Growing up in Colorado Springs, Jesse Stanley heard many of the same faith messages affirmed at home, at church, and at the private evangelical Christian school he attended.
Stay close to Jesus.
Serve your neighbor.
Seek God’s guidance for your life.
Change the world.
People who know Jesse say those messages found a home deep in his heart. But some doubt the purity of his commitments since he and his brothers have become major players in Colorado’s rapidly growing marijuana industry, operating medical marijuana dispensaries and a large growing and processing operation in the mountains west of the Springs.
Satan didn’t create this plant,” says Jesse. “Satan doesn’t create anything. This is God’s plant.”
Some call the Stanleys drug dealers. Others accuse Jesse of doing “Satan’s work,” even though a unique form of medical marijuana he developed — an oil called Charlotte’s Web — has brought relief to over a hundred families with epileptic children. (See “Pot pilgrims,” OnFaith’s story on the Charlotte’s Web families.)
Now, in their first media interviews about their faith journey and theology of marijuana, Jesse, his mother, and his pastor offer some surprising insights.
Cannabis-based Christian compassion
“This is not a rebellion story,” says Jesse, 32. “This is not the story of the Prodigal Son. This is a story about doing what’s right, no matter what kind of opposition you are dealing with. All the people who knew me, particularly those who knew me well, should’ve known that I was doing this for the right reasons.”
Jesse believes God has called his family to pioneer a form of cannabis-based Christian compassion that offers a positive alternative to the pharmaceutical industry’s expensive and often ineffective medications.
At a time when a majority of Americans favor legalization and pot is shaking off its 1960s-era hippie-dippy image to emerge into the mainstream of American life, Jesse encourages evangelicals to stop demonizing a drug that he says is far safer than alcohol, a substance that increasing numbers of his Christian friends consume.
For the Stanleys, their work isn’t about Cheech & Chong. It’s about What Would Jesus Do?
“Satan didn’t create this plant,” says Jesse. “Satan doesn’t create anything. This is God’s plant. And God is moving in the hearts of men and women and children around the world about this plant in ways that I never would’ve imagined five years ago.”
Stanley family values
Jesse’s teachers at Colorado Springs Christian School and pastors at his church encouraged Jesse to emulate heroes of the faith. He didn’t have to look far for inspiration.
“After Jesus, my role models were my grandmother and my mom. They were the two most selfless people I’ve ever met.”
Jesse’s father abandoned the family in 1997, a few weeks after the last of seven boys and four girls were born (Jesse was the fourth-born child). Things were tough, but the family pulled together. Mom, who taught math and science at CSCS for over a decade, tried to make ends meet by working as a server at a restaurant, a wedding planner and florist, and in real estate.
Two events in 2009 changed the family’s destiny. Jesse’s cousin, Ron Fortner, was diagnosed with cancer and given only a few weeks to live. And the federal government said it would not prosecute marijuana cases if buyers and sellers complied with local medical marijuana laws.
Josh Stanley, an older brother who had been researching the medical benefits of marijuana, said the family should open a medical dispensary and treat cousin Ron with pot. Mom was surprised.
“Josh called because he knew he needed mom on his team,” said Kristi Stanley Fontenot, who remarried in 2008, “but I didn’t know that marijuana had any medicinal benefits. I have never smoked marijuana, but I grew up in the hippie generation and always associated it with love and peace and all of that.”
Everyone saw marijuana help cousin Ron, easing his pain, increasing his appetite, and improving his quality of life for the last six months he was alive. But Stanley Fontenot remained skeptical about the medical marijuana industry. “I assumed it was a bunch of snowboarders who said they hurt their backs,” she said.
She decided to do further research by volunteering at Josh’s Denver dispensary, Budding Health, so she could talk with patients and hear their stories.
“I met some of the most amazing people — cancer patients, people with MS, elderly people dealing with pain issues, patients wanting to control migraines,” said Stanley Fontenot. “There were a few snowboarders, too, but most of the people I met had legitimate medical issues and were so grateful they could now get marijuana legally. Seeing what I saw, I couldn’t help but change my opinion.”
