The Briefing, Albert Mohler

Tuesday, February 1, 2022

It’s Tuesday, February 1st, 2022.

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

Part I

Big Government Fumbles Again: Legal Cannabis, ‘Equity,’ and a Society Losing Its Mind

Today, we’re going to talk about, among other things, pig transplants into humans, we’re going to talk about marijuana, and we’re going to talk out the Major League Baseball Hall of Fame. They are related in the sense that each one of these issues, now in headline news, points to some very interesting Christian worldview thinking that is required of us. These issues aren’t so much related as they are indicative of the age in which we live.

We’re going to turn first to the marijuana issue. Headline in the Los Angeles Times, “Cannabis Social Equity Programs Leave Many California Entrepreneurs Demoralized and Depleted.” From the other coast in Virginia, in the Washington Post, “With Marijuana Now Legal in Virginia, Lawmakers Debate How to Set Up the Industry.”

Now just looking at this from a distance, one of the interesting things that we are now observing is the fact that the giant moral issue of marijuana has become a giant commercial or industrial issue. The interesting thing there is that you have the states starting up marijuana industries, and they’re having to start from scratch in terms of the legalization, the kind of policies and principles to be put in place.

But what’s really interesting is that this is a major new industry, you might say, in terms of the legal sale of marijuana, and it’s being put together on the other side of a giant moral revolution, so there are huge issues here related to social equity as it’s described.

Well, let me just get to the news stories. In both of these stories, from both the Atlantic and the Pacific Coast, from Virginia and California, the big story here is that you have the states trying to play a political game, trying to pick winners and losers, and it’s not going very well.

The report in the Los Angeles Times tells us “Five years after California voters legalized recreation cannabis for adults, many cities and counties have yet to adopt programs to boost the chances of success for hopeful black and Latino cannabis entrepreneurs in places that have these programs, have been plagued by a lack of funding, shifting requirements and severe delays in processing applications, often creating hardships and roadblocks instead of removing them.”

Now, interestingly, applicants from certain backgrounds are described as equity applicants. That is to say for the cause of what’s described as equity, or behind that equality, certain groups are given preferences over other groups, certain applicants are given preference over other applicants, but it’s still not turning out too well. It turns out that despite all of the kinds of incentives and social engineering put into getting more applicants from groups that are described as needing equity, it turns out that those approved represent only a small fraction, “less than 8% of all people granted cannabis licenses through the end of 2020…. In addition, local officials around the state created different regulations for licensing cannabis businesses and meeting social equity qualifications.”

Now, this is California being California. It’s California at its most California. We’re talking about the issue of marijuana after all, of cannabis. We’re talking about the legalization, the commercialization of cannabis. We’re talking about that intersection with social engineering and with the claims that those who have been discriminated against in the economy ought to be given certain preferences, certain preferred entrances into this business, a certain percentage of licenses. It’s just not turning out too well.

The LA Times acknowledges “California’s legalization of recreational cannabis in 2016 ushered in a multi-billion dollar industry estimated to be the largest legal weed market in the world. But,” says the article, “many of the promises of legalization have proved elusive.”

Later, we are told that it was ex-governor Jerry Brown who, in 2018, signed into law what was known as the California Cannabis Equity Act. As the Los Angeles Times explains, it was legislation intended “to provide those most harmed by cannabis prohibition assistance to enter the multi-billion dollar cannabis industry as entrepreneurs or as employees with high-quality, well-paying jobs.”

Now, on the one hand, what you have here is government by its self-declared effort trying to do what those leaders in government declared to be a righteous act, that is turning to populations that they claim had been victimized by laws against drugs, putting those people into, yeah, you got that right, the drug business in order to achieve what was declared as some form of justice or equity. What could possibly go wrong? It turns out everything can go wrong.

The argument behind California Senate Bill 1294 was that certain populations, most importantly black Californians and Latino Californians, they were disproportionately prosecuted for drug crimes and thus ought to be advantaged in the legal drug business, once cannabis became legal there in California. That was the thrust of the California Cannabis Equity Act.

