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‘One false move and you’re done’: how US cities are changing for runaway kids

Runaway youth have always fled to cities but they now find themselves adrift in much costlier cities, where even the fully employed are barely scraping by

The first thing Zach Hicks did after he was run over in Roanoke, Virginia, was to write a Facebook post. He kept it simple: I just got ran over by a truck. The first commenter was his mother, hundreds of miles away in the midwest, who also kept it simple: WTF!?!?!?!?

He was retrieving a dog, Sobaka, that hed been given by a band of Hells Angels. The dog had bolted and was cowering beneath an 18-wheeler truck. Against his better judgment, Hicks crawled under to pull Sobaka out, and was hit.

The wheel started going over my leg, and then my side and then the side of my face, he says. I know what tire treads look like from underneath.

That was August 2015, two years after hed left home in Oregon. Today he is resting in a secluded alley on Masonic Avenue, a stones throw from Haight Street in San Francisco. Fifty years ago, the children with windy feet ran to this very block from parts unknown, in search of something anything during the Summer of Love.

The kids are still coming, along with legions of tourists who ensure this neighbourhoods street signs are among the worlds most photographed. But this is a side of San Francisco few will ever see.

Hicks is joined by a dozen tattooed and pierced young men and women wearing luminescent orange vests. They smoke, sip Gatorade, and all but inhale three donated pizzas between shifts sweeping the pavement and wiping graffiti off the walls. Some of these young people ran away from home, some were abandoned, and some experienced a bit of column A and a bit of column B. Christian Calinsky, the founder of Taking it to the Streets, a work and housing programme for young homeless people, considers it largely a difference without a distinction in his mind they simply left home.

Theyre both on the same playing field, man. I really cant distinguish, says Calinksy, 44, a former runaway who was homeless for large stretches between ages 12 and 34. All their traumas are the same in my mind. But I dont see people as their trauma. I see them as their potential.

Hicks, 22, has plenty of both. He sports a beard like a rhododendron bush and a rugby players build. He has piercing blue eyes, a ready smile, and the phrase 25 Jokes tattooed across his knuckles. Thats how I make my bread when Im on the road. And its five for a dollar; when you buy in bulk you get the extra joke.

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One in every 25 public school students in San Francisco is homeless. Photograph: Josh Edelson/AFP/Getty

His story is instructive of the modern nature of runaways in the US. Hicks grew up in the economically depressed, dope-saturated Pacific Northwest. He shows me his ID; yes, he really was born in 1995. Mum was around bikers, he says. I grew up in a double-wide trailer and she ran meth for bandits. She had me and stopped but we still had all our connections to the brotherhood.

He says his father would take him away as a toddler, only to mistreat him. After interventions by Child Protective Services, he ended up back in his mothers custody. Before too long, Hicks says, I got into some bad shit. He burgled the medical marijuana outfit, making off with four pounds of pot; the next time he tried it, he found himself with a gun in his face.

After several years at a facility for at-risk youth in rural eastern Oregon, he was placed with an older family member who had started smoking meth and was living in a backwoods, hickerbilly town where the only things to do are smoke meth, smoke weed or drive a big truck around in circles.

Like many young men and women across the country, he says he had no choice but to leave. He ended up in a fetid squat, first rooming with meth friends and then, after a police raid, sleeping alongside them in a cave in Bend, Oregon. There, high and morbidly curious, they set his sleeping bag ablaze.

At the age when most young people are ready to start their adult lives, Hicks was ready to end his. But then he met a train-hopper traveller kid who asked me to smoke a bowl with him and tell him why I was crying. Hicks confessed that he couldnt take being homeless in this town forever (he still refers derisively to non-transient homeless people as home bums) but had no money to leave. The traveller laughed, and said: Alls you need is a backpack, a sleeping bag, a tarp, and a piece of cardboard and a Sharpie [pen] so you can make some money. Thats your credit card.

And so Hicks ran away to a new life. He hitched three rides over five days from Virginia to San Diego. If you get in the wrong car or piss off the wrong person, youre dead. One false move and youre done. And then he smiles. But it is fun, man.

Larkin
Larkin Street Youth Services provides housing and education for young people in San Francisco

Counting runaways

New kids like Hicks arrive at the Larkin Street Youth Services centre in San Franciscos Tenderloin district every day. Theres still an honest-to-goodness bulletin board here, where hand-written messages are folded and pinned. One features several selfies of a grinning teenage girl and the words, Olivia, call Abuelita. A pair of kids amble in and glance at the board. Ah, says a tall boy. A new one.

Kids have always run away from home. The places they flee to, however, are changing. Todays runaways are finding themselves adrift in much costlier cities, where even fully employed and well-educated people are finding it increasingly difficult to scrape by. In San Francisco a city with a $10bn municipal budget and a population of only around 870,000 one of every 25 public school students is homeless. Thats about one in every classroom.

I tricked with the hustlers in those days, says Jeff Sheehy, who is now a city councilman representing the predominantly gay Castro district, a Mecca for many rudderless LGBT youths running from untenable home lives.

Nearly half of San Franciscos young homeless people identify as LGBT. Sheehy left home in 1988 after he was blackballed by his family for revealing his homosexuality a common storyline in this city, whether they live in a luxury condos or in a van by the river. Sheehy partied with kids who were hustling and lived four or five to a room, in single-room occupancy hotels on Polk Street. He worked a series of menial jobs to pay for food, beer and $300 a month rent.

Now those single-room hotels are gone; Polk Street has gentrified to the point that its no longer even a gay neighbourhood, with 400 sq ft flats in Sheehys old building now starting at $2,564 a month.

Its hard to know for certain whether there are more or fewer runaways now. A federally funded national tally is due this year the first since a Department of Justice survey back in 1999, which estimated that 1.68 million young Americans had experienced a runaway/throwaway episode.

Zach
Zach Hicks left Oregon, and found himself in San Francisco. Photograph: Joe Eskenazi

But counting young homeless people is hard. As the billboard at the Larkin Street Youth Services centre testifies, they excel at only being seen when they want to be seen. Fluctuations in national tallies more likely represent changes in the counting system than in the on-the-ground situation.

A recent jump in runaways could be due to a new law which mandates that foster service providers file reports when their charges go missing, explains Preston Findlay of the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC). You never want to be an alarmist when you say theres been a dramatic increase, Findlay says. In this case, one small silver lining is that it may in part be due to better reporting.

Once away from home, young people are more vulnerable than the adult homeless population. They can, as Hicks noted, get in the wrong car.

I do have to be more cautious with [some folks] in my speaking to them because of the trauma they suffered from males, says Calinsky from Taking it to the Streets. Findlay confirms that of the more than 18,500 endangered runaways who reported to his organisation in 2016, one in six was deemed a likely victim of child sex trafficking. Of those, seven out of eight were in the care of social services before they went missing.

As well as LGBT youth, foster children are also heavily overrepresented among the runaway population. In San Francisco, one in every four homeless people under 25 is a former foster child; and one in every five foster children is expected to experience homelessness within four years of leaving the programme.

Audrina is all of the above: a transexual former foster child who ran away to San Francisco from Billings, Montana. She is the eldest of six children; her mother was just 15 when she gave birth. I ended up getting taken away from her. I was in foster care for five years, says the shy, petite 24-year-old. I got adopted by what I thought was a good Christian family. But they became more and more abusive of me.

