Smoking Religions, Part I, Or: The Ramblings of a Born-Again-Pagan

art Niko

This article appears in Volume 1 – Issue 1 of SKUNK Magazine.

Prohibition and Progress

Cannabis sativa, as we know, has a long history of use by countless cultures and peoples throughout human history. Today, despite the ongoing prohibition, people from all walks of life use it in its many forms. In the distant future, we will surely look back on the present chapter in the history of this plant as an age of oppression, but also a time of incredible progress.

Indeed, the simple fact that marijuana is illegal and has been kept underground, has contributed greatly to its own evolution as a species. Without question, prohibition has led directly to unprecedented breeding advancements as well as a revolution in cannabis cultivation on a worldwide scale. Current laws ensure that pot prices remain high, maintaining the incentive for breeders to create new and stronger varieties. In the words of Michael Pollan (The Botany of Desire), it stands as one of the richer ironies of the drug war that the creation of a powerful new taboo against marijuana [has] led directly to the creation of a powerful new plant.”


Resistance on Multiple Battlefronts

In addition to botanical and genetic advancements, the war on drugs has brought on steadily increasing cohesion among the ranks of pro-marijuana activists. After decades of prohibition, the pro-pot lobby, in its various forms, has grown up and organized itself.

Modern-day freedom fighters have shown themselves to be extremely creative, finding new ways to push the normalization agenda. They are defending the drug warriors’ onslaught on more than one front. Medical pot users, for their part, have had significant success in re-affirming their right to use and to have access to this unique natural medicine. On a socio-political level, human rights advocates and daring politicians promote harm reduction policies and personal freedom. The hempsters, on a third battlefront, have been pushing hard for the return of industrial hemp, with major successes outside the USA. Like it or not, they too have greatly contributed to the marijuana legalization effort in their own way.

Sadly, movements like these have found themselves vigorously opposed by powerful establishment forces in these battles, whether it’s the pharmaceutical lobby, the petrochemical industry, or conservative and narrow-minded politicians, and it has only gotten worse since Reagan and Bush Sr. came into power with their renewed marijuana eradication efforts. Today, this trend continues with Bush Jr., resulting in some progressive thinkers arguing that political activism is a dead-end under this regime, at least on a national level. It seems that sooner or later the various marijuana lobbies run up against a wall, barring any further progress.


Potheads find God: the Cannabis Church

For a time dismissed as a small regional movement, Christian conservatism has become a staple of American politics once again. Most recently, with Bush and his dominionist cronies in power, Christian rhetoric has found its way back into day-to-day political vocabulary. Veiled references to scripture are used freely. God is always our side. The devil is ever at work, in the form of the Axis of Evil. When George says “If you’re not with us, you’re against us,” doesn’t he really mean “You’re the anti-Christ”? It’s clear whose family values we’re talking about here.

It turns out that the current atmosphere of “pious discourse” and intolerance for un-Christian values has been fertile ground for activists of another sort. In a new twist of irony, these times have seen the growth of an additional battlefront in the war against marijuana intolerance, in the form of the “Cannabis Church.” These are Judeo-Christian-based pro-cannabis ministries that actually mandate the use of ganja as a kind of sacrament, and protect its devotees from persecution based on their right to religious freedom. What links these groups together is their belief in scripture and/or spirituality, coupled with their love for marijuana and often, disillusionment with the religious establishment.

Not the least of these groups taking this “spiritual approach” is The THC Ministries, founded in recent years by the very articulate Reverend Roger Christie. Not really a religion per se, the THC ministries are web-savvy multi-faith organizations whose primary goal is to protect their members from “pot persecution,” with new chapters and so-called “Cannabis Freedom Zones” sprouting across North America as we speak, and even overseas. Activists and “ministers” across the continent are teaming up in an unprecedented, internet-fueled wave of organizational efforts, and they say this is only the beginning.


Legal Sanctuary

Reverend Christie explains why more and more people are tuning into THC Ministries: “Medical marijuana patients and their caregivers… have a slowly evolving system that works for some, but not for others. Huge, powerful and often dangerous interests fight continuously to keep it out of people’s hands at all costs… Only those who lose the game must suffer and die… I choose not to play the ‘medical use game’ because I am not disabled or sick, and in my opinion, the religious use is so much more powerful and it includes medical use as an extra benefit! Zero doctors to beg for a note. Zero laws to pass. Zero petitions to sign. Zero elected officials to lobby. The need was anticipated and set-up by the founders of our two nations, and is included prominently in each national and state Constitution.”