Now, there are a couple of huge complications when it comes to the marijuana business. Who would’ve figured that? After all, it turns out that the illegal business may still vastly outstrip the legal commerce in cannabis. And, of course, the legal commerce is licensed and it’s regulated and, well, what you have is, of course, government intervention trying to create a new industry described as a multi-billion dollar industry, but it’s not turning out as the social engineers had expected or predicted. And it certainly isn’t turning out well for many of the minority applicants who have been trying to get into line to get into the marijuana business.

The LA Times offers some interesting data telling us that it’s difficult to know just how much a typical pot shop, a legal pot shop, in LA makes, but we’re told it varies depending on location, but it can range anywhere from 2,000 and $20,000 a day. But then we’re told that the legal businesses can be “undercut by the cheaper illicit market and make far less and struggle to make much of a profit at all.” One of the persons who was given this kind of access to the market said, “People think you’re a millionaire overnight, and it’s not true. People are really just trying to stay afloat.”

One typical report came from Mendocino County. We’re told that that county has received more than $3 million from the state for what’s described as equity efforts, but thus far, no applicant, not one, had met all of the eligibility criteria. In Oakland, we are told, “which created the nation’s first equity program more than four years ago, 63% of equity applicants who responded said the gross receipts of their business the previous year have been less than $50,000.” The city is trying to call what are now considered to be unpaid loans.

The LA Times article is simply trying to recognize that what’s described here as well-intended legislation has actually led to something very different than the intention. We’re told, “As a result, a process intended to atone for past wrongs has for many made their lives distinctly harder, shattering their stability, wiping out their life savings and jeopardizing homes and property.”

So just to keep the issue straight here, you had the legalization of marijuana and that in the face of the fact that we now know the damage that marijuana causes in so many young brains, we know the devastation that comes just by lowering the moral standards of society on an issue like that. We also know that the black market is more powerful than the legal market, and legal marijuana is, at least according to the word on the street in California and this is one of the problems, both more effective and cheaper. So you have the gravitation of the market to the unregulated illegal market not at all wiped out.

Meanwhile, on the other coast, Virginia is trying to set up its legal marijuana market, and it is also driven by what are described as goals of social equity. The argument here is that there’s been a disproportionate number of criminalizations of black people and people from other minority statuses and identities and that that demands that there be a rectification, certain equity programs.

Now, by the way, Christians looking at this need to recognize that indeed there may be wildly disproportionate prosecutions and criminalizations. That is not right. Christians need to understand and we need always to affirm that equal justice is not just a principle of American constitutional law. It’s a principle that corresponds to God’s justice.

But we also recognize that in a fallen world equal justice is not something that comes without a cost. It doesn’t come without a standard of justice that actually makes sense and has traction. And when it comes to legalizing something like marijuana, you have the very good argument that the society is doing not what is in the best interest of its citizens, but exactly the opposite, and then trying to complicate matters by getting the state in the business of setting up an industry that should never be established and doing so in terms that can meet current political muster, and that’s a mess.

This report in the Washington Post tells us that Virginia lawmakers are trying to figure out how to run a marijuana business after then Governor Ralph Northam had signed into law a measure that made marijuana use legal “for people 21 or older insofar as they possess up to an ounce of marijuana or cultivate up to four marijuana plants in their household.” But we’re told “the complex legislation left it illegal to buy or sell cannabis” as retail sales were not slated to begin until 2024, “giving the state time to build a regulated commercial market.” However, political pressure means that that date has been moved up and the state of Virginia is scrambling to figure out how to set up a legal retail marijuana industry and how to do so that meets the recognized political standards of equity.

This story, I promise you, gets very bizarre. For instance, the proposed legislation that is now considered most likely to succeed there in Virginia “removes a provision that would give licensing preference to applicants who were convicted or related to someone who was convicted of a marijuana-related crime. The bill, we are told, “maintains other portions of the social equity provision, such as giving preference to applicants who live in communities disproportionately impacted by drug law enforcement or who graduated from a historically black college or university in the Commonwealth.”

