Medicinal Marijuana, the Word of Wisdom, and the Nyquil Exception

January 8, 2004 | 26 comments
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The Word of Wisdom instructs us to avoid certain harmful substances. Present-day leaders have told us that we must avoid illegal drugs as well. However, a general exception is made for drugs prescribed by a doctor. In addition, there is, in my observation, a widespread belief that over-the-counter medicines such as NyQuil are permitted to be used for valid medical reasons (despite containing substances such as alcohol).

This makes me wonder: What about medical marijuana? May a church member take medical marijuana if prescribed by a doctor? And if it is not prescribed by a doctor, could the perceived right to certain types of (word-of-wisdom-violating) self-medication — the “Nyquil exception” — also allow a church member to use marijuana?

As a quick bit of background, there are now many organizations that claim that some types of seriously ill patients may be helped by the medical use of marijuana. (Here is one website advocating this position). Some states have laws allowing for the medical use of marijuana, and the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals just ruled on a case in favor of medical marijuana. (Plaintiffs won an injunction against DEA enforcement of drug laws that conflicted with California’s medical marijuana law).

In these states, there are licensed physicians and caregivers who administer medical marijuana. Are they within the physicians’ exception to the Word of Wisdom? An argument can be made that they are. On the other hand, the church may decide that all marijuana is not allowed. Until it does so (I am not aware of it doing so), doctor-prescribed marijuana could probably be reasonably considered as allowable.

A more troubling question is self-medication. Straightforward application of the Nyquil exception suggests that members in serious chronic pain could use marijuana to ease their pain. However, there are at least three reasons to wonder whether this straightforward application should apply. First, marijuana is illegal without prescription, so its use as self-medication would (unlike Nyquil) involve breaking the law. Second, it is often distributed by unsavory characters (again, unlike Nyquil) who might encourage other misbehavior. Finally, marijuana is considered addictive, and we might reasonably think that many members claiming to be using it for self-medication might in fact be using it for other purposes. (Also, self-medication opens the door for medically dubious uses — “I need some because I don’t feel happy”). So my inclination is to believe that self-medication by using marijuana is not permissible under the Nyquil exception.

An interesting aside is the issue of whether this kind of use of drugs — for numbing — is permissible at all under Word of Wisdom exceptions. There is an often-told story of young Joseph Smith’s surgery, where he was offered alcohol to numb the pain, and refused it. That would have been a valid medical use of alcohol. Is there an exception to the (general medical use) exception? Is the general-medical-use exception inapplicable when drugs are used as numbing agents? (Note that it is the numbing effect of drugs that is often condemned). I do not believe so (that is, I do not think the general-medical-use exception extends only to non-numbing situations). There is no counsel to avoid codeine, for instance. So, it makes sense that, if marijuana is otherwise permissible, then its effect of numbing the taker is not a reason to bar it.

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26 Responses to Medicinal Marijuana, the Word of Wisdom, and the Nyquil Exception

  1. Ben on January 8, 2004 at 10:15 pm

    An interesting quandary. My Dad is an anesthesiologist, and has Tylenol 3 (Tylenol caplets+Codeine) as well as some other doctor-only drugs on hand at home.(He’s also in the Stake Presidency, by way of establishing his lds bona fides.)
    I have an objection to using the JS operation in context of the WoW, given that the WoW wasn’t in effect at the time. Kaimi didn’t use it that way, but I’ve heard missionaries do it frequently, ignorant of history and interpretation of the WoW. There are some pretty interesting tidbits, such as James E. Talmage trying the calming effects of cigar smoking on the recommendation of the First Presidency. See ttp://www.fairlds.org/pubs/conf/2000AshM.html

    (Of course, these same missionaries also argue that wine in the NT was non-alcoholic. Dealing with the fallout of “presentist” assumptions is a different topic though.)

    Another angle- Members in France (and some in the US) frequently cook with alcohol, and contrary to popular belief, it does not all cook off. That’s different from medical need. However, it illustrates the breadth of interpretation allowed. We’re not Pharisees on the matter. My wife who loves France, cooking, and French cooking considers it quite a dilemma- The wine illegal to drink is rendered kosher by pouring it over some meat and simmering, as in beef bourginoine? Were we not LDS, we’d probably buy a vineyard:)

    I agree with Kaimi that self-administering marijuana would not fall into the allowable category.

