During my visit to the NORML archives, I found a few interesting items on religious uses of marijuana during the 1990s . These were appealing because I remember coming of age during a time when you’d occasionally hear a story about people getting busted for drugs and “claiming religious freedom” to justify their dangerous criminal behavior. I decided to gather these sources expecting that I could work with them at some point.
Frequent readers, have read a few of my thoughts about historical perspectives on motivations for cannabis use and the following will speak to this research interest, but the real motivation for picking these sources back up is NFLer Colin Kaepernick’s recent pre-game protests against abuses of police power. In my own experience, the social media storm seems to boil down to a conflict over who can own the controversy. Meanwhile Kaepernick’s own words about his motivation fail to resonate. In a story twist familiar to drug historians, the failure to understand real motivation obscures and threatens to silence or erase a public act of defiance against social injustice.
In 1993, the US Congress passed, almost unanimously, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) that prohibits the federal government from adding undue burdens on the practice of one’s religion, unless the state has compelling public interest in creating that burden. One of the more well known precursors to RFRA was a supreme court case (Employment Division v. Smith) involving the use of peyote in Native American religious ceremonies.
Soon after passage of RFRA, Sweetlight Books, out of Cottonwood, California began publishing a quarterly zine entitled Holy Smoke, “for people who use marijuana as a sacrament and medicine…for a wide variety of physical and psychological problems.” The publication appears (to me) to have been influenced by RFRA. Very little else accompanies the two editions (of about 4-7 that were ever published) of Holy Smoke that were in the collection during my visit. But a thorough reading of the two editions, and a related story from Arkansas point to an articulation of a religious justification for marijuana use, directly related to the plant’s therapeutic value.
Contributors to Holy Smoke shared stories about their personal relationship to marijuana, and how their use of the plant improved their lives, or a family member’s life, during a health crisis. In addition to the therapeutic value, users express their sense of psychic relief that came with using marijuana while dealing with any number of serious illnesses: epilepsy, glaucoma, cancer (treated with chemotherapy), AIDS, and even drug addiction.
But Holy Smoke was also a call to political action. An apparent “regular” feature, “Grassroots News” shared stories from the front lines of the war on drugs, and other prominent issues (including RFRA) were discussed by reprinting articles from other news sources. The editor of Holy Smoke, Guy Mount (author of The Marijuana Mystery, a novel also published by Sweetlight Books) offered a statement of purpose section titled, “Marijuana Smoke is God’s Breath” in it, he argues that taxes on legalized marijuana could “pay for Public Health care [sic]” “pay off the national debt and put many people back to work” and contribute to “saving the earth and redirecting a misguided empire.”
In the summer edition of 1994, Mount articulated his view of “A Natural Religion for Earthpeople” which was a remarkable blend of counter cultural ideals from the 1960s with religious overtones that reflected the religious awakening of the seventies and eighties. The earlier Winter ’94 issue featured “A Spiritual Roadmap For Marijuana Use” which gave bullet point guidance on the “respectable” and “respectful” use of marijuana. In the summer edition, Mount fleshed out the logic of the road map adding an sense of missionary urgency to the development of this new marijuana culture that respected the earth and God’s creation.
In additon, Mount added words of comfort to fellow-travelers who had become the new “symbol of evil in America,” connecting the plight of peaceful and therapeutic marijuana users to other historically persecuted groups including “Arabs, Jews…Gypsies…Indians, and slaves.” As marijuana arrests continued its increase in the late eighties and early 90s, desperate defendants and their attorneys sought multiple avenues to challenge the harsh penalties for possession, especially for those using for medicinal reasons. The passage of RFRA increased the use of religious freedom to challenge enforcement of marijuana laws as an “undue burden.”
The story of “Our Church” near Fayetteville, Arkansas in 1994 is an manifestation of Mount’s mission. On August 11, 1994, Our Church co-founder Tom Brown was arrested and eventually convicted of violating laws outlawing the manufacture of a controlled substance (400+ marijuana plants) in the state of Arkansas. And while most of his community, and the press dismissed his claims of religious freedom, an examination of the church and its origins point to a popular spiritual attitude shared by therapeutic users of cannabis that connects Our Church in rural Arkansas to the vanguard of medical marijuana (expressed in print in Holy Smoke) in California.
