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Religious communities consider how much faith to put in marijuana

Kristin E. Holmes, The Philadelphia Inquirer on

Published in Religious News

PHILADELPHIA -- On June 2, at a Philadelphia synagogue, Karen Michaels attended a conference about cannabis and various religions' views on it. She knows she was there because she has the notes she wrote. But she can't recall a minute of it.

The former community health administrator from Fairmount has no short-term memory. It was violently snatched away from her in a 1990 car accident, which also left her in constant pain.

To reduce her dependence on opiates, Michaels last year tried medical marijuana. The resulting relief, she says, was akin to "a miracle" -- a blessing from a plant world whose creator "doesn't make junk."

Although Michaels, 57, said she can't say for certain whether God endorses medical marijuana, she is one of a growing number of users who believe that faith communities must lend their voices, however conflicting, to the debate over the legalization of cannabis. The issues encompass sacred texts about pain and suffering, obedience to religious and governmental laws, and social justice questions about who must pay a criminal price and who may turn a profit.

Staying quiet, Michaels contends, isn't an option: "When we meet our maker, we are responsible not only for things we have done, but also the things we haven't done."

About 65% of Americans believe smoking marijuana is "morally acceptable," while 31% say it isn't, according to a 2018 Gallup survey. A 2016 study by the conservative Christian polling organization Barna Group found that among practicing Christians generally, 34% favored legalization; among evangelicals in particular, the number dipped to 16%.

 

Marijuana use has been intrinsic to some faiths' practices for centuries, said Chris Bennett, author of "Green Gold the Tree of Life: Marijuana in Magic and Religion." Taoist texts dating to the fourth century mention cannabis. Bhang, an edible preparation of the plant, is consumed during the Hindu festival of Holi. Rastafarians view its use as a sacrament bringing them closer to God.

Reaching back five millennia in the Jewish tradition, Rabbi Eli Freedman of Congregation Rodeph Shalom cited Genesis 1:29: "God said he created all seed-bearing plants and God said, 'It was good.'"

Mainstream denominations tend to take nuanced stances on weed. The Unitarian Universalist Association has backed full legalization since 2002, but most faith groups separate their positions on medical marijuana, currently legal in 33 states including Pennsylvania and New Jersey, from adult recreational use, permissible in 11 states.

For instance, the Presbyterian Church (USA), United Methodist Church, United Church of Christ, Episcopal Church, Union for Reform Judaism, and Progressive National Baptist Convention support the use of medical marijuana, but stop there. The Roman Catholic Church has declared drug use a "grave offense" except when used "on strictly therapeutic grounds."

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