A Holy High: Marijuana Churches Arrive in the U.S.

It’s ‘high praise’ for the Coachella Valley Church, a Rastafarian inspired weed-centric religious organization. Now, marijuana churches are springing up around the U.S.

The Coachella Valley Church is not your average Christian gathering. At a Sunday service, Pastor Grant Atwell distributes pre-rolled joints to 20 worshipers. A man wearing a “Jesus Loves You,” baseball cap cries out, “thank you god for the weed!” Another woman yells, “I’m thankful for the spirit of cannabis!” And while this organization does latch on to Christian ideology, they actually claim to be a Rastafarian church.

Rastafarian culture originates in Jamaica, and it combines Christianity, pan-Africanism, mysticism and marijuana use. In fact, Rastafarianism is a political and religious movement with no central authority.

The Coachella Valley Church operates in a small room painted black and gold. The walls are decorated with crosses and symbols of Rastafarianism. In addition, quotes and self-help slogans take up the empty space, as the room is often filled with smoke after service.

Atwell claims that religious freedom laws provide the right to offer marijuana to visitors. But many authorities in the area disagree. Officials say they are simply dispensaries in disguise, sneaking under laws that require them to pay tax. Churches tied to marijuana use have also popped up around California, where medical marijuana use is legal. A few of these locations have been shut down. Attorney Rick Doyle said this about the dispensaries,

“I’m not going to say they’re not churches, but to the extent that they’re distributing marijuana, they’re an illegal dispensary, in my view.”

A permanent legal injunction has been requested by Doyle. It will stop the Coachella Valley Church from providing marijuana. The court hearing is set for Jan. 22.

marijuana churches
Frank Quattrone (left) and Ethan Borg, both of Denver, Colorado, look out over the cathedral area during the opening of the International Church of Cannabis on April 20, 2017. (Marc PIscotty: Getty Images)

Marijuana Churches Open Nationwide

Other states such as Indiana, Michigan, and Colorado have seen similar establishments open. Usually, Marijuana churches require the purchase of a membership. They provide free cannabis and well as sell marijuana and marijuana-related products. Doctors recommendations are not required.

Court rulings for some groups, including Native Americans, have provided the right to use federally banned drugs in religious ceremonies. Despite this, courts still reject religious groups’ right to use marijuana. But with more states legalizing cannabis, marijuana churches may have a favorable future. Douglas Laycock, a University of Virginia Law professor specializing in religious liberty issues says,

“Legalization changes everything. Religious use may not violate state law in some of these states. And if it does, legalizing recreational use but not religious use clearly discriminates against religion.”