COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. (RNS) Four years ago, an evangelical Christian family entered Colorado’s booming medical marijuana marketplace and developed an extract called Charlotte’s Web.
The Stanley brothers, all six of whom attended Colorado Springs Christian School, saw God’s hand at work when some local parents found that giving the dark oil to their epileptic children ended their violent seizures.
"That's when it really sank in," said Joel Stanley, the eldest of the brothers. "This is not a fluke. This is not going away. There is a purpose to everything under the sun, including the marijuana plant."
Word got out, and over the next year and a half, more than 500 families relocated to Colorado. These "medical refugees" strained family bonds and budgets to give their kids Charlotte's Web, not available legally in many states.
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As the successes mounted, Stanley said, “it was a transformation for me, and I was angry that I had been told marijuana was evil and of no medical benefit. At that point, it was very easy for me to reconcile marijuana with my Christian faith."
The Stanleys, along with two of the initial parents, Paige Figi and Heather Jackson, founded a nonprofit called Realm of Caring to help the relocated families. Most of Realm's $600,000-plus annual budget is funded with profits from the family business, CW Botanicals.
The morality of marijuana
Serving medical refugees wasn't enough. Jackson and Figi decided to help parents change laws in their home states so everyone could return home with the extract. Before they knew it, these pioneering marijuana moms had helped change laws in 19 states in 18 months: Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Iowa, Kentucky, Maryland, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, New York, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Virginia, Wisconsin and Wyoming. Idaho's governor vetoed the bill there.
Jackson, who said her Christian faith is everything to her (it's "the pie, not a piece of pie," she said), talked to her minister as she wrestled with the morality of marijuana. "I'm a byproduct of the 1980s and 'Just Say No,' so I grew up thinking this was evil," she said.
Stacey Mobley, minister of the church of Christ of Colorado Springs, an independent, Bible-based congregation, said members support Jackson's work.
"God made the plant, and said in Genesis 1:31 that everything he made was very good," said Mobley, who opposes recreational marijuana. "We are firsthand witnesses of its benefits in the providential healing of Zaki, and I believe Heather is driven by obligation because she is a Christian to do good to all."
Their initial victory came in Utah, home to some of the nation's most restrictive alcohol laws. Jackson quickly won over the Legislature's conservative caucus, and the two moms worked with parents of epileptic children and supporters of medical marijuana to pressure politicians. Charlee's Law, named after a Utah child with epilepsy, was signed into law in March 2014, a century after the state outlawed marijuana.
"This was our first indication that we can actually do this," said Jackson, a churchgoing Christian who will speak this April at Q, a national conference in Denver designed to help Christian leaders address contemporary culture.
'Christ commands us to care for the sick'
Charlotte's Web was named after Paige Figi's 9-year-old daughter, Charlotte, who has Dravet syndrome.
In 2015, Paige Figi, who was raised Catholic and had no previous experience in social movements, founded the Coalition for Access Now to lobby nationwide.
"I'm not an activist," said Figi. "I'm very introverted. I don't like the spotlight. I'm just the mother of a sick kid who is looking for best treatment with the least side effects.
"But I was seeing Charlotte's story over and over. Kids were walking out of wheelchairs. Doctors were astounded. After witnessing all this with my own eyes, I realized I couldn't stand idly by and do nothing."
Figi has made friends in statehouses across the country, including Georgia state Rep. Allen Peake.
"She's the godmother of this movement, and I'm privileged to be working alongside her," said Peake, who championed his state's medical marijuana bill known as Haleigh’s Hope Act, which was signed into law in April 2015.
"I'm a Christian guy, so to even get into this space has been a significant paradigm shift for me," said Peake, a Southern Baptist. "But this is a compassion issue for me. Christ commands us to care for the sick."
Peake has visited Colorado to meet with Georgia families that relocated for Charlotte's Web, and he admits he has illegally transported bottles of the oil back to Georgia to help families who can't get it there. He also founded a charity called Journey of Hope that provides Georgia families with financial assistance so they can relocate to Colorado.
"I'm willing to do whatever it takes to give them access," said Peake, who condemns the "lunacy" of federal drug laws that "make criminals out of parents and citizens who only want medicine to improve the quality of their lives."
Federal drug laws dating to the Nixon administration group marijuana with other Schedule I drugs such as heroin and LSD that have "a high potential for abuse" and "no currently accepted medical use."
Charlotte's Web doesn't make patients "high." It's low in THC, the psychoactive ingredient that gives pot its buzz, but is high in CBD, which has healing properties. The needed CBD can be extracted from hemp, marijuana's non-druggy industrial cousin, so Peake has introduced legislation to allow Georgia to grow hemp.
Many Protestant groups, including mainline Methodists, Presbyterians, Lutherans and Episcopalians, support some form of medical marijuana, but most evangelicals remain pot prohibitionists, like their anti-alcohol ancestors of a century ago.
Peake's hemp cultivation bill is opposed by the Georgia Baptist Convention, which views hemp legalization as an incremental step toward liberalized drug laws. The GBC's spokesman called medical marijuana an oxymoron, similar to “jumbo shrimp,” and the GBC's "Resolution on the Dangers of Marijuana" describes pot as a gateway to further drug abuse, addiction, health problems, psychosis and crime.
Colorado's medical marijuana moms now aim to change federal law. Last May, U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner, Republican of Colorado, introduced the Coalition for Access Now's Therapeutic Hemp Medical Access Act of 2015 in the U.S. Senate. Senate bill 1333 has already attracted dozens of co-sponsors on both sides of the aisle.
"We're not promoting recreational marijuana," said Paige Figi. "We're trying to fix a mistake in our laws. This is how the American system of government works."
Meanwhile, new medical refugees keep arriving. Danette Bussey and daughter Alexa recently visited Realm of Caring from New Jersey, where medical marijuana is available but not CBD oil.
"Our doctor told us our best hope is to go to Colorado," she said.
(Steve Rabey is a contributor to RNS)