2013 was a rough year for Craig Gross. For a decade, he’d battled excruciating headaches and suffered seizure-like episodes, and the health problems were making his life unmanageable. Gross is the founder and face of a ministry called “XXXChurch,” which focuses on outreach to people in the adult film industry and helping people struggling with porn addiction. But in 2013, everything came to a halt. The physical pain he was experiencing was just too much.
He remembers telling himself, “I’m going to fix this; I’m going to see every specialist.” However, things just kept getting worse.
He spent 10 days in the hospital over the period of a year. “It just got ugly—ERs, panic attacks—and at every turn everybody told me I was perfectly fine,” he says looking back.
Finally, it came to a head, and his life began to unravel. “I had to stop every speaking engagement, stop traveling, stop working,” he says.
One Sunday morning, as he was getting ready for church, his wife saw the agony he was in, and suggested that he try something non-traditional. As a resident of California, he could semi-legally visit a doctor who could give him a medical marijuana card that would allow him to purchase cannabis. He skipped church, went to see a doctor—who he admits was “shady”—who, over a Skype call from an office park, gave him a prescription.
The experience wasn’t great. Back then, dispensaries weren’t sophisticated operations with staffs trained on wellness and the medical specificities of different strains of cannabis. He remembers a scary looking guy with a gun standing at the door and the cashier suggesting he go somewhere else unless he’s looking for something that “will f****** get you high.”
Gross passed, saying the experience was just too overwhelming—especially for a guy like him. “I had smoked maybe eight cigarettes in my life, been drunk on my 21st birthday and one other time,” he says.
So, he looked elsewhere for relief, though what he found didn’t really help him. For the next several years, Gross struggled with debilitating headaches. But in places like California and Las Vegas, laws were changing. The marijuana industry was undergoing a rapid evolution with new decriminalization measures. Soon, the pot business was moving away from weird, storefront “doctors” and scary head shops to a highly regulated industry that allows consumers to purchase products for recreational purposes.
While attending a conference in Las Vegas with his ministry, Gross decided to visit one of the city’s larger, more polished dispensaries. With the help of staff members, he purchased a small box of edible, cannabis-infused mints. He took one, went to the hotel spa, and for the first time in years, his mind started to slow down.
“Man, I took this thing, it lasts a couple of hours, and I got myself in a different space,” he remembers.
Today, Gross regularly goes to a spa near his house—and sometimes with the help of his “Relax-a-Mints”—gets himself back to that place.
“I can kind of stop and things can just kind of connect more in the heart space and shut my body down,” he says.
Now, Gross is on a mission.
A GRAY AREA
Marijuana remains in a strange state of legal flux in the United States. Though it is technically “legal” in some states, officially it is still very much illegal. On the federal level, it is still a “Schedule 1” controlled substance, the category reserved for drugs so dangerous that they can’t even be used for medical reasons.
However, unlike drugs like heroin (another Schedule 1 drug), marijuana is largely considered pretty safe. Though because of its Schedule 1 classification, unlike Schedule 2 drugs like methamphetamine, it can’t be officially medically tested for safety in the United States.
You read that correctly: The federal government gives pot a more dangerous classification than drugs like meth, cocaine and fentanyl. Unlike those drugs, you can’t overdose on marijuana. It’s also considered non-physically addictive by most experts.
As states across the country change their own laws—in conflict with federal law— high-level drug enforcement officials have essentially decided to look the other way. This means that dispensaries and weed stores can be legal in places like California, but illegal in the United States. It’s confusing, and that’s the problem. And that’s why things might soon be changing.
With more and more states ignoring federal laws in favor of their own, it may only be a matter of time before pot becomes a highly regulated, accepted, legal and extremely profitable part of the American economy like alcohol and cigarettes. That means it’s an issue that more and more churches are going to need to be equipped to deal with.
“Fred,” a pastor from Georgia [not his real name], has seen that the topic is still too taboo for many churches to deal with. He is a regular user of cannabis, but many people in his congregation don’t know that.
“We have to be an underground church, so to speak, in this area,” he says.
Fred has been a Christian for more than a decade, and says that if God asked him to stop regularly smoking weed, he would. But, to Fred, pot is a gift and a part of creation.
“I believe Genesis 1,” he says referring to the story of God creating all life on Earth. “He called it ‘good’ and ‘very good.’” Like Gross, Fred uses it to slow down, especially when the busyness of life and ministry becomes overwhelming.
“It’s like somebody just called a time out,” he says. “I can take a breath, and I can actually gather my thoughts.”
In fact, for Fred, it’s become an important part of his spiritual life.
“Over 90% of the use is for spirituality,” he says. “I’m either going to read the Bible. I’m going to listen to worship. I’m going to play my guitar and sing to the Lord.”
Fred has heard all of the concerns: The shaky legal status, the scary messages you hear about pot from anti-drug activists. However, he seems unmoved by them.
“I always laugh at the negative connotations,” he says. “They always say, ‘Cannabis or marijuana is a gateway drug.’ And I am always like, ‘Yeah, it’s a gateway to Jesus Christ.’”
PROCEEDING WITH CAUTION
You can walk across the street from Pastor Jeff Lacine’s church in Portland, Oregon, and buy a pre-rolled joint for just a couple of dollars. As a teen, Lacine was a daily marijuana smoker, but believes “God rescued me from the distorting clutches of marijuana abuse.”
He has some clear concerns and reservations about the Christian consumption of recreational marijuana, but he also sees the danger in being too quick to dismiss pot, especially in its medicinal use, as something that should be labeled sinful or flatly off limits. Lacine doesn’t want churches to repeat mistakes of the past.
