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Holy smoke: cannabis churches extol ‘sacrament’ of marijuana

As decriminalization of the drug spreads across the US, a congress in Colorado is promoting cannabis-friendly ministries: ‘Our magic comes from marijuana’

Steven Hager, former High Times editor and founder of the Cannabis Cup and Munchie Cup, at the second annual Munchie Cup. Photograph: Skyler Reid/The Guardian

Steven Hager, former High Times editor and founder of the Cannabis Cup and Munchie Cup, at the second annual Munchie Cup. Photograph: Skyler Reid/The Guardian

Last modified on Fri 14 Jul 2017 21.50 BST

“M agic is a sense of enchantment,” said Steven Hager, organizer of the first ever Congress of Marijuana Ministries, sitting in front of a flag of a marijuana-leaf-tailed phoenix. “It comes through Santa Claus or it comes through the Catholic church. It’s the same thing, running on the same rules. It’s how you enchant people.

“Our magic comes from marijuana.”

The first Congress of Cannabis Ministries was organized by Hager in Denver, Colorado, last Sunday as a way to help marijuana users and advocates to start churches of their own.

“My advice to everyone is to band together with your friends and create your own cannabis-friendly ministry,” Hager writes on the GoFundMe page for the Federation of Cannabis Churches. “Suddenly, the powers-that-be will have to start treating all of us with some real respect, or face some major lawsuits.”

As marijuana laws in several states and Washington DC rapidly decriminalize or legalize recreational use, the trend towards legalization hasn’t addressed one of the main concerns of a small subset of legalization advocates: having cannabis recognized as a spiritual sacrament.

The congress was held in conjunction with Hager’s second annual Munchie Cup – a spin-off of the High Times’ Cannabis Cup – which featured discussions on cannabis culture and businesses. While the originally planned lectures on spirituality failed to develop during the event, many of the flourishes of Hager’s spiritual view of cannabis were present throughout the weekend, including ritual lighting of frankincense candles (“Catholic church? Same thing,” says Hager) and celebration through music.

“The legalization of cannabis has opened up this possibility,” says Hager of churches that incorporate cannabis. As the founder of the Pot Illuminati, a “secret society” that practices spiritual rituals incorporating marijuana, Hager does not intend to start a legally recognized church. “I don’t want to deal with the paperwork. I don’t want to go through that bullshit, and I don’t think they have a right to tell you to do that shit.”

Kathleen Chippi, founder of Closer to the Heart Ministry, at her shop, One Brown Mouse, in Nederland, Colorado. Photograph: Skyler Reid/The Guardian

Kathleen Chippi, the founder of Closer to the Heart Ministry, located an hour north in Nederland, Colorado, sees it differently. “Cannabis has been illegal the entire time I’ve been alive,” she said. “Have I consumed it? Yes. Have I started a church based around cannabis being the tree of life? Yes.”

Chippi filed paperwork to legitimize her religion in 2010. She was inspired by Roger Christie, the founder of THC Ministries, who came to Colorado to raise awareness and open new ministries for his church. Christie returned from that trip to Colorado and was arrested shortly thereafter for distribution of marijuana, when federal officers raided his church.

A visitor to the Munchie Cup shows off some of his product. Photograph: Skyler Reid/The Guardian

“He got a license to marry people which declared that he had a church, but his church didn’t have what I felt I wanted for my church,” said Chippi, who registered her church as a “corporation sole”. “It is what all Roman Catholic churches are registered as on paper. So that was the important part for me, to be on paper the way they were on paper.”

The spectrum of support for cannabis varies tremendously between religious circles. Dozens of religious groups, with varying degrees of legitimacy, openly incorporate cannabis as central to their practise – from Hager’s Pot Illuminati to the Internal Revenue Service-recognized First Church of Cannabis. Even more mainstream religions are seeing shifts in opinion around the plant.

“Satan didn’t create this plant,” Jesse Stanley, part of an evangelical Christian family that grows and distributes medical marijuana, told On Faith, a publication focused on religious communities. The Stanleys are known for producing “Charlotte’s Web”, a particularly effective strain of medicinal marijuana oil that has been used to treat epileptic children. “Satan doesn’t create anything. This is God’s plant.”

Even with the increased acceptance, however, cannabis churches probably have a long road ahead before they find mainstream acceptance.

“It’s great to be here in a free state, where you can walk around with a joint, instead of in a prison state,” said Bill Levin, founder and Grand Poobah of the First Church of Cannabis, during the opening to the weekend’s events before the ceremonial lighting of a set of colored frankincense candles.

Bill Levin, founder and Grand Poobah of the First Church of Cannabis, at the opening of the Munchie Cup and the Congress of Cannabis Ministries. Photograph: Skyler Reid/The Guardian

Levin’s church, which is based in Indiana where marijuana is illegal, treats cannabis as a sacrament but has abstained from using the plant at the church, following threats of arrest and citation by the local police chief and county prosecutor. Levin says that the church’s practice of using marijuana as a sacrament should be protected by Indiana’s Religious Freedom and Restoration Act, which “provides that a state or local government action may not substantially burden a person’s right to the exercise of religion” unless there’s a compelling interest for government interference.

“Everybody has their different concept of religion. We use cannabis as a prayer sacrament,” said Levin. “There’s a lot of spirituality across America that’s being awoken, with cannabis as one of the axles in the wheel. There are various viewpoints in how it’s implemented, but it’s there.”

As decriminalization of the drug spreads across the US, a congress in Colorado is promoting cannabis-friendly ministries: ‘Our magic comes from marijuana’

Marijuana illuminati

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