We like to think we are tolerant in Canada. That all peaceful religions enjoy the freedom of full communion with the divine. But substitute weed for wine, and police seem ready to toss the constitution onto the bonfire of witchery.
Paul DeFelice and Alan Middlemiss are marijuana missionaries, ordained by the Church of the Universe, which upholds cannabis as sacrament. Both are charged with counts of possession and trafficking after a raid on their store and church, the Holy Smoke Mission of God. Clergyman DeFelice was arrested on Wednesday, July 15.
“It was a bit frightening at first because this unmarked SUV just came barreling straight at me. I was almost being run down on Herridge Lane,” DeFelice told the Nelson Daily News, describing his arrest. “Then about four, maybe five cops – I couldn’t quite keep track of them – all jumped out at once.It instantly turned into a Trailer Park Boys scene.”
Among his first concerns were the conditions of his probation, which unlawfully prohibit him from knowningly being around cannabis or visiting his church and its attendant retail outlet, interfering with his religiously ordained mission and preventing him from prayer at his church’s altar.
“A lot of people asked us what that meant that we were a mission, and we answered we were on a mission from God to promote and to end the prohibition of our sacrament. Sacrament is essential to put me in the frame of mind to pray and it carries my prayers to heaven. I believe like the Native Americans, like the aboriginal peoples. The courts are telling me I can’t connect with my God. I’m being denied my spiritual connection.”
On August 16, Alan Middlemiss turned himself in after learning that he too had a warrant out for his arrest – in hopes, he confided only half-jokingly, of avoiding getting pasted under an SUV. Middlemiss’ bail conditions order him to avoid any place or vehicle that might contain his sacrament, specifically precluding him from communion with God. “Actually, it effectively bars me from all of BC,” he said.
During his arrest, Middlemiss got naked, reminiscent of the original arrests of Church of the Universe leaders Reverends Walter Tucker and Michael Baldasaro, who were arrested and dragged to the police station in the nude. Middlemiss’ bare courage was also intended as an act of protest similar to that practiced by local Doukhabour communities.
“The officer left me in a room at the station and told me when he came back he was going to process me,” said Middlemiss. “So I took off my watch and stuff and just kept going. When he came back I had all my clothes off. He yelled Hey!’ and put his hand over his face. All other officers came running and they were like, What do you think you’re doing buddy?'”
Middlemiss laughed. “Their attitude was kind of like “We know you got big balls Middlemiss, but we don’t want to see them!'”
On August 22, the crown agreed to change the conditions of Middlemiss’ and DeFelice’s bail, allowing them to reenter their church, although the paperwork has yet to go through as of this writing.
The Holy Smoke Mission of God and Culture Shop opened in Nelson, British Columbia on October 15, 1996. Nestled prominently above the main street of the city, today it boasts a massive painting of famous reggae pioneer Peter Tosh, chuffing a bowl of weed on one side, and an eight-foot high marijuana leaf with a halo over it on the other. It was once, quite literally, a hole in the ground. Crammed into the dark basement below the local newspaper office, it gained international acclaim when it fought and won charges stemming from a police raid. While similar stores folded under court and police pressure in cities across Canada, Holy Smoke prevailed longer than any other. What is its secret?
On August 11, the reason for Holy Smoke’s success marched down the streets of Nelson, surrounding a marijuana plant in a hand-held carriage marked “Arc of the Covenant”. A hundred and fifty or so supporters carried placards and shouted defiance while the hempen arc was paraded. Horns honked and people waved in support of the demonstration, which went untouched by police.
“It was great how much support we got, how many people honked on the street, how many people waved. “I think it’s important that the police see that, see that support in the community and that it’s not going to go away and people don’t want it to go away,” protestor Christian Saint Pierre told the local media.
In a letter to the local editor, Holy Smoke cofounder, Dustin Sunflower Cantwell, explained why the community supports their church so passionately.
