From the street, the Arbor Vitae Life Church in Los Angeles’ east side is a familiar sight. There are no steps leading up to large wooden doors, no steeple, no bell that chimes on the hour. The exterior of Arbor Vitae Life Church is something more endemic to Los Angeles than brick-and-mortar cathedrals. There is a glass door with a security buzzer. It gives view to a sparsely decorated lobby, a bulletproof reception window where you’re handed a clipboard to initial. From all outward appearances, the Arbor Vitae Life Church is, plainly put, a cannabis dispensary.

“You’re just agreeing,” the receptionist tells me, as I initial without reading, “That you will only consume cannabis for spiritual purposes. All of our plants are blessed throughout every phase of the growing process.” I sign. I’m buzzed into the back. A budtender with a friendly face and several tattoos helps me choose flower. “Soon,” she tells me, “We’re going to be moving the buds to a different area. This room is going to be used as more of a spiritual space—for tarot and things like that.”

Cannabis churches like Arbor Vitae are a growing phenomenon throughout the country. Though many of them function like traditional dispensaries, their founders and congregants assert that they are exercising their First Amendment right to religion by consuming cannabis as part of a spiritual sacrament.

“All of our plants are blessed throughout every phase of the growing process.”

In California, where the recreational market has given way to both high taxes and cities that refuse to issue cannabis permits, it’s easy to see why some devout followers may seek sanctuary in these religious institutions. If a cannabis church has been recognized by the IRS, it is exempt from paying taxes. It is also, in theory, not subject to municipal laws that prohibit dispensaries from operating in certain cities. But not everyone is convinced that the legitimacy of cannabis-based religions should be accepted as canon.

In August of this year, the Seaside Church of Alternative Healing in Redondo Beach shuttered its doors after it faced threats of prosecution from the city. Shortly after it closed, a new organization dubbed the Sacramental Life Church of Redondo Beach—which shared associates with Seaside Church—opened up for services in the same building. Just down the Pacific Coast Highway, the Church of the Holy Grail in Newport Beach faced similar legal challenges last year when the city sought an injunction and financial damages against the cannabis organization.

Farther north in San Jose, California, pastoral counselor of the Coachella Valley Church, Sacha Nemcov, says he and his fellow congregants are facing a legal challenge from both the city of San Jose and the state of California, who both allege that the church is illegally operating a dispensary under the guise of a religious organization. “We’ve dealt with a lot of discrimination,” Nemcov tells me, “People just right off the bat assumed, ‘Oh, they’re just a bunch of stoners. They want a reason to smoke weed.’ As we grew, though, people started realizing ‘Oh, hey, they’re legit. This is no different than any other church.”

The Coachella Valley Church is a Rastafarian organization. They congregate on Sundays and offer sermons on topics like “Revelation of the Soul,” and “From Pain to Purpose.” Nemcov was unable to provide an estimate of how many congregants generally attend services, but he says the number is steadily growing. Since the inception of what Nemcov calls his “groundbreaking” church, the organization has been dogged by attempts to shut them down by city officials. “We had code enforcement come and sign up as a member; trying to investigate what’s going on here,” Nemcov says.

“People just right off the bat assumed, ‘Oh, they’re just a bunch of stoners.’ As we grew, people started realizing … This is no different than any other church.”

“The city refuses to license any church with cannabis as a sacrament,” says Edward Pinchiff, one of the attorneys representing Coachella Valley Church in their case. Though many cities have sought to undermine the legitimacy of cannabis as a sacrament, religious organizations who operate more in the mainstream of American culture have also long been afforded the right to use substances, such as communal wine, outside the laws that normally exist around serving alcohol. The Catholic Church does not pay taxes on its sacramental wine, and individuals younger than 21 are free to partake in communion.

The United States has also long recognized “illegal” psychotropic substances for the role they play in religious ceremony. In the 1964 case People v. Woody, the US Supreme Court overturned a case in a lower court in which a person was charged with possession of peyote.

In its decision, the court noted, “The right to free religious expression embodies a precious heritage of our history. In a mass society, which presses at every point toward conformity, the protection of a self-expression, however unique, of the individual and the group becomes ever more important. The varying currents of the subcultures that flow into the mainstream of our national life give it depth and beauty.”

It seems, however, that the subculture around cannabis is not afforded the same deference by state and city governments.

In Indiana, where cannabis is not legal medically or recreationally, the First Church of Cannabis, headed by Bill Levin, a man who refers to himself as the church’s “Grand Poobah,” lost a legal battle for its legitimacy. The church, which was founded in 2015, believes that they were within their First Amendment rights when they partook in cannabis as a sacrament. In its 2018 decision with regard to the church, however, the Marion Circuit Court of Indiana found it could not recognize cannabis as a sacrament because, “It would be impossible to combat illicit drug use and trade in piecemeal fashion that allowed for a religious exception that would become ripe for abuse.”

“We won religion and lost sacrament in the same court hearing.”

“(The state) was also suing us saying that we weren’t a church,” says Levin, a wiry, wide-smiling man. “We became a church in the same court hearing. So, we won religion and lost sacrament.” Though his church has lost the right to legally partake in cannabis, Levin and his fellow members congregate every Saturday night to help the homeless population in Indiana.

“We serve them a hot home-cooked meal and get them whatever supplies we can get them. A lot of them are close friends … It’s nonstop fun, and we love doing it.” Levin’s primary goal for the church is to “Reach out and help more homeless. Celebrate love and life’s great adventure with a larger amount of people. Legally,” he laughs and scoffs simultaneously, “Legally.”

Levin is currently in the process of running for governor of Indiana, “Very happily so,” he tells me. His key platform points are education, pollution, and helping the homeless. He’s vocally outspoken against Indiana’s Republican Party, particularly in terms of what he views as efforts by the party to keep people like himself from being able to consume cannabis as a religious sacrament. “They want to control every aspect of our lives in this state. It’s time that all ends.”

Levin feels confident about the 2020 election. “Our governor has raised taxes three times in four years, so he’s on thin ice … 72 percent of the state wants legal cannabis. That’s over 5 million people. I feel pretty confident that since our current governor says ‘Absolutely no cannabis,’ and I’m saying ‘I’m for legalization, and everyone should have a pint of cannabis oil in their medicine chest,’ I think I’ll get some of those votes.” And if he does, he may not be the only one.

By Tess Barker

October 8, 2019

Tess is a Los Angeles based writer and nationally touring comedian. She is regularly published in Vice, The Guardian, Vox, MTV News, Jezebel, and LA Weekly.