Following a violent confrontation when she was 17 with her adoptive father, she left home and has been travelling ever since. She started drinking, then doing stronger stuff. This is my one-year anniversary of being sober from meth, she says with a wan smile. I was walking around each night looking for a fight, carrying knives. And the one night I didnt have my knives on me was the only night I ever got into a fight.

The fight was both a horror and an exhilaration and it took its toll. My chest started tightening up and I ended up falling down and having a seizure on Van Ness Avenue. I was overdosing on meth. She quit cold turkey. I have no idea how.

She recently formed her own group at the citys LGBT centre aimed at helping fellow young people. Shes doing great, says Calinsky, though Audrina is a harsher critic: My life has been a series of stupid choices.

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In San Francisco, one in four homeless people under 25 is a former foster child. Photograph: Josh Edelson/AFP

A homeless homeless centre

Fuck sciatica, fuck the fact heroin makes me throw up and fuck these stairs, says a barefoot young woman. She is young, but walks with a cane as she climbs the steps to the Haight Ashbury Free Clinic, passing Mary Howe who props up a sign reading Homeless Youth Alliance (HYA).

This is an office shift for Howe, the organisations executive director and a former heroin-addicted runaway. On Christmas Day in 2013, the HYA lost the lease on its longtime drop-in centre. Ever since, the homeless centre has itself been homeless.

Theres something to be said for putting a lot of effort toward youth who are homeless, Howe says. In the long run, its cost-beneficial. They are the ones who will become a part of the adult homeless population.

At every level of government, money has been allocated towards alleviating chronic adult homelessness. Adults remain the neediest and most visible representatives of a shameful national epidemic. But Darla Bardine, the executive director of the National Network for Youth, notes that the federal funding necessitated by the Runaway and Homeless Youth Act of 2008 has been flat for years.

In San Francisco, nearly a quarter of a billion dollars is allotted annually to combat homelessness, but only 8% of it is directed toward young people despite 21% of the citys tallied homeless being younger than 24.

In California, homeless youth advocates were overjoyed to secure an additional $10m in yearly state funding to be split among Los Angeles, San Diego, San Francisco and Santa Clara counties. Thats a step up from the $1.1m the four counties split for the prior 29 years but its still a paltry sum, representing less than 0.01% of the states $125bn budget.

There have been some wins: in recent years San Francisco has opened several hundred housing units earmarked specifically for young homeless people. Many units are additionally reserved for extended foster care youth. In 2012, California expanded its foster care system to cover young people up to their 21st birthday, eliminating the draconian scenario of youths who grew up in turbulent situations getting the heave-ho as their 18th birthday gift.

There is no shortage of sound ideas to pre-emptively stave off runaway situations. Children in California can no longer be charged with prostitution after many years, the legal mindset has finally changed to view them as victims, rather than criminals. Ive heard from some kids that prostitution may be a better choice for them than what they feel theyre facing in a foster situation, says Eliza Reock, a child sex-trafficking specialist at the NCMEC. But at what point would we accept abuse of a child as a solution? Its a big indicator we need to step up and do better.

In Los Angeles County, interventions are triggered when children exhibit certain warning signs, such as chronic truancy or substance abuse. On the federal level, Bardines organisation has created a comprehensive System to End Youth and Young Adult Homelessness broken down into prevention services, early and crisis intervention services, long-term services and after-care services.

We have to be looking earlier, says Doug Styles, the executive director of Huckleberry Youth Programs, a San Francisco-based agency ministering to young homeless people that was formed in 1967. More than nine in 10 young people who show up at Styles door are eventually reunited with their families. But the real trick would be preventing that trip in the first place, he says. We can probably identify some profiles of people likely to become homeless. We should be working with them earlier on. We should be working with school systems.

These are smart ideas but not revolutionary. Los Angeles is already doing some of these things. For the most part, the problems are in the execution, or lack thereof. Most plans run aground on the need for additional money and housing two things few major cities ever really have enough of.

Youth providers are careful not to bite the government hand that feeds them, but cant help noting theyre fed far less (proportionately) than providers serving adult homeless populations. Statistically, underserved young people are likely to be tomorrows visible and resource-intensive chronically homeless adults, but dollars are prioritised to help the homeless people the taxpayers see, rather than the homeless kids they do not.

Hicks, however, has a message for those taxpayers: dont worry about him. Look, I come from nothing, he says. This is normal life for me. In San Francisco, you could be the scummiest person, you could be a doctor. You can be whatever you want to be. This city gives you all the skills to do it.

As were talking he suddenly decides to barrel across a three-lane road to catch a bus. Two cars bear down on him. Hes not looking, and doesnt appear to care. They slow and swerve at the last moment, and this time they dont hit him.

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  • This piece was amended on 9 October 2017 to clarify the circumstances of Jeff Sheehys departure from home and the type of road Hicks ran across.

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Marissa Safont‘One false move and you’re done’: how US cities are changing for runaway kids
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How Uruguay made legal highs work

The South American countrys move to full legalisation of cannabis has so far proved a success, especially for its 17,391 users

Every afternoon a long queue of people gathers outside a tiny neighbourhood pharmacy in Montevideo. The shop is so small that they can only be let in one at a time. Its a slow process but the mostly young clients dont seem to mind. They stand outside or sit on doorsteps chatting in groups of twos and threes as they wait their turn in the warm southern spring.

A chemist inside in a green medical coat asks them each to press their thumb on a fingerprint scanner. The electronic device is connected to a central government computer that will either authorise or deny the purchase of their allotted 10 weekly grams of legal marijuana. It is a state-controlled, high quality product guaranteed to provide excellent highs.

On the street 25 grams of marijuana would cost you 3,000 pesos, thats about $100 for something with probably a large amount of pesticide, seeds and stems, says Luciano, a young buyer who is next in line. But here the same amount would cost you only $30, and it comes in guaranteed, premium quality, thermosealed 5g packs.

In July this year, tiny Uruguay became the first country in the world to legalise the sale of marijuana across its entire territory.

The most important thing has been the change of paradigm, says Gastn Rodrguez Lepera, shareholder in Symbiosis, one of the two private firms producing cannabis for the governments Institute for the Regulation and Control of Cannabis. Uruguay dived in at the deep end without too much international support. They said it wouldnt work. Well, its working now.

With a population of only 3.4 million, squeezed in between its two giant South American neighbours Brazil and Argentina (population 208 million and 43 million respectively), Uruguay has long been at the forefront of liberal policies not only in South America but worldwide.

A divorce law that allowed women to separate from their husbands simply by asking a court for permission was passed as far back as 1913. Abortion was legalised in 2012, with Uruguay the only country in Latin America to do so apart from Cuba.

Part of the reason for Uruguays liberal temperament is a longstanding separation of church and state in a region where the Catholic Church remains dominant. There is no official Christmas day on Uruguays state calendar. Most Uruguayans refer to the holiday by its government denomination of family day. Easter week is referred to as tourism week.

Uruguay locator map

Uruguays switch to a legal marijuana market has not been without its hitches, however, notably the resistance of most pharmacists to act as outlets for the recreational marijuana (medical marijuana remains illegal in Uruguay).