“Holy Smoke loves this community and has always striven to be an active part of it. We have donated money, time, merchandise and sometimes even our beards to support the efforts of others in this city, “he said, referring to the time in January of 2005, when he, Paul DeFelice and Alan Middlemiss shaved their flourishing facial hair to raise money for the Nelson Food Cupboard, which provides meals for 600 to 800 homeless and impoverished families every month. About thirty percent of the Nelson Food Cupboard’s recipients are children.
City police, who conducted the raid, downplayed community support, while claiming that the marijuana plant was too much of a trifle to bother with. Along with Nelson City Mayor John Dooley, they also denied that the arrests were political or aimed at the Holy Smoke in particular, belying their fear that public opinion would surely be against them on this issue should it be thought that the store were shut down intentionally.
“As far as politicians are concerned we have absolutely nothing to do with the day to day operations of the city police,” said Mayor Dooley, who is also chair of the Police Board. “The police carry out their duties based on keeping the law and order in the community and politics has absolutely nothing to do with it.”
Mayor Dooley likely doesn’t know about the many times Canadian governments, federal and local, have been caught red handed sending marching orders to police in matters of civil disobedience, including the 1997 protest against Free Trade in Vancouver, when police twisted the arm marijuana and freedom activist David Malmo Levine, held his throat and repeatedly pepper sprayed him in the face for speaking to a crowd of students all under orders from the Prime Minister, who hoped to avoid losing face in front of foreign leaders.
Mayor Dooley maybe also doesn’t know about the Conservative government’s openly expressed policy of cracking down on marijuana. Holy Smoke Missionary Paul DeFelice knows differently, but currently his sources prefer to remain anonymous. “I’ve heard rumours from people around the courthouse that direction actually came from the US on this,”DeFelice said.
Reverends Walter Tucker and Michael Baldasaro, who lead the Church of the Universe, have fought numerous cases establishing the validity of combining weed and worship and officially recognizing their church. In some cases, says Reverend Tucker, quoting section 176 of the criminal code has been enough to have charges dropped against cannabis clergy. Section 176 states that it is illegal to interfere with a clergyman in the performance of their duties. In the past, other cases have been stayed because of the Church’s unresolved Federal Court battle to have government and police recognize their religious freedoms.
Because religious freedoms are cherished so much that the preamble to the constitution recognizes the “supremacy of God”, police are in a catch 22 the very minute they begin investigation against a marijuana church. For even if their case is solid enough to withstand the various technicalities that may arise, they are only at the beginning of a lengthy battle involving thorny issues of religious freedoms, a battle that is yet to be decided by a higher court and which the government itself rightly sees as a hot potato.
The main reason it’s hot isn’t the idealism of constitutional protections, which in an age of drug war and terrorism are slave to the elite’s ever growing hunger to oppress and control the masses. It is rather the support among other religions, mainly Christian, to uphold their own freedoms, which were similarly threatened not long ago by a prohibition that would have outlawed the blood of Christ if it weren’t for special exemptions for sacramental use. Even today, Christian reverends can consume alcohol in a public place in flagrant violation of liquor control laws, and are universally free from persecution because of special provincial exceptions in law.
The pressure for religious freedom is counterbalanced by a government that is reluctant to officially budge in the case of sacramental euphoric plant use. In the 70’s, when First Nations peoples complained about the outlawing of their peyote sacrament, the government of Canada opted to make Peyote legal everywhere, for everyone, rather than making an exception for a religion. This demonstrates a powerful willingness on behalf of the powers that be to avoid a serious court battle over sacramental issues.
In fact, what the government seems to be hoping for is that persecution of the Holy Smoke Mission of God and the Church of the Universe will be enough to make them go away, placating Canada’s drug-war loving southern neighbour. But the truth is that marijuana missionaries are only more determined to prove their point in court, and the best course to take would have been to let them celebrate the same as their wine-swilling Christian brothers and sisters.
“I’m going to take this all the way,” said Holy Smoke Clergyman Paul DeFelice. “If they’ll set a plate for me, I’ll eat my fill and come back for more.”