Ethiopian Zion Coptic Church

A distinctive religious movement using cannabis as a sacrament and known for its legal struggles in the pursuit of religious freedom.

The Ethiopian Zion Coptic Church (EZCC) is a religious movement that emerged in Jamaica in the 1950s, influenced by the teachings of Marcus Garvey. It was officially incorporated in Florida in 1975 and established its first U.S. commune on Star Island, Florida, with around 40 members. The EZCC, not affiliated with the Coptic Orthodox or Coptic Catholic Churches of Egypt, developed its unique identity partly through a 1959 mission to Ethiopia. However, the Ethiopian clergy eventually severed ties with the Garveyite Coptic organization in New York, forming their own parishes to cater to Ethiopian immigrants.

The core beliefs of the EZCC are based on a combination of Biblical teachings (both Old and New Testament), elements of Billy Graham’s fundamentalism, and Kosher law. Similar to the Rastafari Movement, the EZCC regards Marcus Garvey’s teachings as central to its doctrine, and notably, it uses cannabis as a sacrament. This practice led to the EZCC being recognized as the world’s first legally recognized ganja church, a title bestowed by the Queen of England, the Supreme Court of Florida, and the Jamaican Parliament.

In the late 1970s and 1980s, the EZCC was significantly involved in the quest for ganja legalization. This period was marked by notable legal struggles, particularly in the United States. In 1979, the group faced accusations, trials, and convictions for smuggling substantial amounts of cannabis from Jamaica to Miami, an activity alleged to have supported the Jamaican economy during that decade. The then-Jamaican Prime Minister, Edward Seaga, commented on the economic importance of this trade. Despite these controversies, the Supreme Court of Florida in 1979 acknowledged the EZCC as a legitimate religion under the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and recognized the use of cannabis as an essential part of its religious practice.

The EZCC’s stance on cannabis also led to significant legal challenges. In 1986, the organization participated in the Drug Enforcement Administration’s hearings on cannabis rescheduling in the United States. A landmark moment came in 2017 when Jim Tranmer, a member of the EZCC who had been imprisoned for defending the sacramentality of cannabis, was pardoned and released by President Barack Obama. This act was seen as recognition of changing societal attitudes towards cannabis.

The church’s founder, Louva Williams, is considered the spiritual successor to Marcus Garvey. The EZCC emphasizes non-political origins and focuses on spreading the teachings of the Bible, the Moral Laws of Goud, the Fatherhood of Goud, and the Brotherhood of man. It declares its opposition to political, religious, and commercial institutions, considering them corrupting influences that separate people from their deity.

The church has faced significant opposition and harassment, including police brutality, property destruction, interruption of divine services, and false imprisonment of its members. This persecution is attributed to the church’s critical stance against political leaders and its promotion of a society free from political oppression.

In its religious practices, the EZCC engages in daily oblations and sacrifices, using chants, Psalms, and spiritual hymns. These practices are grounded in their belief in the teachings of the Bible and the importance of confession and forgiveness.

The EZCC has been featured in various media, including the 2011 documentary “Square Grouper: The Godfathers of Ganja” by Billy Corben, which highlights the church’s history and its members’ experiences. The church’s legacy continues to be preserved through digital archives, including text documents, personal recordings, home video footage, and issues of the “Coptic Times” newspaper, which promoted Garveyism and the decriminalization of marijuana.

The EZCC’s unique blend of Christian doctrine, Rastafarian influence, and advocacy for cannabis use as a religious sacrament sets it apart from other religious movements. Its history reflects a complex interplay between religious freedom, societal norms, and legal frameworks, particularly in relation to its sacramental use of cannabis.