I grew up in an evangelical Christian minister’s home during America’s “Just Say No” era, which means I spent most of my life believing that marijuana was just one more sinful tool that the devil used to shred America’s moral fabric. But that was before I developed a mysterious and debilitating chronic pain disorder against which most traditional medicines proved worthless. Pain, like time, has a way of transforming us.
On a gray morning in December four years ago, I awoke in my cramped Brooklyn apartment and could not feel my hands. Over the following weeks, the numbness morphed into burning, tingling, stabbing pain that spread all over my body. The pain was soon accompanied by panic attacks, crippling depression and something bordering on suicidal thoughts.
Desperate for answers and relief, I plowed through health care professionals — six neurologists, three primary care physicians, two chiropractors, two physical therapists, an orthopedist, a cardiologist, a rheumatologist, a physiatrist and one especially earnest Hasidic Jewish healer. They offered me no answers, but instead gave me a cabinet full of nerve pills, painkillers and anti-inflammatory drugs that clouded my mind and were accompanied by side effects that were often worse than the symptoms themselves.
In the depths of my despair, I visited a so-called green doctor in Venice Beach, Calif., and did something that the pious childhood version of me would have considered unthinkable: I asked for a medical marijuana prescription. That evening, I sampled a small dose and experienced what some might call a miracle. The excruciating pain receded and the cloud encircling my head lifted for the first time in months. I laid in bed and wept for more than an hour.
I used my prescription dozens of times in subsequent weeks, each time with similar effect. The reduced level of pain cleared a path for me to research and experiment with non-substance solutions for my illness including yoga, mindfulness meditation and dietary changes. Even still, the experience forced me to consider that perhaps marijuana should be legalized and regulated like alcohol and tobacco rather than banned like heroin and meth.
Ever since the newly formed religious right enlisted in the Reagan revolution, conservative Christians have been reliable supporters of the “war on drugs,” and by extension, stalwart opponents of legalizing marijuana. But many prominent Christian pastors and leaders I’ve spoken with told me that they are quietly changing their minds on the matter. Others who remain skeptical admit that much has changed since the 1980s and they no longer are sure of what they believe. The faithful need to have an up-to-date discussion on the morality of marijuana.
For starters, Christians should easily affirm the use of cannabis for medical purposes. Though recent research has revealed marijuana can have “a deleterious impact on cognitive development in adolescents,” numerous studies have also showcased its remarkable healing potential for adults. This has led more than 30 states to legalize it for therapeutic uses. As a doctor friend of mine in New York recently commented, if medical marijuana was a synthetic pill produced by Pfizer and not a historically villainized substance, it would be fast-tracked by the Food and Drug Administration and celebrated as a “miracle drug” by every respectable health practitioner in America. In clinical trials, medical marijuana has been shown to be safe and effective in relieving pain, decreasing inflammation, controlling seizures, reducing anxiety and depression, and easing the nausea related to chemotherapy.
America is sick, and the Christian call to compassion obligates the faithful to act. Chronic pain and illness now affect tens of millions of Americans, and in many cases the cause eludes the brightest medical minds. To fight these ailments, Americans have been prescribed mind-altering anti-depressants, highly addictive pain relievers and opioids, and all manner of legal substances with a list of side effects so long that drug commercials feel like “Saturday Night Live” shorts.
Christian ethics has long taught that the faithful must take an active role in caring for the ailing among us. The New Testament repeatedly commands the people of God to engage in “healing the sick,” an act that plays a central role in Jesus’s ministry in all four Gospels. In fact, one of Jesus’s most famous parables, in Matthew 25, lists humans’ willingness or failure to care for sick people as one of the chief criteria upon which they will be judged by God in the afterlife. And in at least one instance, the Apostle Paul, who wrote more of the New Testament than anyone else, encourages his protégé Timothy to use a potentially harmful substance for the sake of health and healing. “No longer drink water exclusively,” Paul writes in 1 Timothy 5:23, “but use a little wine for the sake of your stomach and your frequent ailments.”
While a majority of Christians now favor permitting medical marijuana, they are far more resistant to legalizing it completely. But the faithful must consider that America’s drug war has been a catastrophic failure and has perpetuated social injustices against communities of color.
