Pubdate: Mon, 29 Jun 2020 Source: Wall Street Journal (US) Copyright: 2020 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. Contact: http://www.wsj.com/ Details: http://www.mapinc.org/media/487 Author: Mike Jordan THE WORD OF GOD IN THE AGE OF WEED Sue Taylor never would have let one of her students slide 20 years ago if she had caught one with marijuana. But the former Catholic school principal has found a new mission with senior citizens: providing them with information and access to cannabis through her California dispensary, Farmacy Berkeley. It opened in the Bay Area in February. Like many of her former colleagues at the top of religious institutions, she once saw marijuana as a plague on her African-American community. "I was just like them until I saw the healing, and I could not turn my back on that, spiritually," Ms. Taylor, 72, says. Believers nationwide look to current and former leaders of religious institutions like Ms. Taylor for guidance on basic ethical questions. When it comes to marijuana legalization, a major change has occurred under their watch. And it has sparked intense introspection for some faith leaders. They are weighing the damage the drug can do against the number of people, especially people of color, sent to prison because of it, and the benefits it can provide those in physical pain. Polls suggest that public tolerance of the drug has gone mainstream, even in religious communities. A September survey by the Pew Research Center found that 67% of the 2,480 Americans asked spoke in favor of legalizing cannabis, up from 31% in 2000. The survey found a majority in favor among several religious denominations. Even evangelicals polled slightly in favor, with 50% saying yes and 49% no. Marijuana remains in a legal gray zone. Federal law prohibits it, but 33 states and the District of Columbia have legalized it for medical use, and 11 have legalized it for adult recreational use. And the rise of coronavirus may have caused a surge in cannabis demand, according to a March report from Bank of America Global Research. Plenty of absolutists remain among American clergy. Dr. Russell Moore is an evangelical theologian and president of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, the denomination's public-policy arm. He's also a prominent marijuana critic. He stands against legalization or decriminalization because he says marijuana is neither medicine nor a harmless recreational drug, and pro-legalization forces are backed by a profit-driven industry. He calls marijuana legalization "unwise and even disastrous." Dr. Moore, who lives in Brentwood, Tenn., says he has counseled people with various addictions, including marijuana. He says he sees religious leaders on the front lines of fighting marijuana and the harm it does to families, children and young adults. "Most of the young evangelicals I know seek to minister to friends who have been harmed by marijuana culture," he says. "This isn't theoretical to them at all." But other religious leaders find themselves in a position that would have seemed unthinkable in decades past. Like Dr. Moore, Pastor Jamal Bryant is a clergyman with a large following and a share of critics that comes with that kind of profile. He leads New Birth Missionary Baptist Church, an Atlanta-area African-American megachurch with 10,000 parishioners and an online viewership of more than 90,000. It hosted the funeral of Coretta Scott King. The pastor has created a line of cannabidiol (also known as CBD) oil-based products called Canna Blessed, organized as an LLC in Georgia. Selling small amounts of the substance can be legal-it contains no THC, an ingredient in marijuana that provides a high. CBD has been shown to be helpful in treating some conditions, including certain types of epilepsy, according to a 2018 report by the World Health Organization. Pastor Bryant wants to sell Canna Blessed in church bookstores. If THC products became legal in Georgia, he would be open to selling them, too. "I'm not telling you God said for you to take it," he says. But if it helps someone in the choir manage a health condition, he says the church should provide it. He insists he won't be "getting zooted on the roof of the church" or giving out cannabis as communion. Instead he says he wants to raise awareness about holistic medicine and entrepreneurial opportunities he intends to model for his church community. "That would really begin a larger conversation that we really need to have," he says. "And I don't think it can happen until it's in our faces." Rev. Alexander Sharp, an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ and executive director of Clergy for a New Drug Policy in Chicago, views the question in more political terms. He supports adult recreational use and criminal-justice reform. And since the drug can relieve pain, he argues that legalization is an act of compassion and mercy-one that follows the example of Jesus Christ. "The only thing that made Jesus really angry were the Pharisees that were hypocrites," he says. "And there are pharisaical attitudes in those who oppose drug use." Rev. Sharp hopes to witness an end to the war on drugs. He believes regulation and education are the best responses to human vices, but also says the most compelling argument is for social justice. "You can pick your numbers according to your state, but African-Americans and Latinos are three times more likely to be arrested for marijuana offenses," he says. It would take more than numbers to influence Sohaib Sultan, Muslim life coordinator and chaplain at Princeton University. The imam calls for "serious" regulation after his own recent experience with THC. Mr. Sultan submitted an application to receive medical marijuana in New Jersey after receiving a terminal diagnosis in April. He said in an interview that month that he looked forward to using cannabis: Treatment was now more about comfort than cure for his bile duct cancer. He had never previously consumed cannabis, or even alcohol. His doctor prescribed the FDA-approved oral cannabinoid Marinol to assist with his appetite and nausea issues. Mr. Sultan ended his encounter with it feeling scared. His doctor told him he would feel no effect, but after taking it he experienced an intense, uncomfortable high. "As my wife was trying to take me from the sofa to the bed, I thought she was throwing me off of a building," he recalls. "It was just a crazy, crazy experience." Though it didn't quite make him a hard-liner, Mr. Sultan's view significantly changed. He now believes marijuana could cause physical, moral and spiritual harm without proper testing and regulatory oversight. "If people react to marijuana, or are sensitive to marijuana in the way that I have been so far, I can now more clearly see the argument for how it can be a distraction from God, rather than help deepen a relationship with God," he says. In Berkeley, Ms. Taylor is still working on changing minds. Three African-American churches within blocks of Farmacy refused to rent their lots to her for customer parking because of what she wanted to sell. "You know most churches need money, but we were turned down," she says. A church two blocks south of Farmacy eventually gave its blessing for her customers to park in its lot. Ms. Taylor says she hopes clergy will become more supportive, so those wanting to consume cannabis, especially adults closer to her age, don't feel spiritually conflicted about it. "It's the godly thing to do," she says.