Only 12 of the countrys 1,100 pharmacies have signed up so far to supply the 17,391 government-registered consumers served by the system, which explains the long queues outside. The low price and slim profit margin partly explain their reticence. But the main problem is that banks have threatened to close the accounts of pharmacies selling marijuana, said one chemist who sells marijuana in Montevideo, but who did not want to reveal his name for fear of such bank intervention.

Although sales of the drug have been legalised in various US states, they remain illegal at federal level, leading to a situation where most banks refuse to handle marijuana-related accounts anywhere in the world. Even now that sales in Uruguay have been completely legalised, the fear of running into trouble with the US federal authorities has become concrete.

The problem with the banks was an unforeseen hitch, says Eduardo Blasina, president of Montevideos cannabis museum, set in an old house in the artsy Palermo district of the capital city. But these bumps will get smoothed out eventually.

The potency of the original government-licensed marijuana also failed to satisfy consumers at the start. The government made a mistake because the first batch they released to the market in July had a potency level of only 2% THC, says Blasina.

THC, or tetrahydrocannabinol, is the main psychoactive constituent of cannabis content. This is much lower than the levels found in legal recreational weed in US states like Colorado.

The government quickly got the message and has now upped the content to 9% THC, says the Montevideo pharmacist. A consumer himself, he adds: Ive tried it and I can assure you that it provides a most satisfactory experience.

Registered
Registered users queue outside a pharmacy to buy legal marijuana in Montevideo. Photograph: Andres Stapff/Reuters

For those who would rather not buy their legal weed at a pharmacy, Uruguays marijuana law allows consumers to plant their own at home (up to six plants) or join special privately run cannabis clubs with a maximum of 45 members who are allowed to withdraw 40g per month from the clubs crop.

The transformation of consumers has been astounding, says Blasina. Theyve gone from buying low-quality products from street dealers to becoming gourmet experts who compete with the crops at their clubs.

Confident that pharmacists will eventually find a way to work round the refusal of banks to handle their accounts, Blasina is more worried about the ban on selling legal marijuana to visitors from abroad in a country where tourism keeps growing, partly due to Uruguays beautiful beaches, but also because of its growing reputation as a liberal haven in South America.

Visitors arrive here hoping to enjoy freedom in one of the most liberal countries in the world, so they feel disappointed when they find out they cant buy legal marijuana, says Blasina. They end up buying it on the street, which contradicts the whole point of the law, which is to cut traffickers out of the business.

Blasina and others have started pressing the government for the passports of tourists to be stamped with a permit to purchase a small amount of marijuana during their stay. A record number of visitors will arrive this summer and what will we say to them? Sorry, you cant smoke? he says.

There are ways round the problem, however. The quality of the marijuana is so high that the 40 monthly grams permitted by the government far exceeds what I could smoke on my own, says one Uruguayan who works with foreigners travelling here. So I always have enough to share around with visitors.

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Marissa SafontHow Uruguay made legal highs work
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After marijuana, are magic mushrooms next to be decriminalised in California?

Mayoral candidate near San Francisco seeks signatures to put decriminalisation on statewide ballot next year, saying drug could offer healing at time of crisis

As California prepares for the legalisation of recreational marijuana in 2018, one man is pushing for the state to become the first to decriminalise magic mushrooms.

Kevin Saunders, a mayoral candidate for the city of Marina, just south of the San Francisco Bay, has filed a proposal that would exempt adults over the age of 21 from any penalties over possessing, growing, selling or transporting psychedelic psilocybin mushrooms.

If he can get 365,880 voter signatures by the end of April 2018, the California Psilocybin Legalization Initiative will be placed on the statewide ballot.

Saunders thinks that now is the right time because, he says, the drug can help bridge the current political divide and restore a sense of community.

The world is really hurting and everybody is at a loss about whats going on right now with Trump, Brexit, the refugee crisis and everything else. Im at a loss at what to do politically, but the only thing I feel like we could do is get psilocybin into more peoples hands, he said.

It deflates the ego and strips down your own walls and defences and allows you to look at yourself in a different light, he said, adding: It could allow people to figure out what to do and could revolutionise the way we treat those with depression, addiction and cluster headaches.

A profound magic mushroom experience helped Saunders get over a debilitating five-year heroin addiction in 2003, when he was 32. I got to the root of why I made a conscious decision to become a heroin addict; Ive been clean almost 15 years.

California is one of eight states where voters have legalised marijuana for recreational use, even though its still included in the federal governments list of schedule 1 drugs. Saunders and Kitty Merchant, who is co-author of the measure and his fiancee, believe that magic mushrooms also listed as schedule 1 drugs are the next logical step.

I think we have learned a lot from marijuana and we are ready as a society, he said.

So far, they have about 1,000 signatures, but plan to ramp up signature-gathering efforts in early December at college campuses and events like the medical marijuana summit The Emerald Cup. Eighty-five thousand signatures will trigger hearings at the state capitol.

Merchant and Saunders are not the first couple to propose legalising mushrooms. The husband and wife team Tom and Sheri Eckhert announced earlier this year that they were pushing for a similar ballot measure in Oregon, hoping to make it the first state in the US to legalise the drug.

They have taken a more conservative approach than Saunders has, aiming for a 2020 ballot and seeking to legalise the drug to be taken only in licensed centres under the supervision of a certified facilitator. Individuals would not be able to just buy the mushrooms and consume them at home as they can with marijuana.

Its not only amazing for mental health, theres also a lot of potential for self-development and creative work, Tom Eckhert told Vice in July.

Their efforts run in parallel to several promising clinical trials in which psychedelic mushrooms have been used to successfully treat severe depression, anxiety and addiction.

Robin Carhart-Harris, who has been studying the use of psilocybin to tackle treatment-resistant depression at Imperial College London, believes that it is a logical inevitability that the drug will become available to patients.

However, such legalisation will only take place once final phase 3 clinical trials are completed and the drug is approved by the FDA and the European Medicines Agency. To standardise the dose, the psilocybin would have to be administered in capsule or pill form.

Depression is such a major problem and its not being treated effectively at the moment. A lot of patients arent seeing results with traditional antidepressants, Carhart-Harris said, adding that psilocybin could be a legal medicine to be administered in clinics within the next five years.

Although magic mushrooms are the safest of all the drugs in terms of the number of people who require emergency medical treatment, according to last years Global Drug Survey, they still carry risks.

They are drugs with very low toxicity and very low abuse potential, said psychiatrist Adam Winstock, founder of the Global Drug Survey, who said that if you take into account how often people take them, they are safer than cannabis.

The only difference being the potential for mushrooms to distort your perceptions, cognition, emotions in a way that is totally outside of most peoples real of normal experience. For a minority of people, taken in the wrong situation, that could be terrifying.

Winstock is inviting people to fill out the 2018 Global Drug Survey, an annual anonymous survey that analyses international drug use patterns.

Winstock said hed prefer to see a well-regulated market for magic mushrooms where youd have to show a letter from a doctor saying you were not receiving any acute mental health care or medications. Buyers should also be given advice on how to use the drug, what the effects are and given links to online services to manage difficult situations if they arise.

I would get people to treat mushrooms with the respect they deserve, he said.

