A few months ago, Robin Douglas, the self-proclaimed lead pastor of the Church of the Holy Smoke, put up a large tent in his backyard in White Rock, British Columbia, so that he and his fellow congregants could gather to smoke and have what he describes as "deep spiritual discussions."
But after many complaints from neighbors about noise and smoke coming from the tent, the city ruled that he must take it down by the end of Friday and clean up the mess around it. Douglas says he won't budge and that the city is persecuting him for his unpopular religious practices. He isn't too bothered by the whole ordeal though, because he has almost found a permanent building for the church.
VICE spoke with Douglas about his church and his plans for rolling it out across Canada.
VICE: What is the Church of the Holy Smoke?
Robin Douglas: We have roughly 300 members signed up as actual members of the church. Then nine pastors, three of them are local. We work through this one tent. We believe that cannabis helps heal the mind, spirit, and body. People gather here for socialization, to sit down, have discussions of things that are important to them. People who have cancer or going through cancer treatments come to hear talks and get support. We're open to everyone though who wants to take part in this.
How did you get involved?
I was in a house fire and when the house burnt down, they dragged me out of the house, and I ended up in a wheelchair for four and a half years. At one point, I was very depressed, tried to kill myself. But the more I used cannabis, the more enlightened I became, and the more spiritual I became. And every time I met with like-minded people that helped me start using it, we would smoke or eat cannabis and be able to see other things more clearly. I'd be able to relax, slow down, and not only physically, but spiritually heal from within. Now, I've been out of my wheelchair for five months and I've got my ability to walk, to do everything. I owe it all to cannabis and Mother Earth and the strength she's given me to go on in life and I want to share that with everybody else.
What do you guys believe?
We want to share the goodness of what Mother Earth has given to us with everybody else. We support cannabis as a religious sacrament. They say I'm a walking miracle all the time. But, no! I'm not a walking miracle. That's not it. I was just given a purpose, a big purpose in life, and that is to promote Mother Earth's end and her most miraculous plant in this world. That is cannabis. Cannabis can be traced back to the times of the Egyptians—it was found in tombs. Cannabis oil in the tombs. The fact is, there's a long history of cannabis use in religious ceremonies and practices. I just discovered it in the last few years, and I am truly blessed by it.
Why did you set up a tent in the first place?
We didn't have enough room in the house to set up. We looked at the size of the yard and decided that for the time being, until we get a proper structure, that we would open a tent in the backyard since we are surrounded by a six-foot fence. Nobody can see in, nobody can see out. Privacy is guaranteed.
What will you do if city officials come to take your tent down?
We are a nonviolent, peaceful, loving people and we will not resist whatsoever. If the city wants to tear us down and ban our religious beliefs, that's up to them. We will not support their criminal acts. They'll have to tear it down themselves. Let 'em have it. We'll just continue our work out back here anyway. We support cannabis as a religious sacrament and that's what's really upsetting them. It's not going to change our direction, it's not going to change who we are. It's not going to change the fact that we're going to continue to be here and have activities here regardless if there's a tent or not.
How is cannabis a religious sacrament?
At certain levels of using it, you get a euphoria. Almost like a spiritual zen where, personally, I go into this almost comatose situation where I'm sitting there and I can actually feel everything around me. I can understand everything around me. It opens my mind, body, and soul, and I'm able to see deeper into what is really going on and the problems Mother Earth and society is having. And the violence and the horror that surrounds us. I'm able to formulate in my mind, in prayer, while I'm using cannabis, to reach out and help certain people in their spiritual walk. I believe in the Bible, I believe in the Qur'an, I believe in all the Holy Books, but I also believe that Mother Earth put cannabis there for us to use responsibly, just like wine. Every sacrament has a reason, and mine for cannabis is to get spiritual enlightenment
How did you become the church's leader?
Eight or nine months ago, there was a bunch of us sitting around for the church meeting. I said that we need a leader, someone to take over. So the pastors elected me as leader and that was it, there were no other steps to take. Just an in-house election of pastors in the area who elected me to the position. They call me the Pope of Pot.
What sorts of things do you do with the church?
I don't sit here day in and day out and get high. I help people. I drive all over the country. I do all sorts of stuff. If I were high, I wouldn't be able to do it. I don't sit around—and neither do my pastors—and get high for the hell of it. We actually do things and when we use it, we get relaxed and feel more around us. I go on a spiritual journey. Most people that use cannabis just to get high are misusing it. It shouldn't be misused.
I also go to different hospitals. Now we work with 12 cancer patients who I visit constantly in hospital. We have six other patients with disabilities in hospitals and care homes, so I visit with them and supply them with cannabis and ensure they have their medications and needs met. If they have problems with social workers or not understanding stuff, I sit down with any administration to help these people get what they need and be an advocate for them in the use of marijuana in their treatment.
Where do you get your weed? Do you have a prescription?
I have growers that supply us. We have donations of cannabis from several different growers who support our work and what we're doing. I don't have a prescription. I won't go to a doctor. I don't believe this is a doctor or medical thing. I believe this is a spiritual thing. I will not ask the government's permission or a doctor's permission. The spiritual aspect of it has nothing to do with the medical aspect of it. These medical dispensaries, they're using it to get rich. And that's what medical dispensaries are about: money. You come to our church and you say I'm sick or I need to be fed or I need to have some cannabis to make me feel better, we'll give it to you for free.
That's really nice. Are you ever worried about facing criminal charges?
I'm not scared of getting arrested. I'm not doing anything wrong. I'm not selling pot to kids or the general public. I'm not selling anything except a spiritual ideal. And that's not illegal.
Are you trying to register your church?
Yes. We have applied for charitable status. We're waiting for an answer to figure out if we're a non-profit. Until then, we've consulted a couple lawyers who said they're going to take on our fight and, hopefully, we'll be recognized by the courts and the government of Canada. And once we challenge the law on the spiritual aspect, which we sincerely believe we can win, we'll stand up and say yes we are a church and you are welcome. We are in the process of talking to two different lawyers from Vancouver right now. Both contacted me and said yes we are interested in this and want to help. My own personal lawyer has recommended I get somebody a little bit more knowledgeable about the constitutional issues.
Who are these lawyers? I'd like to chat with them about their thoughts on your situation.
I don't know if they're willing to talk right now. But we are very sincere about what we're doing to the point where I've put myself out there and say, "Hey, arrest me if you want." But police say they won't do it.
What's next for the church?
Church of the Holy Smoke is going to be a major movement across Canada and the government is going to have to recognize us soon. Considering our humble beginnings, it's pretty exciting. We're already expanding, we are quite a large movement already. We have two in Edmonton in Alberta opening churches now. One in Calgary opening a church. Two in Port Coquitlam. Saskatchewan soon, Winnipeg soon, there's a gentleman there. We have professionally made posters and everything. We also have a person in Montreal who's looking to open a church and also in Ottawa.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
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