THE FIRST CHURCH OF CANNABIS TIMELINE
1955: Bill Levin was born in Chicago, Illinois.
2011: Levin ran unsuccessfully as a Libertarian for the Indianapolis City Council.
2014: Levin ran unsuccessfully as a Libertarian for the Indiana House of Representatives.
2015 (March 26): Governor Mike Pence signed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.
2015 (May 21): The First Church of Cannabis received a letter stipulating that it was officially established as a 501 (c) (3), non-profit charitable organization, by the Internal Revenue Service.
2015: Indiana Secretary of State Connie Lawson approved the church as a religious corporation with the stated intent “to start a church based on love and understanding with compassion for all.”
2015 (July 1): The First Church of Cannabis held its first service.
Bill Levin, founder of The First Church of Cannabis, was born in 1955 in Chicago. There is little known about his childhood (Hoppe, 2009). Levin reports that he was adopted by the niece (and her husband) of the navy doctor who delivered him, Marcia and Bob Levin. His adoptive father was the vice president of Kipp Brothers, a family-owned toy wholesaling business where Levin gained experienced in merchandise sales as a youth. Although Levin got along well with his father, his relationship with his mother was much more turbulent. Levin reports that he “ kept turning to the left ” while his mother wanted him to live a more conservative lifestyle. This lead to what Levin has characterized as an “ oil-and-water situation ” between the two. Levin was placed in the Hyde Academy for Men in Bath, Maine by his parents but was expelled within six months for misbehavior. After multiple attempts to run away from home, he was sent to another boarding school in Cleveland, where he continued to be something of a troublemaker. For example, Levin recounts that at one of the schools parties, he and a group of friends spiked the punch with LSD leading to, by his account, “ three-quarter of [the] campus tripping. ” Ironically perhaps, the next year Levin was elected campus council president.
Through his life, Levin dabbled in a variety of jobs. He worked for a time as a band representative, scheduling band performances in Broad Ripple, Indianapolis. He then moved on to do the same work for local tattoo artists. He did promotion and marketing work for the KARMA RECORDS store chain (Bryant 2012). Levin and his wife, Allison, have operated a jewelry shop, Bling of Broad Ripple, together. Levin also is CEO of a consulting firm he founded, Levin Consulting.
It was only in 2011, when he was in his fifties, that Levin began to become involved in politics, running a Libertarian Party candidate for Indianapolis City Council in 2011 and for Indiana House of Representatives as Libertarian in 2014. He lost both elections, receiving a very small percentage of the vote in both cases. His Libertarian leanings are evident, for example, in his opposition to the presence of corporate chains in Broad Ripple Village (Hoppe 2007).
Throughout his political career, Levin strongly supported marijuana legalization and supported local “ma and pa” shops. Levin hasserved on the Board of Directors of Indiana NORML (National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws). He also formed a Political Action Committee, Re-Legalize Indiana, as a vehicle for promoting legalization of marijuana in Indiana (Bryant 2012).
Bill Levin does not claim unique doctrines or practices, acknowledging that the Church of Cannabis draws on a variety of traditions and doctrines. He does, however, assert the existence of an all loving God and states that he is very faith-driven, I’m very spiritual and I’m filled with love” (Bailey 2015). Levin is quite critical of established religions and their beliefs, and he clearly distinguishes the Church of Cannabis’ approach to religion (Bailey 2015):
“The bibles of other religions are yesteryear about the drinking out of goat skins. That doesn’t relate to people with GPS in their hand and 7,000 tunes in that same hand,” he said. “The church is very simple. The first good book we’re going to ask parishioners to read and understand is ‘The Emperor Wears No Clothes’.”
He goes on to state that “I find that most religions are misled into gross perversions of what they are meant to be. This path has led me to lead a religion that people in today’s world can relate to it. We don’t have any guilt doctrine built in. We don’t have any sin built in” (Bailey 2015; Walsh 2015).
The Church delineates seven essential themes: live, love, laugh, learn, create, grow and teach (Wenck 2015). In addition, The church has a doctrinal code that is referred to as the “ Deity Dozen. ” These twelve precepts represent guidelines for living a good life.
Don ‘ t be an a–hole. Treat everyone with love, as an equal.
The day starts with your smile every morning. When you get up, wear it first.
Help others when you can. Not for money, but because it ‘ s needed.
Treat your body as a temple. Do not poison it with poor quality foods and sodas.
Do not take advantage of people. Do not intentionally hurt anything.
Never start a fight, only finish them.
Grow food, raise animals, get nature into your daily routine.
