For the past few years, Indiana’s First Church of Cannabis, a brick and mortar ruse intended to legitimize the consumption of marijuana in a state where it remains an outlaw substance, has been pushing the state to recognize weed as an official sacrament. But the three-year battle can hardly be called a fight, as the church’s founder Bill Levin, a man who refers to himself as the “Grand Poobah,” has, since day one, failed to truly challenge the state’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), changing the rules during pivotal moments in order to prevent himself from going to jail. Now, it seems that the Indiana judicial system has seen through the scam. A Marion Circuit Court recently dismissed a lawsuit suggesting that the RFRA protected to use of cannabis for religious purposes. It is a predictable end to a war hardly waged.
Last Friday, Judge Sheryl Lynch handed down a verdict that continues to prevent the First Church of Cannabis of Indianapolis from using marijuana as part of its holy services. The ruling, which stems from a 2015 lawsuit filed by the church suggesting that RFRA exempts its members from the state’s anti-cannabis laws, finds that those who subscribe to the “Cannabiterian” religion, and thereby make it part of their worship to possess and use what the church refers to as its “healing plant,” are not at all prosecution proof.
Judge Lynch, who argued that a favorable ruling would make the church susceptible to “thieves, gangs and drug dealers,” wrote that “it would be impossible to combat illicit drug use and trade in a piecemeal fashion that allowed for a religious exception that would become ripe for abuse.” She went on to say that “failure to regulate all marijuana in Indiana would leave a gaping hole in our state’s drug prohibitions. There is just no way to tailor these laws more narrowly without undermining the entire enforcement scheme,” she added.
There were just too many questions left unanswered, Lynch said, for her to lean in the other direction. Although the judge did not dispute the church’s sincerity, saying, “Whether one agrees with the beliefs of the church is irrelevant,” she argued there was no clear-cut path for handling logistics issues.
The church failed to provide the court with a solid argument for how its religious reefer would be distributed and consumed. Lynch said there was no way to determine where “the dividing line between ‘sacramental’ and recreational use might lie (if one exists).”
Yet, there was (and still is) plenty of reason that it was the contention of the defense that the First Church of Cannabis was “insincere about practicing a religion.”
The second that former Governor Mike Pence signed the RFRA, a law designed to give businesses the right to refuse service to the homosexual community, Levin filed to have the First Church of Cannabis recognized by the state. It wasn’t long before the Indiana Secretary of State put its stamp of approval on the church, acknowledging the religion and allowing it to exist as a legitimate ministry. Of course, a media circus ensued. Levin saw opportunity. In nearly every article published on the subject, Levin was sure to squeeze in just how important it was for the church to acquire a building that it could call “holy ground.” The plea brought about donations from cannabis supporters all over the world. The haul was substantial enough for the church to eventually obtain a structure where it could hold regular gatherings. It seemed a loyal following of high and hopeful had faith that Levin would be the savior who successfully used religion to test laws against cannabis.
Prior to the inaugural service, Levin told every media outlet from the Indianapolis Star to the New York Times that cannabis consumption would be a part of the ceremony. He said that while the state could outlaw smoking in public establishments, it was impossible to ban it within the congregation. He insisted that no Indiana magistrate would dare put himself or herself in the position of “judging God.” Therefore, smoking marijuana as part of the church service was to be considered an act of civil disobedience.
Law enforcement soon chimed in.
In the days leading up to the highly publicized event, former city Police Chief Rick Hite and Marion County Prosecutor Terry Curry threatened to arrest and charge any person who used cannabis as part of the inaugural ceremony. Hite said, “Possession of marijuana is a crime in Indiana, and there is no exception for where marijuana is possessed. Anyone who attends this or any other event and brings marijuana will potentially be subject to arrest or summons and criminal charges. If someone gives marijuana to another individual that is a crime of dealing marijuana and also subject to arrest or summons and criminal charges.”
It was a showdown. There were some who said it was necessary for Levin and other church members to go to jail in order to truly test the boundaries of the state’s RFRA. And at first, it appeared that the First Church of Cannabis’ Grand Poobah was prepared to go down with the ship. Levin said the city’s threats were nothing more than a bluff, and he argued that a police presence would not deter the church’s mission. But then, less than 24 hours before the inaugural ceremony was scheduled to take place, Levin, the leader, the voice, the mega-activist for the cannabis cause, backed down… big time.
“Due to the threat of police action against our religion I feel it is important to CELEBRATE LIFE’S GREAT ADVENTURE in our first service WITHOUT THE USE OF CANNABIS. The Police dept has wagged a display of shameless misconceptions and voluntary ignorance. We will do our first service without the use of any cannabis. CANNABIS WILL BE PROHIBITED ON THE FIRST SERVICE,” the church posted on Facebook.
So, instead of cannabis, Levin encouraged church members to smoke cigarettes and cigars as part of the holy sacrament. It was this pathetic compromise that set the church up for the kill. Some argued that conducting the first service without the use of cannabis only solidified to the courts that the sacred herb was not essential in practicing the Cannabiterian religion. Many First Church of Cannabis supporters came pouring out of the cracks of social media hell, calling Levin a fraud and a rip-off artist for his cowardice. Especially after accepting so many donations with the promise of a real fight.
The popularity of the church has been on a steady decline for the past couple of years. It now hosts regular services on Wednesday nights, the occasional comedy grinder and open mic events. It remains to be seen how the recent ruling will affect its congregation. But it true Levin fashion, one of which refuses to let go of the limelight, the battle isn’t over.
“I love you. We lost. We are appealing… and so it goes,” Levin wrote in a Facebook post.
TELL US, do you think people should be able to use cannabis as part of their religious right?