What does it mean to have a spiritual experience with marijuana? We visit a cannabis church and talk with a psychedelic therapist, and explore how more Americans are seeking enlightenment in surprising new places.
Ann Marie Awad: From Colorado Public Radio and PRX, this is On Something.
Ann Marie Awad: I live in Colorado where weed is legal, what we call recreational weed. And yes, I have been known to recreate. After a hard day I often come home and fire up a joint, start up the PlayStation and bash some heads, or binge-watch some TV.
Ann Marie Awad: But here’s the thing about me, I’m kind of an over-anxious type A person. Smoking when I get home actually gets me to sit down and do something to wind down from the day, instead of launching through the front door and tackling chores, or anything else that looks like it needs doing.
Ann Marie Awad: Sometimes I smoke weed and do yoga. It allows me to pipe down the anxious voice inside of me that’s always worrying about the next thing that needs to get done. And it makes me focus more on my body, my breath, and how I feel. It’s admittedly not great for meditation. I just fall asleep, but that’s just me.
Ann Marie Awad: So you’ve been able to buy recreational weed since 2014 here in Colorado, and in my three or so years of living here, I’ve started to notice this growing trend of cannabis yoga classes, guided cannabis meditations, even cannabis churches. And I have to admit, I’ve grown really curious. So on this episode we’re going to dive right into spirituality. In fact, we’re going to church.
Ann Marie Awad: This is On Something, stories about life after legalization. I’m Ann Marie Awad. On this podcast we talk about weed, and the many kinds of relationships people can have with weed, especially now in this brave new world of legalization.
Ann Marie Awad: Now using cannabis as a tool to meditate or worship even, is not a brand new thing. Rastafarians have been using it as a sacrament and a medicine for almost a hundred years. In fact, some Rastafarians think of weed solely in spiritual terms, and they think that the rest of us are the ones doing drugs. What’s news is here in the United States, a whole lot of more contemporary spiritual cannabis use might be coming to a legal state near you.
Speaker 2: So what people like to do is it’s probably the one ritual we have here is if you do have a joint you haven’t lit yet, or if you want to put out and relight a joint, come up right here and light it off the candle. Share it with your friends, share it with new strangers, talk to people.
Ann Marie Awad: This is a recording of a recent service at the International Church of Cannabis here in Denver. And at this church, Elevationists, as they call themselves, gather every week.
Lee Molloy: We shared a cannabis sacrament. There is a prayer or meditation that’s read out before we have a ritual lighting of a candle.
Ann Marie Awad: Lee Molloy is one of the founders of the Church of Cannabis. Sometimes he’s the one behind the pulpit guiding the meditation.
Lee Molloy: We give thanks to the original energy of creation. We light this candle to celebrate our freedom to elevate and remember those not at liberty to join us. We support each other on our individual spiritual journey, and welcome all as family in love and in peace to burn their sacrament with us today. So let’s elevate.
Speaker 4: All right, let’s elevate.
Lee Molloy: That’s right.
Ann Marie Awad: In this particular house of worship, that’s another way of saying let’s light it up. But to Lee, it’s not as simple as that. Lighting up in this church is symbolically and ritualistically powerful.
Lee Molloy: You look at the idea of Prometheus who stole the fire from the gods. It’s when you get the fire that we can gather around it, you know, we can cook food, we can stop moving. And as a species humanity was able to stop running and start talking, communicate and start growing.
Ann Marie Awad: Other than this one ritual, the Elevationist church doesn’t really have a specific theology, or a set of sacred traditions. They don’t worship a specific deity. They don’t really make any rules for their followers. For Lee, the faith seems defined more by what it is not. For example, it’s not like the religion of his youth.
Lee Molloy: I was raised as an evangelical Christian, and I went to Sunday schools and church every week, two or three times a week actually.
Ann Marie Awad: Really?
Lee Molloy: Yeah.
Ann Marie Awad: So how do you get from there to being the co-founder of the International Church of Cannabis? What’s your journey like?
Lee Molloy: Well long, arduous, tiring for the most part. I gave up my belief, trust, if you will, in organized religion around the age of 15 just after the Live Aid concert. Which took place in 1985.
