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.
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.
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.
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.
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?"
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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
Got a confidential tip? Submit it here.