The Christian Case for Marijuana
If we are concerned about justice and the mitigation of pain, we must get beyond the just-say-no mentality.
By Jonathan Merritt
Mr. Merritt writes about the intersection of religion, culture and politics.
June 20, 2019
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.”
If we are concerned about justice and the mitigation of pain, we must get beyond the just-say-no mentality.
Cannabis in the bible
They don’t teach you in Sunday school that cannabis appears in the Old Testament but modern scholarship shows that cannabis was used sacramentally by Moses and the ancient Israelites. Cannabis appears by name five times in the original Hebrew text of the Bible according to research by Polish etymologist Sula Benet, whose work Chris Bennett later expanded on. The Hebrew word “kaneh bosm” is cannabis but was later mistranslated as other plants including calamus or aromatic cane.
The Old Testament tells the story of Jewish history and how over a thousand-year period the worship of the single Israelite god ultimately took hold over the indigenous polytheistic culture. The ancient Israelites at the time of Moses in 1500 BCE lived in the land of Canaan (modern day Israel and Palestine) among the broader Canaanite culture that worshipped the Mother Goddess and many gods.
Cannabis was well established in the region and had been used for thousands of years as fiber, food, ganja, and incense. In the early centuries of the Bible the Lord favors cannabis as the Hebrew culture was still Canaanite, but over time as the worship of the Mother Goddess is purged practices such as burning incense to her in the temple are purged as well.
The first and most significant reference to cannabis is in the story of Moses, where God gives him specific instructions for how to properly set up the Tabernacle for worship and includes a recipe for holy anointing oil that includes cannabis. The holy anointing oil was to be used to anoint the temple and the priests and is sacred, the recipe not to be shared.
Exodus 30: 23-25: 1446 BCE
“Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘Take the following fine spices: 500 shekels of liquid myrrh, half as much (that is, 250 shekels) of fragrant cinnamon, 250 shekels of fragrant calamus [cannabis], 500 shekels of cassia—all according to the sanctuary shekel—and a hin of olive oil. Make these into a sacred anointing oil, a fragrant blend, the work of a perfumer. It will be the sacred anointing oil.’”
Converted into today’s measurements:
- Liquid myrrh 500 shekels 5.75 kg (12.68 lbs)
- Cassia 500 shekels 5.75 kg (12.68 lbs)
- Cinnamon leaf 250 shekels 2.875 kg (6.34 lbs)
- Cannabis flowers 250 shekels 2.875 kg (6.34 lbs)
- Olive oil 1 hin 6.5 liters (1.72 gallons)
As you can imagine, an oil that contains more than 6 pounds of ganja steeped in less than 2 gallons of olive oil is going to be very potent. In ceremonies the oil would be poured over the head and body of the priest, drenching them. The skin readily absorbs THC and the effect of soaking in this oil would be very psychoactive, offering some serious communion with the Lord.
The second reference to cannabis is in the court of King Solomon, who ruled in the 10th century BCE. Solomon was known for his great wisdom and he built the first Hebrew temple in Jerusalem. But unlike his father, King David, Solomon fell out of favor with the Lord because King Solomon worshipped Asherah, the Canaanite goddess of his wives and he burned incense to her.
Solomon also wrote the Song of Songs (also known as the Song of Solomon), a love poem that is considered the most beautiful text in the Bible and unique for being explicitly sexual. In chapter 4 the man describes the beauty of his lover, comparing her to the most beautiful flowers, including cannabis, among other flattery.
Song of Songs 4: 10-15 950 BCE
“How delightful is your love, my sister, my bride! How much more pleasing is your love than wine, and the fragrance of your perfume more than any spice! Your lips drop sweetness as the honeycomb, my bride; milk and honey are under your tongue. The fragrance of your garments is like the fragrance of Lebanon. You are a garden locked up, my sister, my bride; you are a spring enclosed, a sealed fountain. Your plants are an orchard of pomegranates with choice fruits, with henna and nard, nard and saffron, calamus [cannabis] and cinnamon, with every kind of incense tree, with myrrh and aloes and all the finest spices. You are a garden fountain, a well of flowing water streaming down from Lebanon.”
As the tale of Jewish history moves on to the 8th century BCE and the prophet Isaiah, cannabis once again makes an appearance. Isaiah warned about the sinfulness and faithlessness of Israel and preached reform. Cannabis is referenced in the text as one of the offerings the Israelites have failed to bring to the Lord.
Isaiah 43:24 711 BCE
“You have not bought any fragrant calamus [cannabis] for me, or lavished on me the fat of your sacrifices. But you have burdened me with your sins and wearied me with your offenses.”
The fourth reference to cannabis comes in the book of Jeremiah, where God is angry with the Israelites for their greed and deceit. Jeremiah was known as the weeping prophet who foresaw the coming destruction of Israel. In the passage, cannabis is referenced as among the offerings God rejects, reflecting a definitive shift in worship practices.
Jeremiah 6:20 627 BCE
“What do I care about incense from Sheba or sweet calamus [cannabis] from a distant land? Your burnt offerings are not acceptable; your sacrifices do not please me.”
In 586 BCE comes the fall of Jerusalem and the Babylonian exile. This is one of the most traumatic and important chapters in Jewish history. Tyre, in modern day Lebanon, was the wealthy capital city of Canaan and also besieged by the Babylonians. Cannabis is listed among the items of trade that passed through the great city in the fifth explicit reference to the plant.
Ezekiel 27:18-19 586 BCE
“Damascus did business with you because of your many products and great wealth of goods. They offered wine from Helbon, wool from Zahar and casks of wine from Izal in exchange for your wares: wrought iron, cassia and calamus [cannabis].”
Cannabis is ultimately rejected by the Israelites once and for all during the time of Babylonian exile along with the worship of the Mother Goddess Asherah, the Queen of Heaven. There is a long passage in Jeremiah where the prophet rails against Asherah while the women defend their practice of burning incense to her. I think we all know who won that conflict.
Jeremiah 44:15-23 588 BCE
“Then all the men who knew that their wives were burning incense to other gods, along with all the women who were present—a large assembly—and all the people living in Lower and Upper Egypt, said to Jeremiah, ‘We will not listen to the message you have spoken to us in the name of the LORD! We will certainly do everything we said we would: We will burn incense to the Queen of Heaven and will pour out drink offerings to her just as we and our ancestors, our kings and our officials did in the towns of Judah and in the streets of Jerusalem. At that time we had plenty of food and were well off and suffered no harm. But ever since we stopped burning incense to the Queen of Heaven and pouring out drink offerings to her, we have had nothing and have been perishing by sword and famine.’”
The women added, “When we burned incense to the Queen of Heaven and poured out drink offerings to her, did not our husbands know that we were making cakes impressed with her image and pouring out drink offerings to her?”
Then Jeremiah said to all the people, both men and women, who were answering him, “Did not the Lord remember and call to mind the incense burned in the towns of Judah and the streets of Jerusalem by you and your ancestors, your kings and your officials and the people of the land? When the Lord could no longer endure your wicked actions and the detestable things you did, your land became a curse and a desolate waste without inhabitants, as it is today. Because you have burned incense and have sinned against the Lord and have not obeyed him or followed his law or his decrees or his stipulations, this disaster has come upon you, as you now see.”
For the Bible tells me so.