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What Would Bill Levin Do?

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“The bottom line here is we are teaching the 101 basic teachings of JC. We don’t like bankers. We don’t like power. We’re here to help the people.”

Some may call this blasphemy, but Bill Levin might have a lot more in common with the aforementioned “JC” than his fellow men of the cloth would like to admit. He’s not planning to die for anyone’s sins anytime soon, but the self-proclaimed “Grand Poobah” of the First Church of Cannabis is, after all, the founder of a new religion based on the simple, universal concept of love. And like his predecessor, he rattles the cages of the established order with fearless resolve. He slays the sacred cows of aging traditions and calls bullshit on the mouthpieces of regressive thought, all while immersing himself in the marginalized factions of society. The clincher? He’s a Jewish carpenter. Literally.

Let’s all mutter a silent prayer of thanks that crucifixion is no longer a thing, at least not in the relatively civilized world of Middle America.

It has now been a full month since the First Church of Cannabis held their inaugural service as the world looked on. As can be expected, the media circus surrounding the fledgling religion has since begun to pull up stakes and move on to the next sensational story that will briefly hold the nation’s goldfish attention span. Levin and his congregation, however, are moving forward, spotlight or no. There’s a parking lot to pave, a septic tank to replace and most importantly, rights to be asserted.

“We’re suing the state,” he begins, his wry grin somehow discernable through the phone. But rather than a specific monetary amount, they’re suing for the right to partake of the good herb, which, in this new religion, replaces the bread and juice as their sacrament. The state is only the beginning. He continues, “And the city. And the governor, the attorney general, the Indiana state police, the Sheriff, Marion County, the police chief, the mayor and, well, God knows who else.”

Originally, the plan was to observe their religion to the letter and light up right there in the first service, citing the highly contested Religious Freedom Restoration Act as their license to do so. But after the vehement opposition from the state, as well as the threats and slander from Indy’s Chief of Police, they decided to play it safe. According to Levin, there has yet to be any cannabis consumption at the First Church of Cannabis, though he’s hoping the lawsuit will remedy that situation.

Legal experts among television’s talking head circuit aren’t putting their money on the Cannaterian community, as they call themselves, but Levin’s attorney has him feeling fairly positive. When asked how the proceedings are going, Levin responds with cool, casual confidence:

“Damn fine.”

After a pause, he repeats his words, as if the repetition augments their power. There’s another pause as he meticulously, but quickly, gathers the thoughts about the situation he wants to convey. A brief few moments and he’s off to the races, beginning with a third and final reinforcement of his initial response.

“Actually, like . . . DA-YUM fine. The blatant religious persecution . . . come on. A chief of police has never trained churches on how to protest [another] church since the times of Martin Luther. And I’m not talking about King here, OK? I’m surprised he’s still in office. I’ll give him 90 days from the time he opened his mouth before they dump him.”

“The time he opened his mouth,” as Levin so impetuously framed it, is a reference to Indianapolis Police Chief, Richard Hite’s, public statement in which he compared Levin to the late Jim Jones, the now infamous ‘70s cult leader who led his flock down a deadly road to self-annihilation. “He compared me to a mass murderer,” he nearly grunts, the sting of the insult lingering at the edges of his words. He goes on, “I think at another point, he said our religion was blasphemous.”

Blasphemous. The word itself is rooted in religious belief, something a public official is supposed to leave at home when making policy decisions. I bring this up to Levin.

“Blasphemous? Isn’t that a bit of a religious word?”

His wryness returns and I can once again, hear his mischievous grin ooze through the phone.

“No. Blasphemy is a lawsuit word.”

As far as Chief Hite goes, there is little love lost from Levin. He’s quick to point out though, that his supposed “beef” with the Indianapolis Police stops there. “It was not the police department,” he insists, adamantly. “Keep that very, very, very straight. It was the Chief of Police. The officers and I have a lot of respect for each other . . . They’re just being misled by a man who has poor judgement. Let’s put it this way: he came from Baltimore to fix our problem. And you know what? The murder rate has gone up since he’s been here. While he had 100 people on me at the church in case I lit up a half gram joint, there was a murder six blocks away.”

Levin is a one of a kind, truly the exact person needed to take the plunge he’s taken for the movement. At first glance, it’s impossible to decide whether he’s the wild-eyed wilderness prophet expected of a new religion’s founder or if he’s just one of the Rolling Stone’s original stage hands. If he were a blanket, he would be a patchwork quilt, a montage of half-baked memories and ideas haphazardly thrown together into something rustically beautiful. As a friend who attended the first service so eloquently put it, Levin is “is full of love, full of hope, and full of shit.” In some way, that statement seems oddly fitting, though that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. His words, while on one hand, brutally unfiltered, still seem oddly calculated, always tinged with a dry sense of humor that borders on smugness, yet, they never lose their warmth.

It’s no surprise that Levin’s newly formed religion reflects him. It’s a funhouse mirror reflection, but a reflection nonetheless. There’s love and compassion, but codified in their Deity Dozen is also a call for humor. And in the midst of all of this, though the religion is arguably sincere in belief, there is still an underlying middle finger to the puritanical elite that controls the state in which Levin resides. When he speaks of the philosophy behind his creation, every one of these aspects is abundantly apparent.

“The only thing everybody can agree on in the world,” he begins, but then pauses and facetiously interjects, “No, there are a couple things. Everybody agrees on vanilla ice cream . . . But, the only other thing everybody in the world can relate to is love . . . So, we throw out the old books, the old magic books—poof, poof, gone—and we have a new suggested 12 pathways to life because we don’t offer guilt-centered judgement. We don’t hide in booths and tell a robed man that we have sinned this week. We instead bring you to the podium of life and have you testify about the good things that happened to you this week. So we celebrate the positive and put energy into your life, a positive, loving energy. Because love has no religion.”

But what the hell is up with his title, “Grand Poobah”?

“Ehh, ‘pope’ was taken.”