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O cannabis

With the Trudeau government set to legalize marijuana, it’s time for a truly sober look at the pros and cons of pot

By Pieta Woolley


It’s lunchtime at Vancouver’s marijuana-friendly New Amsterdam Cafe. But no one is eating lunch. Instead, the customers — entirely male, it should be noted — have gathered around the long counter at the back. They’re vaping: smoking pot though an e-cigarette-like device, to keep the dense, weedy aroma at bay.

They’re a quiet bunch, enjoying their herb and watching post-season baseball on TV. A few let out a lethargic cheer when the Blue Jays win a midday game.

Behind another counter, general manager Mike Dobbs shows off a well-lit selection of striped and swirly blown-glass bongs, vapes, pipes and other paraphernalia, as colourful and shiny as candy. Dobbs, a former corporate salesperson, believes this is the new normal. And why not? For the 30-or-so regulars and a few drop-ins here, smoking marijuana is a peaceful, social activity.

“Hopefully, we’ll have a New Amsterdam in every city across Canada,” Dobbs says, mentioning that the café, which is attached to Cannabis Culture magazine upstairs and the British Columbia Marijuana Party headquarters, has developed a complicated détente with the Vancouver Police Department over the last 15 years. “But no one wants to put money into a store that will get shut down by the cops.”

This dimly lit bar is Canada’s epicentre for the fight for legal marijuana — a fight that, with the election of Justin Trudeau’s Liberals, has probably been won. Former prime minister Stephen Harper stood strong against recreational drugs throughout his almost decade-long term. Trudeau, however, ran on the polar opposite platform: “To ensure that we keep marijuana out of the hands of children, and the profits out of the hands of criminals, we will legalize, regulate, and restrict access to marijuana.” 

Legalizing marijuana would put Canada in the same camp as four American states: Washington, Oregon, Colorado and Alaska. It would end a 92-year-old prohibition — laws that were in part popularized by the United Church’s founding denominations through the temperance movement. At that time, sobriety was about social justice — avoiding family violence and poverty. Drugs, including marijuana and cocaine, were lumped in with alcohol as sources of social ills.

In 1922, for example, Emily Murphy wrote The Black Candle, a temperance tome that included a chapter about “marahuana.” Murphy, one of the “Famous Five” who fought for women to be included as “persons” under the law, quotes a police chief who says marijuana users “become raving maniacs and are liable to kill or indulge in any form of violence to other persons, using the most savage methods of cruelty without, as said before, any sense of moral responsibility.” The next year, marijuana was outlawed in Canada under the Opium and Narcotic Drug Act.

And so, here we are.



The United Church has made no statements concerning marijuana specifically, though on the books, the church is still pro-abstinence regarding alcohol (while acknowledging moderate use). Research, however, suggests Murphy was way off in her assessment of marijuana’s evils. Long-term regular use, according to Health Canada, can cause memory loss, a decrease in mental ability including decision-making and concentration, and may trigger schizophrenia. But violence? No.

In fact, legalizing the drug may decrease gang violence in Canada, according to Stop the Violence BC, a coalition that includes Ross Lander, a former B.C. Supreme Court judge. Marijuana also helps addicts of violence-triggering drugs such as crystal meth to exit their habits gently, according to a 2011 study by the Centre for Addictions Research of BC.

While some doctors support marijuana use for various ailments, the College of Family Physicians of Canada’s policy for prescribing the drug extends only to chronic pain and anxiety, “pending the development of formal guidelines.” The Canadian Medical Association, however, “still believes there is insufficient scientific evidence available to support the use of marijuana for clinical purposes.”

So is pot prohibition just something mainline Protestants were fundamentally wrong about? Is all this sobriety denying us something elemental and delightful? Or is there an unknown lurking in the post-legalization future that should give abstinence-advocating denominations pause?

“Hey, man. Would you like to take a rocket ship right into the heart of God?” Well, who wouldn’t?

Seven years ago, Martin Ball picked up a vaporizer during a ceremony at Oregon’s Temple of Awakening Divinity. Before he had even finished inhaling, “I immediately knew this is it,” says the now-adjunct professor of religious studies at Southern Oregon University.

