Cannabis: The American Sacrament

By Kenny Smith 

In an intriguing piece written for the Sunday, June 27 New York Times, journalist David Segal traces out some of the early consequences of President Obama’s October 2009 announcement that federal law enforcement will no longer prosecute users and suppliers of medical marijuana, provided they are in compliance with state laws. In Colorado, where a November 2000 amendment to the state constitution legalized medical usage, the grass-roots response has been immediate and potent:   

hundreds of [marijuana] dispensaries popped up and a startling number of residents turned out to be in “severe pain,” the most popular of eight conditions that can be treated legally with the once-demonized weed. More than 80,000 people here now have medical marijuana certificates, which are essentially prescriptions, and for months new enrollees have signed up at a rate of roughly 1,000 a day…. [In] cities like Boulder, an affluent, whole-grain kind of college town… the number of [marijuana] dispensaries… is larger than the number of Starbucks and liquor stores combined.  

What should we make of such a state of affairs? Surely some of these 80,000 cases involve severe physical distress. But aren’t many simply a matter of Coloradoans wanting to get high, a lot? Of course, even if this is in fact the case, it does not rule out the possibility that there are important religious dimensions at play. Getting high a lot might well perform important religious work. 

As the great scholar of religion Huston Smith pointed out some four decades past, that consciousness-expanding substances become intimately bound up with the sacred should hardly surprise us. Psychoactive compounds, albeit in varied forms, are indigenous to nearly every geographic region in which human civilization has flourished. Accidental ingestion, he argued (not uncontroversially), may have given rise to humankind’s first religious visions, doctrines, and traditions! (Smith, “Do Drugs Have Religious Import?,” The Journal of Philosophy, 1964) Indeed, many indigenous peoples, such as the Native American Church, continue costly legal battles with federal and state governments in an effort to regain (or preserve) their right to make use of sacred substances such peyote and cannabis.  

But we need not look to indigenous traditions. A number of new religious movements have come to see the ritual use of cannabis products as central the religious quest. The Church of the Universe, founded in Ontario, Canada in the late 1960’s, teaches that marijuana provides a vital “calming influence,” helps to focus and “direct [one’s] thoughts without interference from negative forces,” allows for an experience of communion with the natural world, and overall “makes life worth living.” Though this group is not specifically Christian, some who are have likewise produced interesting blends of biblical spirituality and cannabis use, yielding a religious path that emphasizes “getting high for Christ.” The Religion of Jesus Church, founded in Hawaii (also in the late 1960’s), holds that the sacred ingestion of cannabis, 

fosters the… personal experience in knowing and doing the will of God and serving the human brotherhood…. Through his indwelling spirit of truth and idealistic beauty, the Prince of Peace is able to be your personal spiritual life partner showing you the ideal way of living as you tread the pathway of spiritual growth…. Such is the religion of Jesus.  

More recently, in the 1990’s Reverend Roger Christie founded the THC Ministry: Hawaii Cannabis Ministry. In addition to helping congregants develop a biblically-grounded “Cannabis Spirituality,” this group also “helps to protect you from arrest, prosecution and/or conviction of ‘marijuana’ charges–wherever you live–starting as soon as you sign-up, become ordained and receive your ministry documents.” Membership is free. Applicants need only “be over 21 and sincere.”  In the summer of 2010, Christie hopes to plant new Cannabis Christian Ministries across the U.S., beginning (of course) in Colorado Spring, Colorado.

Like all religious communities, these groups interpret their inherited religious resources in ways that reflect their most basic commitments, which in this case means the centrality of cannabis.  According to Christie, “what did Moses do after kneeling by the burning bush? He smoked it… Moses was healed by the burning bush,” which is said to be one of many biblical references to sacred weed.  As the scholar of Chinese religion, Jonathan Herman, has often remarked, “it does not matter so much what scripture says; what matters is how it is interpreted.” And our most important commitments typically constitute the lens through which we read scripture. This helps to explain why scriptures yield such varied interpretations, each of which seem self-evident to those who support them.

Setting aside for the moment admittedly unusual religious groups, could legalized cannabis come to function in ways comparable to other culturally sacred substances ritually consumed each day in the workaday world or with family and friends at dinner parties, picnics, baseball games, and holiday celebrations, such as Budweiser, Coca-Cola, Marlboro, MacDonalds, or Starbuck’s coffee? For at least some persons and communities, one suspects this is already the case, and that the economic dynamics of further legalization efforts will only serve to broaden the ways in which cannabis products manifest within the larger culture. As Segal explains,

Americans spend roughly $25 billion a year on marijuana… which gives some idea of the popularity of this drug. Eventually, we might be talking about a sizable sum of tax revenue from its sales as medicine, not to mention private investment and employment. A spokesman for the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws says hedge fund investors and an assortment of financial service firms are starting to call around to sniff out opportunities.

Currently, thirteen other states (such as Rhode Island and New Jersey), as well as the District of Columbia, have already passed medicinal marijuana laws and are poised to initiate dispensary programs similar to that in Colorado. Given the longstanding connection between economics and the sacred within American cultural history, it is worth taking seriously the possibility that, with widespread economic success and increased availability on the horizon, cannabis may well become a sacred reality for a great many Americans, putting down roots alongside baseball, apple pie, Budweiser, Coca-Cola, Starbuck’s and (after a good case of the munchies) more apple pie.

See Religion Nerd article by Heather Abraham: Cannabis Cafes of Amsterdam


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