Do not be a “ troll ” on the Internet; respect others without name-calling and being vulgarly aggressive.
Spend at least 10 minutes a day just contemplating life in a quiet space.
When you see a bully, stop them by any means possible. Protect those who cannot protect themselves.
Laugh often, share humor. Have fun in life, be positive.
Cannabis, “ the Healing Plant, ” is our sacrament. It brings us closer to ourselves and others. It is our fountain of health, our love, curing us from illness and depression. We embrace it with our whole heart and spirit, individually and as a group.
Beyond these basics, Levin states, the church seeks to keep their unique doctrine “ simple as f***ing possible so it translates to every language” (Wenck 2015).
Since the First Church of Cannabis is very much in the process of formation, church structure and rituals also are in the process of emerging. The first service was held on July 1, 2015, the day on which Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act became law. Levin’s vision for the inaugural church service is that a young harmonica player will open the service by playing “Amazing Grace” and several other songs. Levin will then present and discuss each of the seven church themes. Those in attendance will be invited to offer testimonies on life experiences relevant to the church’s themes. Following a recitation of the Deity Dozen, Levin anticipated announcing a collective smoking of cannabis (Walsh 2015; Nelson 2015). However, when local police gathered outside the church before its first service, Levin deferred smoking of cannabis for that day.
The First Church of Cannabis is an independent church and is not affiliated with any other religious group or denomination. The church is incorporated under Indiana law in 2015, which only means that it is registered as a business through the Secretary of State’s office. The incorporation document simply approved the church as a religious corporation with the stated intent ‘to start a church based on love and understanding with compassion for all’ (Wenck 2015). Incorporation does not include accreditation or approval of the church as a religious organization (Bailey 2015).
More importantly, the church was granted 501 (c) (3) non-profit charitable status in 2015. The letter sent to the church read in part (Internal Revenue Service 2015):
We are pleased to inform you that upon review of your application for tax exempt status we have determined that you are exempt from Federal income tax under section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code. Contributions to you are deductible under section 170 of the Code. You are also qualified to receive tax deductible bequests, devises, transfers or gifts under section 2055, 2106 or 2522 of the Code.
As founder of the First Church of Cannabis, Bill Levin serves as the “Grand Poobah and Minister of Love,” and refers to members of the church as “Cannabeterians” (Klausner, 2015).
The church has funded its start-up through Go Fund Me, a crowdfunding organization and individual donations. The Church of Cannabis is implementing a membership program through which individuals will pledge approximately fifty dollars annually to the church (Walsh, 2015; Bailey 2015). One use for the funds, beyond rental space for meetings, initially was a planned permanent building. Levin envisioned constructing the building out of hempcrete, which consists of the core of hemp plants with a lime binder, although hempcrete is not a currently approved building material (Wenck 2015). However, shortly before the church held its first service, Levin announced that services would be held at the Strait Gate Christian Church and that he had secured sufficient funding to purchase the property (Hindmon and Thomas 2015).
In addition to supporters who will constitute its local congregation, the church has drawn several tens of thousands of followers through Facebook where Levin recruits followers with the following message (Tomlin 2015):
“Are other religions just not satifing [sic] your need for spirituality? Has your faith left the standard church doctrine? Well, I have an answer. I have created the FIRST CHURCH OF CANNABIS. A church based on LOVE and FAITH with the plant we know and love.”
Levin has announced that smoking of cannabis is welcome during church services because it is a sacrament: “If someone is smoking in our church, God bless them” (Bailey 2015). However, the church will not supply or sell cannabis to parishioners. Further, the church does not support alcohol or heroin use and is planning outreach programs to combat both (Wenck 2015).
The impetus for the formation of the First Church of Cannabis originated with passage of Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act. The Indiana law is modeled after the 1993 federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which was passed after the Supreme Court ruled that Native American Church sacramental peyote use did not offer constitutional protection that would trump state drug use laws. More generally, the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act did not apply to state laws. Twenty states have passed similar religious freedom legislation. The principles underlying both the state and federal statutes are that governments may not substantially burden individuals’ exercise of religion, even if the burden is created by a general law, except when the law addresses a “compelling governmental interest” and employs the “least restrictive means” of furthering that interest.
Considerable controversy emerged over the law as it was seen by opponents as a vehicle for business owners to discriminate against sexual minorities, (by refusing to offer goods or services for same-sex weddings, for example) by making an assertion of religious belief, a charge denied by supporters of the law (Eckholm 2015; Editorial Board 2015; Easley 2015; Grant 2015).
