Would you call the first time you consumed cannabis a religious experience? Maybe you loved it, maybe you freaked out a little, maybe you just fell asleep. Regardless, it’s likely you remember when and where you were when the shift happened; there was a before and an after. A revelation.
Research and archeological evidence of recent years proves humans were using cannabis in religious and community ceremonies thousands of years ago. Our ancestors domesticated cannabis around 12,000 years ago in Asia, millennia before founders of Hinduism, the oldest recorded religion, named it one of five sacred plants. Cannabis and hemp have been identified in remains from ancient Jewish ceremonies in Tel Arad, with references to its use in both religious and medical texts across the world. The World Health Organization estimates that cannabis is the most widely consumed drug globally, with approximately 147 million annual users. Over 80% of the planet’s population identifies with a religious order; overlap and dualities are inevitable.
But most people today don’t see cannabis as a spiritual tool, despite its long history of coexisting with various manifestations of faith and community. As more U.S. states legalize cannabis, and countries around the world begin revisiting these notions, spiritual leaders and community members are stepping up and speaking out about their support of cannabis as an instrument of spirituality, healing and leisure. No matter the shape or direction of their faith, cannabis can bring them closer to it.
Rabbi James Kahn, the executive director for Liberty Cannabis Cares, multistate cannabis supplier Holistic Industries’ social responsibility arm, recently held an educational event at Sherith Israel synagogue in San Francisco for Passover. Kahn, whose father is also a rabbi, had a nomadic childhood, and has lived in Australia, Israel, and a handful of the United States; he’s been through the gamut of opinion when it comes to cannabis.
Now based in Washington, D.C., where cannabis is legal for medicinal and recreational use but not recreational sales, he’s often approached by congregation members who want to use cannabis, but abstain due to their faith. These conversations often link cannabis use to its origins in enhancing spiritual connection and practice.
“I don’t think I really put it all together until I was older and in rabbinical school, giving myself the time to reflect and contemplate life, religion, and my own experiences,” Kahn says. “As I started diving deeper into my own spiritual practice and religiosity, I started reading about mystical experiences, teachers describing direct experience of the Divine, and recognizing that I’ve had tastes of this, and some of the times those tastes were connected to having used cannabis.”
Gordon Gladstone, the executive director of Sherith Israel in San Francisco, met Kahn years ago while Holistic Industries was opening a dispensary location near the synagogue. When cannabis came up in an event brainstorming session for the younger generations, Gladstone reached out to him to collaborate. Many Jewish holidays, like Shavuot and Sukkot, are tied to the annual agricultural cycle. Passover, for example, not only celebrates Hebrews’ liberation from Egypt, but also the start of the spring ripening season in Israel for crops that will be harvested in the fall; this is also the time when outdoor cannabis growers start planting their seedlings. Tying a cannabis event to Passover, Gladstone says, is just one way to recontextualize Jewish history.
“Passover is one of three pilgrimage festivals to the temple of Jerusalem, and rooted in the agricultural practices of the near east.” Gladstone says. “We tend to think of religious communities in America as rooted in the Puritan model of abstinence,” but “Judaism approaches the use of intoxicants differently. God has created these things for our enjoyment, and so long as they don’t become destructive forces in our lives, we can enjoy them.”
Holistic Industries is a multistate operator, and Kahn notes that San Francisco is ahead of the curve when it comes to the confluence of pot and piety. This city is known for many things, including cannabis policy reform, but what many don’t know is that it’s already proven the benefits of cannabis at the pulpit.
“Human beings have been in deep connection with cannabis for thousands of years; that story was largely erased by the war on drugs,” he says. “I think a lot of what we’re struggling with as a society right now is what it looks like to reform that connection in a way that honors that there’s God, there’s this wisdom that’s been passed down through generations that stopped because cannabis, along with other psychedelics, were considered shameful. It’s something that I think we now have an opportunity to reclaim.”
