L.A.'s Spiritual Communities Use Marijuana to Reach a Higher Power

A ganja smoker in KolkataEXPAND
A ganja smoker in Kolkata
Biswarup Ganguly / Wikimedia commons

When R.J. Katz takes a hit of weed, he first asks himself why he's doing it. "I realized if the intention is a conscious thought, I'm able to hit the pipe with any intention in mind. So I decided to try it as an offering to a higher power or God, or Krishna [one of the mostly widely worshipped Hindu gods]," says Katz, a 20-something musician and activist. He likes to smoke before practicing yoga because it helps him focus inward and deepen his practice of meditation. Sometimes he'll chant a mantra, with mala Hindu prayer beads or quartz crystal in hand. Katz admits he doesn't actually need the mala beads, the crystal or cannabis to connect spiritually. "But all these tools are wonderful for deepening my practice, especially when first starting," he says.

With Angelenos' easy access to weed, coupled with the advent of 420 yoga classes and other new age–y practices, the link between cannabis and spirituality may seem like a timely trend — especially galvanized by the passage of Proposition 64, California's legalization measure. As marijuana moves to become a bigger part of life in California, more people are exploring the substance beyond medical or recreational uses. A marijuana spirituality movement is shifting from the fringes of society toward acceptance. However, the use of cannabis in religion dates back to antiquity, rooted in timeworn rituals from around the world.

Thanks to Bob Marley, Rastafarianism is perhaps the most obvious example of a religion that integrates cannabis, conjuring up images of dreadlocked reggae artists in a haze of billowy weed smoke somewhere in Jamaica. Rastas believe that using ganja, also called the holy herb or the wisdom weed, is sacred; in fact, using weed merely to get high is condemned.

Smoking the holy herb is a ritual, beginning with a common prayer: "Glory be the father and to the maker of creation. As it was in the beginning is now and ever shall be World without end. Jah Rastafari: Eternal God Selassie I." It's believed that Emperor Haile Selassie I of Ethiopia was the Messiah. Rastas also believe that the "Tree of Life" is a cannabis plant, and turn to passages in the Bible to support the use of weed: "The herb is the healing of the nations" (Revelation 22:2), "Eat every herb of the land" (Exodus 10:12), "He causeth the grass for the cattle, and herb for the services of man" (Psalm 104:14).

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Esteemed as a portal to understanding, ganja is commonly used in Rastafari reasoning sessions, or community meditation gatherings. During these sessions, a group commonly smokes from a chalice, or shared pipe, helping them share ideas, evoke visions and strengthen the community.

Established in the 1930s, Rastafarianism is a fairly recent 420-friendly religion, in contrast with Christianity, Hinduism or Judaism. In India, cannabis is also sometimes called "ganja," derived from the Sanskrit word "ganjika." Hindu tradition sacralizes cannabis in its connection to Lord Shiva, god of destruction and transformation.

Shiva is also the lord or "father of yoga," explains Govind Das, owner of Santa Monica's Bhakti Yoga Shala. It's said that all yoga practices come from Lord Shiva. "He's also considered the lord of mind-altering substances, and one of those that he's most deeply associated with is cannabis in the form of ganja, the flowers, charas, a type of hashish, and bhang, a potion made with the leaves, ghee and specific herbs," Das says. Bhang is considered to be a "sister" of the goddess and holy river Mother Ganges in Northern India.

According to Hindu mythology, Shiva would often leave the house to wander in the woods or meditate in the mountains. To lure him to stay home, Shiva's wife, the goddess Parvati, decided to make him bhang, though she wouldn't say what was in it. "It was an extremely powerful concoction, and he drinks it and because of that, is able to stay home and be with his family," Das says.

The annual festival Shivaratri is the holiest day of the year for Shiva devotees. On this day, it's very accepted to take some form of bhang, ganja, or charas — smoked out of a chillum, or clay pipe.

"It's called Shiva's prasad [offering], Shiva's blessed gift that he gives to us," Das says, "and when we puff it and make an offering back to him, it helps take us into the Shiva state of consciousness — a pure yogic state of consciousness, a unitive state of awareness when we're able to transcend ego, personality and body, and experience oneness with the universe."

For Hindus, and especially Shiva devotees, cannabis is used as a sacrament, its use always preceded by a chant or prayer, such as "Jai Shiva Shankara Hare Hare Ganja" ("Shiva the joy giver, grant us infinity from the ganja"). In the yogic philosophy, it's key that cannabis is always used for meditative and spiritually uplifting purposes, rather than for recreation, Das says. Shiva devotees commonly use cannabis in the morning, right after their bath, and right before practicing yoga, including the postures and devotional chanting.

Cannabis is also linked to ayurveda, an ancient Hindu medicinal system, based on balancing the body through diet, herbs and yoga. "In my philosophy, [cannabis] is a medicine because it helps unwind our mental disturbances, [which] is where physical disease starts from — our mental imbalance," Das says. In ayurveda, cannabis is classified as "sharp, heating and light." Ayurveda emphasizes that when used correctly, cannabis can be medicinal but, when used incorrectly, it can be a "poison."