  2. ben on January 8, 2004 at 10:19 pm
  3. Russell Arben Fox on January 8, 2004 at 10:42 pm

    “Finally, marijuana is considered addictive, and we might reasonably think that many members claiming to be using it for self-medication might in fact be using it for other purposes.”

    Just to complicate your comparison between medical marijuana and Nyquil further, Kaimi, it should be noted that Nyquil is also addictive. Not in the same way cigarettes may be, perhaps, but I’ve known more than a few people who, after dealing with long-term low-level colds, become more or less convinced they need a shot of Nyquil every night.

  4. mardell on January 8, 2004 at 11:32 pm

    Marijuana is usally used for pain associated with terminal illnesses. Why would any one be worried about addictive effect it has, or the tar that would get in your lungs? You are going to die anyways. And how is using Marijuana any different than using herion based drugs (codeine,and morphine) for killing pain. If it is prescribed by a doctor then what is wrong with using it. It probably has better side effects than chemotherapy and no one complains about that. So the real question is, what makes it wrong? Many prescribed drugs and cures have very harmful side effects. Marijuana’s side effects are mild in comparison. The prophet is going to have to tell me it is wrong before I think that medicianl marijuana is wrong.

  5. Clark Goble on January 9, 2004 at 12:51 am

    My understanding is that while Marijuana is psychologically addictive (people like it) it isn’t physiologically addictive. I believe that by most accounts alcohol is far more addictive and dangerous than marijuana. The main dangerous effects of marijuana (beyond wasting time) come from it being smoked. For heavy use there was an increase in depression as well.

    New Scientist actually has a segment on it which I found fascinating if only because the science is different from the assumptions. Same with many other substances. We, in the church, tend to only hear the worst case stories about drug and alcohol. However many substances don’t appear that bad when used in moderation. The problem of course is that many people don’t use them in moderation….

    I don’t think that has much bearing on whether we ought to follow the Word of Wisdom or not, of course. And the problem of medical marijuana is that it is illegal, even if it is a fairly minor offense. (Well, it’d be on your record plus I believe a $2000 fine in Utah – so it is definitely worse than a speeding ticket)

  6. brayden on January 9, 2004 at 2:00 am

    Clark I think you’re right in saying that marijuana is not physiologically addictive. I know I’ve read that several times. It is certainly not as addictive as many codeine based pain killers, which can be habit forming even if used in moderation.

    Also, you need not worry about tarring our lungs with medical marijuana; I believe it comes in pill form, or you can just put it in your brownies. ;)

  7. Nate Oman on January 9, 2004 at 11:29 am

    There are actually some interesting stories about drugs and GA’s in addition to the famous Talmadge cigar story. One interesting exercise is to study the history of America’s drug laws, which are of quite recent vintage. For example, I believe that both cocaine and heroin were available as over the counter drugs into the 1920s, and I don’t believe that marijuana was criminalized until the 1930s or 1940s.

    My understanding is that Moses Thatcher was addicted to cocaine (or perhaps it was heroin). He had some sort of a back injury and at a doctor’s suggestion began taking cocaine for the pain and became addicted. Thatcher was an Apostle and is famous for being dropped from the Quorum of the Twelve after clashing with the First Presidency over the so called “Political Manifesto” (which stated that GA’s were not to run for office without permission from the First Presidency).

    Scott Kenney (www.saintswithouthalos.com) used to have a copy of a wonderful letter that B.H. Roberts wrote to Thatcher over the affair. Roberts was also slapped down by the First Presidency. He was reconciled to the Brethren while Thatcher never was. The site seems to have been reconfigured and I can’t find the letter.

    Thatcher’s behavior in the whole affiar was a bit violent and erratic (although I can understand why he was ticked off), and I have often wondered if the drugs had anything to do with it.