Speaker 5: [singing “Do They Know It’s Christmas?”].
Ann Marie Awad: Live Aid was this massive benefit concert held simultaneously in London and Philadelphia. It was called the Global Jukebox, two concerts running simultaneously, organized by Bob Geldof and headlined by Elton John, David Bowie, Run DMC, Queen, The Beach Boys, along with tons of other big name artists.
Speaker 5: [singing 00:05:53].
Ann Marie Awad: The whole point was to raise money to combat hunger in Ethiopia. The country was, at the time, in the grips of the worst famine in a century, which ultimately killed 1.2 million people.
Lee Molloy: It was a huge event. It was still to this day, the largest show ever put on.
Ann Marie Awad: So you were there?
Lee Molloy: I wasn’t there, I watched it live on television. It was a part of my youth. It was very important to me to donate absolutely everything I had to it. And then to be told the next day in church that what those starving people needed was not pop music, but you know, prayer and Jesus. And I just thought, ‘You’re an idiot. How do you know that Bob Geldof who organized the event wasn’t sent by God in the first place?’
Ann Marie Awad: Lee told me his pastors also expressed similar sentiments during the aids epidemic, saying that victims had brought the disease on themselves. He grew so disillusioned he left the church. Then he set out in search of something that would resonate with him. He dabbled in Hinduism, Islam, Buddhism, but nothing quite fit. How do you go from trying out all of those things to coming to Elevationism?
Lee Molloy: I think that as a young person, I started exploring and looking at different things, and one of those things, you know, drugs and whatever. And finding that by using cannabis, and by really thinking about the use of it, you can really meditate on specific ideas. You can allow … If you can concentrate and ritualize your thinking, you can really allow yourself to go to new places. And I think that’s very important.
Ann Marie Awad: He started to look at this ritualized cannabis use as a sort of spiritual practice, as opposed to what we would call a recreational experience, I guess. More meditating, less binge watching TV, you get it. So how does somebody build a brick and mortar church around this ritualized way of smoking weed? Well, it’s sort of a chicken and egg thing. Really. Lee’s friend and eventual co-founder had a church building just sort of lying around, technically. The former St Paul’s Lutheran Church, empty and slated to be turned into apartments. Lee and his friends spent more time in this church smoking weed in this grand space, and grand plans started to take shape.
Lee Molloy: Everyone had a different background and realized that while we were sitting there using this cannabis that was bringing us together as a community. And the idea of a community, I think is quite important. And it just felt important at the time that we could have a community of spiritually minded, good people, that performed the functions of a church, but did it in their own way, you know? And so why not?
Ann Marie Awad: So they were able to save the church from an afterlife of apartment purgatory, and then they set to work transforming the old building into a psychedelic destination. But it’s more than just that, Lee says his church serves the community in the same way that many traditional churches do.
Lee Molloy: We have like people going out in the community volunteering with the homeless, we have others, you know the sort of things you find we’re pretty much like most churches that you’ve heard of, with just little less dogma and a bit more weed.
Ann Marie Awad: But to be honest, that’s not the only difference. There are these rainbow kaleidoscopic, Florida ceiling murals decorating the main worship area of the church. And downstairs, like lots of other churches, there’s sort of a cafeteria/meeting area. Except this one has lots and lots of toys and arcade games. Instead of folding tables and metal chairs, there’s wacky furniture. At some point I was sitting in a yellow chair shaped like a hand, and there’s also neon signs on the walls. To be honest, it looks like a great place to smoke weed. What makes this different from any other private pot club?
Lee Molloy: Well, I think we’ve just spent the last 45 minutes establishing that.
Ann Marie Awad: But the short answer?
Lee Molloy: Well, the short answer is, it’s an offensive question.
Ann Marie Awad: Really?
Lee Molloy: Yeah. I mean I’ve just gone very clearly through how this is a real church for people, how people use this as their community church, how it is a faith-based organization, how we’re a real 501C3 religious organization. And I don’t really feel any to explain myself any further about that. This isn’t a pot club. You want to smoke pot, go home. I don’t care.