The Stanleys founded a charity called Realm of Caring for their ongoing research and experiments in plant cultivation. While many Colorado growers concentrated on increasing levels of THC, the chemical that gives marijuana its “buzz,” the Stanley brothers were trying to dial down the THC and dial up levels of cannabidiol, a chemical compound that has shown promise in a variety of medical applications.
Profits from their medical dispensaries, including two Indispensary centers in Colorado Springs, fund the research. “It’s like Robin Hood,” said Jesse. “Patients at our dispensaries support the work of the charity.”
But cash flow was tight. In 2010 the brothers couldn’t afford to hire people to trim their marijuana plants and prepare them for sale. The family volunteered to help out.
“My two youngest daughters were under 18, and one son was away at college, so they didn’t go, but the rest of us trimmed marijuana for days and weeks,” says the marijuana matriarch. “We were their workforce.”
“Mom, you’re never going to believe this one.” It was 2012, and Joel Stanley was on the phone seeking maternal guidance.
“We have a mother here who wants to give marijuana to her five-year-old daughter who has epilepsy. What should we do?”
The mother was Paige Figi, and her daughter Charlotte suffered from a severe form of epilepsy that caused hundreds of seizures a week. Figi had been talking to Colorado growers, who told her to contact the Stanleys and ask for “Hippie’s Disappointment,” a strain of marijuana that was so low in THC that nobody wanted to smoke it.
Buds from the plant were blended with olive oil so Charlotte could swallow a small dose. Her symptoms improved immediately. Today Charlotte averages one seizure a week, and her quality of life is vastly improved.
“It’s divine intervention,” says Jesse.
Paige Figi began telling everyone she knew about the oil, now called Charlotte’s Web. Converts include CNN medical correspondent Sanjay Gupta. After filming a program called “Weed” about the Stanleys and Charlotte’s Web, he published an article on CNN.com apologizing for his previous opposition to medical marijuana.
“We have been terribly and systematically misled for nearly 70 years in the United States, and I apologize for my own role in that,” he wrote in a piece titled “Why I changed my mind on weed.”
Last December, the New York Times published a story on 100 families who have moved to Colorado from around the country to treat their children with Charlotte’s Web.
“Their migration is one of myriad ways that a once-illicit drug is reshaping life here in Colorado, which now stands at the forefront of the national debate over legalizing drugs,” wrote Jack Healy.
Today, Figi serves as a volunteer roving ambassador, pleading with legislators around the country to reform federal laws that classify marijuana, heroin, LSD and ecstasy as Schedule I drugs with “no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse.”
When you ask Charlotte’s Web moms what they think about the Stanley brothers, they use terms like “godly,” “humble,” “caring” and “compassionate.”
“I took Madeline to four different neurologists and none of them even made eye contact with her,” she says. “They treated her like another case. The Stanleys look Madeleine in the eye and they sit in the snow while they talk to her about ‘High School Musical.’ They’re amazing!”
“We love kids severely,” says Jesse. “When dad left, I had to pitch in. I was forced to act like a dad, and like a mom. I joke about it, but I believe I’ve changed more diapers than moms who only have one or two kids.”
Four Christian views on marijuana
Different denominations and traditions have staked out varying positions on the theology and morality of marijuana use. When you analyze Christians’ views, they tend to land in one of the following four ethical camps.
It’s a question of stewardship,” says Jesse. “It is a plant that needs to be respected, not abused. And if used with discernment, it can help people a lot.”
Pot Prohibitionists oppose any and all consumption of marijuana and dismiss medical claims as bogus and morally suspect. Comments by Russell Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, articulate the prohibitionist position.
“This is not something that is being given to people with terminal cancer,” said Moore in a “Questions and Ethics” podcast that was transcribed and posted by the Institute on Religion and Democracy. “It is something that is being given very indiscriminately with a substance that has a long cultural history in this country of essentially inducing a kind of immediate drunkenness which is of course prohibited in Scripture for a believer: ‘Be not drunk.’”
Medical Exceptionalists are suspicious of most medical claims but grant exceptions in certain cases. Jim Daly, president of Focus on the Family since succeeding founder James Dobson in 2008, seems to be in this camp.
