Pro-marijuana church active in Alabama: Members tout ‘God and cannabis’

By Greg Garrison | [email protected]
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on March 20, 2017 at 6:12 AM, updated March 20, 2017 at 2:40 PM

Marijuana in Alabama

With a stained-glass window behind them, a lineup of speakers stepped to the front of the church and talked about the potential health benefits of legalizing plants that are currently outlawed in Alabama.

“I smoke cannabis on a daily basis for my pain,” said Janice Rushing, president of the Oklevueha Native American Church of Inner Light in Alabama. “If I did not, I’d be on pain pills.”

Her husband, Christopher Rushing, chief executive officer of Oklevueha Native American Church of Inner Light, says he also uses marijuana routinely.

The Rushings founded the Oklevueha Church in 2015 and claim that it has a legal exemption for its members to smoke marijuana and ingest hallucinogenic mushrooms and peyote cactus.

At a January forum with an audience of about 30 gathered at Unity Church in Birmingham, which allowed the use of its facilities, speakers discussed the potential benefits of marijuana and other substances for medicinal purposes.

“I had an ungodly facial rash,” said Sherrie Saunders, a former U.S. Army medic who is now a member of Oklevueha Native American Church in Alabama.

“We made a cream that completely got rid of that rash,” Mrs. Rushing said.

Someone in the audience discussed a heart problem and sleep apnea.

“That could be something that cannabis could help,” Saunders said.

She also said marijuana can ease manic bipolar disorder and Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome.

“The medical establishment took away cannabis so they could sell us pills,” Saunders said.

Before marijuana was stigmatized as an illegal drug, Native Americans valued it as a natural herbal treatment for more than 90 percent of sicknesses, she said.  “A woman in Nicaragua showed me how to cure cancer with cannabis,” Saunders said.

The woman had a son who was cured, she said. “I know why,” Saunders said. “God and cannabis.”

The National Cancer Institute, in its overview of cannabis in treatment of cancer, makes no claims for curative powers, but acknowledges that cannabis has been used for medicinal purposes for thousands of years and that it “may have benefits in the treatment of cancer-related side effects.” 

Chris Rushing stood in the pulpit and preached a sermon that mixed theology and a belief in natural, hallucinogenic plants. “That is God’s way of turning our brain on,” Rushing said.

“These entheogens work like tools to open up spaces and pathways of the mind,” Rushing said. “Yet it’s illegal. We all walk around producing natural chemicals that do the same.”

Rushing said it does not make sense that pharmaceutical companies make large profits on harmful synthetic and dangerous drugs, while plant and herbal medicines are illegal.

Rushing said the health benefits of marijuana, mushrooms and cacti are enormous. They can combat depression and cure people of addictions, he said.

The Oklevueha Native American Church of Inner Light in Warrior has been licensed as a federally registered branch of the Oklevueha Lakota Sioux Nation Native American Church, Rushing said.

The church has a religious exemption to use psylocibin mushrooms and peyote cactus, both of which have properties that augment traditional Native American spiritual beliefs and experiences, Rushing said. He calls their use in religious ceremonies a sacrament.

All 120 members in the Alabama church carry photo identification, similar to a driver’s license, that identifies them as members of a church that has a federal religious exemption to use natural drugs that are otherwise prohibited by law, he said.

He believes all natural plants should be legal for medicinal use, including marijuana, peyote cactus and psylocibin mushrooms.

Researchers at UAB and other universities are studying the benefits of such natural treatments, including the use of psylocibin mushrooms in treating cocaine abuse. Peter Hendricks, a clinical psychologist at UAB, is currently doing research on the use of the active ingredient in psylocibin mushrooms.

Hendricks spoke in May 2016 at a Homewood Public Library event sponsored by the church. He spoke again in January at the event at Unity Church in Birmingham.

Hendricks said he only talks about his research at the church-sponsored events and does not endorse Rushing’s church or whether its use of drugs is legal or not. The events give Hendricks a chance to advertise the research trials, which still need volunteers. Hendricks’ research explores the use of mushrooms in weaning addicts off serious drug addictions.

