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SACRAMENT OR SACRILEGE?

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Pubdate: Sun, 27 Aug 2000
Source: Record, The (CA)
Copyright: 2000 The Record
Contact: editor@recordnet.com
Address: P.O. Box 900, Stockton, CA 95201
Fax: (209) 547-8186

Author: Christopher Lewis, Record Staff Writer


SACRAMENT OR SACRILEGE?

Marijuana Ministry Pits Church Against Law

WALLACE -- For members of Northern Lights Church in Calaveras County, the already
hazy lines between religion, medicine and politics intersected at minister Sue Garner's front
door at 9 a.m. Aug. 2.

Garner found herself lying face first on the front porch in a T-shirt and underwear as masked
sheriff's deputies pointed guns at her head, she said.

Along with her husband, minister Rick Garner, and their 15-year-old son, Garner said she
was handcuffed and marched past a screened-in sanctuary in the yard, where deputies were
destroying almost 300 potted marijuana plants.

They also were desecrating a church, fellow Northern Lights minister David Jack said.

"This sacrilege was worse than rape," Jack said. "I was just sickened. They were putting us
out of business as a religion."

The church, next door to Garner's house, cultivates medicinal cannabis for ill parishioners in
accordance with Proposition 215, he says. Northern Lights is considering legal action while
the district attorney weighs the evidence.

It's just the latest conflict sprouting from the ambiguity of Proposition 215, which permits
people suffering from certain medical conditions to use marijuana with a doctor's approval.

Picked apart by the courts and challenged by the federal government, the 1996
Compassionate Use Initiative got a boost last month when a federal judge cleared the way for
an Oakland dispensary to provide cannabis for people who face "imminent harm" from a
medical condition.

Jack also considers marijuana a holy sacrament, an ancillary First Amendment argument that
further clouds the medical rights debate. It's another pitfall for law enforcement charged with
protecting a community from what's either a social menace, an alternative drug treatment or a
spiritual pathway used even in Bible times.

Thomas Roberts, author of "Religion and Psychoactive Sacraments: An Entheogen
Chrestomathy," says the government's war on drugs becomes trapped in a religious debate.

"And of all the swamps, that's the hardest one to get stuck in," Roberts said.

At its Philadelphia Yearly Meeting in March, even The Religious Society of Friends chastised
the federal government's violent drug war for hurting the economy and for "the curtailment of
civil liberties and the demonizing of 'enemies.' "

Eric Sterling, a Quaker and a former congressional aide who helped author some of the
anti-drug laws of the 1980s, is rethinking his society's historical prohibitionist view of
narcotics, including medical cases.

"I could see a church (like Northern Lights) saying, 'We're the last people who want to see
drug abuse in the community,' " said Sterling, president of Criminal Justice Policy Foundation
in Washington, D.C.

During the church raid, Jack said, authorities confiscated financial documents and
parishioners' private medical records, sullied the church's name in a conservative community
and deprived some 20 patients of their only legal, organically safe supply of marijuana.

However, Calaveras County Sheriff Dennis Downum said members of this dubious "church"
are getting more than a medical or spiritual high.

"You're going to see a lot of horrendous contradictions and people trying to distance
themselves from the (church)," Downum predicted. "I think it was a front for a marijuana
operation."

Confusing law

The Ethiopian Zion Coptic Church, which has faced legal battles over its marijuana
sacrament, describes religion, politics and commerce as the "three unclean spirits which
separate the people from their God."

Regarding Proposition 215, however, "(The law) just wants to separate the good guys from
the bad guys," Nathan Barankin of the California attorney general's office said. "It's very
complicated."

Downum is frustrated by a "horribly written" law that he said leaves law enforcement wide
open to trouble.

That's why state Sen. John Vasconcellos, D-Santa Clara, is spearheading a bill to clean up
the law's vague language, spokesman Rand Martin said.

Jack sees Northern Lights as a "caregiver" under Proposition 215. But in the bill, the term
applies to individuals or skilled-nursing facilities, Martin said. Churches have a better chance
of being recognized by the state as a "cooperative" growing marijuana, if anything, Martin
said.

The bill would create a statewide registry for medicinal marijuana users carrying an
identification card -- "a get-out-of-jail-free card," as Martin puts it, like those distributed by
some Bay Area dispensaries.

Such uniformity would ensure that Proposition 215 is implemented and enforced in San
Francisco the same as it is in more conservative areas like Stockton, Martin said.

"They're more keenly tuned to drug problems (in the Central Valley), because they're the
centerpiece ... of the drug-growing culture. They're more suspect of individual's claiming
(Proposition) 215 as a defense," Martin said.

But the church raid smacked of religious politics, according to Jack.

"We had nothing to hide," Jack said.

Jack points to a Calaveras County counsel letter noting that the "private sector" could freely
operate a dispensary, and also to a sign at the front gate of the church compound that
identifies the operation.

Downum and Jack both sit on a medical-marijuana task force established by the county
Board of Supervisors. Last week, Jack objected to a personal-use limit endorsed by
Downum and the task force.

Downum said: "You have to do more than provide drugs (to be a church). There were no
pews. Basically there was a set of drums and a whole bunch of marijuana plants."

The sheriff says it's his duty to serve constituents who moved to Calaveras County to escape
urban crime and drugs. He'll "plead guilty" to having a traditional view of church -- he says
he'd be more shocked and offended if Northern Lights was a Baptist church with a steeple.

"I don't have to defend my religion to anybody," said minister Rick Garner, who uses
marijuana to relieve his rheumatoid arthritis. "We're not Rastafarians dancing around the fire
naked, jacked up on some chemical and using the Constitution as an excuse."

