The Patient Body: Moral Highs and Lows

Ann Neumann is on book leave for October. In lieu of a new installment of her monthly column, we’re cross-posting an article Neumann wrote for OnFaith earlier this year. “The Patient Body” will return in November.

One hot Friday evening, as the sun crept out of Central Park, Evelyn asked me if I thought marijuana might help her. Evelyn is my hospice patient. I was perched on a leather footstool I’d pulled up to her boney knee as she sat slumped but steady on a giant divan. I told her yes, I thought marijuana was at least worth a try. Could I get her some, she asked? I said yes, and promised to show up the following Friday with my score.

I have no qualms about buying weed. Few people I know do. It wafts from the subway entrances and sidewalks of every borough in my adopted city, New York. It hovers in hallways and creeps from car windows. Buying it was no problem.

I tucked the folded white envelope into the zippered pocket of my purse; a skunky green smell followed me as I made my way uptown to Evelyn. I did not fear carrying Evelyn’s little stash into the subway and past the police search table positioned in front of the turnstile. Random searches are reserved for others, not me, a middle-aged white woman in middle-class work clothes.

Years into a cancer diagnosis, Evelyn found a drug, marijuana, which altered her state of discomfort, to be nothing short of “magical.”

Back at Evelyn’s knee, I picked seeds from the sticky bud, crushed the green leaves on the back cover of her Louise Glück: Poems 1962 – 2012, and rolled a perfect joint. I helped her remove the oxygen tube from her nose — no need to test the flammability of piped oxygen — and put the joint between her lips. Then I lit it.

A doctor and psychiatrist her whole life, the only thing eighty year-old Evelyn knew about pot was the hyperbolic alarm she’d encountered in emergency rooms and prison cells dozens of years before: marijuana use, at the least, is a gateway to other substance abuses, poverty, and crime; at the worst, she was taught, it was fatal.

A smoker her whole life, now suffering from terminal lung cancer, a calm came over her face that I hadn’t seen in weeks. Cigarettes, which have always been legal and easy to buy, were killing Evelyn. Weed, which now took her pain and suffering away, had to be bought under the table.

The ironies of how we regulate moral behavior were not lost on me. Nor would they have been lost on most anyone who happened to observe our smoking through the window of her luxurious apartment on Central Park West.

The concept of “medical marijuana” ameliorates much of the edge that anti-marijuana crusaders have in their voice. Too, fifty-two percent of Americans now say that marijuana should be legal. As Clint Raney writes at Slate, “evangelical fervor” against marijuana is fading. Pat Robertson and Focus on the Family’s Jim Daly have both been soft on legalization. (Even in 2011, before recreational use of marijuana became legal in Colorado and Washington, Brett McCracken wrote at Christianity Today that it wasn’t so much marijuana use that was wrong as being seen while smoking while Christian: “It should be done in a quiet, private manner, without flaunting. Christians must be mindful of pot’s controversial and hazardous reputation in culture, and be sensitive to the perspectives of both other Christians and unbelieving observers.”)

The pope, who condemned legalization last summer, may be the last one standing on the issue. Pia De Solenni, a Catholic theologian in Washington State, told theNational Catholic Register, “Once you’ve gone beyond the buzz, you actually lose control over your rational functions — it’s wrong. It goes against our nature and who we’re supposed to be.” But De Solenni’s comment only makes sense if “who we’re supposed to be” is universal, a concept of the self shared by all citizens. Clearly, not all Americans agree with her definition of our nature.

How do we construct morality (and it’s attending laws) in a changing and increasingly pluralistic society?

There’s a particular vanity to claiming one’s moral values — and I’m not just thinking of marijuana here, but other “moral” issues such as abortion or assisted suicide — as appropriate to an entire diverse society. It’s the kind of vanity that becomes clear when you witness it against the backdrop of changing social values. Although David Brooks, as he often does, left the obvious religious markers out of his January 2014New York Times column “Weed: Been There. Done That,” he still sounded flat-footed:

In legalizing weed, citizens of Colorado are, indeed, enhancing individual freedom. But they are also nurturing a moral ecology in which it is a bit harder to be the sort of person most of us want to be.

