Inside the Contentious World of Cannabis Churches

Where questions of faith and law unexpectedly meet

A mural seen in Indiana's First Church of Cannabis.
Janulus144/Creative Commons

To live in the United States right now is to live at a time of fluctuating drug laws. Some states and cities have worked to decriminalize drugs like marijuana, and the creation of safe injection sites in certain cities has become a hotly-debated topic. Drug legalization via legislative action is the highest profile effort of its kind — but it’s not the only one. Certain drugs are legal in certain contexts — specifically, when it comes to matters of religion.

The Native American Church, for instance, considers peyote sacred — and so has a legal exemption from drug laws that regulate it. Something similar was attempted with ayahuasca a few years ago. A 2016 article at Atlas Obscura traced the rise and fall of Ayahuasca Healings, described as an attempt to create “the first public and legal ayahuasca church in the United States.”

At The New York Times, Arit John explored a similar phenomenon, in this case connected to the world of marijuana. John’s article focuses on California’s Jah Healing Church. 

“Its teachings are largely Christian but borrow from a grab bag of religious traditions as varied as Rastafarianism, Buddhism and Judaism,” John writes. The church encountered legal trouble in 2018, and since then has endeavored to become more like a traditional church in its regular activities — including running clothing drives and operating a food pantry.

As John’s article notes, the question of what constitutes a church versus what constitutes a dispensary can be a tricky thing — especially given that religious belief isn’t something that can be easily quantified. And California isn’t the only place where cannabis churches have popped up: earlier this year in Cosmopolitan, writer Jen Doll ventured to Denver’s International Church of Cannabis

“Weed and church are actually not the strangest bedfellows—cannabis has a long religious history,” she wrote in the article. If the efforts of these churches are any indication, that history is far from over.

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