Possession, use, production, and distribution of cannabis are illegal under Indiana law, as is medicinal prescription. Levin saw in the Indiana religious freedom statute, to which he was initially opposed, an opportunity to legally allow sacramental use of cannabis. If cannabis was used sacramentally and the state did not have a compelling state interest in regulating its sacramental use, then the formation of church in which cannabis was a sacrament might pass legal muster. Indeed, Levin states that when he realized this possibility he had a “divine vision ” and was “ born again,” leading to his creation of the First Church of Cannabis (Wenck 2015; Klausner 2015). Legal and constitutional experts remained dubious that Levin and his church would prevail in the courts, but the response of the courts and law enforcement agencies had yet to be determined at that time. When police did appear at the first church service on July 1, Levin simply deferred the smoking of marijuana so that the issue could be resolved in civil courts rather than as a result of criminal arrest. There was a small amount of controversy, however, as “some neighbors posted yellow “Caution” tape around their yards to keep people away. A group from a nearby church marched outside with signs in protest. (Davey 2015). Levin followed up by filing a civil lawsuit in Marion Circuit Court in Indianapolis asserting that the church believed marijuana to be a sacrament. The suit named both Governor Mike Pence and several state and local law enforcement officers (“Pot-smoking Indianapolis Church Sues” 2015).
In July 2018, the three year-old civil suit finally was decided. Judge Sheryl Lynch stated in her decision that “the city and state satisfied a crucial aspect of the RFRA law: showing the state had a “compelling interest” in not carving out a limited exception in marijuana laws.” She went on to assert that “permitting a religious exemption to laws that prohibit the use and possession of marijuana would hinder drug enforcement efforts statewide and negatively impact public health and safety” because “law enforcement officers have to make “case-by-case determinations during criminal investigations as to whether an individual’s religious beliefs legally justify [using cannabis].” The day after the decision was handed down, Levin responded on Facebook that “It’s far from over. We are just getting started” (Alesia 2018). The church has announced that it intends to appeal.
Alesia, Mark. 2018. “Judge Dismisses Cannabis Church’s Case that Cited RFRA to Defend Pot as a Sacrament.” Indianapolis Star, July 7. Accessed from https://www.indystar.com/story/news/2018/07/07/first-church-cannabis-loses-lawsuit-marion-circuit-court/764407002/?utm_source=Pew+Research+Center&utm_campaign=b653f69ea3-EMAIL_CAMPAIGN_2018_07_ on 9 July 2018.
Bailey, Sarah Pulliam. 2015. “The First Church of Cannabis was approved after Indiana ‘ s religious freedom law was passed.” The Washington Post, March 30. Accessed from http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/acts-of-faith/wp/2015/03/30/the-first-church-of-cannabis-was-approved-after-indianas-religious-freedom-law-was-passed/ on 8 June 2015.
Bryant, Joe. 2012. “Meet Bill Levin Of Indiana: Registered Cannabis Lobbyist With ‘Re-Legalize Indiana’.” The Weed Blog, May 15. Accessed from http://www.theweedblog.com/meet-bill-levin-of-indiana-registered-cannabis-lobbyist-with-re-legalize-indiana/ on 14 June 2015.
Chasmar, Jessica. 2015. “Marijuana church given tax-exempt status in Indiana: ‘ Somebody at the IRS loves us’ .” The Washington Times, June 1. Accessed from http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2015/jun/1/marijuana-church-wins-tax-exempt-status-in-indiana/ on 8 June 2015.
Davey, Monica. “A Church of Cannabis Tests Limits of Religious Law in Indiana.” New York Times, July 1. Accessed fromhttp://www.nytimes.com/2015/07/02/us/a-church-of-cannabis-tests-limits-of-religious-law-in-indiana.html?ref=todayspaper&_r=0 on 2 July 2015.
Easley, Jonathan. 2015. “GOP Hopefuls Back Indiana Religious Freedom Law.” The Hill, March 30. Accessed from http://thehill.com/blogs/ballot-box/presidential-races/237435-gop-contenders-back-indiana-religious-freedom-law on 15 June 2015.
Eckholm, Erik. 2015. “Religious Protection Laws, Once Called Shields, Are Now Seen as Cudgels.” New York Times, March 30. Accessed from
http://www.nytimes.com/2015/03/31/us/politics/eroding-freedom-in-the-name-of-religious-freedom.html?emc=edit_th_20150331&nl=todaysheadlines&nlid=32729527&_r=0 on 15 June 2015.
