Award-winning investigative journalist (and dad) Peter Gorman has spent more than 20 years tracking down stories from the streets of Manhattan to the slums of Bombay. Specializing in Drug War issues, he is credited as a primary journalist in the medical marijuana and hemp movements, as well as in property forfeiture reform. His work has appeared in over 100 national and international magazines and newspapers.
Peter Gorman's love affair with the Amazon jungle is well-known to people in the field. Since 1984 Mr. Gorman has spent a minimum of three months annually there generally using Iquitos
Peru as his base. During that time he has studied ayahuasca the visionary healing vine of the jungle with his friend the curandero Julio Jerena. He has collected artifacts for the American Museum of Natural History botanical specimens for Shaman Pharmaceuticals and herpetological specimens for the FIDIA Research Institute of the University of Rome. His description of the indiginous Matses Indians’ use of the secretions of the phyllomedusa bicolor frog has opened an entire field devoted to the use of amphibian peptides as potential medicines in Western medicine.
by Peter Gorman
Our Church, the civil disobedience-based church that uses cannabis as its sacrament, was incorporated in 1994. Less than a year later, one of its founders, the Reverend Tom Brown, was busted for growing its sacrament on church land. Despite its short span, Our Church’s influence is still felt in many places.
In the annals of modern religion, one of the most unique approaches to the formation of a formal church began in 1994 when a handful of spiritual rednecks from a rural area near Fayetteville, Arkansas, decided to challenge the law of man with the power of a plant from God and incorporated Our Church, a place where cannabis was the sacred sacrament and peyote the sign of confirmation. And though the law of man won a battle less than a year later, the spiritual roots of Our Church have continued to flourish.
The story begins in 1988 when two couples, members of a local anti-garbage incinerator group, founded Our Church by sending out letters that set out the fundamental theological perspective of the religion and invited participation. It was a simple and direct message: “We’re hippies. Jesse Jackson and Ronald Reagan both want to put us in jail for our use of pot. We were right about the war in Vietnam, we’re right about government corruption, we’re right about the environment, and we’re right about the use of herbs to help us talk with God. They are turning our kids into narcs and it’s time for us to come forward publicly to practice our spirituality.”
Though nothing happened with Our Church at that time, one of the invitations found its way to Tom Brown, a 41-year-old hippie who had recently moved from Alaska to Fayetteville. Brown, born in rural Rahway, New Jersey, was the oldest of seven kids and a natural leader.
“I had a great childhood,” Brown told SKUNK recently. “You know, we always had woods and ponds and lived in big old houses. My dad was a regular guy who got us to be newspaper boys and alter boys—we were raised Catholic—and snow shoveling boys. He’d take us to the woods and have us cut wood for the fireplace, and he always had a big garden to raise vegetables to feed us all. And on Saturdays he’d take us fishing. That was the best. He’d get us up at 4:30 and tell us not to wake mom, and we’d shuffle out of the house, get in the car, and drive through the dark to the pond, get the boat into the water . . . That was special.”
The Browns moved to Massachusetts in the early 1950s where the pond they fished in was Walden Pond, made famous by Henry David Thoreau. Brown’s father made sure his children understood the significance of both Thoreau and his work on nonviolent civil disobedience.
In 1965 Brown headed off for college, which he left in 1968 when he joined the Navy to avoid the draft. He became a torpedo man on a submarine then got himself a dishonorable discharge in September 1969 for drug use by turning himself in. “We were scheduled for Vietnam, and I was not going to be part of that,” he says. “I couldn’t be part of that. So I turned myself in for marijuana, mescaline, and LSD use—I had witnesses to swear they’d seen me use them—and got my discharge.”
Out of the military, Brown, like tens of thousands of others, found his way to mystical San Francisco and then northern California—“Hippie College,” he calls it—for several years before venturing further north to Alaska.