But the case reads like a test case from the beginning, though the lack of legal support (or evidence of that support in the collection) suggests this was more of a deliberate expression of civil disobedience. The creation of the church was followed closely by the media, from its incorporation on March 14, 1994, to his meeting with Washington County Sheriff Kenneth McKee on March 29, and through his arrest, trial, and conviction.
The group’s incorporation paperwork spelled out its mission, which reflects the language of Guy Mount’s philosophy at Holy Smoke,”for the production of herbs and plants known to have value as medicine in the healing of the sick” and “distributing them to the sick.” Another clause in the incorporation established Our Church as “a home for acts of CIVIL DISOBEDIENCE in the tradition of Henry David Thoreau, Mahatma Ghandi [sic], and Martin Luther King” (emphasis in original).
Brown did not explicitly declare that “herbs and plants” were marijuana in the incorporation for obvious reasons, but made no secret of his intentions through the media coverage of his meeting with Sheriff McKee, a meeting arranged by Brown and attended by media, Our Church members, and Christian pastors from the area. He did not mince words: “We will not allow ourselves to be persecuted any longer. We’re Americans, and we’re not a threat to public health and safety, especially within the confines of our churches”
While Sheriff McKee accepted Brown’s offer to meet, the meeting was not intended to be a discussion. The Northwest Arkansas Times reported that McKee had a copy of Don’t Bring Trouble To My County on his desk through the entire meeting, and the pastors arrived to present McKee with a signed “Community Statement of Pastoral Concern” expressing their opposition to Our Church, calling it “merely an enchanting deception.” The statement expressed concern “for the safety of souls who accept this false gospel offering counterfeit salvation.”
The local and regional media coverage of Our Church (the archive has a collection of local news clippings) was not entirely dismissive of Brown’s claims, which was surprising to me. But the prosecutors and local residents who were interviewed were incredulous to Brown’s RFRA defense throughout the very public life of Our Church. The media took shots with their headlines. One from The Argus Journal mused, “…Religion, Philosophy or Weed Growing.” The Lincoln Leader led with, “Non-traditional church established…drugs will be part of services” (the ellipses in both quotes serve as “sarcasm indicators” and appeared in the original headlines).
Meanwhile, NORML officials were vocal (and in some cases material) supporters of Our Church. Glen Schwarz, then President of the Little Rock AR chapter of NORML, who was also a member of Our Church, derided DEA tactics in cases like this, likening them to the KGB for “fear tactics [used] to break up the movement to legalize cannabis.” But the same thing could be said for local opposition, as noted by Our Church member Rex Petty who in February of 1995, directly responded to the popular derision of the religious freedom defense after Tom Brown’s conviction, in the church’s 11th newsletter.
According to Petty, despite the church’s failure to adhere to the state’s definition of legitimate religion was irrelevant. The beliefs in the divine power of cannabis were strongly held by many people with a range of chronic health problems, were propagated by the small congregation, but were also fairly commonly held well beyond the boundaries of Our Church’s congregation. He called for more action to counter the anti-marijuana policies in the United States that prevented the therapeutic benefits of marijuana from getting to the people that needed it the most.
But that’s where the trail (of evidence at least) ends for Our Church. And though the power of ascribed motivation (and Arkansas State laws, to be sure) doomed Tom Brown to prison as a criminal, a drug manufacturer, and a “threat to the souls” living in Washington County, at least 20 people saw Tom Brown as relief to the soul.
Though when returning to the role of ascribed motivation in the vicious backlash against NFL players taking knees during the anthem in 2016, we can take comfort in the fact that, though in limited and continuously fluid ways, the dream of Tom Brown, Guy Mount, and untold others was fulfilled when California voters approved prop 215 in 1996 setting the stage for the cannabis “revival” that followed.
 National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (U.S.) Records, 1937-2012. University of Massachusetts Amherst, Special Collections & University Archives. These files are in box 44, folders 37-47, according to the current finding aid. I visited while the collection was being processed and hope to get back soon for the full collection.