Doing hard drugs legally is as easy as joining this man's church, and everyone's welcome
Many people don’t care whether the drugs they do are legal. But tens of thousands who do care are expanding an old front in the Drug War, and winning legal rights with an unexpected ally: god.
From Washington to Florida, people are claiming that certain natural drugs — especially marijuana, peyote, mushrooms and ayahuasca — feed their souls, and are successfully arguing they have a legal religious right to do them.
Call it the Holy War phase of the War on Drugs, war.
There are already solid legal rulings letting certain churches do peyote and ayahuasca. The Peyote Way Church of God, in the remote southeastern corner of Arizona, has been left alone since 1978. With the psychedelic revival in full swing, and news coming daily of the positive benefits of these drugs, more people are making valid religious arguments — and succeeding.
No group has been more successful than the Oklevueha Native American Church, or ONAC, headed by James “Flaming Eagle” Mooney, an affable, grandfatherly man reached via Skype. He says that a Utah church ruled they, the Oklevueha church (pronounced OCK-la-va, rhymes with baklava), can use peyote. ONAC is using that ruling as precedent to say they can do any drug that comes from the Earth. And, for the most part, the government is leaving them alone to do just that. Mooney, for example, spoke with us from the comfort of his home, not a jail cell.
There are now 300 ONAC-affiliated churches, Mooney says, from a mushroom-eating church in Alabama to an ayahuasca-drinking church in Kentucky. Former marijuana shops in California are also transforming into ONAC churches. A year and a half ago, there were 2000 members of ONAC; membership has since grown tenfold to 20,000 members in four different countries. Mooney predicts they’ll grow in the next couple years to 250,000, making them one of the fastest growing religions in the world.
Though there have been legal losses for the religious drug movement. Mooney’s son lost an important court case, where Hawaiian officials denied their claim of ingestible marijuana being a sacrament. Rastafarians also have very limited legal cover. In 1996, a man caught with four pounds of cannabis claimed he had a marijuana church; the court ruled against him.
And yet, this is more than just some vague legal argument, or an excuse for people to get jacked up and escape from reality. Real human happiness hangs in the balance.
A Broomfield, Colo., man named Tim Fenton is slow-talking, with a soft handshake and sad eyes. He says he’s had depression so bad he’s lost jobs and partners in the past. The best treatment he’s found is high doses of psilocybin. Fenton says they help him stay employed.
Fenton would be doing what he’s doing regardless of the legal status; the depression is that bad. “There comes to be a threshold with certain conditions where people will stop caring whether the cures are legal or not,” he says. But he feels safer walking around with a plastic card from the Oklevueha Native American Church, which reads: “The person secured with this card has met the standard of sincerity to be a member … [which] qualifies this cardholder to carry and/or possess Native American Church Sacraments including but not limited to Peyote, Ayahuasca, Cannabis, Psilocybin Mushrooms & Fungi, etc.”
Will the card work? Mooney says it will. He tells his members that, if they get caught with anything, not to talk to authorities — not a word — and to contact ONAC right away.
“We don’t have the money to hire your attorneys, but we have the information to tell your attorneys that’s bulletproof and will get you off,” Mooney said. “We’ve got them by the short hairs, and it’s a matter of time before it’s all clean and clear.”
When asked about their perspective on these religious churches, and whether adherents should feel comfortable using drugs, a DEA representative in Washington said the organization doesn’t “have a perspective,” and added, “we just follow the law.” After continuing about the murky conditions of the law, the spokesperson seemed confused, recalled that “a church did win at the Supreme Court,” apparently referencing this case, then routed our call to a different contact, who still hasn’t called back.
This confusion gives sufferers real hope. A Dallas army vet named John Cooper, who was blown up twice by roadside bombs in Iraq and suffers brain damage and PTSD because of it, says mushrooms help his depression and eased his mental health concerns. As soon as he heard about ONAC, he sought membership.
“I’m an American; I am a native of America,” Cooper says, “so that makes me Native American.”
In fact, it doesn’t matter; you don’t have to be native American to join a native American church, a court ruled, in the same way you don’t have to be Roman to be Roman Catholic or Greek to be Greek orthodox.
“Once this gets out, it’s going to explode,” Mooney says, “it’s flipping going to explode."
Others are picking up on Mooney’s idea. A big-haired guy named “Rick” was talking to friends recently when he announced to them his big plan.
“I’m thinking about starting my own religion to do ayahuasca,” Rick said. “There’s a loophole in the constitution that lets you do it.”
Americans have always used religion — both sincerely and selfishly — as a way of doing what they want, from the Pilgrims to Mormons with 19 wives to Christian Scientists who don’t want to take their kids to the doctor. The Church of Body Modification argued that eyebrow rings are sacred, and so employees can’t be fired for wearing them, and students can't be suspended. (They win some and lose some.) The Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster believes that colanders are sacred headgear they must wear in driver's license photos. (They’re winning.) A teen heartthrob from “Ten Things I Hate About You” started a religion that sells kombucha, a drink which has a smidge of alcohol in it, without a permit. (He got raided.)
Advances in wars often happen under a fog. Just as the exemption for medical cannabis was the route through which marijuana first became legal in places like Colorado and Washington, so could the exemptions for the religious uses of mushrooms, ayahuasca and peyote work in much the same way, and be the door through which legalization spreads to include everyone.
Rick doesn’t know exactly how he’ll move forward with his new church. He knows he doesn’t plan to have dogma or rules or dues or oaths or pointy hats or latin incantations or special underwear. He just wants to sit with his friends and do helpful drugs. But he thinks he might already have a name:
“The Church of the Future.”