  8. Nate Oman on January 9, 2004 at 11:30 am

    Kaimi, Russell, and Jim will also be glad to learn that Thatcher preached on one occasion that Satan was the founder of the Republican party. ;->

  9. Michelle on January 9, 2004 at 2:46 pm

    I don’t even have to go as far as cocaine or even marijuana to face the dilemma of “sinful” self-medication (although I do agree that the distinction here is marijuana’s illegality). Tea, not the herbal kind, was the only thing that kept me out of bed during my pregnancy. Although the guilt practically put me back in it.

    I’ve made my peace.

  10. clark goble on January 9, 2004 at 3:33 pm

    To add to the above B. H. Roberts was notoriously an alcoholic. Talmage I seem to recall experimented with marijuana.

    I suspect with Thatcher it was an opiate rather than cocaine. Cocaine isn’t a good pain killer and can actually accentuate it in some people. It is, however, used with various nasal problems even today. (Most hospitals have a large amount of cocaine on premises) Opiates were very heavily abused from the mid-19th century on up. Not just morphine but others which were added to various concoctions. Medicine wasn’t exactly science yet in those days.

    As I recall all the drug and alcohol use peaked in the 1920′s and then has tapered off ever since. (Despite media frenzies which make it appear the opposite)

    The one thing to recognize about all those things is that the Word of Wisdom simply wasn’t viewed the same way in those days. Yes Brigham Young brought it up fairly regularly, but it wasn’t until it was tied to the temple and expanded in meaning that people started to take it seriously. Some have speculated that it served as a replacement to polygamy and united orders to distinguish and separate Mormons from the general population. I’m not sure about that for various reasons although clearly it had that effect.

  11. Jim F. on January 10, 2004 at 12:21 pm

    The “problem” of cooking with wine is repeated in baking: yeast creates alcohol as it ferments and raises the loaf; not all of that alcohol cooks off. Nor is it unlike using vanilla in anything uncooked. Not all of the alcohol in vanilla cooks off in most baked goods, but none of it cooks off in unbaked ones. So, Ben is right about the breadth of the interpretation. In fact the WofW MUST be broader than many think.

    I’m not advocating cooking with wine nor am I arguing that it is wrong to do so. I cook with it all the time and haven’t a pang of conscience over doing so, but I understand the decision of those who don’t and don’t cook with wine when cooking for them. My point is just that the WoW requires good judgment. There’s no escaping the need for judgement by appeal to a rule. But once you allow for judgment rather than mere rule, you’re going to have differences in judgment between reasonable people.

  12. lyle on January 12, 2004 at 1:57 pm

    Hm…are there any non-alcoholic medicines to use instead of nyquil? If so, is there really a ‘nyquil’ exception? And while we are here…what about caffeine/chocolate?
    I’ve asked a doctor to comment on this post.

    FYI:

    my understanding is that tiramisu has about 1/2 serving size of expresso per piece of tiramisu; while chocolate has anywhere from

    To equal the caffeine content of a 5 oz cup of brewed coffee, you would have to consume:

    28 cups of hot cocoa, or
    11 – 8 oz. glasses of chocolate milk, or
    15 – 1 cup servings of chocolate pudding

    A 1-ounce chocolate bar, for example, has 10-20 milligrams of caffeine as compared to a 6-ounce cup of coffee, which contains approximately 105 milligrams.

  13. Rebecca on January 13, 2004 at 4:51 pm

    Medical marijuana is usually used for patients coping with cancer pain. Since marijuana is illegal, other similarly addictive medications are readily used for that purpose, namely narcotics. Morphine is currently the drug of choice in alleviating cancer pain.

    One could argue that using morphine for this purpose makes it more readily available for others to misuse it, which is very similar to the current argument against the legalization of marijuana. Misuse of narcotics by persons for other than whom the medication was prescribed happens more frequently than could ever be imagined.

    So why is one legal for medicinal purposes and the other not? I would never suggest that morphine should not be available. In my experiences as a physician, there are circumstances which definitely justify the use of morphine. However, I oppose the legalization of medical marijuana. I just don’t believe there is a niche for it–the cache of drugs available at this time is more than adequate to treat pain from cancer and nausea from chemotherapy. We just don’t need to add another potentially abusable, misusable drug to the current mix.

