(Editor’s Note: The following is a The Shelbyville News exclusive interview with First Church of Cannabis founder Bill Levin. It is reprinted here with the permission of the author.)
The First Church of Cannabis opened July 1, 2015 in Indianapolis, Indiana and has been making national news ever since.
Here is the behind of scenes story of the First Church of Cannabis as told by founder Bill Levin to Paul E. Gable, Editor of The Shelbyville News in Shelbyville, Indiana.
By Paul E. Gable
‘Life’s a great adventure’
For years, Bill Levin was that guy.
“I had been doing everything a minister does. I was the guy who got the call at 3 a.m. to console a family after their son was arrested. I was the guy people talked to about wanting a divorce. I was the guy people would call to discuss grieving. I have always been the go to guy but never made it formal,” Levin said.
All that changed in 2010 when the former Libertarian Party candidate for U.S. Senate and concert promoter acted and got his minister’s license.
“The concept of a church has always been around in my mind, and there was always a little spark in my soul. I probably would have acted but Gov. (Mike) Pence provided the fertilizer in the state and I took the opportunity,” Levin said.
That “fertilizer in the state” was the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which took effect July 1, and allows the residents to celebrate religious liberty and freedom without an intrusive government. Under the RFRA, the government has to prove compelling interest in the least restrictive way should a person claim a burden on religious freedom.
Once the law was signed by Pence, Levin began acting on setting up the First Church of Cannabis and he did it in a way he didn’t expect would garner much attention.
“I sent out a paragraph on my Facebook page announcing the Secretary of State approved the church and detailing what the church was about. That was at 9 a.m. By noon, I had people contacting me wanting to give me money and saying I needed to start a church page. I started a GoFundMe page and the money came in. One hundred days after we started, we own a church, the IRS gave us our 501©3, we have a congregation that is over 1,000 members and we have world-wide love. Everybody gets it, everybody loves it,” said Levin, adding his Deity Dozen, which is a take on the 10 Commandments, has been translated into 27 different languages.
However, not everybody approved.
When the church held its first service on July 1, the Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department had a heavy presence and there were protestors.
Inside the church, however, there was a different feeling.
There was music, there was testimonies and there was a church service.
And, it was all done without the use of marijuana, which Levin states is the church’s sacrament.
“I started the church on the cornerstone of love and I asked nobody to join. People thought the concept was great and wanted to be a part of it. What am I to do? Turn people away? That wasn’t going to happen. Our first service was to have been only a half hour to 45 minutes long, but so many people were testifying. It was bizarre to me to see how big it was,” Levin said.
Bizarre is the word some have used to describe the church and its presence in a state that routinely has seen its General Assembly not entertain changes to marijuana laws in recent years.
“Look, it is very clear to me that a divine hand is hedgehogging a path and I am following this wherever it goes. I couldn’t have planned this. Nobody could have planned this. It is great to see it,” Levin said.
As for the detractors, Levin says, he could care less.
“It’s voluntary ignorance and I have no control over that. Our services are broadcast on the internet and if you look at one on YouTube, you’ll see they are joyous events,” Levin said.
Levin said slowly he is starting to see a shift, however, in the minds of some not only across Indiana, but also across the nation and the globe.
“We’ve changed minds. We’ve changed the views of those who came to slam us and create problems. I put smiles on faces and love in people’s heart every day. We pray with cannabis, not to it. We are heading in the right direction,” Levin said.
The letters have come in from Denver, Seattle, Ireland, Germany, France, Japan, Brazil, China and other areas.
“People are letting us know they want a church in their neighborhood. This can be bigger than Starbucks. We hear from every corner of the globe,” Levin said.
The direction for the time being is the Marion County Circuit Court, as the church filed a lawsuit Wednesday against the State of Indiana and others, challenging the law on possession and use of marijuana as infringing upon one’s religion.
Among those named in the suit are Pence, Attorney General Greg Zoeller, the Indiana State Police Superintendent and the Indianapolis Police Chief.
According to the lawsuit, the Cannaterians believe “cannabis is a religious sacrament that brings us closer to ourselves and others. It is our fountain of health, our love, curing us from illness and depression.”
Should the church lose its suit, Levin said it will appeal.
“We’ll appeal. I have no problem taking it all the way up. We have a divine intervention and I know we can change the law. I love everybody in our state, and I hope it turns out well,” Levin said.
Paul E. Gable is a graduate of Loris High School and Newberry College. He is the editor of The Shelbyville News. Follow Gable on Twitter @PaulGableTSN.