New church says smoking weed is a real, legitimate religion
Newspapers from Russia to Britain to Australia are buzzing about the International Church of Cannabis, a crazy new pseudo-church which opened in Denver on 4/20. Visitors are spazzing out about the church's design — its founders transformed a drab old Lutheran dump into a heaven for cannabis worshippers: the ceiling is psychedelic, life-size Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle statues are everywhere, a Volkswagen-sized light-up sign reading WEED sits in a corner. They've rolled god and ganja into one fat joint.
Already, the state legislature has tried and failed to shut it down.
During my visit, the church leaders sit in a room watching walls of screens which monitor their media impact. "We're trending on r/news!" enthuses a guy in a plaid shirt with a laptop. Another guy dreams aloud of broadcasting its gatherings in VR. Of course they're passing a joint around.
At this point, you might be asking the same question I was asking myself just then — what is this place? A church? Or performance art? Or a business?
Or, just an excuse to smoke whenever you want?
It seems to be a mix of all of that. The church's official lawyer, Christian Sederberg, told the Cannabist that “This church is a legitimate effort to create a community for people that don’t find that in traditional religion."
And, having met them face to face, I don't think they're bullshit artists. I think they really believe cannabis puts them in touch with a so-called higher power; a force beyond understanding. Nature — however you want to say it.
But if they are playing an angle, you have to hand it to them: becoming a church is a clever move, legally speaking. By claiming to be a religion, the church could skirt Colorado's Clean Air Act, which prohibits smoking of any kind indoors, and may be able to dodge paying taxes, like every other house of god and L. Ron Hubbard in this land.
In doing so, they're continuing a fine tradition. No country in the history of planet Earth has produced more religions than America, including drug religions.
Sometimes these new religions even convince the government they're legit. The First Church of Cannabis in Indiana was deemed a religion by the IRS and granted tax-exempt status in 2015.
Just as often, however, the government shuts these religions down with authority. One of the more significant cases was David Meyers and his Church of Marijuana. In 1994, Meyers and some buddies were nabbed with four pounds of marijuana. Meyers swore in court that he was the Reverend of the Church of Marijuana, and that his religion commands him to grow and distribute the plant for the good of planet Earth. The court said: nuh-uh.
That caused the courts to set out some limitations about what actually constitutes a religion. What’d they come up with?
Holy days, sacred texts and special dress.
It's a ludicrous list. But I asked Steve Berke, one of the founders of the International Church of Cannabis, if he thought his church would pass the Meyers test. Steve Berke said he'd heard of the Meyers case, but didn't know it well enough to say if his church passes this test.
Thus it's up to us, Rooster Magazine, to examine the question. Would the International Church of Cannabis qualify as a religion? And, what about weed culture as a whole.? After all, weed culture does have a holy day — 4/20. Does it have the other stuff as well?
Looking at what the government demands religions have, and seeing if weed culture stacks up — while grossly generalizing to the point of absurdity — might give us an idea of whether the International Church of Cannabis will withstand a legal challenge from the Trump Administration or the Colorado State Attorney General, but also whether, when you, dear reader, get nabbed with an ounce while visiting North Dakota or some other backwater, you can claim the protection of god to the local Sheriff. Here goes. Again, this is what the government says religions should have, and whether weed culture has them.
Founder, prophet or teacher.
Christians have Jesus. The Mormons have Joseph Smith. There's no founder or prophet of weed, but Tommy Chong, Jorge Cervantes, Steve DeAngelo and Snoop Dogg are clearly some of the more prominent teachers. Also, your high school English teacher was probably a marijuana teacher and you just didn't know it.
Hindus have the Bhagavad Gita. Scientologists have L. Ron Hubbard's 500 novels and short stories. Weed culture has important writings, such as the back catalog of High Times, Carl Sagan's famous essay on how marijuana expands our minds, Michael Pollan's Botany of Desire, which makes you think the weed is growing us, not the other way around, and the back of the cereal box you happen to be eating out of.
Muslims have the Kabaa. Jews have the Western Wall. Weed culture has yet to have many important gathering places. It too often been stuck in back alleys, your neighbor's basement, and every single concert you've ever been to, but that's changing. There is Amsterdam and Oaksterdam, private pot clubs and college campuses on 4/20. And, here and there, there are marijuana churches. Like the one now open in Denver.
Pagans have the solstice. Jews have seder. Shias have ashura. And weed, of course, has April 20, for reasons that seem to be clear to nobody. Also, now, July 10 is the holiday for hash oil and other kinds of dabs — because July 10 is 7/10, and 710 upside down spells oil.
So! Weed culture stacks up pretty well in all those categories. We're not saying that the religious defense is going to spring you and your six ounces of shatter from a backwoods Alabama hoosegow, but these are a few areas where weed culture does seem like a faith.
However, there are other areas where weed culture clearly isn't like a religion or a church or a faith, and doesn't follow the government's definition of a religion, except by the most tortured definition. And this might doom the idea of cannabis as a religion. For example:
Keepers of knowledge
These are exalted folks with special privileges who know and teach the core message. Catholics have priests. Native Americans have medicine men. In weed culture, there's no core message, and nobody is higher than anyone else, although Willie Nelson is pretty exalted.
Diet or fasting
Jews and Muslims eschew pork. Seventh Day Adventists avoid meat. But weed culture is an omnivore, and pot lovers, when lifted, decimate the pantry and the fridge. And now that GrubHub and DoorDash drive food right to your stoop, the fasting that used to plague weed-heads at 3 or 4 a.m. is a memory.
Structure or organization
Catholics have one of the biggest bureaucracies in the world. Baha'i has a world headquarters that looks like a Roman palace, but there all the poobah have cubicles. Weed culture is loose, decentralized and unstructured. There's no hierarchy, no bylaws, nowhere to send mail or file a complaint. It's every ent for himself.
Appearance and clothing
Sikhs have that dastar turban on their heads. Muslim women have head scarves. But there's no weed uniform. The cliche picture of a ganja-bro in a rasta hat with a scraggly beard and Crocs isn't true anymore (if it ever was), and marijuana proles dress as varied and heterogeneous as a JC Penny Catalog, a CosPlay convention and Armani Exchange.
Hare Krishnas proselytize at airports. Jehovahs Witnesses go door to door. But, for the most part, pot people are live-and-let live types, and don't try to convert — no matter what those old after-school specials with the pushy drug dealer might have taught you.
Conclusion? On reflection, weed culture perhaps meets the government's definition of a religion halfway. But there is a serious argument to be made that that half is more than enough, since weed moves many people way more than religion does. At least church will be funny.
In the case of the International Church of Cannabis, it fills your gut with happy fuzzy feelings to hear the way that some politicians beat off that challenge to close the church recently. One politician was especially forceful. “This is saying to people ‘we don’t like the way you worship,'” state representative Joe Salazar told the Cannabist.“Now do I agree with the way they’re worshiping? I don’t really think it’s relevant whether I agree or not.”