  14. clark goble on January 13, 2004 at 5:12 pm

    We should note that caffiene was never tied to the Word of Wisdom. No one, for instance, has commented on needing an exception for diet pills the way some are discussing Nyquil. And I don’t think even those who refuse diet cokes equate drinking them to drinking alcohol.

    The chocolate is interesting since many of those who criticize diet coke drinkers are in fact addicted to chocolate. One should also mention theophylline which is an other alkaloid. Chocolate contains eight times as much theophylline as caffeine and some feel caffeine enhances the effects of theophylline. Theobromine and theophylline (sorry I’m not up on the differences but both are present) stimulates the heart and relaxes ones muscles and is what kills dogs when they eat chocolate. It is also in tea.

  15. Times and Seasons » Wheat for Man on September 14, 2004 at 5:15 pm

    [...] Okay, we’ve previously touched on a number of Word of Wisdom topics: medicinal marijuana, chicken marsala, meat eating. And we all know about the tobacco and alcoh [...]

  16. Hank Johnson on November 9, 2004 at 2:34 am

    I have done a considerable amount of research on medical marijuana. The general population seems to be very uninformed about just how harmful marijuana really is. Also, I am convinced that the major organizations (and believe me, they are organized) that push medical marijuana laws are not concerned about helping the ill. Their main motive is to totally legalize marijuana for all adults. Further, anyone who takes the time to completely research this issue will find that the cons to medical marijuana far outweigh the pros. If you read the new medical marijuana law that was just passed in Montana you will find that virtually any adult can get it marijuana Only two things are required: Chronic pain (obviously this can be faked) and a willing”medical marjuana” doctor. There is at least one such doctor in Montana right now. So this is not really a health issue at all. It is a drug abuse issue. Also, those states that have already passed medical marijuana laws are among the states with the highest drug abuse. Check out the research that’s been done, and you will see that I’m right.

  17. Lori on December 29, 2004 at 12:18 pm

    Perhaps as we think on these matters, we can keep in mind “the spirit of the law” vs. “the letter of the law’. We should not be compelled in all things, but sometimes we miss the true point of a commandment.

    I suppose that, when one is confused on an issue, strict obedience would be to err on the side of safety. However, as a convert, I am perplexed at how many interpretations of the WOW there are among long-time saints. There is alcohol in vanilla extract flavoring in pastries; caffeine in chocolate. I admire young Joseph Smith’s courage to do without pain relief in the form of alcohol and I’m sure that his offering of sacrifice and obedience was accepted by the Lord. But I’m also sure that the Lord will not condemn us for using necessary pain relief during operations.

    These laws were given to us to protect us, not condemn us. When weak, men fall to abuse of substances. Let us not abuse them! Perhaps, we can use this guideline: is this for pure pleasure or for a purpose? And, are we debating over scant amounts, entirely insignificant to our bodies?

    This are my thoughts at this time. Maybe with continued prayer and pondering, I shall think differently. I do wonder if I’m rationalizing and whether I should simply abstain period. But I do need medication at times. I mean, true that the Lord is the primary physician and can heal without medication, but then, wouldn’t that lead us to believe that we should let the Lord heal all without operations as some religious sects do?

    This is something that we need to reckon with individually and for ourselves. Personally, I believe that there are areas meant to be grey areas so we can exercise our spiritual discernment. We’re stronger that way. Otherwise, how weak would we be if we didn’t do anything without a commandment? Also, we can learn not to judge others, to have compassion, forgiveness, etc. There is a reason for the Lord not to be clear on this matter.

  18. Lori on December 29, 2004 at 12:26 pm

    Oh, another thought!

    While it is good for us to follow the WOW, let us remember what Jesus told us about what comes out of the mouth is more important than what goes in.

    This is not an excuse not to obey the WOW, but let us not worry over the trivial parts of it while not putting first things first in the gospel. There is a first and higher commandment and a second like unto it. Also, charity covereth a multitude of sins. If we do all we can, the Lord in his mercy will overlook the minor infractions of the WOW when committed unknowingly.

    If we can say honestly, “Lord, I wasn’t sure about the small amounts of alcohol in foods, but I have refrained from drinking alcohol as stated in the WOW, and I have tried my very best to love and serve my fellow man!” is it reasonable that He would condemn us because we drank Nyquil when we were sick?