Ann Marie Awad: I am not the first person to ask Lee something like this. As I’m sure you can tell. And try to think of it from his point of view, the law does recognize the International Church of Cannabis as an actual church, but it’s bigger than that. Lee is adamant that his right to elevate is protected under the First Amendment. So confident in fact, that when the doors first opened on 4/20/2017, Lee had never once consulted a lawyer.
Lee Molloy: And there’s a good reason for that, for me, which is that I already have the Constitutional right to do this. It’s right there at the top of our Constitution. I don’t need a lawyer to tell me that.
Ann Marie Awad: And just a reminder here, the First Amendment says, quote, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”
Lee Molloy: So we started a 501C3 religious organization, and we did it. We claimed it and we made it happen.
Ann Marie Awad: But was is it legal? Yes and no. In Colorado you can’t have open and public consumption of weed. And in their first celebration at the church 4/20/2017, there were eight undercover Denver cops in attendance. Later on in court, the cops would argue that if they could get in, the event wasn’t private enough. One church leader was hit with a whopping $50 fine plus $21 in court costs. So even though weed is legal in Colorado, and the church is considered an actual church, they still have to operate like a private club.
Ann Marie Awad: But what about cannabis churches in states where weed is not legal? There’s one in Indiana for example. Do people have a right, legal state or no legal state, to smoke pot in religious practice? This is a fancy way of us saying that we are going to talk to a civil rights attorney, right after this break.
Ann Marie Awad: Anyone looking for a playbook to be able to legally smoke weed in church, no matter what state you live in, will be disappointed.
Nancy Hollander: My name is Nancy Hollander. For the last 40 odd years I have been a criminal defense lawyer. What I usually say is that I’ve been fighting government abuse all my adult life and now it’s my profession, I actually sometimes get paid for it.
Ann Marie Awad: All right. She’s being modest here. She’s argued before the Supreme Court on this. In 1999 Nancy Hollander was introduced to a religious group called the União do Vegetal, Union of the plants in Portuguese, or UDV for short. The group is based in Brazil, but they have a church in the US, in New Mexico. The UDV’s sacrament, which they call Hoasca tea, also known as Ayahuasca, is a powerful hallucinogen. And they were shipping it from Brazil into the United States for their ceremonies. But in 1999 one of these shipments raised a red flag among federal agents.
Nancy Hollander: They started an investigation because the sacrament contains naturally occurring dimethyltryptamine, known as DMT, which is listed as a schedule one substance. Schedule one substances in the Controlled Substances Act are substances that have no medical use and are prohibited in all forms.
Ann Marie Awad: The federal government saw a dangerous drug. The UDV and Nancy saw something else.
Nancy Hollander: Their product that they use is their sacrament basically, that makes it easier for them to communicate with God.
Ann Marie Awad: At the center of this case was this question, does the federal government have the right to restrict the UDV’s religious practice if that practice involves a substance considered illegal under federal law?
Nancy Hollander: What was at stake for them was that they couldn’t practice their religion because the religion is based on this sacrament that they take. And they believe that it gets them closer to God, and it helps them see maybe the history and the people who started the religion, and it helps them in many ways.
Ann Marie Awad: The Religious Freedom Restoration Act or RIFRA, was Nancy’s defense in this case. It basically bars the government from interfering in religious practices, but first Nancy had to prove that the UDV was a legitimate religion. If it passed that test, the government had to then prove that it had a compelling reason to restrict the use of Ayahuasca, a schedule one drug.
Speaker 7: We’ll hear an argument next in Gonzalez versus Centro Espírita Beneficente União do Vegetal. Mr. Needman.
Speaker 8: Mr. Chief Justice-
Ann Marie Awad: In 2005 Nancy argued that case in front of the US Supreme Court.
Nancy Hollander: You know what the church and its members seek is just the right to practice their religious faith as Congress guaranteed them in RIFRA, because Congress guaranteed, then recognized that religious liberty is a core value in this country.
Ann Marie Awad: Nancy won that case.
Speaker 7: First, the government concedes that the UDV’s use of Hoasca is a sincere exercise of religion. Second, the government concedes that enforcing the Controlled Substances Act against the UDV would substantially burden that sincere exercise of religion.