Hippie College didn’t just mean getting high all the time. For Brown, a voracious reader, it meant taking the values he’d grown up with and setting them to a new paradigm. His respect for the land he’d grown up playing on became a reverence for Mother Earth. The decency he’d seen in his parents evolved into a deep compassion for the struggles of the average family trying to make a go of it. His religious beliefs, formed in a Roman Catholic Church that no longer fit him, evolved into an understanding that people were better off with a line of communication open to the Creator than they were without one, and that cannabis was one of the Creator’s gifts to help facilitate that communication. His dislike for the lies told during the Vietnam era became a passion for seeking and demanding the truth from government and public officials at every level.
While the evolution of his belief system was important to Tom Brown, it remained his personal system until January 1994 when he woke from a dream one morning. “I woke up knowing I’d had this very important dream,” he says, “but I couldn’t remember what it was. What it left me with, though, was the same feeling I had as a kid when my dad would take us fishing. It was a peak experience. So there I was, sitting up in bed in the middle of the same peak experience. I hadn’t done LSD or smoked any herb, but I was overjoyed and everything was just glowing.”
Pushed by something he didn’t understand he got up and found the letters from theOur Church founders that he’d received six years earlier. “I realized that that was what the experience was about. It was instant recognition when I saw those letters. I knew it was time to start Our Church.”
He quickly tried to round up the growers and activist hippies in the area but all of them turned him down. “Even the founders who’d written the original letters wanted no part of it. They were afraid of what the Man might do.”
And with good reason. Tom Brown’s vision saw him donating one acre of his 40-acre farm to become the home of Our Church. And he saw himself planting cannabis on Our Church grounds, publicly defying the U.S. government’s war on drugs; cannabis that would be used by Our Church members as their sacrament; their line of communication with the Creator. The cannabis left over would be donated to medical patients who needed it. “I knew it was time to incorporate the church, donate my acre of land. But at the same time I was scared, because I was going to have all those plants on it.”
He eventually found eight others to sign the incorporation papers with him and the church was incorporated in February 1994. Their first service, with thirty-five people present, took place two months later in April. On May 1, 1994, Brown and the other Our Church members, having notified the local authorities—including the DEA—of their intentions, planted ninety cannabis seedlings in front of local print and television media. Law enforcement didn’t interfere.
One of the other founders, Sam Smith, was the man who had come up with the idea of Cannabis Buyer’s Clubs. He presented it to Dennis Peron at a Drug Policy Foundation meeting in 1992. He and Peron had spent nearly an hour hashing out the idea and coming up with the name for the dispensaries.
Another founder, Kitty Kezele, was a Wiccan and ordained minister who in June of 1994 suggested that Tom Brown be ordained and that she be the one to ordain him. “I was very nervous about being ordained at all, much less by a witch. But I prayed about it and decided that accepting ordination from Kitty was the best thing that could happen.”
So Tom Brown became Reverend Tom Brown. And another 400 seedlings, along with some peyote, were planted. The purpose of Our Church, however, wasn’t simply to grow marijuana. At the time, Brown explained that its purpose was, “to provide a site to facilitate acts of nonviolent civil disobedience in the spirit of Henry David Thoreau, Mahatma Gandhi, and Martin Luther King.”
On August 2, however, the roof caved in when DEA agents brought in from outside the Fayetteville area descended on Our Church and Tom Brown, who was home on his farm next door. They seized 435 near-harvest-ready cannabis plants, several peyote cacti, and $1,000. Brown was charged with possession, manufacture, and distribution of a Controlled Substance and both his farm and Our Church’s acre were forfeited. (In an odd twist, the Feds later returned the one-acre Our Church plot to its members, while keeping Brown’s farm for auction.)
Brown, looking at twenty years in a federal penitentiary, faced several spiritual crises in the next several months. First, the Feds wanted him to snitch-out Sam Smith, whom they believed was growing and selling marijuana and whom they hated for having come up with the concept of Cannabis Buyer’s Clubs. “They would have let me off the hook in a second if I’d have ratted on Sam. But the truth was: it was me who put Sam in the spotlight with Our Church. He never pushed me to do anything.”