How does it work? For a small fee, The THC ministry provides members with a “sanctuary kit,” including relevant documentation, legal advice and a church member ID card which can be presented to law enforcement officials. In case of a conflict with the law, the Ministry can also provide legal consultations; its interventions have prevented marijuana possession charges in dozens of cases. They have an impeccable record in defending their members from marijuana possession or cultivation charges, both in the U.S. and Canada.


Mandatory Cannabis

Pseudo-religious groups like the THC Ministries actually have solid legal ground to stand on (is religion the last bastion of personal freedom in the States?). In addition to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, their existence is protected by the First Amendment and anchored in by several key court decisions and associated legislations, not the least of which is the Religious Freedom Act of 1993, which provides for the right to use otherwise prohibited substances for religious purpose under the right conditions. Other important precedents were set earlier on by American Indian groups (concerning peyote use), Coptic Christians and Rastafarians.

Thus, the “religious use” argument is not new. The difference with the Ministries is their rapid degree of success. Importantly, unlike similar organizations in the past, the THC Ministries actually mandate (require) cannabis use as a sacrament (or, an “outward act by which a person receives God’s grace.”) At first, one wonders why a church would make their sacrament mandatory (seems kind of ominous), but the reason for this is clear. When a church member is harassed by police for possession of cannabis, he/she now has legal basis to say that he/she is REQUIRED to consume or carry personal amounts of cannabis (at one’s own discretion) by their religion. Therefore to be prosecuted for cannabis would amount to discrimination based on religion. And it does seem to work.


Divine Right to Smoke (or at least anoint)

Beyond the present laws of man, groups like the THC Ministries go much further still, citing a “divine right” to use the plant of their choice. “We know that cannabis is obviously provided by God and we want it securely protected by law,” Reverend Christie points out. “It’s a divine inheritance of nature that we’re all entitled to, directly from the Creator. It says so on page one of the Bible.” Many are familiar with the said passage declaring man’s right to use and live by the fruits of the land. What is less known is the numerous additional direct references to Cannabis in the Old Testament. It seems that by Jesus’ time, the plant was already revered for its medical and spiritual attributes.

In 1935 a linguist identified the plant known as “fragrant cane” in the English Bible as flowering cannabis, and not calamus as it was originally translated. This theory was elaborated by a handful of historians, and popularized in recent times by author Chris Bennett (Sex, Drugs, Violence and the Bible). The idea has now gained the acceptance of linguists and Jewish scholars; even Ben-Yehuda’s Pocket Hebrew-English Dictionary says so.

In Exodus 30:23, God commands Moses to:

“Next take choice spices: five hundred weight of solidified myrrh,
half as much – two hundred and fifty – of fragrant cinnamon,
two hundred and fifty of aromatic cane [cannabis] …
Make of this a sacred anointing oil.”

The above mixture was used in the sacred act of anointing (applying the potent oil) early holy men and priests, helping them to “talk to God.” Notably, the word Christ actually means “the anointed one” according to author Bennett, who reminds us that like other prophets and holy men before him, Christ was anointed with holy chrism, an ancient word for the aforementioned cannabis-based oil that brought on his spiritual visions. By extension, Bennett advances in words that even President Bush will understand, the war on cannabis can be considered “anti-Christ,” and the current oppression can be chalked up to the “forces of evil.” Hence the “divine right” cited by the THC Ministry.


Ancient Traditions

So it’s clear that cannabis has its place in Judeo-Christian tradition. According to scholar Carl Ruck, professor of Mythology at Boston University, “there can be little doubt about a role for cannabis in the Jewish religion. Residues of cannabis have been detected in vessels from Judea and Egypt in a context indicating its medicinal, as well as visionary, use.” In addition (although it would take volumes to properly explore the subject), we know that other major religions and/or traditions, including Hinduism, Shinto, Islam, Sufi, Zoroaster, Taoism and Buddhism also contain references to some form of cannabis in their doctrine and/or history. If we look closely at their history, it’s clear that all these traditions played host to some type of cannabis sub-cult at one time or another, and many retain some form of vestigial ceremonial use today.