Pastor Jim Mitulski, of the Peace United Church of Christ, knows firsthand how cannabis can heal both physical and spiritual wounds. He grew up in a religious home in Michigan before studying theology at Columbia University in the 1970s, where, as a gay man, he found community in political activism and queer-serving churches. And maybe he smoked doobies from time to time. He moved to San Francisco to lead a church in the Castro just as the AIDS crisis was unfurling in the 1980s.
“AIDS was really just hitting, and then it actually kept getting worse,” he says. “I don’t have that capacity to bracket. So when people were dying and suffering, and there was a way to help people feel better, I never hesitated. In San Francisco, it was possible to get marijuana easily compared to some places.”
The city has always been a small town, and Mitulski knew activist icons Brownie Mary and Dennis Peron, who distributed cannabis to AIDS patients and opened the first cannabis club in the country, respectively. But before they passed Proposition 215, Mitulski had a plan of his own; after Sunday service, he would distribute donated, homegrown cannabis to members of the congregation, free of charge. In the time of AZT, a treatment that could have debilitating side-effects, cannabis was sometimes the only intervention for quality of life, for however long that was.
“Marijuana brought comfort, not just comfort to the person who was sick, but comfort to the people who were taking care of them. Treatment made people feel better; we all needed to feel better,” he says. “And it’s how we got through it. We were there to take care of people because we innovated what people think of today as hospice. And the use of marijuana was an important part of it.”
As word spread, he says people start showing up from all over the Bay Area for ailments that included glaucoma and cancer, both of which now qualify patients for medical marijuana in multiple states. While he no longer uses cannabis, he recognizes its necessity; Mitulski was diagnosed with HIV in 1995, and attributes cannabis with changing countless lives even if they couldn’t be saved. And it could enhance countless more, he said, if his community would allow it.
“Maybe people wouldn’t make the same choices that we made, but we made them. Being a minister, I felt like the one more unfortunate legacy of Christianity in our culture is, ‘Why are we opposed to it again?’ Because it’s pleasure. It made people happy. I believe in it, and I believe in people’s access to it. That’s my fundamental belief. God does not want us to suffer. God wants us to heal and experience pleasure in healing.”
But community pushback, after decades of stigma, propaganda and fear mongering, is to be expected. Data from the Pew Research Center from 2021 indicated only about half of religiously affiliated adults surveyed support cannabis legalization, compared to three- quarters of non-affiliated participants.
After a conservative Baptist upbringing in Palo Alto, nondenominational pastor Craig Gross says many in his congregation turned on him once he began advocating for cannabis use. Granted, his sermons look alot different these days.
In 2002, he had founded the Pasadena-based XXXChurch, an anti-porn congregation that sought to help sex workers leave the industry. But after nearly 20 years, he says, it didn’t feel right anymore. Gross tried cannabis for the first time in 2013; it was a different kind of come-to-Jesus moment. Soon he began acting as a marijuana mentor for his fellow curious Christians, taking them around to California’s medical marijuana clubs of the 2010s.
“I started living a different kind of life,” he tells me.
In early 2019, after reading Michael Pollan’s “This Is Your Mind on Plants,” he had his first psychedelic trip and realized, “‘I’m not the porn guy.’ I want to talk about the things that actually matter. So I gave myself permission to quit my job, to resign.”
Gross’ focus is now on his new venture: Christian Cannabis. Partnering with Guy Rocourt of wellness-focused cannabis topical and edible brand Papa & Barkley, Christian Cannabis will be a low-THC line of smokable cannabis flower and products aimed at people who can’t yet reconcile cannabis with their faith. The big picture, he says, is empowering fellow Christians.
“I wish Christians didn’t follow other people the way we do. That’s my role here, to give people permission. Cannabis,” he says, “healed me and put me in a deeper connection. This plant is better than just ‘medical’ and ‘recreational.’ There needs to be another category: spiritual.”
