(RNS) — Craig Gross tried marijuana for the first time when he was 36. Suffering from health conditions he couldn’t shake and reeling emotionally from the loss of his father, the Christian entrepreneur and evangelist who grew up hearing about the evils of cannabis had to take a mental leap to try medical marijuana — but once he did, it affected him in ways he hadn’t expected.
Aside from helping tame his physical ills, the plant changed the way he prayed, encouraging him to listen to and follow the voice he heard speaking to him.
“It’s like a teacher,” Gross told Religion News Service in a recent phone call. “I’m realizing … I needed to slow down a bit. And when you slow down a bit, you start to see things a little bit more.”
Gross has already achieved an unconventional kind of renown in a previous incarnation as the “porn pastor”: For two decades, he traveled the country speaking at churches about the negative effects of pornography as co-founder of the national organization XXXchurch.com. But in 2019, he decided to focus on building a cannabis brand specifically marketed to Christians.
His new company, Christian Cannabis, aims to not just sell marijuana to Christians, but to encourage them to use it to deepen their relationship with God.
“It has a place in your practice of prayer and worship. And that can help you connect to God in a deep and profound way,” says the company’s website, which has a “spiritual” tab on its homepage to go with “recreational” and “medical.”
While Gross maintains his brand is the first to target a religious demographic, marijuana itself has a long history in religious and spiritual contexts, said Laurie Cozad, a professor of religion at Merrimack College and the author of “God on High: Religion, Cannabis, and the Quest for Legitimacy.” Cannabis is named as one of the most sacred plants on Earth in the Atharva Veda, one of the four foundational texts of Hinduism, and is still widely consumed at Indian religious festivals and ceremonies.
Ancient Assyrians, Egyptians and Hebrews burned cannabis as incense, while Sufi Muslims smoked it at shrines and while observing sacred dances. Perhaps best known for their use of marijuana are members of the Rastafarian movement, a religion that developed in Jamaica in the 1930s and sees the plant as an integral part of its tradition — a way to get closer to God.
Starting in the 1960s, new ministries formed that were centered on the consumption of marijuana as a sacrament, Cozad said, an “underground movement of people who understood that drugs could be extremely helpful in helping one step out of the mundane world into the sacred.”
One of the first was the Church of the Universe, which sprang up in Canada in 1969 and drew Christian Scripture, among other texts: Followers associate the plant with the Tree of Life in Genesis and smoke it during services.
Like Church of the Universe, the Church of Cognizance, which formed in Arizona in 1991, and the Hawai’i Ministry of Cannabis Sacrament, popularly known as THC Ministry, which followed in 2000, have faced raids, arrests and jail time for their leaders.
Temple 420, a Los Angeles-based church that held Sunday services at 4:20 p.m. (a time associated with after-school marijuana use) and sold marijuana to its followers to help them communicate with God, was shut down shortly after it first opened in 2006. Its founder, Craig Rubin, was arrested for selling marijuana to an undercover officer and spent three years on probation.
Rather than forming a religious group based on marijuana, Gross sees himself as bringing cannabis to mainstream Christians, aiming to help them explore their spirituality by smoking before prayer or simply allowing themselves to use it recreationally without shame.
“It takes you down a path that looks spiritual, but it looks different than your mom’s church,” Gross said. “We have to just be open, I think, to presenting the gospel, presenting the Spirit in different ways.”
He’s currently working to attract investors and aims to have products on shelves in dispensaries in California later this year, before expanding to many of the 18 states where marijuana is legal for recreational use. His focus is on cannabis strains that are low in THC — the psychoactive compound that creates a “high” — and in concentrations that won’t be overwhelming for a first-time user.
Other proposed products include cannabis “communion wafers,” a “holy water” tincture and cannabis incense sticks. He said that his offerings are partly tongue-in-cheek and partly meant to signal to Christians that cannabis doesn’t have to be scary but can come in familiar forms.
For many Christians, overcoming the stigma of taking a drug can be a challenge, as Gross has experienced himself. After recreational cannabis became legal in California in 2016, Gross said, “I would take a lot of my Christian friends and pastors into dispensaries and say, ‘Guys, this isn’t the Devil’s lettuce.’”
Because of its intoxicating effects, 4 in 5 Protestant pastors in the U.S. today say smoking marijuana is “morally wrong,” as do the majority of Islamic scholars — though marijuana, unlike alcohol, is not expressly prohibited in the Quran, and some Muslims believe it may be permitted for medical purposes. Orthodox Jewish rabbis have similarly diverse opinions, with some ruling that medical cannabis is kosher and others prohibiting it. (Some sources suggest, however, that Jews use marijuana more than other U.S. religious groups.)
But Cozad said that the religious discourse about marijuana use appears to be shifting, with fewer people calling its use a sin or morally wrong than in the past. A 2021 Pew Research Center survey found that more than half of all religiously affiliated Americans support legalizing marijuana for both medical and recreational use. This number drops to 44% for white evangelical Christians, but some deeply religious Christians are trying to get Bible-belt states to legalize medical marijuana; in 2018, members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints pushed for Utah to do the same.
Cozad said that despite these changing attitudes, it’s hard to imagine initiatives like Gross’ swaying the minds of religious leaders or having an impact at the institutional level. The “reefer madness” narrative, in which marijuana is portrayed as unequivocally harmful, “still has resonance for people,” Cozad said.
But she said that for a minority of people who might be “looking to get away from the dogma and the rituals” of organized religion, greater social acceptance and new avenues for exploring marijuana legally and safely could lead to a different kind of spiritual experience.
“In every religious tradition … people will always, in whatever time period, whatever culture you’re talking about, find ways to get around those middlemen … to have their own divine encounters,” Cozad said. “And that’s what mysticism is all about. That’s why you have mystic traditions in just about every religion there is.”
This article was produced as part of the RNS/IFYC Religious Journalism Fellowship Program.