Nancy Hollander: At some point after the Supreme Court case, however, I started getting calls from people who said they wanted to start churches where they could smoke marijuana. But most of them wanted to smoke marijuana all the time. They wanted to create a church around this. And I kept explaining to them that there were a lot of reasons why that wasn’t going to work.
Ann Marie Awad: This smoking all the time thing, Nancy thought that it wasn’t ritualistic enough to pass Constitutional muster.
Nancy Hollander: It wasn’t like they were going to go with like the UDV does, into a church. They call it a temple, and you know, drink it, and then four hours later the ceremony is over. And they don’t use it any other time except for a birth or a wedding, or a funeral.
Ann Marie Awad: Yet. It wasn’t only the smoke all the time issue when it came to aspiring cannabis churches.
Nancy Hollander: There were some who said, we’re only going to do it at certain times and certain places, trying to deal with the smoke it all the time issue. But they never really could tell me what their belief system was, how this was really a church, or a religion. And I told them I thought they were going to get stopped right then.
Ann Marie Awad: Alright, so take Rastafarians for example, who have this very concrete belief system, would they pass a RIFRA test? And just a quick aside here, we had a difficult time finding a Rastafarian person here in Colorado who was willing to speak to us for this episode, but we still want to, if you’re out there.
Ann Marie Awad: Federal courts acknowledged that, yes, Rastafarianism is a real religion. And yes, that its adherence seem sincere and yes, even regular marijuana use seems to be a sincere exercise of those beliefs. But the courts have ultimately decided that the government still has a higher public safety and a public health interest in keeping people from using marijuana regularly. But institutions like the International Church of Cannabis have the good fortune of being located in legal weed states. And let’s all be honest, people will do what they’re going to do even if it’s illegal. Things are much more complicated than what’s legal and what’s not. Just like spirituality isn’t always about what’s happening at church. In fact, let’s take church out of the picture entirely and focus just on the spirituality part.
Daniel McQueen: My name is Daniel McQueen and I’m a psychedelic therapist.
Ann Marie Awad: Daniel McQueen lives in Boulder, and he helps guide people through lots of spiritual experiences except he is not a priest, and he does not work in a church.
Daniel McQueen: I work with cannabis sativa as a psychedelic and I facilitate spiritual groups.
Ann Marie Awad: Psychedelics are things like magic mushrooms or LSD, drugs that can cause you to have a very intense experience. Also called a trip. Daniel says that he can help people bring on similar experiences through smoking special blends of cannabis.
Daniel McQueen: They’re spiritual in nature, but they’re also very therapeutic.
Ann Marie Awad: Daniel then guides people through these intense experiences. People sometimes come to him because they’re suffering from some kind of trauma or loss. He has training in clinical psychology, yes, but also meditation, and looks at cannabis as a spiritual tool.
Daniel McQueen: So spiritual practice would be more of a internal mindfulness experience, but also like with an intention of sacred communion with something that feels transcendent to self. And that space doesn’t always happen in recreational settings. We’re talking like peak world transforming, life transforming experiences for people.
Ann Marie Awad: Right.
Daniel McQueen: And if that were done in a recreational setting, for example, like at a show or festival, you know, that might create a crisis because-
Ann Marie Awad: That can be terrifying.
Daniel McQueen: Yeah.
Ann Marie Awad: To bring this down to Earth a bit, Daniel says that it’s basically about using cannabis with intention.
Daniel McQueen: I will make a blend. I will sit and meditate with it before I use it. I smell it, you know, and get to know the fragrance of it. And then I load my pipe with intention and prayer. I will even say a prayer when I imbibe, we call it imbibing instead of smoking, or taking the medicine. And then I’ll take my time and sit with it, meditate with it.
Ann Marie Awad: There seems to be a different language around it. The way that you use it.
Daniel McQueen: We’ve created a whole language, we’ve had to create a whole language around this to differentiate it from what you would call recreational use. There’s no, like, there are traditions that use cannabis religiously, but I don’t know hardly anything about them.
Ann Marie Awad: We live in a society that tends to stigmatize the idea of like, well, this, like therapy. Taking a sort of drug to have a religious experience, or taking a sort of drug to have a therapeutic experience. I mean there’s definitely-
Daniel McQueen: You shouldn’t need it. [crosstalk “you hear that a lot with meditation”].
