It is relatively easy to go to prison for marijuana in Alabama, and to go away for a very long time. People caught with more than 2.2 pounds—a little more than half a day’s work for an experienced trimmigrant working on an average Northern California cannabis farm—have been sentenced to life. Possession of less than 2.2 pounds is slightly better: No more than 10 years in prison.
These are “very harsh” sentences, some of the very toughest in the United States, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center. Yet they do not appear to apply at the Oklevueha Native American Church of Inner Light.
The religious organization’s roughly 120 members meet in Birmingham, Alabama, and they openly use marijuana—the church’s president, Janice Rushing, says she smokes it daily—as well as psychedelic peyote cactus and psilocybin mushrooms, according to AL.com.
Headquartered in Utah, there are branches of the Oklevueha Native American Church (ONAC)throughout the United States. The “church” is a sort of nondenominational, big-tent community that welcomes anyone and celebrates all Native American religious traditions, with a psychedelic and overt political bent.
ONAC regularly schedule ayahuasca ceremonies and other spiritual journeys, according to the organization’s website—and was involved in the protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline. More to the point, its members claim the right to possess and use a variety of drugs—including ayahuasca, but also peyote, San Pedro cactus and cannabis—for strictly religious purposes.
Its founder, James “Flaming Eagle” Mooney, is a medicine man who claims heritage from Florida Seminoles and who successfully fought off federal drug charges after he was busted with more than 12,000 peyote buttons. The church, the Utah Supreme Court ruled, is allowed to use traditional sacraments like banned peyote under the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act passed by Congress.
Church members all carry a photo ID printed with their claim to be legally able to use all drugs. This is sometimes put to the test, and not in a good way, as a California-based branch of the church discovered in 2016 when authorities seized its cannabis crop, alleging that the religion was merely cover for a run-of-the-mill pot farm.
Other churches claiming religious cover to grow, possess and use marijuana have had difficulty winning over judges. Both leaders of an outfit called The Healing Church in Hawaii have been sentenced to federal prison for running a relatively modest marijuana operation, and in Rhode Island, a church that claims the Virgin of Guadalupe has a marijuana flower on her garments is locked in a court battle over drug possession charges.
So to have an active chapter in Alabama, as there has been since 2015, is no small deal.
As per the paper’s report, no marijuana is smoked at the church, which borrows the church building of another religious organization for its “services”—a combination of multidisciplinary seminars, with guest speakers like the local university professor seeking research subjects for a investigation into whether psilocybin mushrooms can help wean addicts off of other drugs, and group discussions about cannabis’s healing properties.
For now, it’s more of a bully pulpit for greater access to medical marijuana in Alabama. At the moment, the state allows only low-THC, high-CBD oil—no cannabis as we know it. Having an organization around like the church, whose members give testimony to cannabis’s healing qualities, could be a way to ensure all Alabama residents can enjoy legal weed.
In the meantime, Rushing and her husband, church CEO Chris Rushing, preach their version of the good word: the government took away our natural drugs and made them illegal in favor of pharmaceutical companies, and all the healing we need is in the plants that have been around us for millennia.
Hallucinogens, Rushing said, are “God’s way of turning our brains on,” and cannabis is natural medicine. When the local government will catch up and stop sentencing people praying with pot to long prison terms is up to debate.