February 9, 2014 Updated: February 9, 2014 at 3:49 am
Jesse Stanley grew up hearing about Jesus every day at home, on Sundays at Vanguard Church, and Mondays through Fridays at Colorado Springs Christian School.
After Jesse and his brothers became major players in Colorado's rapidly growing marijuana industry, some Christians accused them of doing "Satan's work." But Jesse says the family's marijuana ministry is a God thing.
"This is not the story of the prodigal son," he said in an interview with the On Faith website. "People who knew me, particularly those who knew me well, should've known that I was doing this for the right reasons."
The Stanley brothers have become famous for developing Charlotte's Web, a medical marijuana oil being used to help more than 100 families who have relocated to the Springs to treat their epileptic children. What most people didn't know is that faith is at the heart of their work, and that most of the parents who have moved here for their medicine are Christians, too.
Stanley family values
Times were tough for Jesse and his 10 siblings after their father abandoned the family in 1997. His mother, who taught math and science at CSCS for more than a decade, worked three additional jobs to help make ends meet.
In 2009, after the federal government said it would not prosecute people in Colorado who consumed medical marijuana in compliance with state laws, Jesse's cousin, Ron Fortner, was diagnosed with cancer and given only a few weeks to live. When older brother Josh proposed treating Ron with pot, mom was surprised.
"I didn't know that marijuana had any medicinal benefits," says Kristi Stanley Fontenot, who remarried in 2008. "I grew up in the hippie generation and always associated it with love and peace and all of that."
The marijuana helped Ron, but Kristi remained skeptical about the medical marijuana industry, so she decided to do further research by volunteering at Josh's Denver dispensary.
"I met some of the most amazing people," she says. "Cancer patients, people with MS, elderly people dealing with pain issues, patients wanting to control migraines. 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."
Realm of Caring, the family's charity, originally was created to research marijuana's impact on cancer. But that would change after mom got a phone call from her son Joel.
"We have a mother here who wants to give marijuana to her 5-year-old daughter, who has epilepsy. What should we do?"
Charlotte's Web helped Charlotte Figi, who suffered from a severe form of epilepsy that caused hundreds of seizures a week. Charlotte now averages one seizure a week, and her quality of life has improved vastly.
"It's divine intervention," Jesse says.
Soon, families were moving to the Springs to care for their children. Paula Lyles, a former children's nursery director at Bay Presbyterian Church, a 3,000-member evangelical congregation in Bay Village, Ohio, arrived Oct. 3 to treat her daughter Jordan.
"I am one of the most straitlaced people you've ever met," Lyles says. "I dislike the smell of marijuana smoke. But people need to see that God made this plant, just like any other plant, to be used for His glory. It is only humans that turn the good things God created into something bad."
Dara Lightle arrived from Virginia the day after Lyles got here. Coming from a background of drug and alcohol abuse, Lightle was skeptical about medical marijuana.
"Because of my past drug use, I saw things through that lens," she says. "But when I was praying about what to do, I knew God was saying, 'Go.' And when God says, 'Go,' you obey. There was no turning back."
Charlotte's Web has helped her daughter Madeleine, but when Lightle introduced herself and Madeleine to the pastor at one local church, the pastor told "mean stories" about medical marijuana and "stoners" during his next two weekly sermons, eliciting laughter from the congregation.
Lightle found a warmer welcome at Woodmen Valley Chapel, a dual-campus congregation with weekly attendance of 5,700. A spokesman succinctly summarized the megachurch's position:
"Woodmen Valley Chapel welcomes all people with disabilities, and Woodmen Valley Chapel does not endorse any type of medical treatment," said Paul Rude, pastor of the church's Impact Ministries, which includes ministries for special-needs families and community outreach.
Colorado's Christian medical marijuana moms are enthusiastic evangelists for the benefits of medical marijuana, which is legal in 20 states. And they pray that laws will change in their home states soon. But most of the moms oppose opening the door to legalization for nonmedical uses.
"I do not believe marijuana should be legal recreationally," Lightle says. "And part of me does not even understand why alcohol and cigarettes are legally available. But if I have to sit there and compare which of the three should be legal, I would pick marijuana."
A pastor probes pot
After two decades at New Life Church in Colorado Springs, Pastor Rob Brendle moved north to launch Denver United Church in 2008. The church is in a South Broadway neighborhood with numerous marijuana dispensaries but few churches.
Jesse Stanley and his wife are among the 800 to 900 people who attend Sunday services at Denver United. Here are some of Brendle's thoughts about Christians and marijuana.
"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.
"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 people in 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.
"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."