Ann Marie Awad: Right, you should be able to do it yourself, right?
Daniel McQueen: You should be able to it with yourself, yeah. Yeah. That’s implying that we’re coming from a healthy state, and then it’s not totally traumatized and injured by this society. These are crisis tools. You know? And I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but most of our culture, and even the global culture, is in some form of crisis right now. And we’re not starting at a baseline normal humanity right now.
Ann Marie Awad: Right.
Daniel McQueen: Most of us have been injured in some way. And in some ways, yes, then we might not need it as much. But in other ways that would be like saying, well, you’re a Christian, you’ve prayed before, so why would you need to pray again? These are core identities for us.
Ann Marie Awad: I’m not a church person, but I grew up going to church until I didn’t. And I’m not the only one, about 21% of adults in the US don’t consider themselves to neatly fit into a religion. And to go back to Lee Molloy at the International Church of Cannabis for a moment, he thinks that that’s part of the point of Elevationism. We are becoming more comfortable with fewer constraints.
Lee Molloy: Spirituality, you know, it’s another way of looking at the old religions of natural law in ways of being before we stayed organizing everything. We’re just going around in a circle. You know? It’s also difficult for us to create something like Elevationism without putting dogmatic instruction on people. Because what you have to do, is you have to define religion here in legal, rational terms. And that’s kind of a very strange invention of the West. It’s become rationalized so that we can go to the court and they can tell you, this is a religion and this isn’t. Which is nonsense.
Ann Marie Awad: It’s funny. It reminds me of something Nancy Hollander said, in the early days of that Ayahuasca case, she had to try to convince a US attorney that she was defending a legitimate religion.
Nancy Hollander: I remember him saying, he said, this is too weird to be a religion. And this may offend some people, but this is what I said to him knowing that he was Catholic. I said, there’s a religion where priests say a prayer over wine, and it turns into blood, and then they drink it, and they eat a wafer that they claim this is the blood and body of a dead leader.
Ann Marie Awad: I mean when you put it like that.
Nancy Hollander: It’s pretty weird when you put it like that, but that’s what it is. Transubstantiation is that wine turns into blood. That’s the deal. And the wafer represents the body. I mean, I said, if you look at them that way they’re all weird.
Ann Marie Awad: So yes, people smoking joints at church can look weird, but Nancy makes a good point, right? Can’t every religion look kind of weird under a microscope? In legal states we often talk about legalization in terms of recreational or medical, but what if we looked at it more in terms of casual versus spiritual? Casual use, like a bong hit while ball playing some video games, versus spiritual use like deep reflective meditation or prayer.
Ann Marie Awad: All that nuance between those two categories is lost in the political and legal debates over legalization. Your ability to openly and legally use cannabis in the company of other like-minded people depends on where you live and what the laws are there. It may also depend on whether or not you have a pro lawyer like Nancy Hollander to defend you. And heads up, Nancy is expensive.
Ann Marie Awad: On Something is a labor of love reported and written by me, Ann Marie Awad. Produced and mixed by Brad Turner, Rebecca Romberg and John Pinnow. Our editor is Curtis Fox. Music by Brad Turner and Daniel Mescher. Our executive producers are Rachel Estabrook and Kevin Dale. On Something is made possible by lots of talented people like Francie Swidler, Kim Nguyen Win, Dave Burdick, Alison Borden, Matt Herz, and Iris Gottlieb. Excerpts from the oral argument in Gonzalez versus O Centro Espírita Beneficente União do Vegetal provided by Oyez. That’s O-Y-E-Z, a free law project by Justia, and the Legal Information Institute of Cornell Law School.
Ann Marie Awad: If you like what you’re hearing, talk to us on social media, we’re @OnSomethingpod on Twitter and Instagram, and we also have a newsletter for the weeks that we don’t have an episode. You could sign up at, onsomething.org. This program is made possible in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, a private corporation funded by the American people. This podcast is also made possible by Colorado Public Radio members. Learn about supporting Colorado Public Radio at cpr.org.
Ann Marie Awad: After a hard day, I often-
Brad Turner: I want you to start over.
Ann Marie Awad: Okay.
Brad Turner: Okay.