Now you’ll notice that what is intended here as a reform of the legislation removes a provision, and I’m going to read it again, “that would give licensing preference to applicants who were convicted or related to someone who is convicted of a marijuana-related crime.”

Folks, this is the world we’re now living in. This isn’t a report from some other planet. This is from the Commonwealth of Virginia. Let’s just remember, we’re talking about a substance that is now to be legally marketed that is itself something that brings a drug effect. I’ll simply say that it’s an effect that simply can’t be squared with the biblical worldview and with the Bible’s understanding of what holiness looks like or what care of neighbor looks like in terms of legalizing marijuana.

But we’re also told, and this is another bizarre section from the Washington Post report, we’re told that another bill for the legal marijuana trade in Virginia “seeks to repeal a law that prohibits law enforcement from stopping a vehicle purely over the odor of cannabis.”

Now, one of the things you need to know is that both of these provisions in which they’re trying to remove portions of an existing bill tell you that the insanity is already baked into the law.

From a Christian perspective, another issue here is simply the fact that where the government regulates the government taxes, the government’s going to find some incentive for its own coffers. You have these states on both sides of the country hoping to have vast marijuana businesses, not just so that their states can be mellow, but because they want the income, they want the taxation stream of revenue coming into their states. That means that, like with gambling and like with the alcohol industry and like with so many other things, the states will profit from what is dangerous for their own people. The state will profit by the mistreatment of its own citizens. Biblically, that is the opposite of the assignment that God has given to government.

Christians also understand that the idea of equity is not an irrelevant question, but it is often a question that is simply misplaced, as in an issue like this where these two states shouldn’t be in this business in the first place. Then they try to enter into this business in such a way that they say that will end the black market and the opposite is the result and, instead, what you have is a lot of dashed dreams. You also have what I believe will be the further injury to specific ethnic communities when the promises of so-called legal cannabis don’t materialize. The problems will materialize, the promise won’t.

But then again, I’ll simply close on this issue by saying look across the Atlantic and watch what’s going on in Germany where a culturally conservative country, when it comes to health issues, is trying to figure out how to legalize marijuana use. It’s not a pretty picture, but as Christians understand, it really can’t be.

Part II

Stormy Ethics Indeed: Brain Death, Xenotransplantation, and Arguments Over Who Should—Or Should Not—Receive Organ Transplants

But next we’re back to the pig transplant issue. Just a matter of weeks ago, we discussed on The Briefing, a man who had received the first transplanted pig heart. He is David Bennett. By the way, he’s still alive as of today. It’s a medical innovation, to be sure, and we talked about the fact that in that particular case, there was no particular ethical barrier that had been crossed because there was very little risk of having the transmission of genetic material by any means from this patient.

But then a news report came from Birmingham where a medical center there had transplanted not a pig’s heart, but a pig’s kidneys, and this is Scientific American: “In late September 2021, a team of researchers transplanted a gene-edited pig’s two kidneys into the body of a person who had undergone brain death (that has explained the irreversible loss of all brain function) in a procedure designed to fully simulate clinical transplantation.” We’re then told once inserted the new kidney sustained blood flow and even produced urine until the study ended 77 hours later. A transplant surgeon at the University of Alabama at Birmingham said, “It really demonstrated that we have the infrastructure to be able to do this.” He went on and said that the investigation’s standardized process “is going to be just as important as demonstrating that the pig kidneys are viable in humans.” The very next paragraph begins with these words. “An organ transplant is full of risks.”

Well, what we’re looking at here is very morally complicated in worldview analysis. We have the fact that you have the kidneys from a genetically edited pig inserted into a human being described as brain dead. Now, we haven’t talked about this for a while in The Briefing, but the very category of brain death separated from any other definition of human death is very problematic.