“This explosion of pure love erupted in my heart. . . . Within seconds, I was saying, ‘Thank you, God! Thank you, God!’ For 40 minutes, I was laughing and crying. . . . It was direct and immediate. I was encountering a self-aware being and an infinite source of love. Oh my God. This is what I had been looking for my entire life, but I didn’t know it was there. It completely transformed my life.”

Before anyone gets too excited, Ball wasn’t smoking pot. He had just tried an extract of the South American Anadenanthera peregrina seeds. The experience sent the former spiritual seeker and sort-of Buddhist on a new academic adventure.

Now, he teaches about drug use in religion. In October, Ball presented at the fifth annual Spirit Plant Medicine Conference at the University of British Columbia, alongside noted Canadian doctor Gabor Maté, who spoke about the psychedelic experience.

Substance-aided spirituality may be trendy in contemporary North America, but mind-altering plant substances have been a part of religious practice since ancient times, Ball says, citing Hinduism, Sufism, some First Nations faith practices and even Jesus-era Judaism as examples.

Cannabis was probably in the anointing oils of the Old and New Testaments, he says, referring to an ingredient called kaneh-bosm in the ancient Hebrew. It’s mentioned in the books of Exodus, Song of Songs, Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel. Many scholars, including etymologists, linguists, anthropologists and botanists, agree the substance refers to cannabis.

These days, drugs enhance prayer and meditation in Rastafarianism, the Brazilian Santo Daime church (a blend of Catholicism and Indigenous shamanism), the United Church of Cannabis (an actual church in Indiana), the Christian Church of Marijuana in Cochrane, Alta., and Toronto’s Church of the Universe, as well as among the spiritual-but-not-religious set. Mind-altering substances are not evil, Ball argues. They’re spiritual tools.

“The focus of American Protestantism is on worship and obedience and punishment,” he says. “It’s like people are standing around, banging their heads against the wall wondering why God won’t talk to them, why they’re suffering. They think [by resisting drugs] they’re doing something they need to do. I just want to tell them, ‘Change your perspective. Stop banging your head.’”

Ball isn’t asking Christians to ride the rocket ship. Rather, he wants them to recognize that sister faiths use marijuana and other plant-based drugs. For the sake of religious freedom and equality, he wishes Christians would join the fight for legalization or decriminalization (fines, rather than jail time for possession of small amounts of pot) — or at least advocate for religious exemptions.


Marc Emery, Canada’s “Prince of Pot” and the founder of the New Amsterdam Cafe, would also like the church onside. He says he’s been jailed 23 times in Canada on marijuana-related charges, and has been held or jailed in six American states. You can buy “Free Marc Emery” T-shirts at the café.

Yes, he’s a provocateur. But he’s far from alone in prison. In Canada, he says, more than two million marijuana arrests have been made in the past 45 years. Of those, about half resulted in convictions, and hundreds of thousands of people have spent time in jail because of marijuana. According to Statistics Canada, marijuana still accounts for more drug offences in this country than any other illegal substance.

Emery thinks that’s something Christians should care about. “Canadian churches have been mostly silent on marijuana. . . . They see it as a moral failing.” But pot is harmless, he says. When he takes too much, as he has done many times over the past 30 years, he says he simply falls asleep.

The Church Council on Justice and Corrections, of which the United Church is a member, hasn’t spoken out on marijuana, according to education manager Kathryn Bliss. In the 1970s, this was the Christian coalition that helped shut down Canada’s death penalty. “We’ve always been on the forefront of pushing for evidence-based policy,” says Bliss, declining to comment directly on marijuana. “We want to know: What will increase community safety? What will prevent future crimes? It usually doesn’t mean putting people in jail and leaving them there.”

Even if Murphy got it wrong on marijuana’s connection to violence, pot is associated with other ills. Research indicates that in large quantities over time, marijuana can trigger anxiety and depression and, among teens, undermine scholastic achievement. The average age Canadians try pot for the first time is 16, according to 2013 statistics from the Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse.

