The Rev. Dr. Jeremy Rutledge is still haunted by what he witnessed decades ago in a Florida county jail.
The former chaplain worked in Clearwater, where he came across hundreds of young, black men who weren't incarcerated for violent offenses. Rather, they were locked up for marijuana possession — their records tainted and their futures compromised.
Rutledge, now pastor of Circular Congregational Church in Charleston, said the injustice can be solved by decriminalizing marijuana possession and use, while treating its usage as a health concern, not a crime.
“Someone struggling with something, they’re not a criminal. That’s a sister or brother," Rutledge said. "It’s a way of looking at each other with compassion instead of judgment. There is a religious element to it. It's trying to help our neighbor.”
While Charleston area pastors disagree on whether full-blown legalization in South Carolina is the right answer, many do support decriminalizing the drug as well as permitting some forms for medical use.
While more than 30 states have legalized weed for medicinal purposes and while several have fully legalized the drug, marijuana is still illegal in South Carolina.
There have been steps in the state to change that. In 2014, state representatives successfully pushed through laws legalizing CBD oil, a non-psychoactive form of cannabis, and industrial hemp. This year, lawmakers advocated for the Compassionate Care Act, which would legalize medical marijuana for those with chronic diseases. Supporters hope it gets refiled and passes in 2019.
Rutledge said the state should legalize medical marijuana. For him, legalizing medicinal use speaks to religious ideas of love and empathy. His father was terminally ill with cancer years ago and took morphine to alleviate pain. Rutledge would want others to have marijuana if it could help with their chronic illnesses.
“That’s a kind and compassionate thing," he said.
Other religious leaders embraced marijuana's medicinal value. The Rev. Ed Grant, who serves as pastor of Calvary Lutheran Church, supports the state's legalization of CBD oil which can be used for chronic illnesses.
The oil is produced from hemp plants, which produce only trace amounts of the psychoactive THC that can be found in marijuana. THC is the chemical that gives users the "high."
Grant added that he wouldn't support full marijuana legalization because the drug "is a pollutant to the body and something people depend on to get them through difficult times."
He said he's known people who've relied on recreational usage more than they did God.
"It's a false god," he said. "It's a god that enslaves. I’ve known people like that, who can’t live without it."
The Rev. Dr. Kylon Middleton, pastor of Mt. Zion AME, disagreed. He noted that the Bible does not condemn the drug. He said scripture teaches believers to enjoy other substances, like alcohol, in moderation. He said he supports legalization because even if legalized, it'd be up to each person to practice restraint.
“You have to know within your own limits what’s acceptable for you in your own temple," Middleton said.
Middleton added that Christianity instructs believers to focus on broader issues like hate, malice and other "spiritual conditions of the heart."
“If you look at the little splinter and speck because someone uses pot … that does not become productive," he said.