The Feds also wanted dirt on a couple of the other founders, but Brown refused to cooperate. He also refused to flee, despite offers from some in the movement to get him new passports and have him relocated to places without extradition to the U.S. “It was tempting to go, and if I was operating on my own I might have,” Brown says. “But the Spirit, so much greater than me, gave me the strength to say, ‘this is where my stick is planted and this is something I will face.’ ”
In what many would call absolutely foolhardy, Brown fired several lawyers and eventually defended himself in federal court, claiming that Our Church had the right to grow and use cannabis under the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which gave the Native American Church the right to use peyote during its ceremonies. And in one of the more bizarre moments the court had ever seen, six other members of Our Church declared in the courtroom that they were part of the conspiracy to grow and distribute the cannabis in question and demanded to be prosecuted. The prosecutor and judge were so taken aback that they refused to even have the other six investigated, and no charges were ever brought against any of them.
Brown, however, didn’t fare so well. On February 10, 1995, he was given a mandatory sentence of 121 months. Brown didn’t crumble. “Of course, I never really thought I’d make it out alive. Ten years is a long time. And even in federal prisons there are some very nasty people.”
When he first went away, and for the following three years, Our Church members continued to hold weekly services in the church, including the use of their sacramental cannabis. A Current Affair, a popular television show at the time, even came and filmed them smoking in the Church while Brown was waiting to go to prison.
For his part, Brown tried to keep his nose clean on the inside, but the continual appeals he filed on his own and other inmates’ behalf became a thorn in the prison authorities’ sides. He found himself in solitary confinement on several occasions. “One time there was another guy in solitary that I later bunked with who was doing thirty years for marijuana on a setup. His daughter had been raped and he was about to blow the whistle on the local sheriff and other people in the county so they just nailed him. That’s what they can do if we continue to let them do it to us.”
Most of Brown’s time was spent in the federal lockup in Springfield, Missouri, with stints in El Reno, Oklahoma, and Greenville, Illinois. But about halfway through his sentence the federal guidelines for the weight of marijuana plants was changed from one pound per plant to 100 grams per plant, reducing Brown’s sentence from 121 months to 53 months. He was released in 1999. “Getting out was crazy. It took me something, like, five trips to the market to get enough food to make a single meal. I’d forgotten what was needed.”
He doesn’t regret his time inside. “Look, everybody wants to avoid suffering. But you learn from it, too. After suffering in prison for about thirty-six months I had a place carved out inside of me, which the Holy Spirit could fill. I was no longer so full of myself that I couldn’t tell the difference. It’s the kind of consciousness that those who take up severe physical practices, like living in a cave in the mountains, gain. Not that the gain comes from simply suffering, but the suffering accompanied by the conscious effort to gain an ‘over-standing’ of the issues causing the suffering gives the gain.”
He believes his faith in the Creator helped get him through his time without developing unmanageable anger. “We need to develop our daily spiritual practices. We need that in our lives. We need to try to have a relationship with the Creator to give our lives a frame of reference. And spiritual ritual, as silly as it might seem, has benefits.”
Brown, who makes a living doing menial labor these days, spends most of his time down at the local library working on a battery of appeals in his case, and briefs for others. “I believe that the age of greed, of big oil and the most stuff, is really coming to an end. And those who live in that frame of reference have no clue as to what they will do when the world changes. But some of us know that we need the consciousness of Woodstock, not the consciousness of war. One is peace and love, the other aggression. The George Bushes of the world have had their run. We were right; they were wrong. We’re still right; they’re still wrong.
The other founders of Our Church mostly distance themselves from Brown these days. Almost none of them ever come to the civil disobedience service he holds every Sunday in a park in Fayetteville. But he recognizes that that’s part of the process. “Who needs someone who’s been in jail, has nothing? For most people it’s just a demonstration that they don’t want to be part of.”
Other founders have opened their own branches in Hawaii, Washington, and elsewhere. “When you get together with the herb, with the power of prayer, you share with others; you connect with the creator. That’s the message. That’s always been the message. And that message is spreading.”