The Drug Policy Alliance, a not-for-profit group focused on ending the war on drugs, would not comment on the specific proposals in California and Oregon, but its director of legal affairs, Tamar Todd, said: We certainly agree that nobody should be arrested or incarcerated simply because they possessed or used drugs.

An earlier version of this article mistakenly stated that Robin Carhart-Harris works at University College London. He is at Imperial College London.

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Holy smoke! The church of cannabis

As congregations dwindle, a new religion is lighting up Denver, Colorado. Aaron Millar joins the elevationists of the International Church of Cannabis who worship the weed

It started, naturally, with a group of friends smoking a joint. Steve Berke, a graduate of Yale University, was temporarily living in an old church in Denver, Colorado. His estate agent parents had bought the 113-year-old building with the plan to turn it into flats. He and Lee Molloy, as well as a few friends, had just moved from Miami to capitalise on Colorados lucrative marijuana market. But then, in the words of Lee: We started having these stupid, fantastical conversations. What if we kept it as a church? So Steve convinced his parents to give him the building and, nine months later, on 20 April 2016 4/20, as its known in the United States, the unofficial potheads holiday (because its 4.20pm somewhere, right?) the International Church of Cannabis opened its doors with its own chapel, theology and video game arcade.

From the outside all appears normal: red-brick towers, blocky turrets, a classic city church in an otherwise leafy suburb of Denver. But there are giveaways. The three front doors and arched window facade have been spray-painted with silver galaxies and bright, happy-face planets. The work of legendary painter and graphic artist Kenny Scharf, who has exhibited in the Whitney and New Yorks Museum of Modern Art, it looks more like the backdrop for an illegal 90s rave than your typical parish church. But its indicative of the coup that Elevation Ministries, the non-profit company that Steve and Lee co-founded to set up the Church of Cannabis, has managed to pull off.

That mural would probably buy you next doors house, Lee says, letting me in. But they got it for the price of an air ticket for Scharf, a few days skiing and the loan of a jacket. People love fantastical ideas.

Perfect
Perfect peace: guests of the church relaxing in the hangout room. Photograph: Ryan David Brown for the Observer

The original plan was to open it to the general public, but because Colorados current pot law only allows smoking in private clubs, it is, for now at least, a members-only affair. To date they have more than 1,400 on their list. They open the doors from Thursday to Sunday for smoke-free public viewing, with private cannabis services held on Friday nights. It seems to be growing.

Thats not surprising. Medical marijuana was legalised in Colorado in 2000 the first state to write it into its constitution. By 2009 dispensaries began popping up around the state and legalisation of recreational use soon followed in 2012. It has, for the most part, been wholeheartedly embraced. In 2016 Colorado sold more than a $1bn of weed, created thousands of new jobs and collected almost $200m in additional tax revenue. A church dedicated to cannabis may seem strange to us, but in Colorado it might just be the next logical step.

But there have been detractors. Currently, three of the founding members, including Lee, are under citation for two charges dating back to their opening 4/20 event: the first for breaking the Colorado Clean Indoor Air Act, which bans smoking in public places, and the second for breaking a state law that forbids marijuana consumption outside private homes and clubs. They refute the claims, and officials admit that they appear to have been adhering to the law since then, but a court date is pending.

Dan Pabon, from the states House of Representatives, goes further: in a recent interview with the New York Times he said that the new church offends both religious beliefs everywhere, as well as the voters intent on allowing legalisation of marijuana in Colorado. He introduced an amendment that would ban pot use in churches, but to date it has failed to gather support. Overall, though, official opposition seems to be dwindling. Daniel Rowland, spokesman for the Denver city office, says: As long as they operate within the law and dont offend their neighbours, theyre free to do what they want.

Lighting
Lighting up: Lee Molloy, co-founding member, smokes a joint on the main stage. Photograph: Ryan David Brown for the Observer

But what of those neighbours? Peter G Chronis, writing in local paper the Denver Post, said he felt blindsided angry that the project was done in secret and that the neighbourhood didnt have a chance to voice concerns prior to its completion. Parking and noise, rather than the consumption of marijuana inside, still seem to be the major worries, as well as the possibility that attendees will drive home stoned. But Lee is hoping to turn them round: arranging volunteer days through their church, to help make a positive impact in the community. Last Saturday they were out collecting rubbish from local streets. For now, at least, there seems to be a tentative truce.

But putting all beliefs and disputes aside, what everyone can surely agree is that they have transformed a near-derelict building into a staggering work of art. Every single surface has been painted in vibrant patterns of red, blue and green, geometric prisms with mythological creatures, stars and eyes hidden within. At the back wall, two dream-like Dali-esque giants sit cross-legged as if lost in meditation. It feels like a hallucination, someone says beside me, eyes careening upwards. Its like being swallowed by a Pink Floyd album cover. Perhaps most impressive of all is that it was created spontaneously without a sketch or a plan. This was another freebie: they flew Spanish artist Okuda San Miguel over and bought him a bunch of paints, then he started work in one corner and painted whatever he dreamed up until he finished. It took him just six days he rested on the seventh.

As the service begins we are encouraged to get to know each other: people spark up joints and pass them around. Long wisps of smoke float to the ceiling and cover the congregation in a flowery shroud; splutterings of coughs and giggles, the sharp intake of breath on all sides. There are about 30 of us in all, a mixed bag of misfits ranging from a self-proclaimed pothead granny, whose eyes appear to move independently of each other, to a couple of Harold & Kumar wannabies taking selfies at the altar. And then theres Lee: a former Bible quiz champion, raised in a strict evangelical Christian home, he has the credentials of a preacher if not the look: bushy hipster beard and long messy hair, dark bags under his eyes and the whiff of old smoke on his shirt. It feels more like the start of an AA meeting than a spiritual encounter. But then he starts to speak.

Time
Time out: arcade games in the downstairs lounge, where members can also play ping pong. Photograph: Ryan David Brown for the Observer

Being an elevationist [the term theyve coined for the theology of the new church] means being an explorer, Lee begins. Our spiritual journey is one of self-discovery, not one of dogma. We believe there is no one-path solution to lifes big questions. This is simply a supportive place for each one of us to find a pathway to our own spirituality, whatever that may be. Think of it like the pick n mix of belief. There is no doctrine, no creed, no scripture or book. Simply choose bits of whatever world religions work for you, or make something up yourself, mix it all together, and see if it tastes good. There are as many pathways to being an elevationist as there are elevationists, Lee says. Spirituality shouldnt be a prescription; it should be an adventure. Its about seeking, not being told what to find.

Its an idea that will strike a chord with many people. Church attendance in the UK is on the decline. Last year only 1.4% of the population attended Sunday Anglican services the lowest level ever recorded. There is a significant demographic of people who simply cant relate to organised religion or outright oppose it on principle. Being able to explore your own path, within a supportive space, could help fill that widening spiritual deficit.

But heres where they may lose you. That journey of self-discovery, says Lee, is enhanced by ritual cannabis use. We have been programmed to behave and think in certain ways, he says. Cannabis helps elevationists tear down those false realities.

Its easy to baulk. Does watching Star Trek and eating peanut M&Ms count as a spiritual path? But, in fact, cannabis use has long been part of religion, from ancient Chinese shamans to modern-day Rastafarians: inducing altered states of consciousness has been a cornerstone of belief since time immemorial. And even without drugs, whether its spinning Sufi dancers or drumming voodoo priests, or even just simple prayer or meditation, taking the mind to a higher plane has always been a road to the divine, whatever you may conceive that to be.

