Church in California offers cannabis as a ‘sacrament’
San Jose City Attorney Rick Doyle has requested a permanent legal injunction to stop a church from providing marijuana as a ‘sacrament’ – and a court hearing is scheduled for January 22.
The the Coachella Valley Church, according to this report, is operated by Pastor Grant Atwell, a Campbell, California, massage therapist and photographer, who dispenses joints to his congregation. Watch him talk about the church, and using weed responsibly, here.
At a recent Sunday service he intoned:
Breathe deep and blow harder.
A middle-aged man wearing a “Jesus Loves You” baseball cap piped up:
Thank you, God, for the weed.
A woman echoed from the back.:
I’m thankful for the spirit of cannabis.
Despite its mainstream Christian trappings, the Coachella Valley Church describes itself as a Rastafarian church, something that’s tough to define. Rastafari is a political and religious movement that originated in Jamaica. Combining elements of Christianity, pan-Africanism and mysticism, the movement has no central authority. Adherents use cannabis in their rituals.
The church’s leaders say they believe that religious freedom laws give them the right to offer cannabis to visitors without a doctor’s recommendation – and without having to abide by any other regulations. Some courts and local authorities beg to differ.
As more states ease access to cannabis, churches that offer pot as a sacrament are proliferating, competing with medical marijuana dispensaries and even pot shops in the few states that have legalised recreational weed. While some of them claim Rastafari affiliation, others link themselves to Native American religious traditions.
The churches are vexing local officials, who say that they’re simply dispensaries in disguise, skirting the rules that govern other cannabis providers, such as requirements to pay taxes.
In California, which legalised medical cannabis in 1996 and, as of New Year’s Day, now allows sales of recreational cannabis, churches tied to cannabis use have recently popped up in Oakland, Roseville, Modesto, San Diego County, Orange County, Los Angeles County and the Southern California desert city of Coachella (no connection to the San Jose church). A few have been shut down by law enforcement.
I’m not going to say they’re not churches, but to the extent that they’re distributing marijuana, they’re an illegal dispensary, in my view.
And that’s why he requested the injunction. He recently got a court order to shut down the operations of a similar church, the Oklevueha Native American Church of South Bay.
Nationally, such churches have opened in Indiana, where cannabis remains illegal, and Michigan, where medical cannabis is allowed. Even in Colorado, which legalised pot in 2012, the International Church of Cannabis is testing the limits of state and city rules on consuming cannabis in public.
Cannabis churches typically require people to purchase a membership, then give or sell them marijuana and related products. They may ask for ID such as a driver’s license but don’t require a doctor’s recommendation or medical cannabis identification card.
They’re relying on court rulings that made it possible for some groups, including Native Americans, to use federally banned drugs like peyote in their religious ceremonies. (A coalition of Native American churches has disavowed Oklevueha churches that claim cannabis as their sacrament.)
Despite these rulings, courts have thus far rejected religious groups’ right to use cannabis, which is still illegal at the federal level, according to Douglas Laycock, a University of Virginia Law School professor specialising in religious liberty issues.
Marijuana churches have brought religious liberty claims for years, and they have always lost. Marijuana is a huge recreational drug, and a religious exception … would make enforcement nearly impossible. So the courts have always found a compelling government interest in marijuana enforcement.
Yet, Laycock said, as more states legalise marijuana, courts may regard marijuana churches’ rights more favourably.
Legalisation changes everything. Religious use may not violate state law in some of these states. And if it does, legalising recreational use but not religious use clearly discriminates against religion.
In California, however, the Coachella Valley Church may not be able to offer its potent sacrament for much longer.
The church operates in a 1925 San Jose mansion that formerly housed the Amsterdam’s Garden medical marijuana dispensary, which was shut down last year by San Jose city officials in a citywide crackdown on dispensaries.
City officials have determined that some of the people who ran Amsterdam’s Garden now operate the Coachella Valley Church, Doyle said.
A man who was videotaping a recent Sunday service said the church opened last May. The man, who gave his name as Dryden Brite, also goes by Xak Puckett, and has been described in media reports as a former director of Amsterdam’s Garden. He said:
The message is really strong and powerful. People are craving something new.
He described the back room where cannabis products were sold to members as the church’s “gift shop”, then declined to answer further questions. The room, painted black and gold is decorated with crosses and Rastafarian symbols,
About half of the churchgoers left the worship room immediately after receiving their sacrament, with some heading straight to the gift shop to stock up.
One church member, Marco, a 29-year-old veterinary technician from San Jose who declined to give his last name, attended with his husband.
He has a medical marijuana card and said marijuana helps him with bipolar disorder, depression and anxiety. He grew up Catholic and felt that the Roman Catholic Church disapproved of his sexual orientation and marijuana use.
Honestly, this has been the most life-affirming church I’ve ever been to. Here there are true believers in cannabis – if not the faith.