Founded in January, Northern Lights is affiliated with the interdenominational Universal Life
Church in Modesto. Jack adheres to The Urantia Book, an anthology of 196 "papers" on
science, philosophy and theology, mysteriously compiled by supernatural beings, followers
believe. The 2,000-page book discounts such biblical doctrine as original sin and atonement.

A congregation of 20 to 40 people has held church services in homes, at parks and at the
Wallace compound.

But Jack has suspended services to protect its nerve-wracked parishioners. The church now
exists only on a Web page, where Jack posts sermons.

"We're going to resolve this. Our faith will survive," Jack reassured a parishioner one recent
afternoon during a visit to his home.

"Richard" said he has two small organic cannabis plants that will last him through Christmas if
the church folds. His Catholic family was aghast when he started using cannabis six years
ago to treat his multiple sclerosis.

"The marijuana plant has (spiritual) powers. It's a magic plant," he said.

Not to neighbor Robert LaCasse, who anonymously circulated a letter criticizing the church.

"These are not religious people on a mission for the disabled," said LaCasse, 49, of Valley
Springs.

He said parishioners have threatened him for complaining and boasted about turning a profit.

"People will always focus on the rare (medical) cases to justify the broad use of it, ... to
further their agenda and legalize marijuana," LaCasse said.

Jack said he carefully screens patients, who use marijuana because their conventional
medicine has proved ineffective or induced harmful side effects. Many are too sick to travel
to Bay Area dispensaries, where cannabis is expensive, in limited supply and sometimes
tainted.

"We preach that it's not safe to smoke it," said Jack, who spreads cannabis butter on his
morning toast to maintain his balance weakened by a brain stem tumor.

He shows patients how to use a vaporizer to inhale the drug crystals or how to ingest the
drug.

Last week Jack stopped by "Heather's" house with a cannabis cookbook. Heather bought
some contaminated marijuana on a Stockton street corner last year, a last resort for her
soft-tissue disease. She voted against Proposition 215 in 1996.

"People who are in pain need to be ministered to. The desperation cannot even be
described," said Heather, raised Baptist. "The church is understanding."

Ancient custom

Marijuana's place in religion is much older than its trip through the court of law or public
consciousness.

Roberts says the role of psychoactive drugs in religious rites is evident in Hindu Sanskrit
writings from 3000 B.C., when "soma" was gleaned from a mushroom, and in ancient
Greece, where the ergot fungus used on religious pilgrimages was later discovered as LSD.

Legislation signed by President Clinton in 1994 restored the Native American Church's use of
the cactus-extract peyote in religious ceremonies.

Some people still consider cannabis a God-given source of protein-rich food, clothing, paper
and medicine -- here the boundaries of government and religion blur.

"It's all medical and spiritual, ultimately," John Stahl of Mendocino County said.

Taking LSD allows Stahl to "see God ... in a profound religious experience," while marijuana
relieves his joint pains. Marijuana also eased his wife's suffering before she died of cancer,
he said.

Stahl said law enforcement tolerates his loosely organized Church of the Living Tree, where
10 people living on a 65-acre compound work to preserve trees by pounding out paper
products from hemp fiber.

The son and grandson of Methodist ministers, Stahl no longer attends formal church
services.

"I'm at church all the time -- it's in the garden and trees around me," he said.

No religious experience is authentic if it requires a drug to alter the senses, said the Rev.
Ralph Silva of Stockton.

"We don't allow anything other than the Holy Spirit to control us," said Silva, who pastors
Berea Baptist Church of Morada. "We are complete in Jesus."

Robert Schmidt had a drug-free religious experience. It actually drove him out of a
Pentecostal church after God gave him a vision of his life's mission, he claims.

The vision came to fruition two years ago. Schmidt opened a nonprofit organization in
Petaluma that grows some 50 marijuana plants for about 200 patients and provides for Bay
Area cannabis clubs and several hospitals and hospices he won't name.

His cannabis operation is called Genesis 1:29, where God tells Adam and Eve: "I give you
every seed-bearing plant on the face of the whole Earth. ..."

Schmidt dropped out of Marin Christian Life Bible College in Novato in 1987 after people
spurned his questions about marijuana references in the Bible.

Likewise, the Coptic Church claims the Old Testament Israelites and Jesus and his disciples
used cannabis.

It says numerous passages about incense, clouds and smoke were mistranslated in a
conspiracy by the Catholic Church and Western governments.

For example, the root words for "reed" or "hemp" in Exodus Chapter 30 were erroneously
transcribed as "sweet cane," the church says.

"It's utter nonsense," said the Rev. Michael Guinan, a priest from the Franciscan School of
Theology in Berkeley and a 1956 graduate of St. Mary's High School in Stockton. "I've
been teaching Hebrew 30 years, and I've never seen anything on marijuana in the Bible."

Guinan said the Coptics botched both the word and the translation in Exodus -- it really
means "measuring stick."

Schmidt admits his own drug history has been less than holy. He smuggled dope from South
America and nearly overdosed on several occasions.

Today he uses marijuana only to relieve a "black lung" condition from his years as a shipyard
welder.

One possible way to separate the wheat from the chaff is for seminaries or religious orders to
train clergy to screen and educate candidates for medicinal marijuana, Roberts suggests.

Until then, "(People) are just going to have to take it in faith that I am firm in the fear of
God," Schmidt said. "Get over it. The Old Man made (cannabis). We are good stewards of
what God provides."
MAP posted-by: Richard Lake