High Praise: Pot Churches Proliferate As States Ease Access To Marijuana

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SAN JOSE, Calif. — Services on the Coachella Valley Church start and finish with the Lord’s Prayer.

In between, there’s the sacrament.

“Breathe deep and blow harder,” intoned Pastor Grant Atwell after distributing small marijuana joints to 20 worshipers on a latest Sunday afternoon. “Nail the insight down, whether you get it from marijuana or prayer. Consider what in your own life you are thankful for.”

A middle-aged man carrying a “Jesus Loves You” baseball cap piped up. “Thank you, God, for the weed,” he known as out. “I’m thankful for the spirit of cannabis,” a lady echoed from the again. “I am grateful to be alive,” mentioned one other younger girl, including that she had just lately overdosed — on what, she didn’t say — for the third time.

The small room, painted black and gold and adorned with crosses and Rastafarian symbols, full of pungent smoke after an hour-long service of Christian prayers, self-help slogans and inspirational quotes led by Atwell, a Campbell, Calif., therapeutic massage therapist and photographer.

Despite its mainstream Christian trappings, the Coachella Valley Church describes itself as a Rastafarian church, one thing that’s robust to outline. Rastafari is a political and religious movement that originated in Jamaica. Combining parts of Christianity, pan-Africanism and mysticism, the motion has no central authority. Adherents use marijuana of their rituals.

The church’s leaders say they consider that non secular freedom legal guidelines give them the fitting to supply marijuana to guests with out a physician’s suggestion — and with out having to abide by another laws. Some courts and native authorities beg to vary.

As extra states ease entry to marijuana, church buildings that supply pot as a sacrament are proliferating, competing with medical marijuana dispensaries and even pot retailers within the few states which have legalized leisure weed. While a few of them declare Rastafari affiliation, others hyperlink themselves to Native American non secular traditions.

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The church buildings are vexing native officers, who say that they’re merely dispensaries in disguise, skirting the foundations that govern different marijuana suppliers, reminiscent of necessities to pay taxes.

In California, which legalized medical marijuana in 1996 and, as of New Year’s Day, now permits sales of recreational marijuana, church buildings tied to marijuana use have just lately popped up in Oakland, Roseville, Modesto, San Diego County, Orange County, Los Angeles County and the Southern California desert metropolis of Coachella (no connection to the San Jose church). A couple of have been shut down by legislation 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,” mentioned San Jose City Attorney Rick Doyle. Doyle has requested a everlasting authorized injunction to cease the Coachella Valley Church from offering marijuana, and a court docket listening to is scheduled for Jan. 22. He just lately bought a court docket order to close down operations of the same church, the Oklevueha Native American Church of South Bay, he mentioned.

Nationally, such church buildings have opened in Indiana, the place marijuana remains illegal, and Michigan, the place medical marijuana is allowed. Even in Colorado, which legalized pot in 2012, the “International Church of Cannabis” is testing the limits of state and metropolis guidelines on consuming marijuana in public.

Marijuana church buildings sometimes require individuals to buy a membership, then give or promote them marijuana and associated merchandise. They could ask for ID reminiscent of a driver’s license however don’t require a health care provider’s suggestion or medical marijuana identification card.

They’re counting on court rulings that made it possible for some teams, together with Native Americans, to make use of federally banned medication like peyote of their non secular ceremonies. (A coalition of Native American church buildings has disavowed Oklevueha church buildings that declare marijuana as their sacrament.)

Despite these rulings, courts have so far rejected non secular teams’ proper to make use of marijuana, which continues to be unlawful on the federal degree, in accordance with Douglas Laycock, a University of Virginia Law School professor specializing in non secular liberty points.

“Marijuana churches have brought religious liberty claims for years, and they have always lost,” Laycock mentioned. “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 mentioned, as extra states legalize marijuana, courts could regard marijuana church buildings’ rights extra favorably.

“Legalization changes everything,” he mentioned. “Religious use may not violate state law in some of these states. And if it does, legalizing recreational use but not religious use clearly discriminates against religion.”

In California, nonetheless, the Coachella Valley Church could not be capable to provide its potent sacrament for for much longer.

The church operates in a 1925 San Jose mansion that previously housed the Amsterdam’s Garden medical marijuana dispensary, which was shut down final yr by San Jose metropolis officers in a citywide crackdown on dispensaries.

City officers have decided that among the individuals who ran Amsterdam’s Garden now function the Coachella Valley Church, Doyle mentioned.

Church leaders at first agreed to be interviewed however then didn’t reply to subsequent emails from California Healthline. A person who was videotaping the latest Sunday service mentioned the church opened in May. The man, who gave his identify as Dryden Brite, additionally goes by Xak Puckett, and has been described in media stories as a former director of Amsterdam’s Garden.

“The message is really strong and powerful,” Puckett mentioned of the church. “People are craving something new.”

He described the again room the place marijuana merchandise have been bought to members because the church’s “gift shop,” then declined to reply additional questions.

About half of the churchgoers left the black-and-gold worship room instantly after receiving their sacrament, with some heading straight to the reward store to fill up.

Others remained to complete their joints and chitchat. The man sporting the “Jesus Loves You” cap lingered. He had introduced alongside his canine, Spartan, and a shofar, a ram’s horn utilized in some Jewish ceremonies, which he blew loudly on the finish of the service.

“Anytime the word of God is being preached, it’s a good thing,” mentioned 57-year-old Mark, who declined to offer his final identify.

Marco, a 29-year-old veterinary technician from San Jose who additionally declined to offer his final identify, attended along with his husband. He has a medical marijuana card and mentioned marijuana helps him with bipolar dysfunction, despair and nervousness. 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,” Marco mentioned. “Here there are true believers in cannabis — if not the faith.”

This story was produced by Kaiser Health News, which publishes California Healthline, a service of the California Health Care Foundation.

Barbara Feder Ostrov:”>, @barbfederostrov

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