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LOS ANGELES — Every Sunday, about two dozen people gather at a green cabin along the main drag of Big Bear, Calif., a small mountain town known for its namesake lake. They go there for Jah Healing Church services, where joints are passed around.

April Mancini, a founder of the church, said she was drawn to the idea of cannabis as a religious sacrament back in 2013, after she met a Rastafarian who was running the place as an unlicensed medicinal dispensary.

“I’m a Christian, so I wasn’t sure in the beginning,” Ms. Mancini said. “I didn’t want to go against God.”

But she said she studied the Bible for references to cannabis, and believed she found them in scriptures that mentioned kaneh bosem oil. (English-language Bibles usually render the term “kaneh bosem,” a component of an anointing oil mentioned in Exodus, as “fragrant cane” or “sweet calamus.”)

In October 2017, Ms. Mancini filed paperwork with the state to incorporate the Jah Healing Kemetic Temple of the Divine. The newly registered church stopped requiring medical cards for marijuana for people 21 and over. Its teachings are largely Christian but borrow from a grab bag of religious traditions as varied as Rastafarianism, Buddhism and Judaism.

But before the year was up, the county sent the church a notice, accusing it of operating a dispensary. In April 2018, the county raided the church, confiscating the congregation’s sacrament in all its forms.

Credit…Ilona Szwarc for The New York Times

The resulting and continuing legal battle led Jah to ramp up efforts to establish itself as a church in the eyes of the law. Frances Valerie Rodriguez, who was ordained online through the Universal Life Church, was brought on as minister.

The church has begun a food pantry and started clothing drives, andstarted its Sunday services (plus Bible studies every Wednesday).

At the heart of this matter is a possibly unanswerable question: What is religion? And how do you prove faith?

Critics will try to measure the sincerity of the congregations’ beliefs, Ms. Rodriguez said. But for her, the church is about restoring people’s relationship with God. If the sacrament of cannabis helps people build that connection, she and her church want to facilitate that connection.

“There’s no way to measure faith — that’s very intangible,” Ms. Rodriguez said. The state of California isn’t totally sure it agrees.

At many cannabis churches, which are scattered across the state, people don’t technically pay for marijuana. But they do tithe, or donate money, in exchange for it. And many cannabis churches show up on Weedmaps and other dispensary listing sites, often with prices attached to their offerings.

Some, like Agora Temple in Los Angeles, offer a paid membership that allows people to smoke for free in a designated common area. (Members donate to the church to take marijuana home.)

Jah Healing Church, which stocks edibles, tinctures, pre-rolls and loose marijuana, has recently changed its funding method from mandatory donations, handed to a minister, to voluntary donations placed in an envelope and dropped into a box.

Cities, law enforcement and the hundreds of licensed and regulated weed dispensaries tend to view this as part of the black market.

In California, legal sellers face long and expensive licensing processes, quality control standards and high taxes. But 80 percent of California municipalities don’t allow dispensaries, said Robert Solomon, a law professor at the University of California at Irvine and chair of the Center for the Study of Cannabis there.

This means that illegal weed sales proliferate. A recent audit by a cannabis trade organization found approximately 2,835 unlicensed dispensaries, versus 873 licensed sellers in the state.

“It’s one thing to say, ‘Why would I buy black market milk from a guy I don’t know, when I could get good healthy milk from the supermarket?’” Mr. Solomon said. But if there’s no supermarket around, he said, the “black market looks pretty good.”

Seaside Church was a cannabis church in Redondo Beach, a city in Los Angeles County that voted to ban dispensaries. The church used to list prices (and happy hour specials) for marijuana on Weedmaps.

The city filed charges against it for acting as an unlicensed dispensary, but agreed to dismiss them if the church addressed building code violations and stopped dispensing weed.

The church closed in June 2019, only to reopen as the Sacramental Life Church of Redondo Beach a few weeks later. It now offers Sunday services and yoga, but continues to provide weed for suggested donations.

Melanie Chavira, the deputy city attorney for Redondo Beach overseeing the case, sees the transaction of marijuana as key to the church’s existence. “In the city’s opinion this isn’t a sacrament of the church, this is clearly a marijuana dispensary,” she said. “It’s not donation based, the customers are not religious patrons, everyone’s just there to purchase marijuana. The Catholic church doesn’t charge you to drink the wine.”

Near the center of the legal battle between cannabis churches and law enforcement in California is Matthew Pappas, a lawyer who has made a name for himself fighting to protect marijuana distribution.

In 2010, Mr. Pappas represented a group of disabled patients who said closures of medical marijuana collectives in Costa Mesa and Lake Forest violated the Americans With Disabilities Act. Both a district court and the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruled against them.

In 2015, Mr. Pappas represented a medical marijuana dispensary in Santa Ana that was raided by the police, during which officers destroyed surveillance systems. Mr. Pappas argued that video footage showed them eating marijuana edibles during the raid. The city eventually settled with the dispensary for $100,000.

Mr. Pappas has also served as legal counsel to the Oklevueha Native American Church, which asserts that cannabis is a Native American sacrament, similar to peyote.

The Oklevueha church is not tied to a federally recognized tribe, and is at odds with Native American religious leaders, including the National Council of Native American Churches, which rejects the idea that cannabis is a Native American sacrament. (The United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit rejected Oklevueha’s request for a religious exemption for cannabis use in 2016.)

Now, Mr. Pappas is taking on the cause of cannabis churches, representing them in numerous cases across the state. His task is to prove that his clients’ beliefs are sincere and religious in nature, and that those beliefs are being burdened by the law in a discriminatory manner.