In Judeo-Christian traditions, cannabis is also upheld in religious ritual. Ancient Jewish text refers to the practice of lighting kitaret, or incense made in part from kaneh-bosm (Biblical Hebrew for what's often thought to mean cannabis). "From the mystical Hasidic or Kabbalistic perspective, incense is something that connects you, it's a portal between the divine and the embodied, between the physical and spiritual," says Rishe Groner, founder of a Jewish mystical movement, the Gene-Sis, and a former speaker at the Jewish conference Limmud, where she led a workshop called "The Torah of Marijuana: Is Cannabis Kosher?"

An orthodox man, with hand wrapped in tefillin prayer accessory, holds a kosher edible.
An orthodox man, with hand wrapped in tefillin prayer accessory, holds a kosher edible.
Ahron Moeller

It's said that the Baal Shem Tov, the 18th-century founder of the Hasidic movement, lived in the mountains of Eastern Europe, where he collected herbs. "It was known that he had a pipe filled with tobacco, which had a really heady aroma and would transport him to new spaces," Groner says. "Whether or not that was cannabis, the fact is the idea of using these as sacraments. Using a spice or herb as a sacrament isn't unfamiliar."

In Judaism, wine, food and spices are sacralized on various occasions, including the weekly ritual to welcome the Sabbath on Friday nights and the new week on Saturday nights. "We can take that knowledge of how to create a ritual and a sacrament around something physical and apply that to cannabis," Groner says. "I bless cannabis before I use it. In Judaism, there are blessings before you eat any food, so in any ritual you make a blessing in gratitude on commandment."

During Havdalah, the Saturday night ceremony that separates the end of the Sabbath from the rest of the week, observant Jews pass around and inhale the fragrance of a spice. "There are times that I use cannabis for that ritual," Groner says. "I'll pass around a nug and we can smell it and smoke it together in gratitude for that herb. Our second soul, our 'Shabbat [Sabbath] soul,' is leaving our body and we're coming back down to space, so it's really nice to have cannabis then, as it uplifts you and brings you into the week."

In various branches of Christianity, cannabis can be used for spiritual uplifting and community building. Lord Richard Buckley, a stage performer and 20-year alcoholic, was "like an evangelist where marijuana was concerned," writes Mel Welles in Dig Infinity! The Life and Art of Lord Buckley. In 1954, Buckley founded the Church of the Living Swing in Topanga, where dozens of people were busted for having weed at the church's first services.

Research has shown that cannabis is an ingredient in the holy anointing oil, mentioned in Exodus 30:23, explains Adam Umansky, co-founder of a cannabis church called TreeBased Ministry. The word "Christ" means anointed, he says. In Christianity, Jesus is considered the Messiah; he also went around healing people with the holy anointing oil, the recipe for which called for nine pounds of kaneh-bosm.

"If Jesus laid his hands on lepers, we know that leprosy could be cured by cannabis. When he cured the blind man, I personally think of people with glaucoma who put CBD on their eyes and say, 'Oh my God, it works,'" Umansky says. "That puts the scientific understanding of the plant in a different light. I think Jesus' mission was to use this holy sacrament and universalize access to it."

When Umansky smokes cannabis, he says he views it as a kind of communion with God. "Moses spoke to God in a pillar of smoke," he says. "I have these little hemp scrolls that I roll up cannabis flower in and burn it. But the most ritualized part of what I do is with the holy anointing oil." Umansky makes the oil according to the biblical recipe, and says a prayer when he anoints his forehead and feet every day. He also anoints other people, who use the oil for both spiritual and medicinal purposes. "I think that's the most important part about it: The model of the church or temple was to give it away. It was responsible for the wellbeing of the community," Umansky says. "I don't know what else we could do for people, aside from provide them with spirituality and life-saving medicine."

Indigenous healing ceremonies also use cannabis as a revered plant medicine. Sometimes "Santa Maria" (cannabis) is incorporated into ayahuasca ceremonies. "When I bring Santa Maria into a ceremony, her gentle spirit takes the sharper edges off the Grandmother medicine [ayahuasca]," says an experienced ayahuasca user. Cannabis can help counteract the nausea that people who drink ayahuasca commonly experience.

"Growing up, we were taught that there was a spirit in everything, in trees and plants and the food we eat," says Yvonne DeLaRosa, who's both Native American and Colombian. She runs 99 High Tide Collective in Malibu, and says her entire brand is based on cannabis and spirituality. Back in 2008, she opened her first dispensary/visionary art gallery on Abbot Kinney, featuring paintings that illustrated the spirit of plant medicines like ayahuasca.

"Cannabis is a spirit in and of itself," DeLaRosa says. "It has this goddess healing energy, that doesn't just heal your body but also your mind and your soul."


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