First Church of Cannabis hosts first service Wednesday without pot

Published:
Updated:

There was no lighting up at the first ceremony of the First Church of Cannabis on the Indianapolis south side Wednesday. Indianapolis Metro Police threatened to arrest anyone who was smoking marijuana, and many officers were on hand for the service.

Police say there were no arrests or any other problems after around 150 worshipers turned out for the service. A circus-like atmosphere prevailed, though, between the media attention and founder Bill Levin. He got full rock-star treatment as he entered the church with a cigar dangling from his mouth. With his wispy white hair and its tendency to fly in all directions, Levin cuts an eccentric figure.

Levin placed stickers identifying the church on the mailbox Monday. Inside, a large mural covers one wall, a take on Michelangelo's "Creation of Man."

"God handing cannabis to man," remarked Levin, who calls himself "the Grand Poobah and first minister of love for the first church of cannabis."

Dozens of journalists documented the service, which began with strong words. Police and prosecutors warned last week that anyone who attended the Church of Cannabis inaugural event July 1 could be subject to arrest and charges.

"The pedestal of life," Levin intoned. "This is the exact opposite of the sin-box that other religions have."

Testimonials followed. "I have several diseases that are trying to kill me and the only thing that seems to help is the medical marijuana," said one woman.

A young man with glasses told the congregation, "I have veterans who need cannabis for PTSD."

Inside the church, the message was about peace and love, while a strong police presence could be seen outside, along with food trucks and people strumming guitars. A group of protesters gathered to voice their opposition, including a pastor from a nearby church.

"We don't believe that a church should be used as a forum to commit illegal behavior," said Pastor Bill Jenkins, Church of Acts. "We are standing up against it because we understand what it could bring into the neighborhood."

The service ended with Levin and others lighting up - but they kept their promise and didn't use marijuana. Afterwards, Levin vowed services would continue, along with challenging state law.

"We have our attorneys doing the hoo-doo voo-doo that they do so well, the magic paperwork," he said.

"Due to the threat of police action against our religion I feel it is important to celebrate life's great adventure in our first service without the use of cannabis," Levin said in a Facebook post earlier this week. "The police dept has wagged a display of shameless misconceptions and voluntary ignorance."

IMPD warning

"This is not the way to challenge a law," said IMPD Chief Rick Hite last week. "You can't expect police to stand by and watch it happen."

Levin said, "I want to know what the chief is smoking when he makes those kind of irrational comments. It must be pretty good."

Police and prosecutors say they are enforcing the law, that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act that takes effect Wednesday is not about exempt pot smoking in church.

"This is not about breaking laws. This is about life's great adventure. And having a good time while doing it," Levin said.

So he says he'll go to civil court first to win the right to smoke pot in services.

"I do not want any of our congregants to be put in a position where they will be jailed or harmed by an officer of the law. The law has come on to where they are being very prejudice against our religion and we will deal with it in a civil court," Levin said Monday.

"We are religious, based on the cornerstone of love, so I see no need to feed into the us versus them frenzy the chief of police is trying to create," Levin said.

Neighbors' concerns

Drugs have taken a toll in their neighborhood. Four people died in a drug-related shooting right around the corner last year. Wendy Ottinger does drug counseling and has concerns about the church's impact.

"Our concern is when you bring in marijuana, even though his main issue is marijuana, usually other drugs follow," she said.

Services are planned every Wednesday at 7pm. Levin remains coy about whether or not future services will include the smoking of marijuana.