For one thing, you see the incentive that is placed in many medical contexts where a person can have a functioning physiological system and be declared dead or brain dead, and thus subjected to this kind of medical procedure, is just another ominous development that is sold as medical promise, but it comes with huge ethical and worldview complications. When you’re looking at a definition of brain death, you’re looking at something that could become quite convenient in medical terms to declare someone dead in terms of brain death, but continue to have a functioning body which can be experimented upon. That’s exactly what has taken place here.

But then in this case, you also have the reality of xenotransplantation. That’s the transplantation of the tissues or organs from one species into another. As we saw in the case of the transplanted pig heart, the moral threshold was rather low. In this case, it looks significantly higher.

If you’re thinking about the ethics of so-called brain death, just consider a passage like this from the report in Scientific American: “Keeping a body going for more than a week after brain death is typically difficult.” One of the doctors involved notes “that the kidneys develop tiny blood clots called fibrin thrombi, but that this may be the result of the patient’s condition. There are complications after brain death was the statement. It can be quite stormy.” Well, the ethics here are quite stormy, indeed.

The medical need is clear. After all, the medical center reported that about 5,000 people die per year in the US waiting for a kidney transplant. That represents a very clear medical need. But at the same time, we are talking about crossing many ethical thresholds here, many ethical barriers. Even as the description of the process would be described to people, the reality is there is going to be something of a sense of moral concern, which is likely to fall upon many people, but they may like the categories for knowing how they are to even consider this.

Christians have to understand that we do believe in medical good. We are committed to human flourishing. We want to see medicine press back on disease and be able to help treat injuries. But at the same time, we believe that there are ethical barriers that simply can’t be crossed.

A report in USA Today included this statement, “Experts expect that demand will skyrocket if pig organs can be safely made available.” But the big issue here when it comes to the word safely is that that must include long-term perspectives. It must include ethical understandings and moral concerns. It can’t be described merely as safe when it comes to an individual patient because we’re looking at a far bigger picture.

But then for a moment, let’s go back to the transplanted pig heart because a massive ethical issue has erupted over that situation, and it really doesn’t have anything to do with the heart. It has to do with the patient.

Roni Caryn Rabin of the New York Times explains the issue this way. “An ailing Maryland man who received a pig’s heart in a pioneering transplant procedure has a criminal record stemming from an assault 34 years ago, in which he repeatedly stabbed a young man, leaving him paralyzed.” We’re told that the man who had been attacked, Edward Shumaker, spent at least 20 years in a wheelchair paralyzed from the waist down. We’re told that the attack meant that he suffered numerous medical complications “including a stroke that left him cognitively impaired. That man died in 2007. His attacker, who was convicted of the crime, David Bennett, age now 57, is the man who received the transplanted pig heart.

Now the argument coming from some is that it was wrong to give this man that pig’s heart and to extend his life because of his criminal background. The doctors and others who had performed the surgery came back and said, “No, our responsibility in terms of medical ethics is related to doing the best on ethical terms for the patients that we have without regard to their moral past.”

This is a huge issue, and Christians often don’t have to think about this kind of issue, but here it is right before us as a matter of public policy. As you’re looking at the arguments made back and forth, you can hear neighbors perhaps making these arguments and recognizing that right there in your own neighborhood, you can have very powerful arguments made with moral urgency, “No, this man should not have received this heart.” And others saying his criminal past should not have been a consideration.

The medical community comes back and says that based upon prevailing medical ethics, that kind of criminal background just isn’t an issue. But at the same time, I think even as most people would say, “I think that sounds right in terms of the ethics of medical practice,” at the same time, when you’re looking at limited goods, such as transplanted organs, you could foresee there could be some ethical complications when it comes to the background of the recipient. That would mean that at least some medical professionals would say, “That’s a barrier we’re not going to cross,” or “That’s a priority we are going to rearrange.”

The reality is living in a fallen world, we are confronted with all kinds of issues and at the intersection of so much high technology and technological opportunity, we’re now living in a time where human beings are confronting very real moral questions that simply did not exist a matter of a generation ago, or in this case, a matter of, say, a year ago.

