Editor’s note: In light of President Joe Biden’s decision to pardon all prior federal offenses of simple marijuana possession, we’re running this piece again to discuss how the Church feels about those imprisoned for marijuana possession.
In 1969, when Pew first started asking people how they felt about marijuana legalization, just 12 percent of Americans thought weed should be legalized. But things have changed rapidly on that front over the last few years, with 67 percent in favor of marijuana legalization today. That group includes Christians. 60 percent of Protestants say weed should be legalized, along with 53 percent of Catholics, according to the most recent study. Even evangelicals — generally the most conservative U.S. demographic — narrowly support legalization, with just over 50 percent saying they believe weed should be decriminalized.
There are several reasons for this. Compared to other substances, experts consider marijuana usage to be fairly safe and non-physically addictive. Economically, weed legalization provided a huge boost to Colorado, prompting states like Oregon, California, Washington and New York to follow suit in spite of the federal government. Some Christians, like XXXChurch’s Craig Gross, have even started touting getting high as a spiritual experience.
Still, not every Christian is on board the #legalizeit train. Like most pastors, Dr. Russell Moore opposes marijuana use. “Most of the young evangelicals I know seek to minister to friends who have been harmed by marijuana culture,” he told the Wall Street Journal. “This isn’t theoretical to them at all.” Four out of five Christian pastors agree with him.
So Christian opinions on marijuana are changing, and believers will disagree on whether or not that’s a good thing. But one question Christians should be asking as more and more state laws reflect shifting opinions on marijuana is what this means for the people behind bars for marijuana. As American laws and opinions shift on marijuana — and some entrepreneurs get very rich off of this newly legal enterprise — shouldn’t that mean revisiting the cases of people who went to jail for it?
Much of America’s mass incarceration crisis stems from minor marijuana offenses. Four-in-ten drug arrests in 2018 were for weed, mostly possession. Crucially, the racial disparities in the American criminal justice system are rarely more stark than they are when it comes to marijuana. Although Black and White Americans use marijuana at roughly the same rates, Black people are almost four times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession.
Consider the case of Fate Vincent Winslow. In 2008, Winslow was arrested after selling $20 of weed to an undercover cop in Louisiana. Winslow wasn’t the drug dealer. He was homeless, working as a middle man between the actual dealer and the buyer, with an agreement to make five dollars on commission. The actual dealer, who is White, was not arrested. Winslow, who is Black, was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole.
Winslow’s story isn’t unique. Since 1996, at least 54 people have been sentenced to life in prison for marijuana-related crimes, but exact numbers are hard to come by and the ACLU believes there are probably more.
But of course, you don’t have to be locked up for life for a charge like this to change everything. The formerly incarcerated face enormous challenges, including the types of jobs they want, the places they can live and public assistance they are eligible for.
Squaring the reality of these sentences with sunny press releases about a group of (mostly White) scientists who successfully created the world’s largest pot brownie is a maddening exercise. Even the staunchest critic of marijuana legalization would have to wonder if the punishment really fits the crime, since even possession is not even considered a crime in some parts of the country. For example, Craig Cesal repaired freight trucks for a living, and took a job with a company that used trucks to move a lot of weed on the sly. According to him, he never handled or even saw any drugs, but he was still “convicted of conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute thousands of pounds of marijuana,” according to Mother Jones. He was sentenced to life. “I had no idea I had done anything illegal,” he said.
For Christians, the question goes even deeper than fairness. In Matthew 15, Jesus tells the disciples that he identifies with those in prison, telling them that when they visit people in jail, they’re really visiting him. Christians have every reason to advocate for just treatment of inmates, because doing so is advocating for the just treatment of Jesus himself.
This is about much, much more than whether or not you think weed should be legalized. This is about the Church’s concept of justice. There are some legal movements afoot to tackle the disparity, from a proposed Illinois bill that would release inmates convicted of cannabis charges to several California bills that have lowered or dropped marijuana charges over the last few years.
While nuance has never been a strength of popular discourse, it’s needed here. Justice reform advocates like Bryan Stevenson have long been pushing for more humane policies around sentencing, focusing on movements like ending mandatory minimums. In 2015, former President Barack Obama granted clemency to dozens of federal inmates who’d been locked up for non-violent drug offenses, citing past excesses from lawmakers eager to prove their “tough on crime” bonafides, throwing minor criminals behind bars and throwing away the key.
Clemency isn’t always popular politically or culturally, but Christians should be familiar with the idea of forgiveness and restoration. The debate on marijuana use will probably be over any time soon. But there is no need to wait on desperately needed reforms to our justice system.