Editorial Board. 2015. “In Indiana, Using Religion as a Cover for Bigotry.” New York Times, March 31. Accessed from http://www.nytimes.com/2015/03/31/opinion/in-indiana-using-religion-as-a-cover-for-bigotry.html?emc=edit_th_20150331&nl=todaysheadlines&nlid=32729527 on 15 June 2015.
Grant, Tobin. 2015. “ Why No One Understands Indiana’s New Religious Freedom Law.” Accessed from http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/acts-of-faith/wp/2015/03/30/why-no-one-understands-indianas-new-religious-freedom-law/ on 15 June 2015.
Hindmon, Jade and Derrik Thomas. 2015.”First Church of Cannabis to Open Doors July 1. “The Indy Channel, June 10. Accessed from http://www.theindychannel.com/news/local-news/first-church-of-cannabis-to-open-doors-july-1 on 15 June 2015.
Hoppe, David. 2009. “ Bill Levin: Chief of Mischief. ” NUVO Indy ‘ s Alternative Voice, April 8. Accessed from http://www.nuvo.net/indianapolis/bill-levin-chief-of-mischief/Content?oid=1271995 on 8 June 2015
Hoppe, David. 2007. “Bill Levin’s Broad Ripple: Community Development As Performance Art.” NUVO Indy’s Alternative Voice, September 12. Accessed from http://www.nuvo.net/indianapolis/bill-levins-broad-ripple/Content?oid=1231358 on 8 June 2015.
Internal Revenue Service. 2015. “Letter to Church of Cannabis, Inc.,” May 21. Cincinnati, Ohio: Internal Revenue Service, Department of Treasury.
Klausner, Alexandra. 2015. “ Church Dedicated to Worshipping Marijuana ‘As a Health Supplement’ Forms in Indiana (but it is still prohibited in state).” Daily Mail, June 7. Accessed from http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-3114398/Holy-smokes-legal-church-cannabis-sprouts-Indiana-medicinal-medical-marijuana-use-prohibited-state.html on 8 June 2015.
Nelson, Steven. 2015. “Indiana Church Plans Pot-Smoking Worship Service in Test of Religious Freedom.” U.S.News, May 12. Accessed from http://www.usnews.com/news/articles/2015/05/12/indiana-church-plans-pot-smoking-worship-service-in-test-of-religious-freedom on 10 June 2015.
Nelson, Steven. 2015. “Indiana’s Church of Cannabis Growing Like a Weed.” U.S. News, April 2. Accessed from http://www.usnews.com/news/articles/2015/04/02/indianas-church-of-cannabis-growing-like-a-weed on 10 June 2015.
Nuvo Editors. 2011. “At Large Candidate: Bill Levin, Libertarian.” NUVO Indy‘s Alternative Voice, October 5. Accessed from http://www.nuvo.net/indianapolis/at-large-candidate-bill-levin-libertarian/Content?oid=2358805 on 8 June 2015.
“Pot-smoking Indianapolis Church Sues Over Marijuana Laws.” Associated Press, July 8. Accessed from
http://bigstory.ap.org/article/17f212c837224847a2094fb7931085e1/pot-smoking-indianapolis-church-sues-over-marijuana-laws on 10 July 2015.
Tomlin, Gregory. 2015. “Indiana’s First Church of Cannabis Opens July 1.” Christian Examiner, May 13. Accessed from http://www.christianexaminer.com/article/indianas.first.church.of.cannabis.service.set.for.july.1/48933.htm on 14 July 2015.
Tuohy, John. 2015. “ IRS Dubs First Church of Cannabis a Nonprofit. ” USA Today, June 3. Accessed from http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/politics/2015/06/02/first-church-of-cannabis/28364521/ on 8 June 2015
Walsh, Michael. 2015. “Tune In, toke Up, Smile Big: Introducing The First Church of Cannabis.” Yahoo News, June 6. Accessed from http://news.yahoo.com/tune-in–toke-up–smile-big–introducing-the-first-church-of-cannabis-155421770.html on 8 June 2015.
Wenck, Ed. 2015. “Holy Smoke: Bill Levin ‘ s First Church of Cannabis.” NUVO Indy‘s Alternative Voice, April 22. Accessed from http://www.nuvo.net/indianapolis/holy-smoke-bill-levins-first-church-of-cannabis/Content?oid=3116589 on 8 June 2015.
Wood, Robert W. 2015. “IRS Approves First Church of Cannabis. What’s Next For Marijuana?” Forbes, June 1. Accessed from http://www.forbes.com/sites/robertwood/2015/06/01/irs-approves-first-church-of-cannabis-whats-next-for-marijuana/ on 8 June 2015.
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