“I don’t support criminalizing any drug use,” Hendricks said. “People who have addictions are not helped by criminalization. If it were up to me, there would be more emphasis on providing treatment, less emphasis on punitive measures for people who are addicted.”

Rushing carries around with him documentation of court rulings such as a unanimous ruling in United States v. Robert Boyll in the U.S. 10th Circuit Court of Appeals, which found that a non-Native American who was arrested for possession and intent to distribute peyote had the same constitutional protections as Native American members of the church.

Rushing said he was licensed in the church by James Warren “Flaming Eagle” Mooney of Utah, who won a court battle with the state of Utah. The Utah Supreme Court ruled in Mooney’s favor in 2004, in State of Utah vs. Mooney’s and Oklevueha Native American Church. The state had argued that Mooney was engaged in a criminal enterprise for distributing peyote and tried to seize the church property. The Supreme Court ruled that the Native American Church was entitled to the religious exemption.

Legal marijuana: Is it coming to Alabama?

As legalized marijuana spreads across the United States, most observers remain skeptical that recreational marijuana will be legal anytime soon in Alabama.

After the Jan. 21 forum at Unity Church, some in attendance expressed hope Alabama might soon follow in the footsteps of other states that have legalized marijuana. More than half of the states have decriminalized marijuana for medical uses and eight states have decriminalized marijuana for recreational uses.

Some of them say the Oklevueha Native American Church of Inner Light in Alabama is helping raise awareness.

“I think Chris’ work is vital,” said Jonah Tobin, founder of the Alabama Mother Earth Sustenance Alliance, or MESA.  “People like him are part of that movement.”

MJ Church.JPG

Janice Rushing, president of the Oklevueha Native American Church of Inner Light in Alabama, in the pulpit, and Sherrie Saunders, left, talk about the medical benefits of marijuana on Jan. 21, 2017, at Unity Church in Birmingham, Ala.

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Marijuana Missionaries: First Cannabis Church Rolls Into Michigan

There’s no religious dogma in this church, but these marijuana missionaries are intent in on bringing ostracized stoners back into the fold.

By Beth Dalbey (Patch Staff) – September 19, 2016 10:05 pm ET

Marijuana Missionaries: First Cannabis Church Rolls Into Michigan

Congregants in this church aren’t high on Jesus. In fact, the very name of the church sounds like lyrics from a rock and (ahem) roll song or the backdrop for a classic Cheech and Chong movie.

It’s true that First Cannabis Church of Logic and Reason’s sacrament might be a doobie or marijuana-infused brownie instead of the body and blood of Christ, and its dogma is steeped in giving thanks to the cannabis plant for its healing nature and the sense of well-being it gives users instead of Jesus’ sacrifices for sinners.

The church, made up of a congregation of mostly atheists and agnostics, made its debut in Lansing, Michigan, earlier this summer.

So, how can it be a church if its members eschew a higher power — beyond, that is, the feeling of euphoria they get from smoking pot or the satisfaction of using a sustainable crop for fuel and fiber?

“Well, the reality is it sounded better than a cannabis cult,” organizer Jeremy Hall told the Lansing State Journal after the congregation’s inaugural service last June that included time for fellowship and a potluck with “both medicated and non-medicated food.”

First Cannabis Church in Indiana

The First Church of Cannabis traces its roots to Indiana as a political statement in response to the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, backed by Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, now Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump’s running mate.

Self-anointed Grand Poobah Bill Levin has made all sorts of glib proclamations, including the Deity Dozen, which is sort of like the Ten Commandments— for example, “Do not be a ‘troll’ on the internet, respect others without name calling and being vulgarly aggressive,” and “Treat your body as a temple. Do not poison it with poor quality foods and sodas.” Also, don’t be a jerk, or words to that effect.

There are also marijuana-based churches in Florida, Alabama, Oregon and Arizona. Many of them embrace organized religion to one extent or another, but Hall is more resolute in his iteration.

