The Rhode Island ‘Church’ Taking on the Law to Smoke Pot
One Rhode Island group claims that when they’re lighting up a joint, it’s for religious reasons. Are they genuinely devout, or do they just want to get high?
When Rhode Island State Police arrived to arrest 46-year-old Alan Gordon for growing pot, he was on the toilet. The armed officers, startled, subbed out the typical “put your hands above your head” for a more relevant directive: “wash them.”
According to Anne Armstrong, the 56-year-old co-founder of their marijuana “Healing Church,” Gordon asked if he could finish.
Armstrong herself would be arrested soon after, pulled over on the way to watch her 12-year-old son play the violin. Not far from the toilet, police uncovered 12 pounds of cannabis, 10 pounds of hash oil, and 57 marijuana plants, a “large marijuana cultivation operation” for which Armstrong and Gordon were charged with possession and intent to manufacture/deliver.
The two were shuffled off to prison where they were held for two weeks.
Now back at home, they’re prepping to represent themselves on a potentially historic case, one in which they’ll argue that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act protects their freedom to grow and use cannabis. Doing so will require convincing a judge that the Controlled Substances Act places an undue burden on their religious freedom.
It will be a tough battle—most likely, a losing one. But Armstrong, a hippie with a cause, is determined to win. “My religion is cannabis,” she tells me on a phone interview one day after she’s been released. “They’re not carding people coming to get wine if they're not 21. Why would they interfere with our adult communion of God, when it’s been proven to be safer?”
Her statement makes up the central argument of their case, and the main belief of The Healing Church—that cannabis is the giver of life. Formed just over a year ago, Armstrong and Gordon’s congregation is essentially a small collection of followers who believe, like they do, that marijuana is holy (or, some may argue, want to smoke it for free).
In a video of the group holding a public ceremony last year, a young guy wearing a flat-brimmed hat that reads “high on life” lights up a joint while others look on. "We're supposed to have religious freedom," he tells the local news anchor. "We believe that this was in the Bible and that we need to do this as a sacrifice."
The scene doesn’t exactly appear religious in nature, but The Healing Church insists it is.
Armstrong—who refers to herself as the “deaconess”—and Gordon— her “canon”—have outlined what they consider the “evidence” of their beliefs in a 37-page document titled A Bible Full of Cannabis. Peppered with pictures of stained glass windows that they argue depict the cannabis leaf, it invokes specific passages from the Bible and ties them to cannabis.
Among its most salient claims is the “recipe” outlined in Exodus 30:23 for the oft-cited “holy anointing oil” which they say contains cannabis. This means, in their eyes, that everyone from Jesus to Pope John XXI used marijuana-infused oil to heal the sick, and that they should do the same. Another bold claim, that the “Tree of Life”—a theme in many religious texts—is the cannabis plant itself.
“As St. John prophesied, the Tree of Life would one day grow in cities with glass streets and glowing multicolored gems,” the two write. “This sounds startlingly like an ancient mystic’s frantic attempt to describe his vision of a future greenhouse supplemented by LED grow lights, in the era before glass windows or electricity by which he could have understood what he saw.”
Together with their followers they worship cannabis as a plant capable of “the healing of nations,” according the site’s mission statement. “Her flowering tops are sacred to the LORD and must never be an item for trade,” it continues. “They are to be shared the way a mother shares food among her children.”
The outdoor ceremonies like the one depicted by local news mostly involve smoking joints and talking about love. To some, a Friday night—to them, a “burnt offering.” In May last year, the group was interrupted by cops while trying to host such a ceremony on a fountain dedicated to Roger Williams, the founder of Rhode Island and an advocate for religious tolerance.
Afterwards, the two filed a lawsuit claiming that the charges ($100 fine for each) represented religious discrimination. The case was dismissed in December. Their most recent run-in with the law began late June, when police appeared with a search warrant to raid their cannabis grows. The two responded by filing another suit, this time asking the court to define “indoor” plants.
The lockable dog pen they were growing in, apparently, doesn’t qualify. A spokesperson for Rhode Island State Police confirmed this to The Daily Beast, as well as the arrest of both Gordon and Armstrong (when asked about the toilet, the spokesperson let out a laugh saying “the reports don’t get that specific”).
The Healing Church, while more serious than the others, is not the first of its kind. Indiana’s First Church of Cannabis made waves last year when its founder Bill Levin released a humorous mission statement called the “Deity Dozen,” the first provision of which reads “Don’t be an asshole. Treat everyone with Love as an equal.”
Levin too has decided to challenge the legality of his cannabis use based on the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), which there is a version of in 21 states. The law itself dates back to 1993 and aims to prevent existing laws from infringing on the rights to exercise religious freedom. The first federal RFRA case revolved around drugs—Native Americans and peyote.
But proving that peyote, used by hundreds of thousands of Native Americans for centuries, is central to their religion is one thing; proving that 20 people in Rhode Island should be allowed to smoke pot on public property is entirely another. As David Orentlicher, a law professor at Indiana University, told the Huffington Post during Levin’s suit, winning such a case is unlikely.
“First, the church has to show that it’s a genuine church,” Orentlichter said. “While courts are reluctant to question the sincerity of religious beliefs, religious claimants must get past the threshold question of whether there really is a religion involved rather than religion being used as pretext for other purposes, in this case, the use of marijuana.”
Scheduled to appear in court this fall, Armstrong and Gordon are both representing themselves, banking on the idea that the “good people of Rhode Island” will come to their defense. In the meantime, the two are still committed to spreading the word about marijuana’s healing powers, launching a campaign asking to be “infected with Zika” so they can prove the drug can cure it. For non-pregnant women, Zika more or less cures itself, disappearing in about a week.
But their main focus has and will be the law—which Armstrong predicted they’d be fighting in an interview with local news a year ago. “This [marijuana] is a very important constitutional issue,” she said. “If can’t be decided here, I don’t think there is any hope for America.”