briefing.

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

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