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Marissa SafontHoly smoke! The church of cannabis
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‘One false move and you’re done’: how US cities are changing for runaway kids

Runaway youth have always fled to cities but they now find themselves adrift in much costlier cities, where even the fully employed are barely scraping by

The first thing Zach Hicks did after he was run over in Roanoke, Virginia, was to write a Facebook post. He kept it simple: I just got ran over by a truck. The first commenter was his mother, hundreds of miles away in the midwest, who also kept it simple: WTF!?!?!?!?

He was retrieving a dog, Sobaka, that hed been given by a band of Hells Angels. The dog had bolted and was cowering beneath an 18-wheeler truck. Against his better judgment, Hicks crawled under to pull Sobaka out, and was hit.

The wheel started going over my leg, and then my side and then the side of my face, he says. I know what tire treads look like from underneath.

That was August 2015, two years after hed left home in Oregon. Today he is resting in a secluded alley on Masonic Avenue, a stones throw from Haight Street in San Francisco. Fifty years ago, the children with windy feet ran to this very block from parts unknown, in search of something anything during the Summer of Love.

The kids are still coming, along with legions of tourists who ensure this neighbourhoods street signs are among the worlds most photographed. But this is a side of San Francisco few will ever see.

Hicks is joined by a dozen tattooed and pierced young men and women wearing luminescent orange vests. They smoke, sip Gatorade, and all but inhale three donated pizzas between shifts sweeping the pavement and wiping graffiti off the walls. Some of these young people ran away from home, some were abandoned, and some experienced a bit of column A and a bit of column B. Christian Calinsky, the founder of Taking it to the Streets, a work and housing programme for young homeless people, considers it largely a difference without a distinction in his mind they simply left home.

Theyre both on the same playing field, man. I really cant distinguish, says Calinksy, 44, a former runaway who was homeless for large stretches between ages 12 and 34. All their traumas are the same in my mind. But I dont see people as their trauma. I see them as their potential.

Hicks, 22, has plenty of both. He sports a beard like a rhododendron bush and a rugby players build. He has piercing blue eyes, a ready smile, and the phrase 25 Jokes tattooed across his knuckles. Thats how I make my bread when Im on the road. And its five for a dollar; when you buy in bulk you get the extra joke.

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One in every 25 public school students in San Francisco is homeless. Photograph: Josh Edelson/AFP/Getty

His story is instructive of the modern nature of runaways in the US. Hicks grew up in the economically depressed, dope-saturated Pacific Northwest. He shows me his ID; yes, he really was born in 1995. Mum was around bikers, he says. I grew up in a double-wide trailer and she ran meth for bandits. She had me and stopped but we still had all our connections to the brotherhood.

He says his father would take him away as a toddler, only to mistreat him. After interventions by Child Protective Services, he ended up back in his mothers custody. Before too long, Hicks says, I got into some bad shit. He burgled the medical marijuana outfit, making off with four pounds of pot; the next time he tried it, he found himself with a gun in his face.

After several years at a facility for at-risk youth in rural eastern Oregon, he was placed with an older family member who had started smoking meth and was living in a backwoods, hickerbilly town where the only things to do are smoke meth, smoke weed or drive a big truck around in circles.

Like many young men and women across the country, he says he had no choice but to leave. He ended up in a fetid squat, first rooming with meth friends and then, after a police raid, sleeping alongside them in a cave in Bend, Oregon. There, high and morbidly curious, they set his sleeping bag ablaze.

At the age when most young people are ready to start their adult lives, Hicks was ready to end his. But then he met a train-hopper traveller kid who asked me to smoke a bowl with him and tell him why I was crying. Hicks confessed that he couldnt take being homeless in this town forever (he still refers derisively to non-transient homeless people as home bums) but had no money to leave. The traveller laughed, and said: Alls you need is a backpack, a sleeping bag, a tarp, and a piece of cardboard and a Sharpie [pen] so you can make some money. Thats your credit card.

And so Hicks ran away to a new life. He hitched three rides over five days from Virginia to San Diego. If you get in the wrong car or piss off the wrong person, youre dead. One false move and youre done. And then he smiles. But it is fun, man.

Larkin
Larkin Street Youth Services provides housing and education for young people in San Francisco

Counting runaways

New kids like Hicks arrive at the Larkin Street Youth Services centre in San Franciscos Tenderloin district every day. Theres still an honest-to-goodness bulletin board here, where hand-written messages are folded and pinned. One features several selfies of a grinning teenage girl and the words, Olivia, call Abuelita. A pair of kids amble in and glance at the board. Ah, says a tall boy. A new one.

Kids have always run away from home. The places they flee to, however, are changing. Todays runaways are finding themselves adrift in much costlier cities, where even fully employed and well-educated people are finding it increasingly difficult to scrape by. In San Francisco a city with a $10bn municipal budget and a population of only around 870,000 one of every 25 public school students is homeless. Thats about one in every classroom.

I tricked with the hustlers in those days, says Jeff Sheehy, who is now a city councilman representing the predominantly gay Castro district, a Mecca for many rudderless LGBT youths running from untenable home lives.

Nearly half of San Franciscos young homeless people identify as LGBT. Sheehy ran away in 1988 after he was blackballed by his family for revealing his homosexuality a common storyline in this city, whether they live in a luxury condos or in a van by the river. Sheehy partied with kids who were hustling and lived four or five to a room, in single-room occupancy hotels on Polk Street. He worked a series of menial jobs to pay for food, beer and $300 a month rent.

Now those single-room hotels are gone; Polk Street has gentrified to the point that its no longer even a gay neighbourhood, with 400 sq ft flats in Sheehys old building now starting at $2,564 a month.

Its hard to know for certain whether there are more or fewer runaways now. A federally funded national tally is due this year the first since a Department of Justice survey back in 1999, which estimated that 1.68 million young Americans had experienced a runaway/throwaway episode.

Zach
Zach Hicks left Oregon, and found himself in San Francisco. Photograph: Joe Eskenazi

But counting young homeless people is hard. As the billboard at the Larkin Street Youth Services centre testifies, they excel at only being seen when they want to be seen. Fluctuations in national tallies more likely represent changes in the counting system than in the on-the-ground situation.

A recent jump in runaways could be due to a new law which mandates that foster service providers file reports when their charges go missing, explains Preston Findlay of the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC). You never want to be an alarmist when you say theres been a dramatic increase, Findlay says. In this case, one small silver lining is that it may in part be due to better reporting.

Once away from home, young people are more vulnerable than the adult homeless population. They can, as Hicks noted, get in the wrong car.

I do have to be more cautious with [some folks] in my speaking to them because of the trauma they suffered from males, says Calinsky from Taking it to the Streets. Findlay confirms that of the more than 18,500 endangered runaways who reported to his organisation in 2016, one in six was deemed a likely victim of child sex trafficking. Of those, seven out of eight were in the care of social services before they went missing.

As well as LGBT youth, foster children are also heavily overrepresented among the runaway population. In San Francisco, one in every four homeless people under 25 is a former foster child; and one in every five foster children is expected to experience homelessness within four years of leaving the programme.

