Turns Out Religion Has A Lot to Say About Weed

Photo by Becca Tapert

We've given some thought already to the cannabis ritual — how modern day cannabis consumers are integrating the plant into their everyday lives, be it for wellness, relaxation, meditation, or self-care. Coming from all different backgrounds, their relationship to cannabis is reverential, even if agnostic. However, the role of cannabis in spiritual contexts dates as far back as the plant's preliminary uses. In fact, the major religions of the world oft have something to say about weed.

We'll start with the obvious: Rastafarianism. According to the Rasta faith, consuming ganja, a.k.a. the holy herb or the wisdom weed, is a sacred act. The religion doesn't even account for cannabis consumption merely to get high. The ritual of smoking herb often begins with a common prayer: "Glory be the father and to the maker of creation. As it was in the beginning is now and ever shall be World without end. Jah Rastafari: Eternal God Selassie I."

Rastas believe that Emperor Haile Selassie I of Ethiopia was the Messiah, and that the "Tree of Life" mentioned in the Bible is actually cannabis. Dictates like "Eat every herb of the land" (Exodus 10:12) or "The herb is the healing of the nations" (Revelation 22:2) give fodder to the notion that ganja is holy, and contextualize its place in Rasta "reasoning sessions" or meditation gatherings, where a group commonly shares cannabis from a chalice to facilitate discussion, community building, and visions.

As it's mentioned in the Bible, cannabis also is theorized to play a role in Judeo-Christian faiths, as well. In the Hebrew Bible, the term kaneh-bosm is often interpreted to mean cannabis, and is one of the various materials used in the ceremonial kitoret, or incense, and other ritualistic items. As an integral part of the Arab/Mediterranean world since ancient times, cannabis has been deemed kosher, or sanctioned for consumption. After all, according to Genesis 1:29, God said, "Behold, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is on the surface of all the earth, and every tree which has fruit yielding seed; it shall be food for you." In fact, many observant Jews rely on cannabis edibles during the Sabbath, during which they may not light a fire (or joint) or use electricity.

However, though cannabis is kosher, whether it's halal—and therefore in accordance with Islamic dietary law—is up for debate. Despite the trade of hashish characterizing the Arab world for centuries, in Islam, cannabis occupies grey area between a medicine and an intoxicant like alcohol, which is expressly haram, or forbidden. While the Quran doesn't explicitly prohibit cannabis, Muslim belief holds that consuming any substance that "curtains the mind" is sinful.

So it comes down to intent: If someone is using medical marijuana, it may not be considered haram because they are using it medicinally, in accordance with the Muslim idea that God did not create any illnesses for which there is no cure.

In light of the cannabis cure, various Christian groups look to the ingredients in Jesus' anointing oil—the recipe for which calls for nine pounds of kaneh-bosm—to validate the role of cannabis in Christianity. The name Christ, itself, is said to mean anointed, fitting since Christ often went around healing people with his holy anointing oil. That said, while cannabis may have a religious justification for medicinal consumption, high priests have often spoken against using it recreationally.

In Hinduism, on the other hand, cannabis is central the character of certain deities, namely Shiva, the god of destruction. Shiva's association with destruction, however, is linked to destruction of the ego, as he's said in Hindu mythology to enjoy cannabis in the form of charas (hashish), ganja (cannabis flower), and bhang (a potion made with cannabis). Cannabis is often thought to be Shiva's prasad, or offering, and is particularly sacred to Shiva devotees, who use it in the practice of yoga or meditation as a tool for focus and inward exploration. In these contexts, cannabis consumption is often preceded by a prayer: "Jai Shiva Shankara Hare Hare Ganja."

Meanwhile, in the Buddhist tradition, like Islam, the intent behind cannabis consumption dictates whether it should be used. If it's for medicinal purposes it's okay, but cannabis simply for recreation falls in conflict with Buddhism's Five Precepts, which condemn the use of mind-altering substances.

The worldover, ancient and modern religions have had something to say on getting high, or getting ecstatic from plant medicines. From Latin America to Ancient Egypt, cannabis and other herbs have been central to traditional wisdom, both for therapeutic uses and spirituality. Of course, those two things could be one in the same—a connection to spirit and good health often facilitate one another.

Madison Margolin is an LA/NY-based journalist on the cannabis beat. Her work has been featured in Rolling Stone, LA Weekly, Merry Jane, Herb, Playboy, and other places too.