A priest, a pastor, and a rabbi walk into a dispensary—no joke, those old stigmas about weed and religion are going up in smoke
With legal cannabis businesses opening across the states, many Americans are re-thinking past stigmas about the plant. As Easter Sunday approaches just before 420, you may be wondering if God approves of your cannabis use.
While the number of Americans that identify as Christian has dropped 12% in the past decade, 91% of US adults either believe that cannabis should be legal for only medical (31%) or medical and recreational (60%) use. That means less than one in 10 (8%) disapprove of weed use by adults.
To answer the big questions legalization poses, some leaders in the spiritual community are taking charge to normalize the plant that is widely known as “the Devil’s lettuce.”
Before medical and adult-use cannabis were mainstream ideas, a pro-420 pastor was almost unheard of. But this Good Friday, Leafly tracked down two religious leaders who want to share a new word about weed.
Meet Florida pastor Lonnie D. Wesley III, and California pastor Craig Gross, two very different men of God who came to the same conclusion on cannabis. They’re both ready to change how their fellow believers view marijuana.
Keep reading to hear two very different approaches to destigmatizing the plant, for God’s sake.
Pastor Lonnie D. Wesley III has seen enough
Pastor Lonnie D. Wesley III saw the damage done by the criminalization of marijuana firsthand. “When it comes to marijuana and Black Americans, our God given right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness is at stake,” he told Leafly. “The failed War on Drugs took so much away from the Black community, and it further exposed the double-consciousness and ugliness of America the beautiful.”
From his view, the Drug War was far closer to the Devil’s work than any plant ever could be. And he feels continued ignorance about the plant will only hurt the communities he cares most about moving forward.
“Truthfully, we must be educated on this issue or we will be left behind,” Pastor Wesley said of his fellow Christians. “I sincerely pray that an honest and open conversation can be held within the community of faith that will see the passing and exchanging of information – especially to those younger than us – in order for a wise decision to be made on this subject. Let’s stop following the crowd and let’s do our own research.”
Pastor Wesley is a member of the Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University Medical Marijuana Education and Research Initiative (MMERI), which uses federal dollars to teach Florida residents about the budding cannabis industry. “As a member, I wholeheartedly support the exchange of information on (cannabis). Even if one doesn’t support the legalization of marijuana, I firmly feel every believer should keep Proverbs 4:7 in mind.”
Pastor Craig Gross hated church growing up
“I hated going to church as a kid, but my parents made me go.” remembers Craig Gross, who gained notoriety over 20 years ago when he took on the growing problem of porn addiction using the power of religion. His XXXChurch has been a massive success, helping porn users and performers escape the predatory industry.
After passing the XXXChurch on to one of the porn stars he helped, Pastor Gross is now focused on building a ministry that normalizes weed use for Christians. Back in 2019, Gross launched his Christian Cannabis brand at the Coachella music festival on 420, just as Christians were celebrating the Easter holiday.
Pastor Gross started using cannabis for health reasons after watching Dr. Sanjay Gupta’s 2013 Weed documentary on CNN. He applied for a medical card, and slowly began to see the plant in a much different way.
“I was baptized at seven and grew up in a Baptist church that didn’t have drums,” he remembers. “(I) wasn’t allowed to dance, drink, or listen to rock music.”
Growing up, Pastor Gross couldn’t keep cassette tapes from the bands he liked (only Christian bands), and he was forbidden from wearing his hair long like the rockstars of the day.
But even with religion limiting his youthful self-expression, he says he always felt the Lord’s work calling his spirit. After becoming a top athlete, Gross went on a mission trip to Venezuela at 16 years old and found his purpose. “They did this call for full-time ministry,” he recalls. “I didn’t know what that really meant. (But) I signed up, and I said, at the end of this trip, I’m gonna serve the Lord in whatever way.”
Gross returned home to friends who called him crazy. But his mind was made up. His work with XXXChurch would go on to make him a national personality that appeared on talk shows and toured churches nationwide. Now, he gets more pushback for pot than for porn.
Pastor Lonnie’s vision for a greener future
“Most of the time, when I am asked to defend my position on marijuana reform, it is because the inquirer knows that I am a Pastor,” says Pastor Lonnie Wesley. “For one reason or another, they just cannot understand why and how a Black pastor from the South can defend marijuana use.”
For Pastor Wesley, America’s booming cannabis industry is a constant reminder of Dr. Martin Luther King’s words about “the Other America.” Where “the grass will always be greener on the other side.”
“This other America has a daily ugliness about it that constantly transforms hope into despair,” says the Pastor. “Millions of work-starved men walk the streets daily in search of jobs that do not exist. In this America, millions of people find themselves living in rat-infested, vermin-filled slums. In this America, people are poor by the millions. And they find themselves perishing on a lonely island of poverty, in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity.”
Nationwide, Black Americans are 3.64x more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than whites. And Pastor Wesley sees the direction connection between that systemic violence, and the broken homes, broken families, and limited income caused by family members being arrested for marijuana possession.