Justice is one of the main themes in both the Jewish scriptures and the Christian New Testament. This includes the famed teaching from the Jewish prophet Micah that “to do justice” is one of only three actions that God “requires” from God’s people and Jesus’s repeated teachings on justice (often translated in English as “righteousness”). The more than 2,000 verses about justice in the Bible have grounded Christians in every major political justice movement in modern American history — from abolition to women’s suffrage to the civil rights movement — and provide solid ground for Christians seeking to rethink this matter as well.
The Christian rapper Jason Petty, known as Propaganda, has witnessed the injustices of this disparity firsthand as a black man. He told me that his cousin spent 25 years in prison for a nonviolent drug offense, and a close friend of his served a five-year jail sentence just for riding in a car with another person in possession of drugs. As he put it, “American Christians have to stop being the last ones to the table to have discussions like these. Given the proven racist intent of the war on drugs and the criminalization of marijuana, it’s time for Christians to think critically about this issue and not just default to abstinence.”
Indeed, people of color are far more likely to be searched or harassed, and black Americans are imprisoned for nonviolent drug offenses at a rate 10 times higher than white Americans despite the fact that white Americans use drugs far more frequently.
Even if arguments like these are persuasive to Christians, there is the matter of finding respected leaders to take them to the masses. Enter the California pastor and author Craig Gross, who has just started Christian Cannabis, a national effort to educate and engage the faithful on this issue. The organization’s flashy website, which includes a logo of a dove with a marijuana leaf in its mouth, includes a blog and a podcast. It also features a number of cannabis-infused vaporizer pens with names like Praise, Peace and Persevere, which will be for sale on the site in the future.
Mr. Gross is no stranger to sparking difficult conversations among believers. In 2002, after the explosion of the internet, he started a national organization called XXX Church with the mission of starting a conversation about the negative effects of pornography. Most Christian leaders felt uncomfortable discussing the topic so openly at the time, but Mr. Gross persisted and soon the issue went mainstream. More than 15 years later, XXX Church facilitates online Bible study groups and has created porn-blocking software. What Mr. Gross did with pornography he hopes to replicate with pot.
Mr. Gross, who is 42, admits to being personally invested in the issue. After years of struggling with a health condition that resulted in him being hospitalized and on the hook for expensive medical bills, he tried medical marijuana and found both relief from his symptoms and clarity about a new calling. He told me, “Through my experience, the Lord met me in ways more powerful than I’ve ever known. It convinced me that I am supposed to lead this new conversation.”
He is not the only one who is rethinking his views. While I was working on this story, I corresponded with numerous Christian leaders — prominent pastors, radio hosts, authors, organizational leaders. They admitted to me that they believe this issue needs to be reconsidered, and several said that they had used marijuana in recent days. But few were willing to speak on the record for fear of backlash from more politically conservative believers.
A pastor at one of America’s largest and most respected evangelical megachurches spoke to me on the condition of anonymity for fear of jeopardizing his job. He has quietly battled unbearable mental illness for more than two decades. To survive the “gruesome ride,” as he described it, he tried counseling, reading therapeutic books and a lot of prayer. Years ago, he was forced to begin taking prescription drugs with a host of negative side effects just to function at home and at work. But in recent years, he secretly added medical marijuana to his therapy regimen. Today he feels “invigorated” instead of “debilitated,” and he is no longer taking the prescription drugs on which he once depended. He said that the experience has changed both his political and his theological views.
“I have lived my whole life thinking that using marijuana was wrong and sinful, but now I cannot deny that God has used this for my good,” he told me. “It’s made me a better husband, a better human and a better recipient of God’s love.”
For the 70 percent of Americans who claim to be Christian to rethink and re-engage with this issue, believers will need to hear more stories like his, recounted by voices they trust. Right now, most Christian leaders are unwilling to step up and speak about such a stigmatized topic.
American Christians are as divided as ever over all manner of cultural issues, and it remains to be seen whether the mass of the faithful will have the energy and interest to address this issue on the level it deserves. Historically, conservative Christians have been Johnny-come-latelys to leading-edge cultural conversations. That needs to change, and not just when it comes to cannabis.
Jonathan Merritt (@JonathanMerritt) is a contributing writer for The Atlantic and the author, most recently, of “Learning to Speak God From Scratch: Why Sacred Words Are Vanishing — And How We Can Revive Them.”
The Times is committed to publishing a diversity of letters to the editor. We’d like to hear what you think about this or any of our articles. Here are some tips. And here’s our email: firstname.lastname@example.org.