These Devout Christians Are Using The Bible To Argue That Pot Is God’s “Perfect Medicine”



The Deep South is the nation’s most religious region and the
least open to legalized cannabis for medical or recreational use.
To those who say marijuana is a sin, though, devout Christians
are using the Bible to argue that it’s God’s “perfect medicine.”

Posted on May 15, 2017, 21:27 GMT

Lydia Decker couldn’t miss the man in the motorized
wheelchair as he whirred down the aisles of a West Texas
grocery store. As someone with lung problems herself, she
noticed his oxygen tank and wondered about his illness and
his meds. They got talking, and Decker mentioned Genesis
1:29, the organization she heads that uses religion to preach
the value of medical cannabis. This was one conversion that
wasn’t going to happen.

“Oh, that trash!” Decker remembered the man saying as she
tried to reason with him in the pharmacy aisle. The nurse
with the man “politely” asked Decker, who suffers from
chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, to leave. She did, but
not before handing the nurse a Genesis 1:29 business card,
which features a map of Texas covered with a large cannabis
leaf and the words “One Mission End Prohibition!”

“Do you know he almost ran over me with the cart?” Decker
said, laughing. “My goodness, he flipped a U-ee in the
aisle.”

Decker, 49, tells anyone in Texas who will listen why
cannabis is, in fact, a permitted therapy for Christians —
not a sin. She hopes her openness will help generate support
for medical cannabis among state lawmakers, and in April she
submitted passionate testimony in hopes of swaying them. She
described being rushed to the ER, “gasping for air” on New
Year’s Day in 2014, when her COPD was first diagnosed, and
the blur of medications and treatments she’s endured since
then. “I live 80 miles from a legal state line,” Decker
wrote, referring to New Mexico, where medical cannabis is
permitted. She questioned why such treatment should be
off-limits to her, “just because I choose to live and work in
Texas, where I was born?”

Genesis 1:29, which Decker formed in 2010, is named after a
Bible verse that’s oft-repeated by
Christians in favor of medical marijuana: “And God said,
Behold, I have given you every herb bearing seed, which is
upon the face of all the earth, and every tree, in the which
is the fruit of a tree yielding seed; to you it shall be for
meat.” To Decker, a nondenominational Christian who follows
the Bible’s verses in a literal way, it means that cannabis
is “meant to be eaten, whether in oil, whether in an edible,”
she said.

Obviously, not everyone in Texas is receptive to Decker’s
interpretation of the Bible — none of the laws covering
medical or recreational cannabis were likely to pass before
the legislative session ends in late May.

“People in the Bible Belt say, ‘You’re using the Bible to
promote drugs,’” she said, drawing out the word “drugs” for
emphasis. Decker disagrees. “We’re using the Bible to promote
what God gave us. We say that God made the perfect medicine.
Man is the one that made it illegal.”

The South is the last frontier for cannabis law reform. And
it is no coincidence that it is also the most religious
region in the country, according to Pew Research. It’s a place where
interpretations of God’s word can be as powerful as law, and
where preachers have long proclaimed the evils of marijuana.
So as pot takes hold for medical use in more than half the
country, and for recreational use in eight states and
Washington, DC, both are nonstarters in much of the South.
Only Arkansas, Florida, and West Virginia have full medical
marijuana programs, and recreational use is not even on the
horizon.

“We say that God made the perfect medicine. Man is the one
that made it illegal.”

The president of the organization that represents the largest
evangelical group in the US won’t budge on calling marijuana
a sin.

“The scripture speaks against drunkenness, and marijuana is a
mind-altering substance with the purpose of achieving,
essentially, what the Bible would describe as drunkenness,”
said Russell Moore, president of the Ethics & Religious
Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention.

To get the votes they need, pro-legalization groups can’t
just preach to nonbelievers; they also need to court people
of faith, says Morgan Fox of Marijuana Policy Project, a
lobbying group that is behind most of the cannabis laws in
the country. Support from religious groups has become as key
as support from law enforcement groups, addiction
specialists, and parent groups. “I know that most of the
major policy reform organizations are working on that right
now — trying to build coalitions with faith-based groups,”
Fox said.

After all, marijuana has never been more popular with young
people — recent polls show the 18–34 crowd overwhelmingly in
support of legalization. At the same time, young people’s church attendance is
dropping. As much as pro-pot groups need religious support,
religious leaders need to hold onto their flocks, and
sometimes that means loosening opinions on controversial
issues.

In Utah last year, the Church of Latter-day Saints weighed in
on competing medical cannabis bills and made the
unprecedented move of expressing support for one, albeit by
backing the stricter of two pieces of legislation. And a
group of Muslim undergraduate students at the University of
South Florida, where medical marijuana was on the state
ballot, tackled the question of whether cannabis use is haram
last year during an event called “Contemporary Issues in
Islam: A Discussion on Medical Marijuana.” Some faiths have
expressed varying degrees of support for medical marijuana,
including the Episcopal, Presbyterian, Methodist, and
Unitarian churches. In New York, one of the first medical
marijuana dispensaries had the cannabis blessed by a rabbi.
And globally, to respect the traditional use of cannabis by
Rastafarians, Jamaica legalized cannabis for religious use in
2015.