At the First Cannabis Church of Logic and Reason in Michigan, it’s all cannabis, all the time — whether in its leafy tobacco form, as fiber for clothing, as a biofuel or for shelter, paper and plastics.

It’s a miracle,” Hall told The Detroit News. “It can save humanity. Cannabis is something to be put on a pedestal, to be revered.”

What’s God Got To Do With It?

An ordained minister with the online Universal Life Church and a marijuana caregiver who originally hails from Ypsilanti, Hall moved back to Michigan from Tennessee in part because legal medical marijuana is available for treatment of his wife’s lupus.

He hopes congregants at the Lansing church can change attitudes about pot smokers with service projects around the city, like a recent cleanup at a Lansing park.

From his early youth indoctrinated in the Young Earth Creationist congregation — a fundamentalist church that rejected evolution and forbade the use of radios because it supposedly played the devil’s music — to his new role as the founder of the First Cannabis Church of Logic and Reason, Hall has experienced both ends of the religious spectrum.

Though he rejected many of the tenets of his early teachings and other religions, he told The Detroit News he liked the fellowship aspect of church in general and the way a house of worship can gather in people who live on the margins. So he formed a church, taking God out of the equation.

Still, Hall’s church embodies the WWJD — “What would Jesus do?” — spirit more than you might think, even though it is not rooted in Christianity.

On a flyer seeking participants in a recent park cleanup, Hall acknowledged that pot smokers “have been demonized in the eyes of the public as miscreants and law breakers, ignorant and unmotivated.”

So, just as Jesus reached out to the disenfranchised, the church is a chance for Hall and his wife to reach out to people who have been “using cannabis and feeling ostracized” by their regular places of worship, Michigan Radio reported.

“We’re using our church to elevate the community and to show we aren’t a drain on society or a bunch of unmotivated criminals,” Hall told the Lansing State Journal.

Pot City, Michigan?

Not surprisingly, the church, located in the shadow of four medical marijuana dispensaries, has some detractors.

The Rejuvenating South Lansing citizens’ group, which wants more restrictions on dispensaries, worries the church further mainstreams marijuana use and will draw more users to the city.

“This is just another way they can do whatever they want,” Elaine Womboldt, the group’s founder, told The Detroit News. “We don’t want to be known as the pot city of Michigan.”

Also, at the first service earlier this summer, a lonely protester, Quaker traditionalist Rhonda Fuller, of Lansing, held a sign that warned the only people who benefit from marijuana are profiting financially from it: “It’s about money, not you. It’s misery for everyone else.”

Fuller told The Detroit News it’s unconscionable to call the First Church of Cannabis a church.

“Anyone can call anything a church,” she said. “It has nothing to do with Christianity — but neither does most churches.”

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RFRA and Church of Cannabis: Partake or bust?

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J&C readers 12:14 p.m. EDT May 22, 2015

Question: Bill Levin, an Indianapolis resident, said he plans to hold the first services of his newly created, marijuana-devoted First Church of Cannabis on July 1, the day Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act goes into effect, to test the new law. How should police and the state handle the situation?

• They should ignore it. The war on (some) drugs has been an unqualified failure, needlessly destroying countless lives and trashing the precepts of our Constitution. Considering that the original federal RFRA was passed to protect the religious use of peyote, I think this is a perfect response.

Rob Keeney

Flora

• Arrest him, and let him try his defense. I assume that’s what he’s expecting. Surely he’s not as stupid as the people who attacked RFRA as if it gave carte blanche.

Roger Bennett

Lafayette

• This is why we have the Establishment Clause: the minute you start getting the government mucking around with religion — as RFRA does — you get into all sorts of nasty corners, like this one. The law is pretty clear the state cannot interfere with their religious behavior, so this this is an example of "hoist on one’s own petard" in action.

Brian Capouch

Monon

• Presumably he will be supported by all Christians who supported the law in the first place. The police should go investigate real crimes. Be careful what you wish for, Christians, you might get it.

Mark D. Rumps

Lafayette

• I don’t think drug use is covered under the law. I say bust him.