The brother of the man who had been attacked by the heart transplant recipient in years past said that it was wrong, that this man, that is the patient, got a second chance in life, but his own brother didn’t due to this very man’s criminal attack, something that did take place in an act of unquestioned violence. A report in the New York Times quoted Karen Maschke, identified as a research scholar at the Hastings Center, also editor of Ethics and Human Research, a major journal, reported that doctors just don’t usually vet or evaluate patients for whether they’re deserving of treatment.

She went on to say, “There’s a longstanding standard in medical ethics that physicians don’t pick and choose who they treat.” She went on to explain that this issue has arisen in the context of people who are in prison, enemies in war “and more recently people with COVID who choose not to get vaccinated.” Interesting developments here, but recognize, just look at that second clause, and that is enemies in a time of war. These are huge ethical issues, and I’ll say that in a secular age, these blow all the circuits of the available secular worldview. That worldview is so increasingly based upon nothing more than moral abstractions that concrete crises like this, concrete questions simply blow up. You see that here in these headlines and in the confrontational debates over the question not so much of the ethics of transplanting a pig heart into a human being, but rather whether or not the human being, this particular human being, deserved to receive this medical treatment.

We can recognize the moral urgency with which the brother of this man, now dead, who had been attacked, when he said about the heart transplant from the pig. He said, “I wish, in my opinion, it had gone to a deserving recipient.” But that then raises a huge issue. Who would be a deserving recipient? We are now living in an age in which someone is actually going to have to answer those questions, and we’re being told, “Trust the medical professionals.”

But let’s face it, this is an issue that is bigger than the practice of medicine.

Part III

‘Dump the Character Standard’: Former Baseball Commissioner Argues Character Should Not Matter for Hall of Fame

But finally, sometimes you see in our society today certain people just throw up their arms and say, “I can’t figure out this moral mess so let’s just not worry about it.” Fay Vincent, former commissioner of Major League Baseball, did that recently in an article that appeared in the Wall Street Journal. It was simply entitled “Dump the Character Standard for Baseball’s Hall of Fame.” One of the arguments he makes is that the National Football League doesn’t have any kind of character criterion, therefore, Major League Baseball shouldn’t, either.

Of course, this comes up because two famous players, Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens, failed in their last opportunity to be elected by the normal voters in the Baseball Hall of Fame in order to have that status. They’re not going to have it that way. But, of course, there are at least a couple of back doors into which they still might gain entry into the Baseball Hall of Fame. Fay Vincent says all this concern about character is really misplaced because it’s just such a complicated issue, and when it comes to athletic performance is character really a part of that at all?

In his piece in the Wall Street Journal, Mr. Vincent simply says, “The Hall of Fame’s job is to look backward and honor past performance.” He continues, “pretending anything else matters is hypocrisy.” Pretending anything else matters? Well, character matters in consideration, even just making headline news concerning a heart transplant. It certainly has to matter when people are trying to honor what’s described in our society as some kind of professional heroism. That’s what the Baseball Hall of Fame is all about. The last word in the institution is fame.

Christians looking at this situation recognize that you can really never make an absolute distinction between performance and character. A human being is a composite whole, the performance and the character come along. But so do the definitions of character and the definitions of performance. And if it’s just a matter of the statistics, then why even go through the exercise of voting? Just let the computers do the counting and let that be the issue.

In reality, I don’t believe anyone can, with a straight face, say character just doesn’t matter. But we are living in a time and Christians need to understand what this is telling us. We’re living in a time in which character, at least in some situations, well, there are people now ready to argue it can’t matter all the much. We can’t afford that much consideration given to character. Just think of what that would do to the Baseball Hall of Fame.

But I guess we can sum up everything we’ve talked about today by saying that one ethical quandary is whether a man convicted of a violent crime, who nonetheless had incredible performance in baseball, but smoked marijuana, should be in the Hall of Fame.

As you consider our society, I’m reminded of what the historian Jacques Barzun said one time when he said, “We have the culture we deserve.” I guess that also means we have the headlines we deserve.

Consider that.

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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