The past several years have seen a remarkable surge in support for the legalization of cannabis throughout North America, with Canada having legalized the drug for recreational use, several US states doing the same, and legalization being considered in Mexico. Coinciding with the gradual process of legalization sweeping the continent, cultural attitudes surrounding marijuana have adapted, as a growing number of people support legalization and believe the drug’s harmful impact is minimal. As people have grown more comfortable with openly using marijuana in states where it is legal, cultures in these communities have integrated the drug into social events. A so-called cannabis cafe, where customers can openly purchase and smoke marijuana while enjoying a meal, recently opened in California with the support of celebrities including Miley Cyrus, Chris Rock and Sarah Silverman. Perhaps more surprisingly, though, cannabis has begun to be integrated with church services in California, creating a unique intersection between the psychoactive drug and religious service.
In Big Bear, California, roughly two dozen people regularly attend Jah Healing Church services, where joints are passed around as practitioners worship. One of the church’s founders, April Mancini, has said that she was inspired to combine the drug with religious practice after meeting a Rastafarian who ran the building as an unlicensed medical marijuana dispensary in 2013. While she was initially skeptical of the drug’s religious value, Mancini later studied the Bible for references to the drug, and believes that she found them. While Jah Healing Church generally follows the Christian tradition, it also incorporates teachings from other religions like Rastafarianism, Buddhism, and Judaism. In addition to holding services that include the consumption of marijuana, the church has begun a food pantry and clothing drives.
In order to continue operating, cannabis churches will have to prove in court that marijuana is used as a genuine religious sacrament, a feat which will undoubtedly prove difficult.
Several cannabis churches exist throughout the state, and their existence has led to legal challenges concerning how the government should treat these unique institutions. The controversy stems from the fact that people at these churches do not pay for marijuana directly, but instate donate money to the church in exchange for the drug. Some churches offer paid membership plans, and while they do not advertise themselves as marijuana dispensaries, they often appear on lists of dispensaries online. As such, these churches circumvent state regulations concerning the sale of marijuana, which requires dispensaries to register with the state for a license in order to sell the drug legally. According to a cannabis trade organization, nearly 3,000 unlicensed marijuana dispensaries exist in California, meaning that even though the drug is legal, the way in which it is often sold is technically illegal. The marijuana black market continues to thrive and even surpass the legal market in size and scale, and cannabis churches are widely considered to be part of this illegal market.
California government officials have a perspective on cannabis churches that differs wildly from the view held by people associated with these institutions. Whereas church organizers view them as primarily centered around religious service, enhanced by cannabis use, officials like deputy city attorney for Redondo Beach Melanie Chavira see them just as dispensaries under a different name. Speaking with the New York Times, Chavira said of these churches, “it’s not donation based, the customers are not religious patrons, everyone’s just there to purchase marijuana.” As such, law enforcement throughout the state has taken various steps to shut down these churches, generating legal battles currently being fought in the courts. One central figure in this story is Matthew Pappas, a lawyer who has fought on behalf of marijuana use for years. Pappas argues that the religious conviction held by cannabis church attendees is genuine, and that the government has an obligation to protect the rights of people who incorporate cannabis use into their religious practice. Mr. Pappas is also a religious figure himself, as he started an organization called Sacramental Life Church, which works with several cannabis churches in the state including Jah Healing Church. In order to continue operating, however, cannabis churches will have to prove in court that marijuana is used as a genuine religious sacrament, a feat which will undoubtedly prove difficult.