After suffering a serious injury in a house fire more than four years ago, Robin Douglas was confined to a wheelchair and thought he would never walk again.
Depression and hopelessness took over. When he tried to kill himself, he knew he'd hit rock bottom.
That's when he turned to marijuana for salvation. A few months later, he no longer needed the wheelchair.
"My mind, body and spirit was healed." Douglas, 57, told VICE News Thursday from White Rock, British Columbia. "And every time I met with like-minded people who helped me use cannabis, we would smoke or eat it and be able to see things clearly."
In 2013, Douglas and his friends decided to share their experiences and start the Church of the Holy Smoke. He was elected lead pastor. "They call me the Pope of Pot," he said.
Members of the Church of the Holy Smoke — which Douglas says has grown to include 300 people across Canada — pitched a large tent behind Douglas' rental home to accommodate the dozens of people who congregate there daily to smoke and talk theology.
"We get a euphoria when we do it," he said. "Almost like a spiritual zen. Personally, I go into this almost comatose situation where I'm sitting there and I can actually feel everything around me. I believe in the Bible, the Qur'an, and the Book of Life, but Mother Earth put cannabis out there for us to use as a sacrament, just like wine."
They're facing new opposition, though, from the City of White Rock, which has ordered him to take the tent down by today — a demand Douglas is refusing. Whatever happens, he will continue with his mission to spread the sacrament of cannabis to Canadians and, eventually, have the church officially recognized as a religion. He is looking to the growing movement of marijuana churches in the US for inspiration and says pastors with his church are already in the process of opening churches in Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba and Quebec.
But they will likely face many challenges along the way — just like other Canadians before them. In 2011, two Toronto ministers from the Church of the Universe, another church that believes in the sacrament of cannabis, were unsuccessful in their constitutional challenge of the country's marijuana laws. They were arrested in 2006 for selling weed to undercover officers. The judge ruled that while the pair seemed to be sincere in their beliefs, Canada's laws against possession and trafficking of marijuana were upheld.
And in another 2011 case, a federal judge ruled against a Vancouver man, also a member of the Church of the Universe, who tried to claim that smoking marijuana was part of his religious beliefs and that Canada's drug laws were discriminatory. The judge said the man failed to argue that his weed use had any relationship with religion.
Still, Douglas is optimistic his efforts will be successful in an appeal of such rulings and says he has applied for charitable status and has hired lawyers make the case that his church should be seen as such in the eyes of the government.
It's already happened south of the border, where The First Church of Cannabis was approved as a religious corporation in March, just after Indiana enacted its religious freedom law. That's despite the fact that marijuana for both medical and recreational purposes remains illegal in the state. The Church's founder and Grand Poobah, Bill Levin, listed cannabis as a sacrament — something used within religious practices — that church members grow themselves. According to its website, the church has more than 1,000 members worldwide.
"If someone is smoking in our church, God bless them," Levin told the Washington Post. "This is a church to show a proper way of life, a loving way to life."
Last week, weed evangelists gathered in Denver, Colorado for the first-ever Congress of Cannabis Ministries, where people from all over the country learned how to start their own "cannabis friendly ministry."
"The legalization of cannabis is making it more likely we'll see churches like this come into the open," Steven Hager, organizer of the conference, told VICE News.
Hager is also founder of a closed group called Pot Illuminati that has long used cannabis as a religious tool, but he says he doesn't have plans to register it with the government.
"You are a religion if you say you're a religion, regardless of what the government thinks," said Hager. "I'm not collecting money, I'm not asking people to give me money, so I'm not filling out all that paperwork, because I don't have to. But I definitely support churches that do want to."
He says he would like to see more churches like Levin's crop up to "level the playing field" with established religions that enjoy tax exemptions and other benefits. "It's time we take control of religion again. Because marijuana has been a religious sacrament for centuries. The burning bush? The tree of life? Both cannabis. There's a misperception that cannabis used for spiritual purposes is new, but it's not."
But, he says he was disappointed with the turnout at the Congress, which means marijuana ministries still have a long way to go before they really take root in the mainstream.
As for Douglas, he's excited for the new chapter in Canadian religion.
"Everyone says I'm a walking miracle," said Douglas. "But no! I'm not a walking miracle. 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. I want to share that with everybody else."
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