A recent study reveals that two U.S. states where cannabis is newly legal have seen a dramatic increase in the relationship between fatal car accidents and marijuana. In Washington, 12 percent of drivers involved in fatal crashes tested positive for marijuana use, up from six percent before legalization. In Colorado, the number jumped to 19 percent from 10 percent.

But you don’t need to look south for a sample of users. About 2.3 million Canadians say they use marijuana regularly, according to a University of Ottawa estimate. A Forum Research poll last month suggested pot use would increase by 10 percent if it were legal. I asked my Facebook network for stories about how pot has affected their lives already. This anecdotal survey revealed a range of complex experiences.

Take Mike (all of these names have been changed), who grew up a United Church kid in small-town Ontario, getting high as a teenager and watching the 1982 cult movie Pink Floyd The Wall. After his father died of cancer, he started smoking every day, up to six times a day. 

He says he lost a decade of his life. “I could function daily but had no other motivation to do anything other than work enough to buy food and drugs and entertainment.” He now suffers from paranoia and depression, which he associates with his years of heavy use. Mike doesn’t think the drug should be legalized.

On Haida Gwaii in north coastal B.C., Jennifer makes herself a batch of pot cookies weekly. She eats one right before she goes to bed each night to alleviate her chronic Achilles tendinitis. That’s it. Growing up in suburban Vancouver, she says, smoking pot was the only thing to do. Because she had a daughter when she was just 20, she gave up smoking the drug before most of her peers. She now describes herself as a sober person — the bedtime cookie notwithstanding.

“It bothered me that they couldn’t have fun without it,” she says, pointing out that in B.C., marijuana is everywhere. At birthday parties she attends with her daughter, the parents often vape in another room. She isn’t comfortable sending her daughter to some of her friends’ houses because she knows the parents toke and drive. It’s uncomfortable. But she does support legalization and taxation.

In Saskatoon, Anna stopped smoking pot in her 20s; she’s in her 40s now. But her husband smokes about 10 times a day, on the back porch. He works from home.

“The first time I saw him smoke, he said a blessing,” she says. “I thought, this is so New Age and dumb. He’s not Rastafarian. He’s Jewish. So I rolled my eyes. I didn’t realize the extent of the habit.”

Since then, they’ve had two kids — who Anna thinks are learning to associate the smell of pot with “Daddy.” They’ve fought; she’s delivered ultimatums. It’s an addiction, she says. So now, she wilfully ignores the marijuana in the house. “From a logical place, it’s not a big deal,” Anna says, acknowledging that he is basically the same person when he smokes as when he doesn’t. “It’s so much less of an issue than alcoholism or hard drugs or sex addiction. But in my own life, I have a visceral dislike of it.”

Rebellion. Postmodernism. Pleasure. It’s all supposed to intersect and transcend here, at the New Amsterdam Cafe. High ceilings, exposed brick, psychedelic murals, T-shirts hung up the walls, each sporting the New Amsterdam logo, a sexy art deco-inspired design featuring a full-lipped woman and an elegant halo of cannabis leaves. Everything this café could possibly do to make its mission seem cool has been done, with flair.

In the mainstream media and general population, interest in the legalization of marijuana is building. Emery compares it to religious fervour, a sense of coming “liberation.” But there’s little of that at the New Amsterdam; the laid-back vibe here is about as exciting as an old futon.

The final push for legal marijuana is coming from Canada’s most powerful Catholic: Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. He’s placed mainline Protestants in an awkward position. Falling in line behind the new prime minister would mark a monumental shift from nearly a century of advocating abstinence. Standing pat could suggest that liberal Protestants are out of step with public opinion, although that has never stopped them before.

“Onward temp’rance soldiers, bravely onward go,” read the lyrics from an early 1900s songbook of the Ontario Women’s Christian Temperance Union, set to the tune of Onward, Christian Soldiers. “We must free our country from this awful foe; Let there be no quarter given, but, with joy, This destroying demon utterly destroy.”

Has the time come for the church to change its tune?



Author's photo
Pieta Woolley is a writer in Powell River, B.C.
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