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Churches continue their anti-cannabis offensive 

HeadlineChurches continue their anti-cannabis offensive 

BELIZE CITY, Mon. Mar. 28, 2022– Last week, a Catholic priest from the Mount Carmel Parish, located in the Cayo district, Father John Robinson, issued a pre-recorded statement warning that legalization of the cultivation, use and sale of marijuana is akin to “clandestine production of and trafficking in drugs”. The Catholic Church in Belize has not been as vocal in its condemnation of the proposed establishment of a cannabis and hemp industry in Belize as the National Evangelical Association of Belize, and its churches and leaders, have been. In response to queries about what the position of the Catholic Church is on the matter, Father Robinson said that the church’s stance is outlined in the Catechism.

“I address you today because of a grave concern that will negatively affect Belize in the near future if the Cannabis and Hemp Control & Licensing Bill 2022 is passed. This bill would legalize the growth, production, distribution, and sale of marijuana throughout the entire country of Belize. People have asked if the Catholic Church has a position on this bill. The answer is yes, and the position can be found in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which is the official teaching of the church. I quote: ‘the use of drugs inflicts very grave damage on human health and life. Their use, except on strictly therapeutic grounds, is a grave offense,’” Father John Robinson said.

A vast number of persons who live in Belize adhere to the Catholic faith. While this is the view shared by Father Robinson, a collective position has not been released by the Catholic Church on the cannabis debate.

Father Robinson touched on the implications that legalizing marijuana in Belize could have, in his view. “Legalising marijuana does not change the immorality of drug use. That which is immoral harms both the person and society. What legalizing marijuana will do is set up a contradiction between God’s law and man’s law, increasing its use throughout the country, including among youth. It will lower the moral standards of the country, it will increase violence throughout Belize. It will impact tourism, making Belize less family-friendly. The black market will actually grow, and other drugs will be more abundant and available. It will increase corruption within Government. It will increase addictions. It will produce health complications for many Belizean users,” said Father Robinson.

During the 31st International Drug Enforcement Conference, the Argentinian pontiff, Pope Francis, said that “drug addiction is an evil” and warned against the legalization of recreational drugs at the time amid moves in Denver, Colorado, and Washington, DC, to proceed with legalization of cannabis use. (Both states have since legalized cannabis along with 37 others where medical use is legal, and 18 where cannabis can be used recreationally.)

In his remarks, Pope Francis said, “To think that harm can be reduced by permitting drug addicts to use narcotics in no way resolves the problem.” He added, “Attempts, however limited, to legalize so-called ‘recreational drugs’ are not only highly questionable from a legislative standpoint, but they fail to produce the desired effects.”

He called for other social ills to be addressed before the door is opened for the use of cannabis.

“Substitute drugs are not an adequate therapy but rather a veiled means of surrendering to the phenomenon,” the Pope said. “No to every type of drug use. It is as simple as that … But 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, alcohol abuse, or other forms of addiction,” he added.

It must be noted that marijuana is not explicitly mentioned in the Catechism, according to Jesuit priest, Father Peter Ryan, a theology professional at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit. He noted that paragraph 2291 of the Catechism touches on the use of drugs outside the therapeutic setting. Quoting from the Catechism as Father Robinson did, Father Ryan shared an article published on Catholicnews.com that stated, “It [the Catechism] says the use of drugs inflicts very grave damage on human health and life — it means the use of it when it’s not warranted.” He added, “Their use, except on strictly therapeutic grounds, is a grave offense, (as is) clandestine production of and trafficking in drugs or scandalous practices.”

Pope Francis disagrees with the argument that marijuana can be used as an adequate therapeutic alternative to in-the-lab pharmaceuticals, and a recent study from the Massachusetts General Hospital seems to concur with him. The research released in a March 18, 2022 summary states, “A new study shows that using cannabis products to treat pain, anxiety, and depression failed to improve these symptoms while doubling the risk of developing the addictive symptoms of cannabis use disorder (CUD). People seeking cannabis to treat symptoms of anxiety and depression were at the greatest risk of CUD. Contrary to evidence-based medicine, people with medical marijuana cards choose their own products and dosing, suggesting the need for better controls over dispensing use, and professional follow-up of these patients.”

Father Robinson said that he has seen the negative effects of legalization firsthand. “I traveled through California recently, one of the richest places in the world, in a place that legalized recreational marijuana back in 2016. It is now unrecognizable, with homeless people living in the streets, in parks, along train tracks. Many or perhaps most of them are addicted to drugs. I pray that our leaders will reconsider this bill. The real cost of this bill will not be measured in dollars and cents but rather in the loss of wrecked lives, especially of our youth. I would ask parents if we cannot stand up and say no to this bill, how can we expect our children to say no to drugs?” he said.

On Friday, the NEAB staged a brief protest in front of the National Assembly and voiced its support for the position of the Catholic Church. In a statement released to the public, the NEAB remarked, “the National Evangelical Association of Belize and its associate churches nationwide express our full endorsement to the statement released by the Catholic Church against turning Belize into a marijuana republic, with doors wide open to cartels in the drug trade.”

During a recent interview, Lance Lewis, former president of the NEAB, stated, “We think that there are many other ways of getting money for the economy. We have agriculture, we have so many things going—tourism, that we do not need to plant a product that we are unsure of the effects, because I’ve seen what it has done in places like Colorado, United States, wherever. It has destroyed communities, it might have brought in money, but that money is at a high price and that price is the price of life. We are looking at others in Mexico; the cartels have moved into various parts of Mexico taking control, and people who are in that will want to get more, and if Belize opens the door, they will come in and for sure we will be destroyed. ”

While the churches continue to issue these dire warnings, the recent data as of 2021 shows that the legalization of marijuana has neither caused violent crimes to soar nor plummet. The study, entitled, “The Effect of State Marijuana Legalization: 2021 update”, states that both those who posited that legalization would decrease crime in the US and those who said that it would increase it – were wrong.

“Most state trends track the U.S. trend leading up to legalization, with the graphed difference essentially flat. Post legalization, trends in many states, tracked the national trend while violent crime in Maine and Nevada decreased by 90 and 178 crimes per 100,000 compared with the national trend post legalization. The violent crime rate in Alaska and Massachusetts increased post-legalization by 152 and 57 more than the national trend. Overall, violent crime has neither soared nor plummeted in the wake of marijuana legalization,” stated the study.

In addition to this, this study states,” Previous studies have suggested a link between medicalization of marijuana and a lower suicide rate, particularly among demographics most likely to use marijuana (males age 20–39).”

It adds, however, “Conversely, certain studies suggest excessive marijuana use may increase the risk of depression, schizophrenia, unhealthy drug abuse, and anxiety.”

The study touched also on the economic benefits of legalization in states like Colorado. “Colorado usually collects more than $20 million a month. In 2020, the state collected a total of $387 million. The California government collects more than $50 million a month. You can find similar stories in other states that have legalized,” it noted.

Recent data from the group Leafly suggests that the blooming marijuana industry created 77,000 jobs in 2020 alone.

While the great cannabis debate rages on, we in Belize, have passed the first legislation in the House of Representatives needed to fully roll out the cannabis industry at home. The bill, read for a third time last Friday, now goes to the Senate to be rubber-stamped – and awaits the final readings of the accompanying legislation, the Cannabis Regulation and Licensing Bill.

The churches, however, are seemingly unwavering in their offensive and have now joined forces. The Evangelicals and Catholics are calling for a referendum on the matter, but would prefer that the proposed legalization be fully discarded.

“I would want to say the time has come for us to ask the government to please desist from going further on this bill. Drop it and drop it now!” Pastor Lance Lewis said.

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