Mr. Pappas said he often runs into skepticism from judges and prosecutors, who will sometimes laugh or smile at the idea of a cannabis church. He takes this personally.

“When government gets involved, the point that it must stop at is that sincerity. It can’t get into what the beliefs are,” he said. “If we truly are the society that we’re supposed to be, the importance of that freedom is as important as anything else.”

Mr. Pappas said his interest in marijuana legal issues was inspired by his daughter, Victoria, who suffered from mental and physical health issues that were alleviated by cannabis. She died last year, at age 25.

“I was one of those people that thought it was kind of a joke that there was medical marijuana,” he said. “And it was discriminatory on my part to have that thought.”

Mr. Pappas said his work with Oklevueha also represented a transition: “I started reading the laws, and I started seeing that people believed in cannabis as sacrament.” He went to the desert in Nevada with Oklevueha members, used peyote and was blessed as a medicine man, he said.

But he began to question the way Oklevueha operated and has since severed ties with the group. “I was duped a couple of times by people who said they were sincere and they were not,” he said. “But my job is on the secular side — to represent the churches in court.”

In recent years, Mr. Pappas has taken on a new role: religious leader. In 2016, he and a childhood friend started Sacramental Life Church, a religious umbrella organization that works with about a dozen cannabis churches in California. (These include Jah Healing Church and Sacramental Life Church in Redondo Beach.)

In addition to serving as legal counsel, Mr. Pappas holds the title of Steward of the Word for all churches that are members of the umbrella organization.

The Sacramental Life Church — and all its member churches — has its own series of tenets. The Nine Epiphanies, at the center, are taken from the writings of Mr. Pappas’s daughter. The Ninth Epiphany contains a prophecy, predicting the coming of a day when people will no longer be killed over religious differences; cannabis will be the force that unites all different beliefs.

“In the vision was a world at peace where there was no more war between religions,” the text reads. “The cannabis sacrament common to all of them in their histories was consumed by the leaders who had come together to end what had led to deaths of millions over thousands of years.”

The organization has two high priestesses who oversee compliance, working with cannabis churches to make sure they’re upholding standards.

In Big Bear, new members are now asked to participate in a Ceremony of Acceptance. After getting a form of identification scanned and signing a form acknowledging they understand they are at a cannabis church, new members state their name and say: “I am a member of Jah Healing, an open faith church. I believe that cannabis is a sacrament to heal, and I use it as a tool to connect me with my higher power.”

A church member then presents a donation envelope. New members write their names and how much they would like to donate, put their cash into the envelope, and drop it into a donation box. Only then may they receive the sacrament.

Defining what counts as a religion under the law “has been a notoriously difficult question for the courts ever since the founding,” said James Sonne, a Stanford Law School professor and the director of the Religious Liberty Clinic at the university.

The addition of drugs has made that question more complicated. A 1990 Supreme Court ruling against two members of the Native American Church who were fired after taking peyote during a religious ceremony prompted bipartisan backlash in Congress.

It led to the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993. This was used by the Supreme Court in 2006 to rule in favor of a church that used ayahuasca, a sacramental tea made from two plants found in the Amazonian rain forest.

But those cases deal with federal laws. In California, where recreational (and before that, medicinal) marijuana is legal, cannabis churches can’t seek protection under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. The law also only applies in states that have passed their own versions of it; California hasn’t.

Lawyers for cannabis churches are arguing that marijuana is a sacrament that must be dispensed by religious institutions to ensure that the sourcing and the blessing of the product meets their standards. The courts must determine whether those practices are “analogous to mainstream faiths in terms of moral duty, ultimate concern, comprehensiveness, that sort of thing,” Mr. Sonne said. The court also must determine whether the belief system in question is “sincerely held.”

Jah has had success proving the sincerity of its religious beliefs in court, but not in proving that California’s marijuana laws are discriminatory.

In May 2019, San Bernardino County filed contempt charges against Jah for violating an order to stop dispensing cannabis. An undercover officer testified that he had visited the church twice in one day and paid for marijuana without any religious ceremony.

In a hearing in August, San Bernardino Superior Court Judge David Cohn ruled in the city’s favor. He said he found the officer’s testimony credible. But he had also found Ms. Rodriguez, who testified on the sincerity of her religious beliefs, to be a credible witness.

“Does that mean everybody in the church holds those beliefs? Of course not,” Judge Cohn said in court. “I think probably in every religion, every church, synagogue, mosque and temple throughout the nation there are members and attendees who are sincere believers in the religious doctrine and others who attend for a variety of reasons. Those ulterior motives of individual members of a congregation don’t in any way undermine the legitimacy or sincerity of religious doctrine.”

The next hearing in the case is set for Dec. 20. Ms. Mancini could face jail time, and the church could be fined, if the judge rules that they still have not come into compliance with his order.

Church services continue as usual. On a Sunday in October, a handful of Jah members donated and left with weed without staying for the service. But the ones who did sit and stay said they had been drawn to the community after trying out other faiths like Buddhism or Rastafarianism.

It was the first service Ms. Rodriguez performed since a body scan revealed she was clear of thyroid cancer.

“‘Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good,’” she said in her sermon, reading from Romans 12:21. “We’ve got to stop being so critical of ourselves.”

The space is important to members like Selia Jimenez, a 39-year-old massage therapist from Sugarloaf, Calif., who gives free cannabis massages to members of the church. “It’s a place where people who have had bad experiences with Christianity” can come together, she said. “I would never have thought I would be here in a church, honestly.”

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