The Role of Religious Involvement in the Context of Increasing Marijuana Use

Marijuana use for medical and recreational purposes is at an all-time “high” in the United States. According to a recent Gallup poll, 45% of U.S. adults have tried marijuana recreationally at some point in their lives. This percentage is up from 4% in 1969 when Gallup first asked about lifetime use. Roughly 1 in 8 (12%) U.S. adults report current recreational marijuana use, which has nearly doubled since 2013 when Gallup first asked about current use.

The increased use of marijuana reflects the liberalization of marijuana laws across the country. Currently, 29 states and the District of Columbia have legalized the use of marijuana for medical purposes, while 9 states and the District of Columbia have legalized recreational use. Overall, nearly 95% of the U.S. population now resides in a state or territory where there is some form of legal cannabis (recreational, medical, or cannabidiol/CBD).

It should come as no surprise that public attitudes toward marijuana have also liberalized over time. Most adults – even those across the political spectrum – now support medical marijuana use and the legalization of marijuana. In 2017, for the first time ever, a majority of Republican voters expressed support for the legalization of marijuana for recreational purposes. Democrats and Independents have been in favor of such laws since 2009 and 2010, respectively.

Despite these trends, prescribing or consuming marijuana remains illegal under federal law, where it is categorized as a Schedule I substance under the Controlled Substances Act of 1970. In the eyes of the federal government, marijuana use has no medical value and is likely to lead to abuse and addiction. Given these changing attitudes and behaviors, we decided to examine how religion may be related to recreational and medical marijuana use among American adults.

Our study, which was recently published by Journal of Drug Issues, shows that individuals who regularly attend church and report that religion is very important in their daily decision-making are less likely to use marijuana recreationally and medically. These results were not a big surprise given that religious groups tend to stigmatize marijuana and other substance use. In fact, our study confirms previous studies of recreational marijuana use. However, our study is the first to examine the association between religiosity and medical marijuana use.

While less frequent marijuana use may be a good thing given the potential health risks, such as cognitive decline and diminished life satisfaction, there may also be a down side to avoiding medical marijuana for those individuals with painful chronic conditions. A recent review of the medical evidence surrounding the efficiency of medical marijuana suggests that cannabis is effective at managing chronic pain. This finding is particularly interesting given our findings from another study we conducted on religion and prescription drug misuse. In that study, which was published by Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, we found that adults with high levels of religious involvement were no more or less likely to misuse prescription drugs, including opioids.

Because many people become addicted to opioids through trying to manage chronic pain, adults who are more religious could unintentionally put their health at risk by dismissing medical marijuana use in favor of a more traditional pharmaceutical drug that carries a higher risk of abuse and mortality. Our findings are particularly concerning given that medical marijuana laws have been associated with reductions in the misuse of prescription drugs and opioid-related overdose mortality. We suggest that those who are active within religious communities consider both the risks and benefits of all forms of pain management, including traditional pharmaceuticals and alternative treatments like cannabis.

webbNoah Webb is a doctoral candidate at Florida State University in the Department of Sociology. His research focuses on health disparities in adolescence and young adulthood. His publications have appeared in Public Health, Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, and Journal of Drug Issues.


Amy Burdette is an associate professor in sociology and a faculty associate of the Pepper Institute on Aging and Public Policy at Florida State University. Her research investigates connections between religious involvement, neighborhood context, family, and health across the life course. Her published work has appeared in a range of journals, including Social Science & Medicine, American Journal of Public Health, Journal of Adolescent Health, and Journal of Health and Social Behavior.

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