They have weed instead of wine and a “pooh-bah” in place of a pastor who preaches the power of pot to heal the world: Welcome to The First Church of Cannabis.
In May, this Indiana house of worship won the right to light up freely and spread its groovy gospel thanks to a newly awarded nonprofit designation from the Internal Revenue Service.
Because the church has been deemed a charity, donors can deduct gifts made to the church on federal tax returns, and when the cannabis congregation finds a location, it will be eligible for a property tax exemption — even though neither medical nor recreational marijuana is legal in the state of Indiana.
The church celebrated its new status in a note posted to its Facebook page:
“What a GLORIOUS DAY it is folks... Absolutely BEAUTIFUL...HAPPY TUESDAY! Our NOT FOR PROFIT 501 C3 status came in today... WE ARE 100 % a LEGAL CHURCH... All say HALLELUJAH and SMILE REAL BIG!... We are OFFICIAL!”
The newly founded church, based in Indianapolis, launched a GoFundMe page to raise money to lease a building for its worship services, and has so far collected more than $11,000.
“We don’t want to poison people. We want to see them healthy. And cannabis is the healthiest plant on Earth,” church founder Bill Levin said in an interview with Yahoo News.
So who are these pot worshippers? What do they stand for or believe in? And will police respect their appeal to religion to defend their marijuana use?
In the beginning…
Levin, a 59-year-old carpenter, started the church on March 26, 2015, to push the limits of Indiana’s new Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), which prohibits the government from “substantially burdening” anyone’s right to exercise his or her religion. Earlier this year, the controversial bill sparked protests from gay rights groups claiming it would allow for businesses to discriminate against gays and lesbians citing religious beliefs.
Levin also protested the bill, but said that in signing it, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence provided the “fertilizer” that allowed his new religion to bloom.
“After Pence made the announcement that he would sign it in a private ceremony, I became born again,” Levin said.
More than 700 people have already paid for membership to the church: $50.40 for one year, $100.80 for two years. (The group also sells “Holy Rollers” rolling paper — the proceeds of which go to the church.)
Members of the congregation, called “Cannabiterians,” say they smoke marijuana to connect more closely with themselves and others.
They believe in the “Deity Dozen,” a list of 12 tenets for living a good life, which is the cannabis congregation’s equivalent of the Ten Commandments:
1) Don’t be an a--hole. Treat everyone with love, as an equal.
2) The day starts with your smile every morning. When you get up, wear it first.
3) Help others when you can. Not for money, but because it’s needed.
4) Treat your body as a temple. Do not poison it with poor quality foods and sodas.
5) Do not take advantage of people. Do not intentionally hurt anything.
6) Never start a fight, only finish them.
7) Grow food, raise animals, get nature into your daily routine.
8) Do not be a “troll” on the Internet; respect others without name-calling and being vulgarly aggressive.
9) Spend at least 10 minutes a day just contemplating life in a quiet space.
10) When you see a bully, stop them by any means possible. Protect those who cannot protect themselves.
11) Laugh often, share humor. Have fun in life, be positive.
12) Cannabis, “the Healing Plant,” is our sacrament. It brings us closer to ourselves and others. It is our fountain of health, our love, curing us from illness and depression. We embrace it with our whole heart and spirit, individually and as a group.
The Church of Cannabis’ first service is scheduled for July 1 (the day the state’s religious freedom law goes into effect) at 12:01 p.m. The location has not yet been announced.
Levin, who has crafted titles for himself like Grand Pooh-bah and Minister of Love, described the upcoming service as a beautiful and moving “celebration of life’s great adventure.”
“We’re going to do all the good things that churches do. Celebrate life, love, compassion and good health,” Levin said. “Everyone is going to leave in a happy, spiritual, healthy way.”
The opening ceremony will kick off with a young harmonica prodigy playing “Amazing Grace.” Then the church’s music minister will lead the house band through three more songs with a bit of chatter in between each.
Next, Levin will speak for five minutes about each of the seven themes that the church holds dear: live, love, laugh, learn, create, grow and teach.
“I will bring people up to testify on the podium of life about what they’ve learned about those subjects this week,” he said. “It’s a completely interactive service.”
The congregation will rise in unison and recite the Deity Dozen before smoking cannabis together.
“After the 12th pathway, we will light up and celebrate life and the birth of a great new religion with a party,” he said.
The Church of Cannabis defines God as love and declines to characterize its deity as anything else.
Adherents do not subscribe to any canon of spiritual texts either, but they do share basic principles with the major world religions: namely, to treat others with kindness and compassion.
“Old magic books have nothing to do with our religion. We are new and refreshing without all the guilt, sin and judgment,” Levin told Yahoo News.
But Levin’s ganja-worshipping group is not the first to incorporate marijuana into practices intended to pave a path to enlightenment.
Incorporating marijuana into spiritual practices dates back to at least the second millennium B.C. The most well-known use of cannabis to get closer to God can be found in Rastafarianism.
“We are not affiliated with any other faith, but I learned a great deal from the Rastafari religion,” Levin said. “We borrowed a little bit from every religion. We love and respect our Rastafari brothers and sisters without a doubt.”
Other groups similar to The First Church of Cannabis already exist across the country, and include The United Cannabis Ministry of California and Hawaii and The Healing Church of Rhode Island; the latter recently issued guidelines for dealing with police officers after repeated encounters.
Levin says he does not fear any legal ramifications thanks to the Hoosier State’s RFRA.
“Our church will not buy, sell or trade in the product,” he explained. “But we will encourage our members to enjoy the plant in our church, which is a sanctuary, a safe zone.”
RFRA prohibits the government from “substantially burdening” anyone’s right to exercise his or her religion unless it advances a “compelling governmental interest.”
Daniel O. Conkle, professor of law at Indiana University, says it is highly doubtful that The First Church of Cannabis will not face consequences.
Under RFRA, if charged with possession of an illegal substance, the church would have to demonstrate to a court of law that its marijuana use stems from a genuine religious belief rather than a contrived excuse to get high.
“I would say their ability to make that showing is probably pretty doubtful in this case,” Conkle told Yahoo News.
Other religious groups that use banned substances for spiritual purposes typically have longer track records.
For instance, the Native American Church uses peyote, a cactus-derived hallucinogen, as a sacrament. The church’s members were granted an exemption through an amendment to the Controlled Substances Act.
In 2006, a New Mexican branch of the Brazilian União do Vegetal church successfully fought for its right to use a sacramental tea called hoasca, which the federal government had seized.
Though the tea contained a banned substance, the Supreme Court did not doubt the church members’ sincerity when they invoked the federal RFRA.
Furthermore, the courtroom could not establish “compelling governmental interest” for interfering with their practice.
Even if the Cannabiterians could establish religious legitimacy, Conkle said, the government might argue that marijuana differs from peyote and hoasca precisely because it has a broad, nonreligious, illegal market.
Conkle says The First Church of Cannabis is on “pretty shaky legal footing.”