Indiana’s First Church of Cannabis Didn’t Really Test Any Boundaries

Despite the threats made last week by Indianapolis Police Chief Rick Hite and Marion County Prosecutor Terry Curry to raid the inaugural praise and worship service at the First Church of Cannabis, no arrests were made at Wednesday’s event, and the overall vibe of the scene was, as one officer told High Times, “very quiet.”

In the morning hours leading up to the celebration, an army of more than 50 police officers could be seen stationed on every street corner for several city blocks surrounding the church — a presence in which the modest crowd took as a sign that trouble was brewing… And for good reason.

During a recent press conference, city officials said that they would arrest all of those in attendance of the church service for crimes ranging from maintaining a common nuisance to possession of marijuana. In fact, the threat of a legal repercussions forced cannabis church founder Bill Levin, in the eleventh hour, to nix the concept of the congregation smoking out as part of their sacramental debut. Instead, the church said they would challenge the city’s threats in civil court.

However, on Wednesday, the overall attitude of the Indianapolis police felt considerably different than the previous wild eyed, drug war rantings of their boss. The department refused to admit that their presence in front of the church had anything to do with marijuana. Lieutenant Richard Riddle, a spokesperson for the IMPD, told reporters that officers were simply there as a public safety precaution and to control traffic like they would any other event in Indianapolis.

“We’re simply responding to public safety issues and complaints from the community,” Riddle said. “Obviously, we have traffic control at a number of events. We have traffic control at churches, we have traffic control for funerals, and sometimes on Easter we have traffic control for churches.”

Yet when High Times called the officer out for providing the press with a statement inconsistent with the threats made by city law enforcement officials, he responded by lopping the force’s highly publicized warning in with the issue of public safety.

“We are planning on contingencies,” said Riddle. “If people choose to possess marijuana, we will enforce the state law that the state legislature has told us is illegal. If people don’t possess marijuana and don’t openly use marijuana, and practice their religion, which they have a right to do, there’s not going to be an issues and they won’t be bothered.”

Riddle continued by saying that officers were only looking for people who “openly and publicly” flaunted the possession of marijuana, and that those individuals “would be subject to arrest,” which was a far cry from their previous no-tolerance attitude.

Perhaps this change of draconian heart was out of respect for Levin’s recent decision to ban all illegal substances from the church grounds. Then again, as Ohio attorney Brice Keller pointed out, this shift in strategy likely had more to do with the fact that the whole nation was watching for something dramatic to unfold.

“Cop Block is here,” said Keller. “Cop Block and the news, and everybody having all these video recording devices everywhere probably has caused the police captain or somebody to say, be on your toes today and make sure what we’re doing is protecting the peace.

“If police were going to arrest somebody for a minor offense,” he continued, there would be a swarm of people out there with their video recorders, and it wouldn’t be good for anybody.”

On the issue of probable cause, Keller said police would need to establish it for each individual, and that simply being on the premises of the cannabis church did not give authorities the right to initiate random searches. What the Indianapolis Police Chief initially said was the force was going to cite parishioners for visiting a common nuisance, which Keller said could have been used as a gateway to search the pockets of parishioners and, perhaps, even their vehicles.

But in the end, there was no shakedown… Not a single incident in which the IMPD felt the need to investigate or attempt to establish probable cause of any kind.

Some supporters of the First Church of Cannabis chastised Levin on Monday after he announced that marijuana would not be allowed at the first service. Social media lit up with pissed-off potheads revoking their backing for the cause, some even calling it scam. Levin has said all along that marijuana use in church is protected under Indiana’s new Religious Freedom Restoration Act, and that cannabis consumption would take place within the congregation from day one, so many supporters felt that the Poobah had lost his nerve and that his talk of civil disobedience in the name of cannabis was a complete sham.

But in all fairness, while there may have been a level of fear behind Levin’s choice to ban weed from the church, which is based on including marijuana as part of its ritualistic repertoire, ultimately his goal was achieved: to lean on the passing a discriminatory law in order to create a shit-storm of media attention, no matter how convoluted the overall message has become.

All of the national coverage brought out a gang of half-cocked protesters on Wednesday fully prepared to express their disdain for the official launch of the First Church of Cannabis. Signs with anti-pot messages reading, “Religious Freedom Does Not Mean Freedom to Commit Crimes” were displayed across the street by several members of the community, who said they were at the event to support the police. This protest, however, caused some controversy among parishioners, not only because of the ignorance of the opposition, but over concerns that these people had the gall to put signs of protest in the hands of young children.

While the initial concern for the First Church of Cannabis was with the actions of law enforcement, it ended up being angry protesters that created all of the unnecessary tension throughout the day’s event. There was reportedly a threat of arson during the service, and couple of preachers opposing the legitimacy of the church got into a street fight with one another in which police were forced to intervene.

As for the church service itself, it was a bit of a sideshow, complete with a few balloons and a band playing reggae renditions of songs like Tom Petty’s “Mary Jane’s Last Dance.” Admittedly, the initial part of the service seemed like a giant warm-up act to prepare the crowd for Levin’s arrival. It was perhaps this rock show approach that contributed to city leaders comparing Levin’s mission to Indiana cult leader Jim Jones over the past few weeks. A Kool-Aid stand outside the church poked fun at those comments.

Unfortunately, the church’s inaugural service came off no differently than the thousands of other locally driven legalization rallies that happen every year across the United States. Without the use of cannabis, not much was achieved that hadn’t been already with the coverage leading up to the event. It was almost a shame to see something with that had generated so much power be unleashed only to become the Pacquiao/Mayweather fight of the cannabis movement. Yet, we look forward to seeing what happens next.

Interestingly, it appears the IMPD plans on keeping close tabs on the First Church of Cannabis from this point forward. A new surveillance camera mysteriously appeared on utility pole outside the church the day before the first service. Although Indianapolis police denied having any knowledge of this Big Brother tactic, the consensus is that it was put there to keep a watchful eye on future services.

“THANKS for the New Camera outside our church,” wrote Levin in a Facebook post. “I will wave Hi to you all in the mornings. Smile and wave back will ya…”

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