Indiana's new "religious freedom" law has been widely criticized and condemned by many, but an innovative marijuana activist in the state is using the bill's legal protections as a means to set up a new religious sect -- the First Church of Cannabis, where members would aim to use marijuana freely as a sacrament in a state where the substance remains banned.
"It's a new religion for people who happen to live in our day and age," Bill Levin, the church's founder, told The Huffington Post in an interview Monday. "All these old religions, guys walking across the desert without Dr. Scholls inserts, drinking wine out of goat bladders, no compass, speaking Latin and Hebrew -- I cannot relate to that shit. I drive by Burger Kings, bars and corn fields. I cannot relate to an antique magic book."
As Indiana Gov. Mike Pence (R) signed the controversial Religious Freedom Restoration Act last Thursday, Levin was filing church registration paperwork with the secretary of state, which was approved on Friday, he announced on the church's Facebook page.
Levin is dead-serious about his new church. He says it's founded on universal principals of love, respect, equality and compassion. And similarly to other religious movements like the Rastafarians in Jamaica who see cannabis use as a sacrament, Levin said members of his church will adopt a similar belief in the plant. But unlike the Rastas, there is not a traditional deity at the top of this faith.
"It has nothing to do with God; I don't have the balls to describe a god to anybody," Levin said. "This is a god-filled or godless religion -- it's entirely up to you."
Last week, as he began sketching out the details of his new church, he wrote out the foundational tenets of the faith, which he called the "New Deity Dozen" and provided to The Huffington Post. Levin says these are not commandments.
"I'm not telling you to do it. I'm a skeptic, these are paths that are simply available to you; use them if you like," Levin said. He said the church is founded on 12 principles:
- Don't be an asshole. Treat everyone with love as an equal.
- The day starts with your smile every morning when you get up, wear it first.
- Help others when you can. Not for money, but because it's needed.
- Treat your body as a temple. Do not poison it with poor quality foods and sodas.
- Do not take advantage of people. Do not intentionally hurt anything.
- Never start a fight ... only finish them.
- Grow food, raise animals, get nature into your daily routine.
- Do not be a "troll" on the internet, respect others without name calling and being vulgarly aggressive.
- Spend at least 10 minutes a day just contemplating life in a quiet space.
- When you see a bully... stop them by any means possible. Protect those who cannot protect themselves.
- Laugh often, share humor. Have fun in life, be positive.
- Cannabis, "the Healing Plant" is our sacrament. It brings us closer to ourselves and others. It is our fountain of health, our love, curing us from illness and depression. We embrace it with our whole heart and spirit, individually and as a group.
As for sacred texts, the First Church of Cannabis won't look toward traditional religious books like the Bible or Quran.
"We're going to have a 'good book,'" Levin said. "The first good book that we're going to authorize in the church and share is the first good book we all read." Levin says that's The Emperor Wears No Clothes: Hemp and the Marijuana Conspiracy, a classic cannabis history book by Jack Herer, first published in 1985.
"It's an educational bible about our number one sacrament," Levin said, adding that he hopes to make copies available for potential members of the new faith.
Levin is strongly against his state's controversial RFRA, but he said he'll take full advantage of the legal loopholes the bill may create. No stranger to marijuana advocacy, Levin has worked for years to change the laws in his home state through an organization he founded, Relegalize Indiana.
"I fought this bill tooth and nail," Levin said. "And because of our brave and brilliant governor," he continued, his voice brimming with sarcasm, "he opened up the door for me to take my campaign to religion. The state will not interfere with religious belief -- well buddy, my religious belief is green with red hairs, and boy do I like to smoke it."
Marijuana is still illegal in Indiana, so it remains unclear if Levin's plan would work under current state laws. While a church that includes sacramental marijuana use is not without precedent, and several have emerged in the United States with varying degrees of success, much of their ability to survive hinges on a state at least decriminalizing marijuana, if not legalizing it for limited purpose. But Abdul-Hakim Shabazz, an Indiana attorney and political commentator, told RawStory that if Levin can convince the state that, under the RFRA, smoking marijuana is part of his religion's practices, he may have "a pretty good shot of getting off scot-free.”
Levin says the announcement of the church has created a firestorm of interest and support. He set up a crowdfunding account last week when the church first received notice that its registration was approved by the state, and as of Monday morning, the church had already raised close to $2,000. He also says that he has personally received thousands of messages of support, and hundreds of people ready to volunteer to help him with his mission. The church's Facebook page, set up just days ago, already has more than 5,000 likes.
Levin said that with the funds he receives, he wants to "rent a building for at least the first year."
"I want to have a place where everyone can go," he said, adding that the church won't provide marijuana to the congregation because they don't want to break federal laws. But if he is able to find a space, he said, he will welcome the use of marijuana by members.
"If people do come to church and feel like celebrating, my church is going to allow smoking because it's part of our sacrament. Hallelujah, brother -- pray, pray, pray."
CLARIFICATION: An earlier version of this story only stated the Church of Cannabis founder's last name. The story has been updated to include his full name.