God on High

Religion, Cannabis, and the Quest for Legitimacy

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Laurie Cozad
  • New York, NY: 
    Lexington Books
    , June
     190 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


The use of cannabis in religious practice is ancient and ubiquitous, something Laurie Cozad reminds us of in God on High: Religion, Cannabis, and the Quest for Legitimacy. In her book, Cozad makes the case for cannabis religions’s legitimacy both in academia and under the law, beginning in the introduction by noting that a Religious Freedom defense for cannabis use is often seen as a joke and that academics—including two who testified against the Church of the Universe—are quick to dismiss cannabis religions as illegitimate. 

Focused on court cases from the United States and Canada, God on High argues for the legitimacy of cannabis religions under the law as well as less reliance on notions of orthodoxy when defining religion, especially when that definition sets a legal precedent. As such, the book begins with a dissection of how modern scholars understand, and sometimes limit, religions through the use of definitions that prescribe certain types of behaviors and beliefs. These definitions often rely on traditional understandings of dominant forms of religious practice that leave little room for the inclusion of minority religious groups. 

Cozad describes her own methodology for understanding religions as “analyzing discourse to deconstruct the ways in which those in power control knowledge; and leaving space open for the numinous” (xvi). Throughout the book she relies on Foucauldian analysis to bring power dynamics to the forefront. Also drawing on the idea of the bricoleur—or brick-layer, which recognizes that in the formation of “new” religions, there are elements and reconstructions of past religious practices—Cozad provides a more contextualized framework for understanding cannabis religions. 

In chapter 1, Cozad lays the foundation for understanding cannabis-based religions cross-culturally and cross-temporally. From its use in ancient religious ceremonies in China, India, and various parts of Africa we know that, historically, cannabis was an important and relatively common element in religions used for healing and communion with the divine. Modern examples of cannabis use in religion include the Rastafari religion (1930s), the Ethiopian Zion Coptic Church (1976-82), and The Farm (1970s). Cozad systematically analyzes these groups: first looking at their origins and founder, then at their beliefs and rituals that include cannabis, and finally at the legal ramifications they faced from their use and distribution of cannabis. 

Chapters 2 and 3 use the same approach to provide a case study of the four cannabis-based religions which Cozad argues should meet the standard of “religion” under the law: the Hawai’i Cannabis Ministry, the Church of the Universe, the Church of Cognizance, and Temple 420—each of which have recently faced legal opposition to their use of cannabis as a religious sacrament. In chapter 4 “The Discourse Shifts,” Cozad provides a snapshot of the dramatically shifting discourse in the scientific and medical communities surrounding cannabis. Then, in chapter 5, she closely examines the relationship between “Religious Freedom, Cannabis, and the Law” in the United States, the chapter’s title. 

Cozad approaches the topic of cannabis-based religions as a scholar and an activist. She personally testified in defense of the THC Ministry, stating that “the THC Ministry’s beliefs and practices mandated that the Ministry cultivate cannabis sacrament plants and distribute [them] to its members,” and mentioning that she too has experienced the ineffable effects of cannabis use (x). In her defense of cannabis religions, Cozad lists elements common to all of the cannabis-based religions she analyzes, including its use as a ritual sacrament; the use of cannabis to induce transcendent experiences; the reinterpretation of orthodox texts, scripture, and practices; the accumulation of a like-minded, non-proselytizing community; and political involvement to protect their religious practices. Organizationally, these cannabis-based religions also tend to have informal meetings, loose restrictions on sacramental use of cannabis, and do not require any form of conversion or adherence to a particular religion, with the majority accepting members of various religious backgrounds who find cannabis enhances their religious experience. 

Cozad’s work is both timely and controversial, not only due to the debate surrounding cannabis that is still ongoing in the United States, but also the wide berth she gives her definition of religion to include groups consisting of members who individually identify with various religions, but who collectively believe that cannabis is essential to their religious practice. The Church of Cognizance even “refused to call themselves a ‘religion,’ because the term religion implies a shared set of beliefs,” instead opting to be called a church (78). Of course, the tension is exacerbated by the reality that cannabis consumption and distribution remain criminal acts at the federal level, so resolving this issue in court leads to one of two outcomes: legitimization as a legally recognized religion, or criminalization and imprisonment.

Due to a lack of recognition that not all religious practices or sacraments take place within a particular religion (i.e., interfaith organizations, which may receive recognition and tax exemption under the law due to their religious nature, but are not themselves identified as new religions), I feel that Cozad pushes the definition of religion to include the movements examined in God on High. Yet, in examining the numerous legal obstacles these cannabis-based religions have faced—including the inability to mention religion during trial and the rejection of Religious Freedom as a means of defense—Cozad conveys the particular discrimination faced by practitioners using cannabis. This is in stark contrast to other entheogens such as haosca and peyote, both of which have been upheld as religious sacraments. Yet the failure to see cannabis as a legitimate sacrament is directly tied to the legitimacy of these groups as defined religions. 

God on High is an important contribution to the methodological approach of studying underrepresented and stigmatized religious practices—particularly in providing historical context and religious analogues used to comprehend what are often dubbed “new religious movements,” which Cozad points out are not new, merely reinterpretations and constructions of well documented religious behavior.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Sarah Tomerlin is an Independent Scholar.

Date of Review: 
March 15, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Laurie Cozad was Associate Professor at both the University of Mississippi and Lesley University and now teaches at Merrimack College.



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