Mark Acles

Lafayette

• Well, they wanted to protect "religious freedom" with this law, didn’t they? Since when should the government determine what qualifies as a religion? This is what happens when we try to mix church and state.

Noemi Ybarra

Lafayette

• Abe Lincoln asked, "If you call a dog’s tail a leg, how many legs would it have?" His answer: "Four. Calling the tail a leg doesn’t make it a leg." Calling a criminal enterprise a church does not make it a church and should be punished as a crime.

Tom Haynie

Buffalo

• If you think this case is a problem, be glad they amended this monstrosity, or Indiana would be headed toward daily media humiliation. This case is directly similar to the one that started the federal RFRA.

Randy Studt

Lafayette

• I thought the new law was to protect the religious rights of all people? How about the Flat Earth Society? I have it from good authority that in the Star Trek Universe, there is a Flat Universe Society.

Furman A. Powell

Lafayette

• The media created the controversy by exaggerating RFRA to make Gov. Mike Pence look bad. They got their wish. Liberals tend to be the master of unintended consequences, so most rational Indiana residents already expected this type of action. Expect more legislation, more unintended consequences, more wasted tax dollars.

Dan Sommers

West Lafayette

• Join them. Sarcastically, it’s pretty much like I said when you asked a very similar question last December before the state legislature convened: "You’ll see recreation marijuana legalized long before selling ‘to go’ alcohol on a Sunday."

John Kuntz

Fowler

• Any law enforcement or state officials that show up should "take communion" just like everyone else attending the service.

Bryce Culverhouse

Lafayette

• Close the church down, it is illegal in the state of Indiana.

Carolyn Foust

Lafayette

• Shut him down and treat him to a period of time in jail. He is trying an illegal scam, and it will not work.

Harold Williams

Shadeland

• The exact opposite of how they probably will handle it. Honest to goodness.

Mike Dudgeon

Lafayette

• I think it is obvious — if it fits the law, then leave them alone.

Pat Rund

Romney

• This is what no one needs. This is Indiana, for goodness sake. Obviously, one of the more conservative states and this sort of weirdness only makes the underlying message more difficult to get out and for the public and for businesses to take seriously.

Bill Cochran

Lafayette

• If he is following the RFRA, and if the act is to allow religious freedom, what can they do? There is nothing in the law to prevent this church from practicing the rites of its religion.

Mary Finnegan

Lafayette

• Let Bill worship his idol, pot. But, should Bill or any of his followers hurt someone when "all hopped up on dope," the penalty is clear. Bill claims no faith in religion; me, either. My faith is in Jesus, who said, "No one comes to the father but through me."

Jon Held

Lafayette

• Lock them up and throw away the key.

Jack Lahrman

Sheffield Township

• The police and the state should attend the church of their choice.

David B. Dobbin

West Lafayette

• Why should the police or the state get involved unless their newfound religion is infringing on someone’s rights? The less we have Big Brother controlling our thoughts and actions, the more liberty and freedom citizens can preserve.

Edward Priest

Battle Ground

• Under the law for Indiana and marijuana, this would be a criminal act. Indiana police and the state should treat this fairly, as any one who breaks the law. I would hope the dealer’s arrested and faces Indiana courts, as anyone who commits a criminal act.

Shelby Branstetter

Lafayette

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Whoops: Indiana’s anti-gay ‘religious freedom’ act opens the door for the First Church of Cannabis

Tom Boggioni

Tom Boggioni
29 Mar 2015 at 20:55 ET

Rastafarian businessman (Shutterstock)

Rastafarian businessman (Shutterstock)

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In a classic case of “unintended consequences,” the recently signed Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) in Indiana may have opened the door for the establishment of the First Church of Cannabis in the Hoosier State.

While Governor Mike Pence (R) was holding a signing ceremony for the bill allowing businesses and individuals to deny services to gays on religious grounds or values, paperwork for the First Church of Cannabis Inc. was being filed with the Secretary of State’s office, reports RTV6.