But to bring cannabis to the region of the US where states
are deeply red and religious and where pot is both a social
taboo and a ticket to jail, Decker and others are harnessing
their devotion to their faiths to evangelize for it.

BuzzFeed News; Getty Images

If the South seems hostile to change, at least when it
comes to cannabis, it’s partly because of places like Dothan,
Alabama. Leah Graves, 32, lives in Dothan, and grew up in a
tiny town about 30 minutes away. Like her neighbors, Graves
was a “hardcore” Baptist. It was “basically mainstream to be
super religious, go to church all the time,” she said,
pouring extra cranberry sauce onto her Cracker Barrel turkey
special. “There was something wrong with you if you didn’t.”
And you definitely didn’t smoke marijuana.

She has her work cut out for her as executive director of the
Alabama chapter of the National Organization for the Reform
of Marijuana Laws (NORML), which pushes for both recreational
and medical marijuana. There’s no voter initiative process in
Alabama like the ones that put legalization on ballots in
other states, so she’s been limited to managing Alabama
NORML’s Facebook page and trying to rally support to sway
legislators. But religion is getting in the way. Often,
friends privately express support for Graves’ efforts on
marijuana but then refuse to take a public stance because
they fear being judged by fellow churchgoers.

“So many people are afraid to be ostracized. I don’t know
what so-and-so is going to think so I won’t say anything.

But meanwhile, so-and-so is tokin’ up and he’s not talking
and they’re not talking,” Graves said.

Courtesy Leah Graves

Leah Graves before her pink hair days.

Graves stands out in this conservative corner of Alabama as
much for her pro-pot attitude as for her shocking pink hair
and the two necklaces she wears each day: One is a Star of
David, representing her Messianic Jewish faith, and the other
is a pendant of the chemical compound for THC. She uses the
sparkling baubles as conversation starters to pull people out
of what she calls a “cannabis closet” and to show them that
one can be both religious and in favor of cannabis. Without
exposure to and education about marijuana, she said, “reefer
madness” will persist in the Heart of Dixie.

It’s possible that Graves is onto something when she says
that more people support cannabis than admit it openly. Local
news site al.com
launched a project in February called “Marijuana in Alabama,”
which included a dozen stories that dove into what cannabis
means to Alabamians. The report resonated. A total of 14,000
comments were posted on the site, along with thousands of
shares on social media platforms. Readers’ responses to polls
were unexpected: A majority didn’t think marijuana was a
gateway drug that could lead to future addiction, and favored
legalization. And, perhaps most interesting, 89% answered
“no” when asked if they thought smoking marijuana was a sin.

Still, religious opposition continues to influence drug
policy throughout the region. The Ethics & Religious
Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention spoke
out against the nine legalization initiatives put before
voters in November. “I think when it comes to marijuana I’m,
of course, for criminal penalties for marijuana use and for
continuing criminalization of marijuana,” Moore told BuzzFeed
News, specifying, though, that he is not in favor of the
“incoherent mass incarceration that we’ve had as a result of
the drug war.”

The Catholic Church has also come out against legalization;
in 2014, Pope Francis remarked that “drug
addiction is an evil” and “attempts, however limited, to
legalize so-called ‘recreational drugs,’ are not only highly
questionable from a legislative standpoint, but they fail to
produce the desired effects.” The Catholic diocese in Arizona
and Massachusetts came out against legalization in fall 2016.

While this “didn’t swing the pendulum in Massachusetts,”
where legalization squeaked through in November, “it very
well could have in Arizona,” where legalization failed, Fox
said.

Courtesy Rep. Allen Peake

Georgia Rep. Allen Peake with Haleigh, who benefits from
CBD oil.

A component of cannabis called cannabidiol, or CBD,
might be the key to bringing cannabis to the South. Unlike
traditional cannabis, it comes in oil form and doesn’t give
the user a high, so moralistic arguments don’t apply. Laws
permitting CBD have spread rapidly since 2014, even in the
South. Almost every Bible Belt state has one of these
CBD-only laws, which mostly apply to children who have
seizures that can’t be controlled with traditional
pharmaceuticals. Advocates who pushed the drug below the
Mason Dixon argued that passing CBD laws to help sick kids
was “compassionate” — perhaps something Jesus himself
would’ve done.

Rep. Allen Peake, a self-described conservative Republican
and devout Christian, is the man leading the charge in
Georgia. His crusade started when a constituent pleaded with
Peake to help her daughter, Haleigh, now 7, who had
near-constant seizures. Peake’s granddaughter is around the
same age as Haleigh, and the situation hit home as he
questioned what he would do if his granddaughter was the sick
one.

Peake said his faith “compelled” him to push for access to
CBD oil. “People who have debilitating illnesses struggle on
a daily basis with pain because of their medical condition,”
he said. “Why would we not use every effort to help make
their life a little better?”

