With a stained-glass window behind them, a lineup of speakers stepped to the front of the church and talked about the potential health benefits of legalizing plants that are currently outlawed in Alabama.
“I smoke cannabis on a daily basis for my pain,” said Janice Rushing, president of the Oklevueha Native American Church of Inner Light in Alabama. “If I did not, I’d be on pain pills.”
Her husband, Christopher Rushing, chief executive officer of Oklevueha Native American Church of Inner Light, says he also uses marijuana routinely.
The Rushings founded the Oklevueha Church in 2015 and claim that it has a legal exemption for its members to smoke marijuana and ingest hallucinogenic mushrooms and peyote cactus.
At a January forum with an audience of about 30 gathered at Unity Church in Birmingham, which allowed the use of its facilities, speakers discussed the potential benefits of marijuana and other substances for medicinal purposes.
“I had an ungodly facial rash,” said Sherrie Saunders, a former U.S. Army medic who is now a member of Oklevueha Native American Church in Alabama.
“We made a cream that completely got rid of that rash,” Mrs. Rushing said.
Someone in the audience discussed a heart problem and sleep apnea.
“That could be something that cannabis could help,” Saunders said.
She also said marijuana can ease manic bipolar disorder and Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome.
“The medical establishment took away cannabis so they could sell us pills,” Saunders said.
Before marijuana was stigmatized as an illegal drug, Native Americans valued it as a natural herbal treatment for more than 90 percent of sicknesses, she said. “A woman in Nicaragua showed me how to cure cancer with cannabis,” Saunders said.
The woman had a son who was cured, she said. “I know why,” Saunders said. “God and cannabis.”
The National Cancer Institute, in its overview of cannabis in treatment of cancer, makes no claims for curative powers, but acknowledges that cannabis has been used for medicinal purposes for thousands of years and that it “may have benefits in the treatment of cancer-related side effects.”
Chris Rushing stood in the pulpit and preached a sermon that mixed theology and a belief in natural, hallucinogenic plants. “That is God’s way of turning our brain on,” Rushing said.
“These entheogens work like tools to open up spaces and pathways of the mind,” Rushing said. “Yet it’s illegal. We all walk around producing natural chemicals that do the same.”
Rushing said it does not make sense that pharmaceutical companies make large profits on harmful synthetic and dangerous drugs, while plant and herbal medicines are illegal.
Rushing said the health benefits of marijuana, mushrooms and cacti are enormous. They can combat depression and cure people of addictions, he said.
The Oklevueha Native American Church of Inner Light in Warrior has been licensed as a federally registered branch of the Oklevueha Lakota Sioux Nation Native American Church, Rushing said.
The church has a religious exemption to use psylocibin mushrooms and peyote cactus, both of which have properties that augment traditional Native American spiritual beliefs and experiences, Rushing said. He calls their use in religious ceremonies a sacrament.
All 120 members in the Alabama church carry photo identification, similar to a driver’s license, that identifies them as members of a church that has a federal religious exemption to use natural drugs that are otherwise prohibited by law, he said.
He believes all natural plants should be legal for medicinal use, including marijuana, peyote cactus and psylocibin mushrooms.
Researchers at UAB and other universities are studying the benefits of such natural treatments, including the use of psylocibin mushrooms in treating cocaine abuse. Peter Hendricks, a clinical psychologist at UAB, is currently doing research on the use of the active ingredient in psylocibin mushrooms.
Hendricks spoke in May 2016 at a Homewood Public Library event sponsored by the church. He spoke again in January at the event at Unity Church in Birmingham.
Hendricks said he only talks about his research at the church-sponsored events and does not endorse Rushing’s church or whether its use of drugs is legal or not. The events give Hendricks a chance to advertise the research trials, which still need volunteers. Hendricks’ research explores the use of mushrooms in weaning addicts off serious drug addictions.
“I don’t support criminalizing any drug use,” Hendricks said. “People who have addictions are not helped by criminalization. If it were up to me, there would be more emphasis on providing treatment, less emphasis on punitive measures for people who are addicted.”
Rushing carries around with him documentation of court rulings such as a unanimous ruling in United States v. Robert Boyll in the U.S. 10th Circuit Court of Appeals, which found that a non-Native American who was arrested for possession and intent to distribute peyote had the same constitutional protections as Native American members of the church.
Rushing said he was licensed in the church by James Warren “Flaming Eagle” Mooney of Utah, who won a court battle with the state of Utah. The Utah Supreme Court ruled in Mooney’s favor in 2004, in State of Utah vs. Mooney’s and Oklevueha Native American Church. The state had argued that Mooney was engaged in a criminal enterprise for distributing peyote and tried to seize the church property. The Supreme Court ruled that the Native American Church was entitled to the religious exemption.
As legalized marijuana spreads across the United States, most observers remain skeptical that recreational marijuana will be legal anytime soon in Alabama.
After the Jan. 21 forum at Unity Church, some in attendance expressed hope Alabama might soon follow in the footsteps of other states that have legalized marijuana. More than half of the states have decriminalized marijuana for medical uses and eight states have decriminalized marijuana for recreational uses.
Some of them say the Oklevueha Native American Church of Inner Light in Alabama is helping raise awareness.
“I think Chris’ work is vital,” said Jonah Tobin, founder of the Alabama Mother Earth Sustenance Alliance, or MESA. “People like him are part of that movement.”
Janice Rushing, president of the Oklevueha Native American Church of Inner Light in Alabama, in the pulpit, and Sherrie Saunders, left, talk about the medical benefits of marijuana on Jan. 21, 2017, at Unity Church in Birmingham, Ala.