I was high on weed the first time I felt God. I was lying on my roommate’s couch in Portland, Oregon. I wasn’t meditating or anything. I was just lying there on my back and all of a sudden felt this massive loving presence whoosh into me and spread through me like a drop of dye in a glass of water. It kept growing in me, bigger and bigger, and then bigger than anything I’d ever felt before. Eventually I broke down weeping because it was so big.
I was raised without any religion—but that experience? Whatever that was, I consider it a spiritual experience. I’ve had others since then. There was a sunset recently. I won’t get into details but it was one of the most important moments of my life. And yeah, I was stoned when I experienced it.
Turns out, humans have been getting high and having spiritual experiences since the beginning. According to archaeological research, prehistoric humans have used psychoactive substances, including cannabis, “for a variety of magical/mystical/medicinal purposes,” basically since the start of humankind. This use of psychoactive substances has been documented in ancient Mesopotamia, India, Persia, Egypt, Africa, China, Japan, Europe, and America (pre-Columbus).
According to the Hash Marihuana & Hemp Museum in Amsterdam, it’s likely that cannabis was first used in religious contexts as a ceremonial incense that was burned upon a big fire and inhaled by those gathering around. Historic texts show that in Ancient Greece, Scythians held religious ceremonies where they burned hemp plants. The grave of a shaman in western China dated 2700 BCE was found to contain a basket filled with the flowers of a psychoactive strain of cannabis, believed to have been used for sacramental purposes.
An article in the Brazilian Journal of Psychiatry points out how cannabis was mentioned as one of five sacred plants in the Hindu sacred text the Atharva Veda, which called it “a source of happiness, donator of joy and bringer of freedom.” The Hindu God Shiva is also associated with cannabis. There is a long history of myths and stories related to Shiva’s cannabis use, and visual art depicting Shiva consuming “bhang,” a drink made from cannabis and milk. These days, there is a festival every February in Kathmandu that combines smoking weed and celebrating Shiva.
Research shows that cannabis and other intoxicants used for spirituality and healing, such as ayahuasca, were socially integrated into tribes and communities until the end of the fourth century, when Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire. When it comes to Christianity, there isn’t evidence showing that Jesus got high on cannabis, but many think it’s likely that cannabis was present in the anointing oils he used in healing ceremonies. There was a period of about ten years after he left home and before he appeared on the scene as a prophet, and some people think he was basically off smoking weed that whole time, though there is no evidence to support that.
Rastafarianism, the religion and social movement created in the 1930’s, incorporates cannabis into its beliefs and practices, believing that the “tree of life” referred to in the Bible actually refers to cannabis. In that tradition, the plant is referred to as “wisdom weed.”
Shared among all religious traditions that have incorporated cannabis is a belief that it can be used to inspire contemplation. This practice is alive and well today. From cannabis-infused yoga classes to full-on cannabis churches to ad-hoc experiences like mine, the connection between cannabis and spirituality in our society is potent. As laws around use loosen, we are becoming more free to experiment with it in ways that our ancestors seem to have found natural.