While millions observed Easter Sunday or the Passover season April 20, some folks were celebrating the annual “4-20,” numerical code for the marijuana subculture. That coincidence caused Michael-Ann to wonder “how many religions use weed (and other mind-altering drugs) to reach spirituality?”
The best-known example is the Rastafarians, who are deeply rooted in Jamaica and among U.S. immigrants from that nation. Rastas, easily identified by their dreadlocks, smoke “ganga” in worship though they prohibit consumption of alcohol and coffee. Just last month Jamaica announced plans to decriminalize pot possession, which will foster this faith and reflects its influence.
Rastafarianism emerged from the 1920s “back to Africa” movement of Marcus Garvey, who taught that Jamaicans were the true Israelites in exile. A Garvey vision led to worship of Ethiopia’s Emperor Haile Selassie (1892-1975) as the earthly incarnation of God. (Selassie himself declined the honor since he was a devout Orthodox Christian who urged the Rev. Billy Graham’s first world evangelism congress in 1966, “Let us labor to lead our brothers and sisters to our Savior Jesus Christ, who only can give life in its fullest sense.”)
A smaller faith built around a different controlled substance received notice during the Supreme Court’s recent case on Hobby Lobby and mandatory birth control funding. The discussion referred to the court’s Employment Division v. Smith ruling (1990) involving two adherents of the Native American Church. This group, incorporated in 1918 in Oklahoma with several branches elsewhere, worships by eating hallucinogenic peyote. The court ruled that devotees’ religious liberty claims do not justify violation of state drug laws.
Several small marijuana sects have emerged lately, among them The Hawaii Cannabis Ministry (clever name since THC is the plant’s main psychoactive chemical), Greenfaith Ministry, Entheogenic Reformation Church, and Church of Reality (though “marijuana inspired” it officially “neither encourages the use of marijuana nor discourages it”). Will such New Age-y sects have much reason to exist if more states follow the lead of Colorado and (as of this week) Washington to freely allow recreational sale and use of cannabis sativa? Other similar groups have died out over the years.
The late biochemist and New Age figure Robert S. de Ropp surveyed the history of religions employing mind-altering substances. There’s evidence Rastafarian ritual stems from older practices in Africa. Ancient Mexicans used peyote and psychedelic mushrooms. South Pacific islanders consumed kava. Some devotees of the Hindu goddess Kali worshipped with drugs. Medieval terrorists in one Muslim faction were called “the Assassins” due to their practice named by the Arabic “hashishiyya” or “hashish users.” However, mainstream Islam has always strictly forbidden drugs and alcohol.
Biblical religion likewise stresses sobriety. Some advocates contend that God endorsed pot when he declared at the creation, “I have given you every plant yielding seed … You shall have them for food” (Genesis 1:29). Such wooden literalism would stupefy even a Fundamentalist since God obviously didn’t demand consumption of all species including thistles and poisonous plants.