High Life: Christians and Cannabis Legalization

Jessica Mundie

(Photo/Chmee2, Wikimedia Commons)

When the Rev. James T. Roberson was a defensive tackle for the James Madison University football team he took part in his school’s pro day, when NFL scouts travel to recruit new talent. But, during tryouts, he pulled his hamstring and had to drop out.

“After that I just started reeling,” he said. Roberson turned to cannabis to numb the pain. Before he would go out for dinner with his friends, he would smoke. Before he went to the movies, he would smoke.

“It got to a point where I was doing it every day,” Roberson, 44, said.

Eventually, Roberson, a pastor’s son, began to examine and question the role faith could play in his life. He was skeptical, he said, mostly of Christianity’s racist and patriarchal elements, but as he read the Bible, he started to pray and grow in his newfound faith.

Eventually, Roberson ended up becoming a pastor at a church in North Carolina. Now he runs Bridge Church NYC in Park Slope, Brooklyn, which he has branded as a “a church for people who don’t go to church.”

Roberson is using his platform as a church leader to talk about the legalization of marijuana and other important cultural issues that are not usually discussed in faith spaces. He does not use marijuana anymore or encourage others to partake, but he, and an increasing number of Black church leaders, see efforts to legalize the controlled substance as a path to religious redemption for Black Americans.

Earlier this year, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed the New York State Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act, which legalized recreational use of cannabis for people over 21 and made New York the sixteenth state to permit the possession of the controlled substance. The law also allows for those who have been convicted of marijuana related convictions to have their records expunged.

Amid the legalization discussion, Roberson is one of many pastors reconsidering their message about marijuana. Of course, pastors don’t want to push a controlled substance from the pulpit, but they see opportunities for economic development in hurting communities, a remedy to historic injustices and a new way to reach lost souls.

For Black religious leaders like Roberson, legalization is an important stepping stone in the fight for racial justice. A report by the American Civil Liberties Union found that in 2018, even though white and Black Americans consumed marijuana at the same rate, Black people were almost four times more likely than white people to be arrested for possession. That disproportionate ratio has not changed even as the overall number of arrests for possession has gone down in the last decade.

“From a legal standpoint, this is a good thing for the Black and brown communities to no longer have this as one of the primary reasons we see Black men disappear into prison,” said Roberson.

His position contradicts how most American clergy feel.

According to a LifeWay Research poll, the majority of Protestant pastors say getting high is morally wrong. Since before legalization, mainstream Christian denominations have had differing opinions on cannabis legislation.

Certain denominations approve the use of medical marijuana, like the Episcopal Church, Presbyterian Church, and United Methodist Church. The Roman Catholic Church considers drug use an offense if it is not used “on strictly therapeutic grounds.” Other religious organizations, like Concerned Women for America, an evangelical Christian group, and Focus on the Family, a conservative Christian ministry, oppose legalization under any circumstances.

Roberson is not the only church leader in New York City considering the importance of social justice and equity in legalization. The Rev. Anthony L. Trufant, senior Pastor of Emmanuel Baptist Church in Clinton Hill, Brooklyn, said he sees the legalization of recreational cannabis as an opportunity for his community to thrive.

In February 2021, the Baptist megachurch held its second annual cannabis summit. The two-day Business of Cannabis Summit discussed how Black and Latinx communities can benefit from the growing cannabis industry through business opportunities while also addressing issues of social justice and reinvesting in communities.

This year’s summit participants heard from Niambe McIntosh, whose father Peter Tosh played guitar with Bob Marley. Tosh was severely beaten by police after lighting a joint and advocating on stage for legalization. She spoke about her brother who was arrested and served time for cannabis possession. While the summit was remote this year due to the coronavirus pandemic, it still attracted over 2,000 guests, Trufant said.

The summit is a partnership between the church and Women Grow, an organization that hopes to connect, educate, empower, and inspire the next generation of cannabis leaders, said Gia Moron, President of Women Grow. Trufant said their partnership was formed based on their shared understanding of what the possibilities of legalization meant for communities of color, the Black community in particular. They see it as an opportunity for economic justice.
“Pastor Trufant had the foresight to understand that this was information that needed to be shared with his congregation and with the greater community,” said Moron, who is now a member of Emmanuel Baptist Church.

While the summit was an opportunity to address issues of social justice, Trufant also wanted it to be an opportunity for members of his community to learn about how they can benefit from the growing cannabis industry. There were sessions about career and business opportunities involving cannabis and real estate, CBD products, investing, and health and wellness.

