Former XXX Church pastor launches Christian Cannabis
Craig Gross knows a little something about creating a stir.
Best known for co-founding the XXX Church, an online ministry aimed at performers and consumers of pornography that famously launched with a booth at the AVN Adult Entertainment Expo, Gross was looking to use his prominence inside the Christian world to “change the conversation” about another controversial topic: cannabis.
Again, he went big, hiring a skywriter to deliver the message over Kanye West’s “Sunday Service” at the Coachella Music Festival in 2019. Then he trusted the rest to faith.
“I rented a plane on 4/20 at 4:20 in the afternoon and put ‘ChristianCannabis.com’ over the main stage at Coachella,” Gross says. “And I didn’t have any clue what I could do next. It was just, like, if I can just get this out, I think the right people will come around on this.”
People have come around to the idea, including Guy Rocourt, the co-founder and CEO of Papa & Barkley, one of California’s leading cannabis wellness brands. And this fall, Gross, Rocourt and their team are ready to answer what comes next with the release of the Christian Cannabis brand, aimed squarely at a market they know is there, despite the hand-wringing of some members of the faith.
“Christians are not the niche, they’re the majority,” says Rocourt. “We just have to unlock the power of the plant for them and give them access. And so that’s when I got interested.”
“Somebody had to break this open,” Gross says. “And we started to see the traction and the timing. So in December (2021), we formed a new company.”
The plan is a heavy education campaign to change the common Christian perception of cannabis as a negative thing and then to offer a quality product from within the Christian world.
“We all want our own thing,” he says. “And I think the Christians, once they’re informed and once they know it’s legal, they’re open to it and the right products.”
Gross knows his audience well. He grew up in the faith.
A California native, he attended Hope International University, a private Christian school in Fullerton, California, where he studied church ministry. He was ordained in 1998 at Eastside Christian Church and a year later started the nonprofit Fireproof Ministries, through which he runs all of his projects, including the XXX Church, which sparked his fame both inside the Christian sphere and out.
Launched in 2002, the XXX Church was designed to be a safe space for people who wanted help breaking an addiction to internet pornography or getting out of the adult industry. It gained notoriety immediately through its direct outreach to porn stars and the larger adult entertainment community and led to Gross debating a porn star on a tour across college campuses, as well as on ABC’s Nightline.
“I’ve been an outlier, a disrupter, but a Christian my whole life,” he says. “I’ve spoken at over 3,000 churches, written 13 books. I’ve served the church well.”
But after Gross’ father died, he began to deal with health problems, including headaches and seizures and other ailments that had him in and out of emergency rooms.
“They just kept giving me medicine,” he says.
After seeing Sanjay Gupta’s “Weed” series one morning on CNN, Gross decided to get a medical card and try cannabis for the first time in his life, but when he went to his local dispensary, he felt out of place, uneducated about the products and unable to find the high-CBD products he saw on TV. Eventually he found a mint with 5 milligrams THC, and the experience helped his illness, but led to an eventual split with the church, including the ministry he founded and was associated with, when he told his board about his cannabis use. And though his ministry partners disagreed, fellow Christians responded, and he found himself helping others find their way into and through cannabis. Gross says the name “came to him” so he bought the website, deciding to move forward anyway, despite what it meant to his career.
“I launched the plane on 4/20, 2019, and by July, I was done with XXX Church,” he says. “But I was like, ‘This is what Jesus would be about.’”
The skywriting certainly got the name noticed, with stories appearing in major media outlets across the country, and though he had successfully started the conversation, Gross admits he had no idea what would come next. But even as ministers who were supporters began denouncing him as a “drug dealer,” he was getting emails from others saying they had been using CBD or THC without telling their pastors and that they were behind him.
Soon after that, his wife fell ill with cancer and used Rick Simpson Oil and other medicines to help her through, only reinforcing his view that he was on the right track, despite some members of the church telling him her illness was because of his “sin.”
“I saw it heal my wife,” he says. “I saw it changed me.”
In July 2019, Gross left XXX Church in the hands of the adult actress formerly known as Jenna Presley, who along with her husband had found Jesus through Gross’ online ministry. Presley, whose real name is Brittni De La Mora, introduced Gross to her uncles, who were in the cannabis business in California. They in turn connected Gross with Jacqueline Rubasky, who did their branding. She had a connection to Rocourt at Papa & Barkley, who was immediately interested in the opportunity that Christian Cannabis presented.
“We share the value that cannabis is all wellness,” says Rocourt. “And of course, as a businessperson, I was like, ‘Wow, this brand is amazing,’”
A 25-year veteran of the cannabis industry with a background in science and a degree from the Rochester Institute of Technology, Rocourt is the co-creator of one of the first cannabis vape pens. He has worked at every level of cannabis operations, including CEO of Papa & Barkley, where he will continue to work full-time despite his consulting and association with Christian Cannabis.
But Rocourt admits he was reticent at first. Despite a Catholic upbringing, he does not consider himself a religious person, but a spiritual one, and he does not trust the organized power structure of the church. He believes Jesus taught not only to love, but to question the current paradigms, something cannabis does, despite how current dogma may view the plant.
“I think Christian values are imbued in the plant. I think most people who are aware of cannabis know that there’s always been a magical and spiritual component to it,” he says. “I think it’s a shame that the thought leaders of the Christian world have fallen into this ‘Just Say No’ paradigm, because that doesn’t work.”
“Here’s an opportunity to share the right information with those thought leaders and perhaps have those products start to trickle down to what is the majority,” he says.
The plan is to launch the product suite by the end of 2022, ideally in multiple states. The company will not do any cultivating, but rather manufacturing value-added products, which means it is unlikely there will be Christian Cannabis flower at the launch.
According to Rocourt, the plan is to launch in California and Colorado and expand by partnering with operators who share their values in states with large Christian populations, such as Oklahoma or Michigan, and then operate as a traditional CPG company, creating the products and packaging and doing the marketing but outsourcing manufacturing, sales and distribution to a licensee in each state.
“This is a national brand. We have a national audience,” Gross says. “I think our audience for Christian cannabis is a first-time audience. It’s a crowd that’s not in the dispensaries right now.”
And while there is the definite probability of profit ahead by giving Christians a brand to call their own, both Gross and Rocourt insist that is not the primary motivation. For both men, it’s about spreading the message of what they consider to be a spiritual plant.
“We have a group of 100-plus million Americans that cannot move on cannabis, because they believe it’s an offense to God,” says Rocourt. “And my only mission is to show them that that is not the case.”
Gross knows that there are others like him, and that ultimately, his background and voice within the church can help continue the conversation he started three years ago over the California desert. He says he’s already talked to other church leaders that have told him if he walks through the fire, there will be less smoke for the others to deal with.
“The Christians are late to a lot of things,” says Gross. “There’s a lot of hurdles to get over. But it takes education. It takes people out in front, and I’ve got that group now. I’ve got the advocates. I’ve got the people that no longer thinks they should be demonized.”