Daly, the son of a single mother, told me at a recent Focus media gathering that he had been reading articles in the Colorado Springs Gazette about families moving to Colorado to treat epileptic children with Charlottes Web marijuana oil. In a follow-up statement, Daly explained his position:
“To be clear, my primary purpose in addressing the subject was to concentrate on the issues specific to recreational use. Medical marijuana is not always good medicine, especially since it’s often abused. In fact, it’s unsettled science with strong opinions on both sides. I respect and appreciate the ongoing dialogue. But what is absolutely certain is that there are no benefits to recreational marijuana use that are worth its cost to society.”
People in the Pro-Medical Marijuana camp, including most of the Christian parents who have moved to Colorado Springs for Charlotte’s Web, support medical marijuana but oppose full legalization for recreational use.
Finally, Legalizers favor full legalization for adults. Conservative Christian broadcaster and former presidential candidate Pat Robertson supports legalization, as he explained to The New York Times in 2012:
“I really believe we should treat marijuana the way we treat beverage alcohol,” he told the Times. “I’ve never used marijuana and I don’t intend to, but it’s just one of those things that I think: this war on drugs just hasn’t succeeded. . . . I believe in working with the hearts of people, and not locking them up.”
Jesse Stanley is a Legalizer. And while he supports both medical and recreational uses, he does not revel in stoner culture and routinely declines invitations to 4/20 events held in Colorado every April where people gather and smoke pot in public, in violation of state law.
“It’s a question of stewardship,” says Jesse. “It is a plant that needs to be respected, not abused. And if used with discernment, it can help people a lot.”
Pastors and pot
Classes on “Christian ethics and marijuana” aren’t offered at most seminaries or Bible schools, but Pastor Rob Brendle knew pot was a topic he would have to address after leaving New Life Church in Colorado Springs (the suburban church founded by Ted Haggard, who left the church amid a scandal in 2006) to start a new church in Denver.
Brendle says that he was yearning launch a church in the inner city at a time when many evangelicals were fleeing the city for the suburbs. In 2008, he founded Denver United Church in an area of the capitol city that is home to plenty of marijuana dispensaries, antique stores and adult bookstores — but few churches.
Among the church’s 800-900 regulars are Jesse Stanley and his wife.
I asked Brendle to comment on marijuana, Jesse’s involvement in the industry, and the implications of legalization for believers. In a series of phone calls, e-mails and texts, here’s what Brendle told me:
“I am not too troubled by marijuana, and it is not an issue that I am interested in combating. I value the democratic process and respect the laws permitting marijuana use in Colorado as the legally expressed will of the people. And creating a Christian theocracy that outlawed marijuana, alcohol and same-sex marriage would never change the hearts of people. Only Jesus can do that.
“I love Jesse. He is a tenderhearted, intelligent, godly and ethical man. I respect his ardent belief in the value of medical marijuana and love his passion to help people.
“I know a number of people who feel they have found health benefits in medical marijuana, and I don’t have any moral qualm with that. I am a pastor, not a medical professional, so I defer to the judgment of patients and their doctors in those matters.
“At the same time, I am hearing increasing numbers of Denver’s Christian community say that God made marijuana, so it must be good for recreational use. I’m not convinced by that rationale. God made cyanide, too.
“I have similar pause with the notion that marijuana can be like having a glass of wine in the evening to relax. People can have a glass of wine and stop short of getting drunk. I’m not sure the same can be said of smoking pot.
“As Jesus’ followers, we recognize that we must be good stewards of our bodies because they are God’s home through the indwelling of his Spirit. I am continuing to seek God’s wisdom in this complex matter because it’s here to stay.”
Jesse Stanley says one of the best ways to understand marijuana is through a popular joke that has circulated for years in Christian circles:
There’s a man treading water in the ocean, trying desperately not to drown, and the man prays to God, saying, “Please save me!”
A few minutes later a boat goes by, but the man ignores it and keeps praying.
“Oh, God, please save me.”
Then God speaks up and asks a question.
“What do you think I was doing when I sent the boat?”
“The way I look at it,” says Jesse, “marijuana may be that boat for some Christians, but they just can’t believe it.”
Photography by Lisa Anderson.