Fla. church changes course with marijuana growers

by Joni B. Hannigan |

LAKES WALES, Fla. (Christian Examiner)—Like Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, when a tiny congregation of "God's people" in the middle of citrus groves and rolling hills in Central Florida stood fast—they did the near impossible.

(REUTERS/Bill Cotterell)Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd discusses his opposition to the medical marijuana constitutional amendment in Tallahassee, Florida June 11, 2014. A November referendum to legalize medical marijuana in Florida is shaping up to be an expensive political battle funded by deep-pocketed Republicans and Democrats. The pastor of Bethel Baptist Church in Lake Wales told TheLedger.com he called Judd in order to gain a better understanding of the issue before the first decision, but Judd said he didn't talk to the pastor again before the second vote.

They halted what was destined to be the largest medical marijuana production facility in the country from moving in.

Bethel Baptist Church and its 11 members did what the local city government and county sheriff couldn't do, and effectively sent a warning shot over the bow of supporters of Amendment 2, a ballot measure supporting the legalization of pot headed to the November ballot, Mike Hasha, a local Baptist leader told Christian Examiner.

"The church is not interested," Pastor Marshal Kirchik told Channel 10 News.

It took two church votes to get the issue sorted out.

Things heated up at the small church last month when it preliminarily voted to lease a 3.2 acre parcel of property to GrowHealthy, a business that had purchased an adjacent abandoned mattress plant. The company planned to remodel the 185,000 sq. ft. building and turn it into a marijuana-growing house. There are conflicting reports of whether the sale of that property was final.

Because Florida law stipulates such facilities must be at least 1,000 feet away from church properties, the church was right in the middle of a hot issue, and GrowHealthy representatives hyped a deal to members, Hasha said.

"The growers came in and pulled on the heartstrings of the people," Hasha said. Using a narrative about a girl whose parents gave her cannabis and her seizures were reduced, these pitchmen characterized cannabis as a "miracle drug." He said they also told members the drug is used in the treatment of cancer and diabetes.

"Not one of those things is scientifically proven yet, there is no real basis for anything they are saying," said Hasha, director of missions for the Ridge Baptist Association. In fact, he wondered how people could believe such things, given the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has not approved cannabis for these uses.

After he spoke to members of the congregation, he said they voted 5-3 to reject an offer to lease the property to GrowHealthy.

Florida Gov. Rick Scott in July signed into law a bill allowing epilepsy and cancer patients to use a strain of low-potency marijuana in oils, vapors, and pills, referred to as "Charlotte's Web" next year, according to news4jax.com. The law allows for medical use of cannabis, but restricts it from being smoked as a delivery system.

In a separate move, Florida voters petitioned to place an Amendment 2 for medical marijuana on the November ballot.

Seven former Florida Supreme Court Justices have come out in opposition to the proposed state constitutional amendment, joining other high profile individuals and entites in a "Vote No on 2 Campaign" effort, according to naplesnews.com.

The Florida Baptist Convention State Board of Missions—affiliated with nearly 3,000 affiliated congregations and almost a million church members—in September went on record against Amendment 2, calling it the "so-called 'Florida Right to Medical Marijuana'" and asked its pastors to "diligently encourage their church members to promote and vote to defeat the amendment."

"[The] Board does not believe legalizing an addictive drug without strong regulatory oversight is an appropriate solution," Florida Baptists reported on its website, flbaptist.org.

The "Vote No On 2" website includes information on "loopholes" related to teen use, drug dealers, "pill mills," and "pot-for-anyone-who-wants-it."

A number of Florida's leading newspapers, including the Tampa Bay Times, the Orlando Sentinel, news-press.com, and The Florida Times Union have expressed serious concerns about Amendment 2, and these with other media editorials are also posted voteno2.org.

A number of pro-cannabis websites and social media sites are promoting the amendment in a "Yes On 2," campaign, including "The Joint Blog," "CannabisCollegeCertification.com," "wesneuman.com," "theweedblog," and more.

"United for Care" was formed to promote Amendment 2.

Hasha believes the growers were preparing to open the production plant in anticipation the amendment will pass.

"It is important," Hasha said of the church's effort to halt the growers. "If God's people will stand up and do what is right though fire might come their way—God can still use us to effect change."