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High praise: Pot churches proliferate as states ease access to marijuana

Barbara Feder Ostrov, Kaiser Health News on

Published in Religious News

SAN JOSE, Calif. -- Services at the Coachella Valley Church begin and end with the Lord's Prayer.

In between, there is the sacrament.

"Breathe deep and blow harder," intoned Pastor Grant Atwell after distributing small marijuana joints to 20 worshippers on a recent Sunday afternoon. "Nail the insight down, whether you get it from marijuana or prayer. Consider what in your own life you are thankful for."

A middle-aged man wearing a "Jesus Loves You" baseball cap piped up. "Thank you, God, for the weed," he called out. "I'm thankful for the spirit of cannabis," a woman echoed from the back. "I am grateful to be alive," said another young woman, adding that she had recently overdosed -- on what, she did not say -- for the third time.

The small room, painted black and gold and decorated with crosses and Rastafarian symbols, filled with pungent smoke after an hourlong service of Christian prayers, self-help slogans and inspirational quotes led by Atwell, a Campbell, Calif., massage therapist and photographer.

Despite its mainstream Christian trappings, the Coachella Valley Church describes itself as a Rastafarian church, something that's tough to define. Rastafari is a political and religious movement that originated in Jamaica. Combining elements of Christianity, pan-Africanism and mysticism, the movement has no central authority. Adherents use marijuana in their rituals.

The church's leaders say they believe that religious freedom laws give them the right to offer marijuana to visitors without a doctor's recommendation -- and without having to abide by any other regulations. Some courts and local authorities beg to differ.

As more states ease access to marijuana, churches that offer pot as a sacrament are proliferating, competing with medical marijuana dispensaries and even pot shops in the few states that have legalized recreational weed. While some of them claim Rastafari affiliation, others link themselves to Native American religious traditions.

The churches are vexing local officials, who say that they're simply dispensaries in disguise, skirting the rules that govern other marijuana providers, such as requirements to pay taxes.

In California, which legalized medical marijuana in 1996 and, as of New Year's Day, now allows sales of recreational marijuana, churches tied to marijuana use have recently popped up in Oakland, Roseville, Modesto, San Diego County, Orange County, Los Angeles County and the Southern California desert city of Coachella (no connection to the San Jose church). A few have been shut down by law enforcement.

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