In the summer of 1982, Dennis Erlich was smoking weed with his brother and a friend when he had an epiphany: marijuana and Scientology provided the same feelings of omniscience and understanding. Erlich was a highly trained minister in the Church of Scientology, having reached Operating Thetan Level III.
But 13 years later, in 1995, the Church of Scientology and police raided Erlich's house in Glendale with a court order in hand — an incident documented on video and by an L.A. Times photographer — to seize allegedly copyrighted church files he'd been sharing online as an early crusader against the religion.
All, he says, because of a little pot.
Erlich, 67, has advised and counseled hundreds of former cult members online, over the phone and in person at his current home in Palm Springs through what he calls the InFormer Ministry.
A key piece of his advice? Smoke some cannabis.
"When a person is in a cult, his thinking is all wound up really very tightly, and when you smoke marijuana the synapses go wild," Erlich says. "It's the perfect way to melt the frozen thought patterns that a cult member assumes within."
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Erlich carefully plans his smoke sessions with those still recovering from psychological effects of being in cults such as Children of God. "It's not just a, 'Hey, let's get high' kind of a situation," he says. He asks people how they think they ended up in the situation, then allows them to lead the conversation while the weed opens their mind.
Of course, Erlich also encourages his subjects to get their legal documents in order, see a doctor, reconnect with family members, rediscover any artistic pursuits and spend time with "normal, sane" people. But he says marijuana just might be the thing that helps someone to readjust to the real world.
Erlich also grows his own pot, which he sells to the dispensary Organic Solutions of the Desert, in addition to supplying friends, neighbors and the half-dozen former cult members who drop by each year for help and support.
"It's not a particularly high-falutin' program that I run," he says. "It's more of a heart-to-heart thing, and the people know I really care about them because I don't want anything from them."