Audrina is all of the above: a transexual former foster child who ran away to San Francisco from Billings, Montana. She is the eldest of six children; her mother was just 15 when she gave birth. I ended up getting taken away from her. I was in foster care for five years, says the shy, petite 24-year-old. I got adopted by what I thought was a good Christian family. But they became more and more abusive of me.

Following a violent confrontation when she was 17 with her adoptive father, she left home and has been travelling ever since. She started drinking, then doing stronger stuff. This is my one-year anniversary of being sober from meth, she says with a wan smile. I was walking around each night looking for a fight, carrying knives. And the one night I didnt have my knives on me was the only night I ever got into a fight.

The fight was both a horror and an exhilaration and it took its toll. My chest started tightening up and I ended up falling down and having a seizure on Van Ness Avenue. I was overdosing on meth. She quit cold turkey. I have no idea how.

She recently formed her own group at the citys LGBT centre aimed at helping fellow young people. Shes doing great, says Calinsky, though Audrina is a harsher critic: My life has been a series of stupid choices.

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In San Francisco, one in four homeless people under 25 is a former foster child. Photograph: Josh Edelson/AFP

A homeless homeless centre

Fuck sciatica, fuck the fact heroin makes me throw up and fuck these stairs, says a barefoot young woman. She is young, but walks with a cane as she climbs the steps to the Haight Ashbury Free Clinic, passing Mary Howe who props up a sign reading Homeless Youth Alliance (HYA).

This is an office shift for Howe, the organisations executive director and a former heroin-addicted runaway. On Christmas Day in 2013, the HYA lost the lease on its longtime drop-in centre. Ever since, the homeless centre has itself been homeless.

Theres something to be said for putting a lot of effort toward youth who are homeless, Howe says. In the long run, its cost-beneficial. They are the ones who will become a part of the adult homeless population.

At every level of government, money has been allocated towards alleviating chronic adult homelessness. Adults remain the neediest and most visible representatives of a shameful national epidemic. But Darla Bardine, the executive director of the National Network for Youth, notes that the federal funding necessitated by the Runaway and Homeless Youth Act of 2008 has been flat for years.

In San Francisco, nearly a quarter of a billion dollars is allotted annually to combat homelessness, but only 8% of it is directed toward young people despite 21% of the citys tallied homeless being younger than 24.

In California, homeless youth advocates were overjoyed to secure an additional $10m in yearly state funding to be split among Los Angeles, San Diego, San Francisco and Santa Clara counties. Thats a step up from the $1.1m the four counties split for the prior 29 years but its still a paltry sum, representing less than 0.01% of the states $125bn budget.

There have been some wins: in recent years San Francisco has opened several hundred housing units earmarked specifically for young homeless people. Many units are additionally reserved for extended foster care youth. In 2012, California expanded its foster care system to cover young people up to their 21st birthday, eliminating the draconian scenario of youths who grew up in turbulent situations getting the heave-ho as their 18th birthday gift.

There is no shortage of sound ideas to preemptively stave off runaway situations. Children in California can no longer be charged with prostitution after many years, the legal mindset has finally changed to view them as victims, rather than criminals. Ive heard from some kids that prostitution may be a better choice for them than what they feel theyre facing in a foster situation, says Eliza Reock, a child sex-trafficking specialist at the NCMEC. But at what point would we accept abuse of a child as a solution? Its a big indicator we need to step up and do better.

In Los Angeles County, interventions are triggered when children exhibit certain warning signs, such as chronic truancy or substance abuse. On the federal level, Bardines organisation has created a comprehensive System to End Youth and Young Adult Homelessness broken down into prevention services, early and crisis intervention services, long-term services and after-care services.

We have to be looking earlier, says Doug Styles, the executive director of Huckleberry Youth Programs, a San Francisco-based agency ministering to young homeless people that was formed in 1967. More than nine in 10 young people who show up at Styles door are eventually reunited with their families. But the real trick would be preventing that trip in the first place, he says. We can probably identify some profiles of people likely to become homeless. We should be working with them earlier on. We should be working with school systems.

These are smart ideas but not revolutionary. Los Angeles is already doing some of these things. For the most part, the problems are in the execution, or lack thereof. Most plans run aground on the need for additional money and housing two things few major cities ever really have enough of.

Youth providers are careful not to bite the government hand that feeds them, but cant help noting theyre fed far less (proportionately) than providers serving adult homeless populations. Statistically, underserved young people are likely to be tomorrows visible and resource-intensive chronically homeless adults, but dollars are prioritised to help the homeless people the taxpayers see, rather than the homeless kids they do not.

Hicks, however, has a message for those taxpayers: dont worry about him. Look, I come from nothing, he says. This is normal life for me. In San Francisco, you could be the scummiest person, you could be a doctor. You can be whatever you want to be. This city gives you all the skills to do it.

As were talking he suddenly decides to barrel across a three-lane highway to catch a bus. Two cars bear down on him. Hes not looking, and doesnt appear to care. They slow and swerve at the last moment, and this time they dont hit him.

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Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/cities/2017/oct/09/one-false-move-and-youre-done-how-us-cities-are-changing-for-runaway-kids

Marissa Safont‘One false move and you’re done’: how US cities are changing for runaway kids
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In Seattle US old-timers rediscover the high life on cannabis tours

Retirement home residents take a trip to a producer

Forget bingo, tea dances and seaside trips. Residents from a chain of Seattle retirement homes are going on Pot for Beginners tours to learn about and buy cannabis in the city, where its now legal.

Connie Schick said her son roared with laughter when he heard she was joining a field trip to a cannabis-growing operation, an extraction plant and shop. The 79-year-old, who smoked the odd joint in the 70s, wanted to know how legalisation has changed the way the drug is used and produced.

Schick was one of eight women, from their late 60s to mid-80s, who descended from a minibus emblazoned with the name of their assisted living centre, El Dorado West, outside Vela cannabis store last Tuesday.

You can only play so many games of bingo, said Schick. My son thought it was hilarious that I was coming here, but Im open-minded and want to stay informed. Cannabis has come so far from the days when you smoked a sly joint and got into trouble if they found out. We used to call it hemp then and didnt know its strength. It just used to make me sleepy, so I didnt see the point.

Schick, who uses a wheelchair after suffering a stroke, is interested in the therapeutic effects of cannabis. Its so different now. There are so many ways you can take it, and all these different types to help with aches and pains.

They used to say it was a gateway drug to other things, like cocaine Lots of peoples views are changing.

Certainly, the number of people aged 65 or older taking cannabis in the US is growing. The proportion of this age group who reported cannabis use in the past year rose more than tenfold from 0.2% to 2.1% between 2002 and 2014, according to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health. A Gallup poll last year showed that 3% of those over 65 smoke cannabis.

Much of this is attributed to the ageing of the baby-boomer generation, who dabbled with the drug when they were young and are returning to it for medical or recreational use as it becomes legal and more normalised. Cannabis is now legal for medical use in 29 states and for medical and recreational use in eight (since 2012 in Seattle and the rest of Washington state).

Most of the women on the tour were more interested in the medical use, although Denise Roux, 67, said: I would like to buy it to get high too but Im a cheap high, it doesnt take much.

