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Inside The First Church Of Cannabis

First Church of Cannabis

In downtown Indianapolis, a close-knit group of people gather in an old church to worship. But, this isn’t a traditional church.

There are people singing, but not your traditional worship songs. This is the First Church of Cannabis. Congregants here don’t celebrate God, but rather the supposed positive and healing effects of cannabis.

Meet 'The Grand Poobah'

Bill Levin is the self- described “Grand Poobah” of the First Church of Cannabis. Amid the RFRA controversy, Levin filed for his church to become legal.

"The seed was planted in 2010 when I got my minister’s license. So, y’know, you get your minister’s license, and it’s like getting a lottery card," Levin says. "You always sit there and say, 'Hey! What would I do if I got a church? What if I got a church one day?."

This summer, Bill Levin got his wish. On July 1, the First Church of Cannabis opened its doors.

A Welcoming Community

Services can bring a packed house, but one thing is notably absent. There is not marijuana at the First Church of Cannabis. Police warned Levin that if anyone lit up they would be arrested.

The services go on without it, but now the church is suing the state for the right to smoke cannabis legally as part of a sacrament.

Levin says that the community, not the cannabis, is the biggest reason people join the church.

"This church has an unusual gift that allows many people from many walks of life to all get along," Levin says. "There are people who would not typically talk to each other had they not been in this church. But, now that they’re in this church, they do communicate with each other. This church is here to open people’s hearts so that they can communicate with each other."

Services are Wednesday evenings, and members of the church wander in. Carli Miller is a regular at the church. She commutes for each service from Bloomington.

“I had saw about it on, like, Facebook and stuff," Miller says. "And I just thought, 'I’m gonna check that out,' and I liked it. So, I’ve just kept coming back.”

As everyone waits for the service to start they talk among each other. Finally, Levin walks into the room. With a grand bravado, he welcomes his congregation, and hugs everyone he can.

On stage, Levin performs the “I Love You” prayer, and continues to pass a basket for members to give donations, which is how the church stays open. Churchgoers then give testimonials. They talk about the positive effects cannabis has on their lives and problems they may be having. Some members just talk about their week.

The Opposition

Emerson Ottinger doesn't see the congregation as a church. He and his wife, Janna, sit next door every Wednesday night in protest. Janna was baptized at the church that used to be housed where The First Church of Cannabis is located. She thinks the church has become a disgrace.

"[A] church is supposed to be a pastor, or a minister, or a reverend or something like that," Ottinger says. "He wants to be the 'Grand Poupon.'”

The Ottingers say people from all over the country, as far as New Mexico, come to visit the church. That worries the Ottingers. while they say they aren’t sure whether the church has brought in an influx of crime, they still worry about its influence and the impression it makes on their neighborhood.

"I live across the street, and [I've] been here for 35 years, and [I] tell people that’s a drug house because they wanna smoke illegal drugs, and we ask people, 'How would you like it if they put it next to your mom’s house?'”

But Levin is resolute in promoting his idea of community. The First Church of Cannabis just finished a sock drive and is in the midst of a coat drive that will last through February. They also have plans to start visiting nursing homes, jails and prisons.

Levin: "We're Here For The Long Run"

Even if the church’s suit against the state falls through, Levin says he isn’t going anywhere. He says he’s been here every Wednesday since July and will continue to practice his religion.

"We’re here for the long run," Levin says. "I plan on doing this 'til I’m about 90 or 100. I ain’t goin' anywhere."

But whether they’ll be smoking marijuana anytime soon is still a little hazy.

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