According to the Rev. Alexander Sharp, founder of Clergy for a New Drug Policy, the church is an important place for conversations to start around cannabis policy, and the bigger issue of drug addiction.

“Churches are shamefully silent,” said Sharp.

He explained that they should be used as places for education and debate about drug policy. Hopefully, he added, if a church is seen as welcoming, those who suffer from addiction or want to change their dependent relationship with marijuana, will find a welcoming and nonjudgmental community within a congregation that could help them change.

Founded in 2015, Clergy for a New Drug Policy aims to bring clergy across different faiths together to join the fight to end the war on drugs by promoting education, safety, and treatment. Sharp, an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ, started the organization because of his background in theology and public policy. Sharp’s overarching goal is to mobilize religious leaders to think of drug use as a health issue and not a criminal one.

Sharp offers several different reasons why religious organizations should advocate for drug policy reform. He writes that at the center of Christian faith “is a loving God of mercy and forgiveness, seeking always to heal and yearning for us to be united as brothers and sisters in God’s love.”

To him, the war on drugs does not meet these criteria. Through Clergy for a New Drug Policy, Sharp supports policies that aim to decriminalize all drugs and shift the culture of punishment to one centered on public health solutions.

In terms of marijuana prohibition, Sharp argues that it “stigmatizes people; it brands and marginalizes them. It stands in opposition to God’s love, healing, and forgiveness.”

Not only does legalization help correct historic injustices against minority communities, but Sharp says it is a distinctly religious stance – one of forgiveness and compassion.

Before Emmanuel Baptist Church’s first summit in 2019, Moron said there was some hesitancy within the congregation. She said some members thought it meant people would be consuming and selling cannabis on the property. But after congregation members heard keynote speakers and attended discussions with political leaders, doctors, nurses, entrepreneurs, and advocates, the majority of them Black people, they changed their tone, she said.

Trufant said even though some members of his 4,000-person congregation were skeptical of the summit, the church was proud to address an issue that is pertinent to its community.

“Emmanuel Baptist Church has always been unafraid to step into the public square, and address issues that others might find to be taboo,” said Trufant.

While the Business of Cannabis Summit at Emmanuel Baptist Church was an opportunity for congregation and community members to gather and discuss social justice issues and business opportunities, it was not meant to open discussion on the moral or religious reaction to legalization.

Roberson said he is hesitant to say Christians should start consuming cannabis. While the Bible does not explicitly forbid the use of cannabis, Roberson said, it does offer a framework for avoiding intoxication as it relates to alcohol and entering states of mind that would alter your relationship with God.

In the Bible, the use of alcohol is celebrated, explained Roberson. The Lord’s communion and Jesus’s first miracle, turning water into wine, are indications of how Christians should consider alcohol use in their lives.

“The principle is everything being done in moderation,” he said. But he admits he’s not 100% positive that the same rule applies to marijuana. “Now, can you smoke weed in moderation? I don’t know.”

Todd Miles, a theology professor at the evangelical Western Seminary in Portland, Oregon suggests other areas of ethical concern when considering cannabis use in his book Cannabis and the Christian. Christians are not to be mastered by anything other than God, he writes. Cannabis also can dampen a Christian’s dedication to discipleship and stewardship as well as their responsibility to their faith, he said.

Miles and Roberson share similar views on the religious use of cannabis. “I do think that the case can be made that the biblical prohibitions on alcohol intoxication apply to marijuana intoxication,” said Miles.

He also believes that while the Bible may not have the answer to every potential ethical question answered explicitly, it does offer all the divine words that a Christian needs to live faithfully before God. The framework he offers for ethical decision-making on cannabis consumption in his book takes biblical wisdom and discipleship into consideration.

Some of the questions he asks Christians to consider are: is there any reason to smoke pot recreationally other than to get high? Can you be sober-minded while you’re using marijuana? Will THC, the main psychoactive compound in cannabis, diminish my ability to live a life that honors Christ?

The legalization of cannabis will continue to be a nuanced issue for Christians, said Miles. While the legislation will be beneficial for communities of color and offer economic opportunities for those historically affected by prohibition, Christians need to consider if this substance will bring them closer to God. Roberson offers an answer to the question, should Christians consume marijuana. He concluded that without moderation, weed becomes a master.

“We want the spirit life to be our life,” said Roberson. “Not the blunted life, not the stoned life, not the high life, not the baked life. If a Christian tells you it’s cool to get high all the time, they’re wrong.”