    Oh, well, just another thought.

  19. David Larsen on February 7, 2005 at 1:43 am

    I actly am home from BYU-Idaho, and i wrote a paper as a Freshmen about the legilization of Marijuana. Marijuana does not do anything in pill form (well it does, but the THC inside would take 10 pills and it would still only equall as much caffeine as there is in chocolate beans.) When it is smoked it is actually as bad as 2 cigs with tar, but thats only if a joint, that doesnt include pipes, bongs, etc. The thing is, how many joints would one smoke, a couple of my friends 2 a week, as opposed to the pack a day that my other friends smoke. I live in the Chicago area so my pick of good friends is limited. Before i was a member, i smoked marijuana, and that lasted about a year and a half. My dad told me, do your homework on a drug before you use it and once you know the risks make your choice to use it or not. After doing my homework the only too things i would do, is smoke marijuana and eat shrooms. Everything else is very destructive to the body. When i became a member i quit smoking, my friends were happy cause i gave them all my stuff. That was the easiest thing i have ever done. The hardest part was parting with all my expensive weed and pipe. Ive found that if its legalized, unless the prophet comes out and says its agains the WoW, i will problabl continue. THe only thing that i have learned from it, is make sure not to go into debt to buy it.

  20. D. Touchstone on March 8, 2005 at 8:43 pm

    I would like access to research relating to the chemical reactions that happened in the brain when the herb is smoked and what uses if any, it could have on neurological disorders. Mental illness and self-medicating is also of interest to me. Everyone reacts to different substances differently and if pot or ant other legal or illegal substance can be proved in a clinical environment to improve the quality of life of an individual I believe that it should be available to them. Period! My father was diagnosed with cancer Nov. 1981. The strongest pain medicine that could be prescribed could not keep him comfortable. I called his doctor at the VA. He listened to the symptoms my father was having. He told be the best thing for my father is marijuana, but if asked about the conversation he would deny his advice. I was young and had some with me. I sat on his bed in front of my mother, minister uncle, my aunt and others and rolled a joint and smoked it with him. His disposition immediately improved. He had a noticeable positive response and became alert and wanted a root beer. He had not been interested in food or drink and he was able to keep the beverage down. I am thankful for the temporary relief he was able to have. He died 6 weeks later.

  21. annegb on March 8, 2005 at 11:00 pm

    I watched a young friend waste away to 60 lbs., die a horrible death. She smoked marijuana. I don’t see that it helped her very much. Another friend did not and he died relatively peacefully.

    However, if I were to get that sick, I would want the option.

  22. gst on March 8, 2005 at 11:13 pm

    Is it okay to cook with Nyquil?

  23. annegb on March 8, 2005 at 11:25 pm

    I cook with wine. I have four bottles of cooking wine in the fridge. I think it would be a sin to substitute nyquil.

    But, you guys, I must admit, I am the ward addict. I have to have my visiting teacher keep my pills for me. It works rather well. Everybody knows, as you might imagine, I have no secrets. So don’t go by what I say.

    I don’t feel tempted to drink my wine, though.

    My friend, who was a stake relief society president, always has nyquil in her cupboard. I borrow it when I have a cold.

    I think God has bigger things to worry about.

  24. NRS3 on April 2, 2005 at 12:36 am

    If I was dying from cancer, I would want the ability to get loaded on pot if it was going to end the pain and bring back the desire to eat. Marinol is largely over-priced pez and doesn’t to much for many people that have taken in (in comparison to the real thing).

    Kind of strange that we are splitting-hairs on this aspect of the WoW when most of us are warping the pews on Sunday with our largeness and not getting any excercise the other six days of the week. That includes myself.

  25. Sara R on May 24, 2005 at 7:56 pm

    A couple of years ago some people from the San Francisco Bay area were visiting Cedar City. They were smoking marijuana and got caught. They had prescriptions which were legal in California but not in Utah. The newspaper article said one of the people had been prescribed marijuana to treat–get this–his alcoholism.

  26. annegb on May 24, 2005 at 8:26 pm

    Sara, where are you?

    I’m in southern Utah, familiar with this story.

    gardnera@netutah.com

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