A seminar over sandwiches was held for thegroup as they sat in front of the large windows of the cultivation room, where they could see scores of plants growing under intense lighting.

They were told about the different strains: uplifting sativa plants and more sedating indicas. They learned about tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), which gives a high, and cannabidiol (CBD) which does not, making CBD-rich cannabis appealing for medical use. A scientist in a lab coat who worked in the processing facility spoke about terpenes fragrant oils secreted by glands in the flower that give strains their different smells and flavours. Vials were sniffed and various ways to take cannabis were also covered, including smoking, vaporising and eating it.

Roux, a retired administrative assistant, said: Im a big Google girl, but I wanted to talk to people who know about it so I can understand it all better. I have an autoimmune disease, which stops my appetite, and Im interested in marijuana from that standpoint. She added she had used cannabis recreationally in the 80s and had returned to it to help with her illness. I use a vape. It makes me sleepy and its a pain control, and it gives me an appetite.

After the briefing, it was time for shopping. The store looked like an upmarket jewellers, with muted lighting and art on the walls, except the glass cabinets in the store were stocked with pre-rolled joints, edibles including chocolates and sweets, vape pens and bags of different strains of cannabis rather than diamond rings and necklaces.

Darlene Johnson, 85, a former nurse, perused their contents. On the advice of a bearded bud tender, she bought a deep tissue and joint gel and a tincture to put in drinks, which she hopes will help with her severe neck pain. I wanted a non-psychoactive option, she said. I dont want to get high. I used to work in the emergency room and saw people come in sick from taking too many drugs, though not usually marijuana.

Her friend, Nancy Mitchell, 80, has never tried cannabis. She has MS and had read that cannabis could help with her symptoms. I wanted to know more details, she said. My kids keep telling me, Mom, try it. I dont want to smoke things, but I see there are other ways.

Smoking is not allowed at El Dorado West. Village Concepts, which runs the chain, has a no-smoking policy and it is illegal to consume cannabis in public in the state.

The chains director of corporate development, Tracy Willis, said: There was one man who was smoking it on his patio and he refused to stop, so he had to leave. If youre using an edible, we dont have any issue with it, thats your own business. We treat it as a recreational thing.

The tours began in response to questions from residents.They wanted to know where it was sold, how much money was made from it, where it was grown, said Willis. Weve had a good reaction [to the tours] from nine out of 10 relatives, but some are horrified. One angry daughter said we were encouraging marijuana use. Her mother told her to butt out.

Participants
Participants on the tour learned about different ways to use cannabis. Photograph: Jason Redmond/Reuters

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/society/2017/jul/01/seattle-retirement-home-cannabis-tours

Marissa SafontIn Seattle US old-timers rediscover the high life on cannabis tours
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Jeff Sessions is leading America back into Reefer Madness | Jamie Peck

The US attorney general is trying to undo the progress made in liberalizing marijuana consumption in the US. This will only lead to more people in jail

Once upon a time, the 1936 film Reefer Madness attempted to spread sensationalistic messages about marijuana to youths across the land. Just one toke, the film warned, and you could be setting off down the primrose path to murder, hallucinations, rape, suicide, and yes, the titular madness. Yikes!

Luckily for fans of the plant, we now know the worst effects of marijuana are smokers cough, laziness and a predilection for salty junk food. Furthermore, studies have shown it can be used to treat a vast array of health problems, from glaucoma to the nausea caused by chemotherapy.

The total number of fatal marijuana overdoses per year remains steady at zero. Why, its almost like pot is no big deal, and we should be allowed to have it if we want.

This knowledge, plus widespread social acceptance a recent Gallup poll found that one in eight US adults admits to smoking the stuff, and more than half have tried it have led to a gradual liberalization of marijuana laws on the state level, to the point where 29 states plus Washington DC have legalized medical marijuana.

Eight states have gone a step further and legalized it for recreational use, allowing people over the age of 21 to enjoy it responsibly. In 2016 alone, the citizens of eight states voted to relax their laws on recreational and/or medical marijuana, one of few progressive victories in an otherwise depressing election. (Perhaps because its one of a few issues that unites progressives and libertarian-leaning conservatives.) It would seem a critical mass of Americans is coming to accept the popular plant as the relatively harmless, potentially helpful substance it is.

But all that progress may soon come to a halt. As threatened back in February, Donald Trumps Department of Justice has plans to aggressively go after states that have legalized both recreational and medical marijuana the latter despite Sean Spicers promise that Trump sees a big difference between the two.

After making baseless statements that marijuana is only slightly less awful than heroin and that good people dont smoke marijuana, the attorney general, Jeff Sessions who once joked that he thought the violent white supremacists of the KKK were okay until I found out they smoked pot has established a task force to investigate the connection between marijuana and violent crime.

He might learn that legalizing marijuana has actually been shown to reduce violent crime in some instances and leave it unaffected in others. But, in case anyone thought he was waiting for the task forces findings to come in before acting, in May he wrote a letter to congressional leaders asking them to roll back protections put in place by the previous Congress. These use the power of the purse to keep the Department of Justice from prosecuting medical marijuana in states that have voted to legalize it.

In said letter, he referred to a historic drug epidemic, willfully conflating marijuana use with the crisis of opiate addiction plaguing our country. (Sessions either doesnt know or doesnt care that opiate deaths have actually decreased in states that have legalized medical marijuana, partly because it can serve as a gentler alternative to addictive prescription painkillers.)

He scapegoats marijuana for violent crime once more. He even claims marijuana is linked to an increased risk of psychiatric disorders such as psychosis, which sounds a lot like reefer madness to me. As with Trumps Muslim ban, Sessions notes this issue is too important to respect the rights of states to make their own laws. In Sessions bigoted eyes, states rights are only important when it comes to the passage of bills designed to discriminate against transgender people who wish to use the bathroom.

This approach is a departure from that of the Obama administration, whose relationship with the states on marijuana was more mixed. While Barack Obama raided growers in states that had legalized weed from time to time, the Department of Justice stated in a 2013 memo that it would not challenge state marijuana laws, provided the drug was adequately regulated. Obama also took some small steps to reform our criminal justice system, particularly where non-violent drug crimes were concerned.

While the fallout from legal marijuana is far from proven, the fallout from the ineffective war on drugs can be measured in lives ruined, particularly the lives of people of color. By 2001, there were 2 million people in our countrys prisons, and nearly one in three black men ages 20-29 was caught up in the deeply flawed criminal justice system.

Racial profiling, uneven enforcement, disparities in sentencing, and unequal access to lawyers have all helped ensure the majority of people in jail for drug offenses are black and Latino, despite the fact that black and white Americans use drugs at similar rates.

In rolling back states attempts at more sensible drug policy, Sessions seeks to bring us back to the days when misinformation and hysteria beat out science and reason, and the government used the war on drugs as an excuse to go after anti-war hippies and African-Americans, as a former Nixon official was once quoted admitting.