There’s a power to such assertions because they claim authority for themselves on behalf of a greater (and sometimes nostalgic) good. Brooks, the moral rationalist, paternally tells us that while he once partook of weed, he’s long since put aside childish things, and that the state should direct us (through laws) to do the same.

This is mock humility on Brooks’ part; he’ll deign to admit his childhood errors if we accept the wisdom of his adult authority. But Brooks has missed his paternal moment. The country’s quickly shifting view on marijuana shows that few are still swayed by such dire warnings. They’ve smoked weed and they know better.

Yet there is a greater question, one with serious ramifications: In what ways do we police morality with laws that, wittingly or not, concretize systems of inequality or social and economic injustice?

I’m thinking, of course, of the more than three thousand prisoners who are currently serving life sentences for crimes involving drugs, including marijuana. As theAmerican Civil Liberties Union reports:

Marijuana arrests now account for over half of all drug arrests in the United States. Of the 8.2 million marijuana arrests between 2001 and 2010, 88% were for simply having marijuana. Nationwide, the arrest data revealed one consistent trend: significant racial bias. Despite roughly equal usage rates, Blacks are 3.73 times more likely than whites to be arrested for marijuana.

This disproportionate number of Blacks in prison for drug arrests should tell us something about how prevalent — or fading — moral values can be used to enforce economic, racial and class inequalities. Winifred Fallers Sullivan, in her brilliantPrison Religion: Faith-Based Reform and the Constitution, writes that American religious conservatives . . .

want to convert the world to an anthropology of values that are transcendental and eternal, founded in biblical truth. To do that, they must find ways to translate their religiously derived values into universal ones, and to use state authority to impose those values on all.

Sometimes the project of imposing morality by law works, and by no means are evangelicals (and their Catholic sometime-allies) the only ones driving it. Because law and social acceptability develop separately, there are numerous examples of how laws or society are then left to catch up with each other. Abortion is a medical service that is increasingly difficult to access even forty years after Roe v. Wade made it legal. Same-sex marriage, currently legal in seventeen states, is still highly contested (andhomophobia is now one of our deadly exports). Meanwhile, divorce carries only a fraction of the stigma that it used to and, strangely, inexplicably, contraception has returned to the courts forty-nine years after Griswold v. Connecticut legalized it.

In other words, shifts in social morality and its attending laws are a constant process. If we think about this range of “morality laws” as addressing bodily autonomy — what one can do with their body — it seems that some types of autonomy are more acceptable than others.

Years into a cancer diagnosis, Evelyn found a drug, marijuana, which altered her state of discomfort, to be nothing short of “magical.” Long past her days on the hospital floor and now in the face of pain and mortality, Evelyn has no more time to prop up her own fears or moral reservations. Her priorities are finite; she wants comfort. Marijuana helps.

I asked Evelyn last week if she worried, when she asked me for marijuana, if it was immoral — either her request for it or her use of it. She was slumped in a corner of the divan, her long gray hair mussed by linen-covered pillows. A blue winter darkness was creeping into Central Park.

No, she said, she hadn’t worried about the morality of marijuana.

What things do you consider immoral? I asked her.

Hurting people, she told me, and forgetting history.


“The Patient Body” is a monthly column about the intersection of religion and medicine. Prior columns can be read here:

Old Philosophical Certainties

On Suicide

Reading HuffPo’s “Hospice, Inc.”

The End of Eating

Wakeful Unawareness

Faith, a Chronic Condition

A Special Sustaining Power

Your Ethical and Religious Directives

Hospitals and the Pretense of Charity

A Closely Held Business

What’s a Kidney Worth

An Irresistible Force


Ann Neumann is a Visiting Scholar at the Center for Religion and Media at New York University and contributing editor at The Revealer and Guernica magazine. Neumann‘s book about a good death, SITTING VIGIL, will be published by Beacon Press in 2015.


One Reply to “The Patient Body: Moral Highs and Lows”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *