May 2, 2011
From the street, Chris Bennett's place-a stoopy garden suite off Victoria Drive-doesn't look like much, but inside it's a shrine. A second-century Scythian gold coin hangs on the living-room wall, along with an 18th-century depiction of saddhus smoking a chillum, an 18th-century print called Fakhirs Prepare Bong, hashish postcards from the 19th century, and a 1730s print of a woman smoking cannabis, her breasts flung up over her shoulder to feed her child. Plus framed antique chillums from India and a three-foot statue of Shiva.
The revelation that reshaped his life happened 20 years ago, in Ucluelet. He'd moved there from the sawmills of Port Alberni, and taken a part-time job as a night watchman at a fish plant; he spent the rest of his time surfing and growing weed. One night, toking in the staff room, something in the paper caught his eye, an ad featuring televangelist Pat Robertson paired with tanks and fighter jets-a piece of agitprop supporting America's first adventure in the Gulf with the language of Revelations. Bennett, 28 at the time, reached for the Good Book and read its final chapter.
"I'd seen The Omen as a kid, and there were some Jehovah's Witnesses at the plant, so I knew something about the Bible." Accounts of John swallowing a scroll, and then prophesying, felt familiar. "I figured, ‘He's obviously eaten something that's affecting his consciousness. That's weird.'" Then he hit Revelations 22:2: "On either side of the river, was there the tree of life, which bare twelve manner of fruits, and yielded her fruit every month: and the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations."
As he describes it, divine light entered his being. "I felt like it just started pouring into me. This was a reference to cannabis hemp. Cannabis hemp was the tree of life." Numinous with revelation, he called his wife, Tracy, who started crying on the phone, thinking he was having a breakdown. "The next day, I got up after sleeping away the day, and I wondered: ‘Was there anything to that, or was I just tripping?'" Looking out over the devastation of the Clayoquot clearcut, he lit up a joint and committed himself to his new sacrament.
Bennett's brother was the camp chairman for the loggers' union and his wife's family were loggers, but he wasn't at all political. Yet the more he thought about hemp (banned in Canada at the time), the more sure he was that his revelation held promise for all humanity. A Grade 11 dropout, he started researching. He discovered C. Creighton's 1903 essay "Evidence of the Hashish Vice in the Old Testament" and Sula Benet's "Early Diffusion and Folk Uses of Hemp." Connections between hemp and the anti-logging and anti-war movements only multiplied. He and Tracy started a newsletter, Patriotic Canadians for Hemp. He became a minister in Ontario's cannabis-based Church of the Universe. In 1995, his essays grew into a book, Green Gold the Tree of Life: Marijuana in Magic and Religion, written with Lynn and Judy Osburn. The volume begins: "All the religions of humanity eventually flow into the Mystery of One-Spirit that inspires humans with Revelation that carries us beyond the slow pace of physical evolution into the Hyperborean Youniverse of cultural evolution."
The Bennetts visited universities, bringing samples of hemp cloth, paper, seeds. "In those days, I was Ezekiel. Big long dreadlocks, all my own handmade hemp clothes. I was proselytizing everywhere, very apocalyptic." Tracy was an athlete, and an aspiring writer. She grew jealous of his mounting knowledge and influence, he says, and scared by the growing role of cannabis in their lives. "She saw things getting tougher, and this being a hard path to follow."
When their marriage ended, he moved, first onto a boat, then into Vancouver, where he took a job managing Marc Emery's Pot-TV and married American pot activist Renee Danielle Boje. (They've since divorced; their son, Shiva, is eight.) In 2001, he self-published Sex, Drugs, Violence and the Bible. "Here in the bi-millenial year of the most popular individual in history, Jesus Christ," it begins, "it is the perfect time to take an honest and hard look at the book that pivoted him to popularity." The work argues for marijuana's central role in the Bible: Moses' conversations with an angel while staring into a burning bush (Exodus 3:1-21); the anointing of Saul (1 Samuel 10:1); Jesus' baptism not with water but cannabis-infused oil (Mark 1: 9-11). Last year, Bennett published his third book: Cannabis and the Soma Solution, a densely footnoted argument for marijuana's use in religious ritual since 2000 BC. "We know that sacramental use of cannabis is older than any existing religion-we know from archeological evidence."
His beliefs are sparking wider attention. In 2009, he sought an exemption from the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act to grow and possess marijuana. In his affidavit, he wrote that because cannabis is illegal, "I am continually in jeopardy of losing my liberty for exercising my religious beliefs." Health Canada disagreed, ruling that such an exemption (similar to that for medical marijuana) would not be in the interest of the Canadian public.
Bennett will soon be back in court, challenging the health minister's refusal. If Bennett is not allowed access to marijuana, he argues, his charter right to religious freedom is abridged. Win or lose, he'll continue to smoke his sacrament. He uses about a quarter-ounce a day, which costs him $40; that money, plus the $15,000 in legal fees to date, comes from the income he makes selling his books and running an online plant and artifacts shop called The Urban Shaman (Amanita muscaria mushroom, 10 grams, $10; morning-glory seeds, three grams, $7).
"I've stuck to the mission," he says. "If I dropped dead tomorrow, my ideas would continue to grow. The more people look at them, the stronger they get. If they were bullshit, they'd just fade away, but there's way more cannabis churches now than I can keep track of. And many of them are based on things I've written."