“People who have debilitating illnesses struggle on a daily
basis with pain … Why would we not use every effort to help
make their life a little better?”

When Peake says every effort, he means it. He has taken the
unusual step of obtaining a medical cannabis card himself, to
help obtain CBD oil for patients who can’t get it. On a
particularly warm and sunny April afternoon, Peake opened a
drawer in his Macon, Georgia, office and held one of the
bottles of CBD oil destined for a young patient with
seizures. A framed news article about Haleigh’s Hope
Act — the legislation he spearheaded in 2015 to
help patients like Haleigh — was hanging on the wall.

“I feel so strongly about this issue because I have seen the
results and the changes in the lives of so many people,” he
said.

Peake is up against vocal religious groups that have joined
with law enforcement to oppose cannabis cultivation. In his
efforts to get Haleigh’s Hope Act passed, those groups argued
against allowing in-state growing of marijuana to produce the
oil, saying it would put the state on a dangerous and
“slippery slope” toward full legalization. So, when the act
passed, it didn’t include a provision for growing cannabis to
ensure a CBD supply. As a result, Georgia residents may
possess and consume CBD, but they’re forced to violate
federal law by bringing it in from other states — a legal
conundrum that isn’t unique to Georgia. Many of the South’s
half-baked CBD medical marijuana programs inadvertently
encourage patients to break the law.

In May, Georgia added 16 medical conditions — including AIDS,
autism, and Alzheimer’s — to the list of qualifying
conditions for CBD. Peake insists that the laws still don’t
go far enough. To get to a point where cultivation is
permitted in Georgia, he’s going to have to be even more
persuasive in the face of religious and moral opposition.

“In the faith-based organizations, it usually comes down to:
Is there someone in that church or that organization who has
been affected? And when there is someone who has been
affected, either with a diagnosis or a medical condition, and
has chosen to use cannabis as an option, there is a lot more
sympathy and openness to this issue than those who have never
been personally affected,” Peake said.

Sometimes, a personal connection is not enough. Faith
Bodle, 64, of East Texas, talks about the T-shirt that got
her membership to her Seventh-day Adventist church revoked.
It says “Cannabis is medicine, make it legal.” Bodle is a
retired truck driver who describes her life in periods of
pain: She was born with scoliosis and one working lung, she
was hit by a drunk driver decades ago, and in 2013 she was
diagnosed with trigeminal neuralgia, which causes pain in her
face so severe that all she can do sometimes is scream.
Still, she considers the diagnosis a “blessing” because it
finally steered her toward cannabis.

“God knew what it would take to get me to step out of the box
and try something that was off the grid,” said Bodle, who
considers her body a temple of the Holy Spirit. “We should
not be defiling that which belongs to God.”

Bodle had been on opiates for years, increasing her dosages
to the point where she was nodding off at home, into her
plate, at church, and even while driving. When she read
prescription labels that warned of vomiting, dizziness,
suicidal thoughts, or even death, she remembered thinking,
How can we possibly think that that’s God’s will for
us?
So she told her doctor that she could feel herself
“slipping into a coffin” and wanted to quit opiates, and her
doctor suggested a six-week hospital stay to wean her from
the painkillers, followed by methadone. Marijuana isn’t legal
in Texas, so it wasn’t mentioned as a possible alternative.

Patients in the pain clinic kept suggesting that Bodle “go
buy a bag of weed,” Bodle remembers, until one day, during an
excruciating flare-up, her son brought over a pipe. Bodle
tried two “tiny hits,” she said. “It stopped the pain
instantly.”

Fellow churchgoers noticed she swapped a walker for a cane
and commented on how well she looked. Bodle vaguely referred
to new herbal remedies she was trying, but questions about
her remarkable recovery persisted, and she finally told them
that it was medical cannabis. Then, Bodle’s fear came true.
“When they heard about the cure, they rejected it,” she said.

“I said, ‘I’m not taking the drugs — I’m taking what God made
as medicine.'” But the church didn’t see it that way.

A pastor at her church asked Bodle to remove a Facebook photo
in which she wore the shirt that said “Cannabis is medicine,
make it legal.” Then, Bodle received a letter from the church
asking her to “cease and desist from using cannabis” and from
talking about it, including on social media. Bodle remembers
saying, “I’m not taking the drugs — I’m taking what God made
as medicine.” But the church didn’t see it that way, and
Bodle was dropped from her church’s membership.

Now, Bodle still goes to a Seventh-day Adventist church in a
different city. She uses cannabis oil inside of veggie
capsules, which she can take anywhere, even at church, though
she’s been asked not to talk about it there. Bodle said she
“respectfully declined.”

“I want to educate. That’s what this is about. It’s not about
‘You hurt my feelings by kicking me out of church, so I’m not
going to come anymore.’ That would be just hurting me. And
then what, they win? That’s not going to happen,” Bodle said,
laughing. “God made me more tenacious than that.” ●

Alyson Martin is a national reporter for BuzzFeed News and
is based in New York.

Contact Alyson Martin at alyson.martin@buzzfeed.com.


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