Church founder Bill Levin announced on his Facebook page that the church’s registration has been approved, writing, “Status: Approved by Secretary of State of Indiana – “Congratulations your registration has been approved!” Now we begin to accomplish our goals of Love, Understanding, and Good Health.”

Levin is currently seeking $4.20 donations towards his non-profit church.

According to Indiana attorney and political commentator Abdul-Hakim Shabazz, Indiana legislators, in their haste to protect the religious values and practices of their constituents, may have unwittingly put the state in an awkward position with those who profess to smoke pot as a religious sacrament.

Shabazz pointed out that it is still illegal to smoke pot in Indiana, but wrote, “I would argue that under RFRA, as long as you can show that reefer is part of your religious practices, you got a pretty good shot of getting off scot-free.”

Noting that RFRA supporters say the bill “only spells out a test as to whether a government mandate would unduly burden a person’s faith and the government has to articulate a compelling interest for that rule and how it would be carried out in the least restrictive manner,” Shabazz contends the law may tie the state’s hands.

“So, with that said, what ‘compelling interest’ would the state of Indiana have to prohibit me from using marijuana as part of my religious practice?” he asked. ” I would argue marijuana is less dangerous than alcohol and wine used in religious ceremonies. Marijuana isn’t any more ‘addictive’ than alcohol and wine is used in some religious ceremonies. And marijuana isn’t any more of a ‘gateway’ drug than the wine used in a religious ceremony will make you go out and buy hard liquor. (At least not on Sunday.)”

Shabazz concluded, “I want a front row seat at the trial that we all know is going to happen when all this goes down.”

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Pope Francis Speaks Out Against Legalization of Marijuana and Other Drugs

By Kira Bindrim

Pope Francis April 10

 

Filed Under: World, Pope Francis, Marijuana, Religion

After a several-week absence from the media spotlight, Pope Francis emerged on Friday as a speaker at the International Drug Enforcement Conference in Rome, where he said he was opposed to the legalization of drugs—including marijuana—for recreational use.

"The scourge of drug use continues to spread inexorably, fed by a deplorable commerce which transcends national and continental borders," Francis told conference participants. "Attempts, however limited, to legalize so-called ‘recreational drugs,’ are not only highly questionable from a legislative standpoint, but they fail to produce desired effects."

While Francis has sometimes surprised constituents with his progressive views—on homosexuality, atheism and capitalism, for example—his stance on marijuana legalization, at least, is at odds with a growing push for it. In December, Uruguay became the first country to legalize the drug (Francis is from nearby Buenos Aires, Argentina). That law included regulation of the cultivation, production, storage, sale and distribution of marijuana, as well as an official registry of users’ consumption.

"We will be able to get more information about the consequences of different alternatives," Beau Kilmer, co-director of the RAND Drug Policy Research Group, told Newsweek at the time.

Earlier this month, Jamaica said it would legalize medical marijuana, and allow possession of up to two ounces of the drug for recreational use. In the United States, two states—Colorado and Washington—have legalized marijuana. Alaska could vote on legalization in November, and Oregon may vote on a similar measure later this year. Twenty-two states have legalized the use of marijuana for medicinal purposes—New York is poised to become the 23rd—and 16 have decriminalized it, according to the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML). In October 2013, a Gallup poll found that for the first time, a majority of Americans believe the drug should be legalized: 58 percent, compared with just 12 percent in 1969, the first time the question was asked.

Marijuana is still illegal under federal law, but in May the House voted to restrict the DEA from using funds to go after state-legal medical marijuana outfits. Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) introduced a similar amendment in the Senate this week.

Pope Francis has spoken out against drug legalization in the past, and has visited with addicts both as Pope and when he was Archbishop of Buenos Aires. "A reduction in the spread and influence of drug addiction will not be achieved by a liberalization of drug use," he said during a speech at a hospital in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil last year. "Rather, it is necessary to confront the problems underlying the use of these drugs, by promoting greater justice, educating young people in the values that build up life in society, accompanying those in difficulty and giving them hope for the future."

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