Jesse Stanley sees marijuana as “God’s plant.” He is one of five brothers—all alums of an evangelical high school—who grow medical marijuana from their two dispensaries in Colorado Springs, Colo. As he put it to the website FaithStreet: “God is moving in the hearts of men and women and children around the world about this plant in ways that I never would’ve imagined.”
The Stanleys got into the marijuana business in 2009 because of a cousin who was in pain and wasn’t helped by conventional treatment. Several years in, they made an unexpected breakthrough. The mother of a 5-year-old girl named Charlotte came into their dispensary seeking help for her daughter’s severe epilepsy. Wary about giving marijuana to a young girl, the Stanleys took a strain called “Hippie’s disappointment” that was low in THC (the chemical that gives the buzz), and created a new blend, high in cannabidiol (the chemical with the medical potential). Charlotte could take it in small doses.
Remarkably—the Stanleys might say miraculously—Charlotte’s seizures decreased dramatically. They dubbed their blend “Charlotte’s Web,” and started a charity called Realm of Caring, which has helped reduce the seizures of hundreds of children like Charlotte. Gaining national attention, the Stanleys even melted the heart of CNN’s Sanjay Gupta, who had been a major critic of medical marijuana.
The Stanleys have taken one more big step in this culturally surprising direction—their dispensaries only sell medical marijuana, though Jesse Stanley supports recreational use as well. But there is a line
the brothers draw: they stay away from stoner culture.* They consistently turn down invitations to appear at 4/20 celebrations, and urge their customers to use their product responsibly.
In local evangelical circles, the Stanleys’ ministry is still on the periphery. But it seems only a matter of time before the brothers’ approach becomes mainstream among their peers. No one has done a poll of where evangelicals in particular stand on pot, but talking to a dozen or so of them makes me think that the feelings of young evangelicals are shifting as fast as many others of their generation. Given the history of churches decrying marijuana as a “demon weed” which could threaten society, the new attitude represents a generational divide.
And, increasingly, churches and leading Christian groups aren’t trying to stop this. In the 2006 election, Focus on the Family, then led by culture war veteran James Dobson, was a major force in the anti-marijuana campaign, making large donations and publicly opposing it. By 2012, the younger Jim Daly had replaced Dobson, and Focus mostly stood to the side during the election, contributing a mere $25,000.
Daly has started building relationships with everyone from progressive newspapers to gay activists to Bono. This new approach is reflected in his attitude toward marijuana. He is against legalizing recreational marijuana. But he may be more open toward medical marijuana, remarking that there could be “some medical benefits derived from it.”
Colorado pastors are also showing a softer approach. Glenn Packiam, a pastor at New Life church in Colorado Springs, says in a sermon that focusing on whether marijuana is a “sin” misses the point. Instead of drawing that line in the sand, he encourages people to consider what marijuana use would mean not just for them, but for other people in the community. Pastor Todd Hudnall of Radiant Church shares this caution. When I asked him if he thought marijuana was sinful, he replied, “maybe,” and he’s open to the possibility of medical marijuana, though he thinks the scientific evidence is still too “sketchy” to draw firm conclusions.
The twentysomethings I talked to from Colorado Springs churches are more in the Stanley camp. Adam, a 27-year-old at New Life church, said marijuana “has been shown to help some people who have run out of options medically.”
Lisa, a 26-year-old writer, says the age gap on marijuana is obvious. She explains, “My former employer was a conservative Christian organization where I was at least 10 years younger than everyone else, and I was the only one in the whole company who voted to legalize. I believe I even heard the phrase ‘the downfall of our entire society’ in reference to legalizing marijuana.”
Most of the young evangelicals I talked to clearly agreed with Adam and Lisa. Will they eventually join the Stanleys in supporting recreational pot? It’s too early to tell, but tempting to think so. The shift thus far has already been dramatic. Once you go from demon weed to God’s plant, you’re most of the way there.
Correction, April 21, 2014: This article originally misstated that the Stanleys’ dispensaries sell recreational marijuana. They do not. (Return.)