by Elizabeth Limbach

This is the story of 35-year old Stephen Clements, who has suffered from depression since childhood. The darkness and despair finally lifted for Stephen after he took a step outside of his comfort zone and found a new perspective on life thanks to cannabis.

Starting high school is a stressful milestone for any teen. For Stephen Clements, the occasion was made more dramatic by his family’s move from Henry, Tennessee, a town with a population hovering around 500, to Memphis, a metropolis more than 1,000 times its size. Stephen had little in common with his new classmates, who began picking on him. Dejected and isolated, Stephen saw his peers, and the world more broadly, in a harsh, judgmental light.

“I was painfully awkward,” he says. “I probably had some sort of anxiety issues looking back. Also, I came from a very hellfire-and-brimstone Southern Baptist upbringing, so while I was polite, I was an incredibly judgmental little guy. I spent a long time thinking, ‘these people are bad.’ I wasn’t accepting of other folks.”

His hostility snowballed over the years, and by the time he arrived at the University of Memphis for college, he “seethed anger all the time and had a fairly toxic inner life.”

“It became apparent to me that my spirit was filled with despair,” he says, “and I thought I’d never feel better than I did.” In September 2001, still in his first year of college, he took a friend up on a standing offer to try marijuana — something he’d resolutely disapproved of until then.

“For the first time, I was able to take a step back from the immediacy of my problems and relax,” Stephen explains. “It wasn’t a miracle cure and overnight everything that was negative turned positive, but it definitely helped with the anger issues and I began my journey toward being less hostile and judgmental toward other people.”

He began to see marijuana in harmony with, rather than in conflict with, his faith, and let go of his damning attitude. “I thought, ‘I smoke pot and I didn’t go nuts and kill anybody and I don’t feel like my life is ruined now, like I have been told for years and years would happen. So if I’ve been lied to about that, are all these other people really as bad as they had been made out to be?’ The answer was no.”

The years since were embroidered with accomplishments, a trajectory Stephen attributes to his use of cannabis. He obtained bachelors and masters degrees, served in the Army (during which time he did not use cannabis), traveled the world, became a Freemason, and penned several books, including a work of historical fiction about the Byzantine Empire titled To Save a Life. Today, he holds a job at the Department of Veterans Affairs, is a politically active Republican eyeing a seat in local office, and lends a “clean-cut” image to the legalization movement as a member of the marijuana advocacy group Tennessee United.

All of this was possible, he says, because cannabis “got me out of the mental prison I’d built for myself, one surrounded by hostility and frustration, and got me to become part of the rest of this world.”