Perception is hard to shift, however, under the threat of death. In her native Malaysia, says Tengku Chanela Jamidah, founder of Halal Hemp, possesion of over 20 grams of cannabis can mean years of jail time and even torture. Possessing over 200 grams warrants capital punishment, per the country’s Dangerous Drugs Act of 1952. Despite mentions in Malaysia’s national medicinal text, the Kitab Tib, and announcements from the federal government about legalizing medical marijuana, Jamidah says even medicinal use carries a heavy societal stigma.
“Cannabis has been used by my ancestors for hundreds of years. It was only after the war on drugs was initiated, that they added an amendment stating that cannabis was going to be part of it.” Now, she says, “If you’re caught with [cannabis], you’re automatically categorized as a drug dealer or a criminal. You could be shunned by society and risk your career; it’s haram” (forbidden).
Jamidah had never used cannabis products until she moved to California in 2018, on the heels of the state’s transition to legal adult use. Muslim communities consider cannabis forbidden because it can be used as an intoxicant. In Los Angeles, where she lives, she was able to go into dispensaries and talk shop with the budtenders, challenging her own preconceived notions.
She eventually began posting educational cannabis and CBD content on social media for her followers in Malaysia and other Muslim countries to see and understand that not only could it be safe to use, but could add value to one’s body and mind.
“For a lot of people, they only see that side communicated like Cheech and Chong and bongs and a Western narrative,” she says. “A lot of huge people of influence in Malaysia support me behind the scenes, but they can’t publicly state anything or share anything on their social media. I’m in a position where it is within my legal bounds; I feel a responsibility to share it.”
At the end of 2019, Jamidah met Felicity Chen, founder of cannabis kitchen brand Potli, who eventually introduced her to Ishaq Ali, a fellow practicing Muslim and co-creator of online cannabis retailer Eaze’s Momentum equity incubator. They hit it off immediately, and realized there was a void in the legal cannabis industry’s approach to their community and its relationship to Islam.
Halal Hemp is a direct result of the conversations she’s had with fellow Muslims, and the first organization to officially register cannabis- and hemp-derived products as halal, approved under Islam. While Islam prohibits all intoxicants, the Quran does not explicitly mention cannabis use, and the use of cannabis and hashish has been documented in Muslim majority counties, such as Iran, Morocco, and Egypt, for centuries. But cannabis’ versatility means there are numerous ways to consume and gain benefit from it without achieving a high, or state of intoxication.
The Fiqh Council of North America, an organization of North American-born Muslim scholars, announced their support for medical marijuana research last October on their website, and have cited Islamic texts to support its permission in non-intoxicating forms for medicinal purposes. Muslim-majority countries besides Malaysia have also begun to reconsider its haram (forbidden) status; in 2020, Lebanon legalized cannabis for medicinal and industrial use. The long-term goal of Halal Hemp, Jamidah says, is an international marketplace for consumers to learn about and purchase hemp and CBD that ascribes to their religious practice and home country’s laws.
“This was the universe that I wanted to create,” she says, “that I feel is necessary, because the Muslim community has not been addressed. This new Muslim audience, they’re young. They’re reclaiming their culture and their faith.”
International changes are often born from seeds planted at the local level, and germinated in the community’s soil. The last decade has shown how people in all corners of the Earth want, need and deserve access to a plant and its properties, both medicinal and mystical.
Gladstone of Sherith Israel has already seen how cannabis’s public image has been rehabilitated by legalization and education about its place in ancient histories. This canna-collaboration with Kahn and Holistic Industries is his congregation’s first event of its kind, he says, and it’s up to others like him to continue to meet the moment and, if needed, let go of the past.
“All faith communities work to remain relevant and meaningful to their communities, and part of that is understanding how your community is changing and what constitutes a meaningful experience for them. That doesn’t alway mean it looks exactly how it did 30 or 100 years ago.”
Amelia Williams is a freelance writer.