The Pastor also points out that legal cannabis will be a huge issue for Black Americans in the South. “Only 14% of America’s population identifies as Black American, (but) in 2019, it was reported that Black Americans made up 56% of the Southern population.” Still, 10 out of the 17 southern states have yet to decriminalize cannabis. And many look to be years away from electing leaders that will change current cannabis laws.
But Pastor Wesley remains optimistic, hoping to leave everyone “encouraged to open their hearts, minds, and ears to those who advocate for legal, safe, and fair access for all.
Fighting the good fight
Pastor Craig Gross has had to pay dearly for his cannabis advocacy within the church community. “One church that’s given me the stage more than any other church in the country, I speak there at least twice a year,” he says. “(They) said Craig Gross is a drug dealer now, and we’re canceling all support of his other ministry.”
He continues: “I’m sitting there at the hotel going, ‘I can’t believe he’s saying this is how you guys feel.’ Meanwhile, they’re drinking five drinks that night at Stagecoach. I’m not judging them. But here I am trying to take an edible or tell them about cannabis, and now I’m a drug dealer.”
The pastor’s frustration is understandable. He’s not new to witnessing intolerance from the religious community. “I watched my friend’s church go from 6,000 people to 600 overnight he remember. “As soon as Time Magazine broke a story about him being gay affirming,” everything changed.
He also faced unfair judgement when his wife was diagnosed with cancer. “Christian friends told me I was insane, and that she has cancer because of my sin, and cannabis.”
But Pastor Gross wasn’t swayed by the negativity. “I knew the truth,” he remembers. “Cannabis now showed me how to heal.” His wife started using Rick Simpson oil (1,000 milligrams a day) to help heal before a full hysterectomy. And he noticed that people inside the cannabis world “showed up so much” to help, “and meanwhile people in the church are judging me. They’re telling me I’m in sin and my wife’s dying because of me.”
Jesus loves porn stars (and pot)
“I launched XXXChurch in 2002, at the largest adult expo in Las Vegas,” says Pastor Gross. “Instead of being kicked out of the show or picketing outside like the rest of the Christians, we were inside with a booth that said, “Jesus loves porn stars.”
It was a top story on the news that night, and made the Los Angeles Times the next day. The story went around the world. The adult industry accepted us. It was the (religious community) that didn’t. That took three years for a church to bring us in on a Sunday morning.”
But the media kept calling. “We were on Good Morning America, The New York Times all these things. The church was late.” Now, he’s applying the same lessons he learned about spreading the word from the XXX industry to his new mission in the cannabis world.
“I know my audience isn’t in dispensaries right now they’re not in they don’t have permission yet,” says Pastor Gross. “So the first thing is to give people permission.”
But normalizing something that was long associated with pure evil doesn’t happen simply by giving the go ahead. It would take some groundwork. Getting into the weeds, if you will. “The second thing was to actually work with some people in the cannabis industry,” he remembers. “And to come up with what we think our audience would like right now.”
Re-branding ‘the Devil’s lettuce’
Pastor Gross’ research shows that while “there’s a huge market for high THC, I don’t think our Christian cannabis audience is going to be blasted off with 25 or 30% THC.” So he’s going to do high-CBD, low-THC products.
“Like it or not about Christians, they love their own product,” he explains. “I mean, we got Hobby Lobby, we got Chick-Fil-A, we’ve got Kirk Cameron, and all his movies. We just like our own things.” For him, Christian Cannabis is an obvious next step for both the weed industry, and the church.
“I don’t want to make you trade all of your weed for one Christian eighth of weed,” he says. “But having a Christian option available goes along way towards normalizing the plant for some.
“You’ve got to hold their hands and you’ve got to show them some products that are going to be designed with them in mind. I really see us as an opportunity to bring in an audience that isn’t quite yet in the dispensaries there. They’re afraid of this (because) we called it the Devil’s lettuce.”
He even got his mom hooked on Papa and Barkley’s CBD products, and he continues to bring old partners from his time in the XXX industry into the 420 industry.
But Pastor Gross is not out to corner the Christian weed market, just to elevate minds and spirits about a plant that’s gotten a bad rap for far too long.
“We might not get 100% of Christians,” he says. “There’s 182 million of them. But I’ve spoken at 3,000 churches across the world, and not every church believes you accept Jesus the same way. Not everyone believes in baptism, not everyone believes you can dance, not everyone believes you can smoke, or drink.”
His comfort leading others through the path of spiritual uncertainty is just as valuable for Christian Cannabis as it was for XXXChurch. In both situations, he’s just doing his best to follow the example of his lord and savior. “Jesus would meet people where they are,” Pastor Gross explains.
“There are people who need this, who need this information probably needed more than anything in our church system,” he continues. “And they have not been presented any opportunities because of fear. And it’s kind of sad.”
To address the dire need for Jesus-approved weed, Christian Cannabis is aiming to launch this fall. “We’re in talks with an MSO right now about a full acquisition that would enable us to start nationwide,” Pastor Gross told Leafly before we wrapped up.