As marijuana legalization gains ground, so do marijuana churches

Local lawmakers have been fighting these churches, but some scholars suggest that as states move to decriminalize or legalize marijuana, these churches and their legal standing may gain a stronger legal standing.

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Marijuana is not legal in California yet, but that hasn’t stopped a number of churches that incorporate marijuana smoking into their liturgy from taking root. Marijuana churches have long operated secretly in some U.S. communities, and sources say that they are proliferating as state governments move to lessen penalties for marijuana use or legalize it altogether.

Some of the churches are Rastafarian, a Jamaican faith tradition that makes sacramental use of pot. Others draw from the spiritual traditions of certain Native American tribes that have long used hallucinogens like peyote for religious rites.

California legislators have enacted a marijuana-legalization bill that will make recreational pot use legal starting January 1, but state law enforcement has shut down several churches that have been using marijuana in the meantime. Coachella Valley Church, situated in San Jose, is facing a January 22 court hearing over its marijuana liturgies.

More marijuana churches have opened in Oakland, Roseville, Modesto and San Diego, Orange and Los Angeles counties. Outside California, such churches have sprouted in Indiana, as well as Michigan and Colorado.

Native American tribes that use illegal drugs during religious ceremonies can legally do so in some states, following court rulings that affirmed that religious freedom trumps anti-drug laws. Some marijuana churches cite these court rulings to argue that marijuana, too, should be legally protected.

And while neither police nor courts have expressed support for this point of view, some legal scholars suspect that they may come around as marijuana decriminalization and legalization spreads to more and more states.

“Legalization changes everything,” said Douglas Laycock, a University of Virginia Law School professor specializing in religious liberty issues. “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.”

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