“I think that evangelicals have largely recognized mistakes that the Church has made in reference to alcohol in the early 20th century and even into the mid- and late-20th century, as far as attitudes toward alcohol that were unbiblical and mainly, unbiblically restrictive,” he says. “Unbiblical restrictions have actually reduced our credibility and our witness.”
However, Lacine says that as pastors, there is still an obligation to “protect the flock” and offer leadership and insight when it comes to an issue that could potentially lead to destructive attitudes and behaviors.
“We need to be especially on guard against any claim that chemical-induced spiritual experiences draw us closer to Jesus,” Lacine says. “That practice is more akin to witchcraft than it is to any form of historically and biblically orthodox Christianity.”
But, instead of simply issuing a blanket prohibition of pot, Lacine believes that Christians need to look at the larger narrative of Scripture and understand where a substance like pot fits into it.
Marijuana remains in a strange state of legal flux in the United States.
According to Lacine, this approach means asking, “What is the biblical, theological understanding, as we understand God’s redemptive plan through the whole Bible, and not just proof-texting the verses for or against?” he explains. Though, he says that after counseling many churchgoers who use recreational cannabis, “there is not a single case that I have come across where I have found it beneficial in an individual’s discipleship to Christ.”
For Lacine, it starts with understanding God’s desire for people to overcome the haze of the fallen world, and to actually see God as He really is.
“The promise of the Christian—the goal of redemption— is to see things as they really are,” he explains. “To see with clarity. That is ultimately seeing God as He really is.” With that understanding, does marijuana lead us to God’s design for redemption?
“I think the God-given place of substances in this world is to help us along that journey with our broken bodies,” Lacine explains. He points to coffee, which can help us wake up and think clearly. Similarly, he sees a scriptural place for proper alcohol use, which the Bible uses to help us understand ideas like celebration and abundance. That’s why he thinks pot needs to be discussed with such nuance and understanding.
“My hope is to push the Church, particularly the local church … to ask these questions with this redemptive, historical framework,” he says. “The question we need to ask with marijuana is, ‘Is it being used in a way where it’s clarifying or where it’s distorting?’ And that’s not a question that I can answer across the board. That’s the place where the local church is needed.”
Part of answering that question is understanding how pot is used, bred and sold. There are two primary components that make marijuana, marijuana: THC and CBD.
CBD (cannabidiol) is the part of the cannabis plant that is typically sold in oil form or edible candies that can be used for everything from pain management to treating insomnia. According to the World Health Organization, “CBD exhibits no effects indicative of any abuse or dependence potential.” CBD also doesn’t affect mental clarity.
THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) is the psychoactive ingredient. In other words, THC is what gets you high. Different strains are bred with different amounts of both components. Oils like Charlotte’s Web has the benefits of CBD without any kind of intoxicating effect of THC. But many dispensaries sell weed specifically bred to contain more THC. The effects that different types of pot have on people—from a cancer patient using pot to alleviate the pain of chemotherapy and a parent using Charlotte’s Web to treat a child’s seizures—vary wildly.
That’s why Lacine believes that it’s important for local pastors to understand what exactly they are being asked about when they are asked about their thoughts on pot.
Ultimately, he sees a need for pastors and churches to understand the nuances of the issue and the individual circumstances of members of their congregation. Because of the complexities of the topic—recreational vs. medicinal uses, unclear legal statuses, differing effects on different people—things are more effectively handled on a relational level, when Christians can know the specifics of people’s needs and the kind of pot they are thinking of using. But that’s also why he believes pastors using marijuana in secret is concerning.
“Nine times out of 10, the people in their community hear that, just like I’m hearing it: This brother is self-deceived,” Lacine says. “He’s using chemicals, in a way, to find an escape from real issues that are to be battled by God’s grace, not by silencing out reality, but by welcoming accountability, the means of grace through Scripture, through prayers with brothers and sisters.”
Because, as Lacine explains, trials should be expected. “While the Gospel imparts to us great comfort in this life, it is not a comfort absent of trials,” he says. “Our goal as Christians in this world is not to escape every painful trial, but to glorify God in the midst of difficulties. God employs trials and difficulties to work what is pleasing to Him in his children … How many Psalms would have not been written if David would have silenced all that was going on inside of his heart with substance abuse?”
THE FUTURE IS NOW
Recently, Craig Gross launched a new venture: ChristianCannabis.com. The name is meant to be somewhat ironic. (“I don’t like the labels, because I think that just means we do everything B-rate or C-rate,” Gross said.) Instead, he sees it as a place where Christians can discuss the issue, get resources about pot and, soon, buy actual cannabis products.
Gross says the idea came after talking to so many people who find themselves in a spot where they just don’t know what to think about the issue, and many don’t have a safe place to discuss it at all.
Time after time, he heard the same response when he asked a pastor what he thought about pot. “And every answer from everybody I’ve talked to for the last year was, ‘I don’t know,’” he says. “Not just, ‘What would Jesus say? What would my boss say? Am I allowed to? Do I have freedom to do it?’”
Gross says he wants to dispel misinformation. “I think it’s dangerous for Christians with microphones or pulpits or even Facebook channels to talk about things they have no experience with or knowledge of.”
Gross says pot changed his quality of life, positively affecting his spiritual life and relationship with God. Not because pot changed what he thought about God; because it’s changed how he thinks.
“As people ask me, ‘Hey, how has this changed you? I would say, ‘The spirit lives in my heart and our hearts as believers, but I’ve been in my head.’” Now, he’s found a way out of it. Pot helps him quiet his mind, but as more churches deal with cannabis in their own communities, they’ll need to decide if that’s the kind of high God wants them to start chasing.
Rachel is a writer and editor living in Portland.