They say that every cloud has a silver lining... which seems to be true only in the metaphorical sense, given that I have never seen anything silver surrounding actual clouds. That aside, though, take a look at the latest example of this metaphor in action: Indiana's Religious Freedom Restoration Act has paved the way for the First Church of Cannabis to be born. In case the lawmakers who passed this thing weren't already dealing with enough unforeseen consequences... well, they can try to deal with this next.
According to founder Bill Levin, the First Church of Cannabis was created in direct response to the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which gives individuals and businesses the right to refuse service based on their religious beliefs. Many see the law as a thinly-veiled attempt to legalize discrimination against LGBT people; indeed, backlash has been swift and severe, leaving lawmakers scrambling to convince the country that the goal isn't discrimination. And they can now add to their list of headaches a church that considers marijuana to be a sacred sacrament.
The church has already been approved as a religious corporation by Indiana's Secretary of State Connie Lawson; its popularity has also branched out into the digital world, with the Cannabiterian Facebook page already having accumulated more than 16,000 likes. Their stated mission is “to start a church based on love and understanding with compassion for all" — an admirable one, for sure. Levin is in the process of setting up a church hierarchy and has plans for the church to grow hemp, though they will apparently not be buying or selling marijuana. Still, marijuana is considered by this new church to be sacred, and people smoking in church are apparently more than welcome. However, given that marijuana is illegal in Indiana for either medicinal or recreational purposes, this represents an interesting conundrum in light of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.
Despite its name, the First Church of Cannabis is definitely not the first religion to consider imbibing marijuana to be a sacrament. One of the more famous examples, of course, are Rastafarians, who typically use marijuana during weekly communal meetings, and who believe that marijuana use is sacred and justified by Biblical text. Marijuana is also part of different traditions in Hinduism and Buddhism, as well as being important to other groups. So while the First Church of Cannabis may or may not be a stunt, the fact remains that there are a great number of people whose religious beliefs and practices are impacted by laws against marijuana uses. And given the typical conservative line on marijuana, I'm guessing many of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act's creators won't be so pleased with the implications their new law might have.
As Abdul-Hakim Shabazz said in a recent editorial, "under RFRA, the state has to articulate a compelling interest in preventing you from smoking pot. I argue they can’t." After all, marijuana has been repeatedly demonstrated to be less harmful than alcohol and tobacco, so what "compelling interest" could there be for the state to interfere with someone's religious freedom by preventing them from lighting up?
So will Indiana soon be known as the home for the First Church of Cannabis and a haven for all people for whom marijuana consumption is a religious act? Well, since the state legislature so far seems to have no plans to repeal their discriminatory law (though they might be adding an anti-discrimination clause), it looks like it very well might be.