Our only hope is that the rollout of this policy is as botched as everything else the Trump administration has tried to do. Which, judging from recent history, is entirely possible.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/jul/18/jeff-sessions-against-weed-reefer-madness-marijuana

Marissa SafontJeff Sessions is leading America back into Reefer Madness | Jamie Peck
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Holy smoke! The church of cannabis

As congregations dwindle, a new religion is lighting up Denver, Colorado. Aaron Millar joins the elevationists of the International Church of Cannabis who worship the weed

It started, naturally, with a group of friends smoking a joint. Steve Berke, a graduate of Yale University, was temporarily living in an old church in Denver, Colorado. His estate agent parents had bought the 113-year-old building with the plan to turn it into flats. He and Lee Molloy, as well as a few friends, had just moved from Miami to capitalise on Colorados lucrative marijuana market. But then, in the words of Lee: We started having these stupid, fantastical conversations. What if we kept it as a church? So Steve convinced his parents to give him the building and, nine months later, on 20 April 2016 4/20, as its known in the United States, the unofficial potheads holiday (because its 4.20pm somewhere, right?) the International Church of Cannabis opened its doors with its own chapel, theology and video game arcade.

From the outside all appears normal: red-brick towers, blocky turrets, a classic city church in an otherwise leafy suburb of Denver. But there are giveaways. The three front doors and arched window facade have been spray-painted with silver galaxies and bright, happy-face planets. The work of legendary painter and graphic artist Kenny Scharf, who has exhibited in the Whitney and New Yorks Museum of Modern Art, it looks more like the backdrop for an illegal 90s rave than your typical parish church. But its indicative of the coup that Elevation Ministries, the non-profit company that Steve and Lee co-founded to set up the Church of Cannabis, has managed to pull off.

That mural would probably buy you next doors house, Lee says, letting me in. But they got it for the price of an air ticket for Scharf, a few days skiing and the loan of a jacket. People love fantastical ideas.

Perfect
Perfect peace: guests of the church relaxing in the hangout room. Photograph: Ryan David Brown for the Observer

The original plan was to open it to the general public, but because Colorados current pot law only allows smoking in private clubs, it is, for now at least, a members-only affair. To date they have more than 1,400 on their list. They open the doors from Thursday to Sunday for smoke-free public viewing, with private cannabis services held on Friday nights. It seems to be growing.

Thats not surprising. Medical marijuana was legalised in Colorado in 2000 the first state to write it into its constitution. By 2009 dispensaries began popping up around the state and legalisation of recreational use soon followed in 2012. It has, for the most part, been wholeheartedly embraced. In 2016 Colorado sold more than a $1bn of weed, created thousands of new jobs and collected almost $200m in additional tax revenue. A church dedicated to cannabis may seem strange to us, but in Colorado it might just be the next logical step.

But there have been detractors. Currently, three of the founding members, including Lee, are under citation for two charges dating back to their opening 4/20 event: the first for breaking the Colorado Clean Indoor Air Act, which bans smoking in public places, and the second for breaking a state law that forbids marijuana consumption outside private homes and clubs. They refute the claims, and officials admit that they appear to have been adhering to the law since then, but a court date is pending.

Dan Pabon, from the states House of Representatives, goes further: in a recent interview with the New York Times he said that the new church offends both religious beliefs everywhere, as well as the voters intent on allowing legalisation of marijuana in Colorado. He introduced an amendment that would ban pot use in churches, but to date it has failed to gather support. Overall, though, official opposition seems to be dwindling. Daniel Rowland, spokesman for the Denver city office, says: As long as they operate within the law and dont offend their neighbours, theyre free to do what they want.

Lighting
Lighting up: Lee Molloy, co-founding member, smokes a joint on the main stage. Photograph: Ryan David Brown for the Observer

But what of those neighbours? Peter G Chronis, writing in local paper the Denver Post, said he felt blindsided angry that the project was done in secret and that the neighbourhood didnt have a chance to voice concerns prior to its completion. Parking and noise, rather than the consumption of marijuana inside, still seem to be the major worries, as well as the possibility that attendees will drive home stoned. But Lee is hoping to turn them round: arranging volunteer days through their church, to help make a positive impact in the community. Last Saturday they were out collecting rubbish from local streets. For now, at least, there seems to be a tentative truce.

But putting all beliefs and disputes aside, what everyone can surely agree is that they have transformed a near-derelict building into a staggering work of art. Every single surface has been painted in vibrant patterns of red, blue and green, geometric prisms with mythological creatures, stars and eyes hidden within. At the back wall, two dream-like Dali-esque giants sit cross-legged as if lost in meditation. It feels like a hallucination, someone says beside me, eyes careening upwards. Its like being swallowed by a Pink Floyd album cover. Perhaps most impressive of all is that it was created spontaneously without a sketch or a plan. This was another freebie: they flew Spanish artist Okuda San Miguel over and bought him a bunch of paints, then he started work in one corner and painted whatever he dreamed up until he finished. It took him just six days he rested on the seventh.

As the service begins we are encouraged to get to know each other: people spark up joints and pass them around. Long wisps of smoke float to the ceiling and cover the congregation in a flowery shroud; splutterings of coughs and giggles, the sharp intake of breath on all sides. There are about 30 of us in all, a mixed bag of misfits ranging from a self-proclaimed pothead granny, whose eyes appear to move independently of each other, to a couple of Harold & Kumar wannabies taking selfies at the altar. And then theres Lee: a former Bible quiz champion, raised in a strict evangelical Christian home, he has the credentials of a preacher if not the look: bushy hipster beard and long messy hair, dark bags under his eyes and the whiff of old smoke on his shirt. It feels more like the start of an AA meeting than a spiritual encounter. But then he starts to speak.

Time
Time out: arcade games in the downstairs lounge, where members can also play ping pong. Photograph: Ryan David Brown for the Observer

Being an elevationist [the term theyve coined for the theology of the new church] means being an explorer, Lee begins. Our spiritual journey is one of self-discovery, not one of dogma. We believe there is no one-path solution to lifes big questions. This is simply a supportive place for each one of us to find a pathway to our own spirituality, whatever that may be. Think of it like the pick n mix of belief. There is no doctrine, no creed, no scripture or book. Simply choose bits of whatever world religions work for you, or make something up yourself, mix it all together, and see if it tastes good. There are as many pathways to being an elevationist as there are elevationists, Lee says. Spirituality shouldnt be a prescription; it should be an adventure. Its about seeking, not being told what to find.

Its an idea that will strike a chord with many people. Church attendance in the UK is on the decline. Last year only 1.4% of the population attended Sunday Anglican services the lowest level ever recorded. There is a significant demographic of people who simply cant relate to organised religion or outright oppose it on principle. Being able to explore your own path, within a supportive space, could help fill that widening spiritual deficit.

But heres where they may lose you. That journey of self-discovery, says Lee, is enhanced by ritual cannabis use. We have been programmed to behave and think in certain ways, he says. Cannabis helps elevationists tear down those false realities.

Its easy to baulk. Does watching Star Trek and eating peanut M&Ms count as a spiritual path? But, in fact, cannabis use has long been part of religion, from ancient Chinese shamans to modern-day Rastafarians: inducing altered states of consciousness has been a cornerstone of belief since time immemorial. And even without drugs, whether its spinning Sufi dancers or drumming voodoo priests, or even just simple prayer or meditation, taking the mind to a higher plane has always been a road to the divine, whatever you may conceive that to be.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/global/2017/aug/13/church-of-cannabis-denver-colorado

Marissa SafontHoly smoke! The church of cannabis
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