When I arrived for Sunday services at the Hundred Harmonies Church near Los Angeles, on a chilly morning last November, I was immediately handed a joint, a lighter and a bottle of water. In a small exurban storefront guarded by a security guard holding an AR-15, about 15 parishioners were toking up, eating powdered donuts and watching the final scenes of Orson Wells’ 1960 film David and Goliath on a mounted flat-screen. A whiteboard listed the day’s agenda (“SAMUEL 17”) above the message “God ♥s you!”. The Rev. James Young Phan, an energetic minister dressed in a black tie and black suspenders, offered running commentary during the film. After it ended, he began talking about Martin Luther.
But most of the people who come to Hundred Harmonies are not there to hear about the Protestant Reformation; they’re there to buy weed. On the other side of the building, Rev. Phan runs a fully-stocked, unlicensed marijuana dispensary, with strawberry pot gummies, glass jars of Versace OG buds, and $30 mega-blunts in a display case labeled “Sacrament.”
Weed businesses that don’t pay taxes or that don’t have state licenses are a major problem in California — in 2018, the first year of regulated medical and adult-use sales, the state took only a third of what it had projected in marijuana tax revenue: $345 million instead of $1 billion. Now that dozens of marijuana businesses are now claiming to be churches — and therefore exempt from paying taxes — the state government is concerned. Yet as Phan tells me after services, “You shouldn’t be able to tax the sacrament.”
The late Oliver Sacks once wrote that his first time using marijuana was “marked by a mixture of the neurological and the divine.” But local law enforcement in California has generally treated pot churches the same as illegal marijuana dispensaries. Phan is hoping to change that. After the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department seized $30,000 of weed in a 2017 raid on Hundred Harmonies, the church’s parent organization, the Association of Sacramental Ministries, decided to sue the county, claiming religious discrimination. (A trial is scheduled for July.)
With similar claims pending in a few nearby jurisdictions, and self-described weed churches attempting to get around cannabis laws everywhere from the regulated market in Colorado to the illicit market in Indiana, religious marijuana seems to have officially replaced medical marijuana as the de rigueur excuse for pot advocates looking to carve out an exception to existing law. Even though there have always been real therapeutic benefits undergirding the movement to legalize cannabis, medical marijuana has often been used as a political tool to allow for de facto adult use. From 1996 to 2017, medical marijuana businesses ran amok in California, operating largely without oversight or rules, and catering almost entirely to recreational users.
In a similar way, the legitimate spiritual value of cannabis is now forming the basis for a political movement that seems to be about more than just the right to get high and commune with a deity.
Over the course of two decades of civil disobedience, some cannabis activist-entrepreneurs in California developed a seemingly permanent posture of defiant persistence that is now leaving government officials infuriated. The southern California city of Costa Mesa, for example, has banned retail marijuana stores but is struggling to shut down multiple weed churches that they say appear nearly indistinguishable from illicit dispensaries.
“They say, ‘We’re a church!’” Costa Mesa city-council member Jim Righeimer told me last year. “Okay, you still can’t do that. It’s not legal to have in our town. It’s like they’re saying, ‘We’re a church that does human sacrifices! No big deal.’”
Pot churches like Rev. Phan’s Hundred Harmonies reject the new system of state licensing, regulations and taxes entirely but still claim to be legal under a mix of federal and state laws protecting religious civil liberties — especially those that uphold the right of Native Americans to use the otherwise illicit drugs peyote and ayahuasca in religious ceremonies. Other marijuana traffickers have been trying this tactic for years — most notably a controversial, multi-state organization called the Oklevueha Native American Church — and failing. Oklevueha has won the legal right to perform peyote ceremonies with non-Native folks, but hasn’t been able to budge the courts on pot. While peyote and ayahuasca involve long, vomit-inducing trips that are generally overseen by some kind of shaman, weed has a milder high and therefore is seen as having a bigger potential for diversion to non-spiritual users. However, now that a majority of states have legalized medical or adult-use cannabis, the movement for religious marijuana has grown in size and fervor.
In southern California, the effort is being led in part by cannabis attorney Matthew Pappas, who helped start the Association of Sacramental Ministries. Pappas is no stranger to long-shot marijuana court cases: in 2016, he won a $100,000 settlement from the city of Santa Ana in a federal lawsuit following a raid on a marijuana dispensary in which police officers were caught on a surveillance camera eating pot edibles and mocking a disabled woman. (The footage went viral; Pappas’ allegations of local corruption were later echoed in a 2017 lawsuit from the city’s outgoing chief of police, which the city decided in December to settle for $350,000.)
Initially, a few years back, Pappas tried to join forces with the Oklevueha Native American Church, though that partnership ended in messy accusations on both sides. Pappas said in a public letter that church leader James Mooney had “made promises of legal protection to people, taken their money and then left them to fend for themselves.” Mooney told me Pappas “was selling churches, unbeknownst to me,” and that all of the Association of Sacramental Ministries churches, including Hundred Harmonies, are “in violation of federal law.”
Back at Hundred Harmonies, Rev. Phan tells me that he doesn’t think all of the dozen or so churches in the Association of Sacramental Ministries are legitimate, saying some just wanted to pretend rubbing crystals together was a religion in order to justify selling weed. But his church, he argues, meets the criteria laid out by the IRS, including a “distinct religious history,” “definite and distinct ecclesiastical government,” and “regular religious services.”
“On Wednesdays, we do bible study,” Phan says.
Phan’s version of Christianity seems designed to appeal to the kind of stoner that reads a lot of Reddit. Much of it relies on an obscure theory developed by a deceased Hunter College professor positing that the Greeks mistranslated an early version of the Old Testament, substituting the calamus plant for what was supposed to be cannabis (“kaneh bosm“) in the holy oil used for anointing priests and, later, Jesus.
“You can’t have Jesus Christ without cannabis, because it took six and a half pounds to anoint him!” Phan says. “The bible has everything to do with weed.”
But does any of this mean that Hundred Harmonies can legally sell and distribute pot, tax-free?
Even if the IRS were to accept Phan’s pending application for tax-exempt status as a church, a court must separately determine a) the sincerity of his belief, and b) whether his violation of the law for religious purposes substantially undermines the government’s ability to otherwise enforce the law(s) he’s breaking. Under these guidelines, the courts have, for example, denied a claim from an Amish man who wanted a religious exemption from paying social security taxes, because opening the door to that kind of exemption could cause social security to collapse. And according to University of Virginia law and religious studies professor Douglas Laycock, the state of California will have lots of legal precedent and a strong case for why cannabis churches do not deserve a religious exemption to the state’s system of licensing, regulations, and taxes.
“There are lots and lots of reasons why these people are going to lose in the long run,” Laycock says. “I think the reaction of most judges is going to be, ‘This just reeks of insincerity.’”