The earliest evidence of use points to the Far East. Discoveries made by archaeologists there support the theory that “men have been using the marijuana plant in some manner since the dawn of history” (Sula Benet, Early Diffusion and Folk Uses of Hemp). The association with Chinese culture and history is well-known, though other early cultures may have similarly domesticated cannabis. Historians note that hemp was used in ancient China to make medicine, clothes, ropes, fishing nets and paper. There is no doubt that it played ceremonial roles as well. The plant was so important to early Chinese culture that “early priest doctors [used] the cannabis plant’s stalk as a symbol of power to drive away evil” (Leah Spicer, Historical and Cultural Uses of Cannabis).


Cannabis and Prehistoric Man (Woman)

Of course, it is very difficult to reconstruct humankind’s association with cannabis throughout pre-history. Though no records exist, delving into the human psyche may yield some important clues.

We are taught that in the early days of humankind, survival tasks were divided between men and women. Men were better adapted to hunting, while women stayed closer to camp with the necessities of child-rearing, gathering food from nearby plants (between hunts, grasses and common plants made up a significant part of our diet).

Cannabis happens to be one of these plants that like to grow where people have recently disturbed the ground. It would have been hard to miss these plants, due to their considerable size, vigor and strong aroma, but also because of another important fact, often overlooked: Cannabis is a dioecious plant, meaning it exhibits both male and female individuals with different appearances: only the female plant bears seed, while the male is the one with the balls, whose one driving purpose is to pollinate females. This is actually quite rare in the domain of annual plants, and this likeness must have struck a chord in us somewhere.


Plants of Power

It is not too far-fetched to assume that women picking herbs would have noticed this male/female dichotomy, which likens cannabis to humans. Over more or less long periods of time, women (and perhaps men who were unable to hunt) would have learnt about the male hemp plants’ usefulness as a source of fibre and about the females’ applications as a food and medicine. It stands to reason that cannabis was attributed with sacred powers, because of its incredible usefulness, but also because it is, in some way, like us.

Just as we can trace the origins of animal herding back to early hunting, plant picking eventually led to gardening, in a process called domestication. As people intervened more and more with nature, they influenced natural selection, to a point where certain plants became dependent on us, and vice-versa: that partnership still lasts today. Just as the domesticated cow would not exist today without our intervention, modern cannabis is a product of co-evolution with mankind. We have grown up together. Why else would we have all these cannabinoid receptors in our brains?

Early on in human history, people who used plants to heal are referred to as shamans. The first shamans may well have been the same women who had accumulated knowledge about sacred plants through proto-gardening. Magic, medicine, and religion were not yet separate notions. The women who came to know certain plants and administered them to ailing tribe members were doctors, priests, gardeners, midwives, and of course mothers, all rolled into one.


Women’s Ways of Knowing

Our very first (and most important) sources of knowledge and wisdom, without a doubt, were the animal and plant kingdoms which surround us. So, many of the universe’s secrets were originally revealed to us through the magic of plants.

It is likely that cannabis was used early on to ease childbirth (a painful condition which has been obviously endured by women since day 1!). Imagine if you will, a prehistoric woman giving birth to a child – a miracle of creation that (fortunately) only females can experience. This is a time only males were likely barred from participating. The midwife/shaman presides, administering a soothing poultice made with cannabis and other herbs. The cannabis mixture does not remove pain. It only calms the mother and allows her to elevate herself from the pain, and experience birth for what it is, a “religious experience” if you will.

It is plausible that observing cannabis’ life cycle taught the early shamans something about sexual reproduction, and by extension, about the sacred duality of our world: the balance of male/female, yin/yang, and positive/negative energies which is at the core of our existence. In these circumstances, it makes sense that cannabis came to be associated with fertility and spiritual power. And the lesson hasn’t been lost.

You can’t keep a good plant down.


What a trick this is for a plant, to produce a chemical so mysterious in its effects on human consciousness that the plant itself becomes the sacrament, deserving of humankind’s worshipful care and dissemination. (Pollan, The Botany of Desire).



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