SERIAL ENTREPRENEUR BILL LEVIN LAUNCHES JULY 1 HOLY WAR ON INDIANA’S MARIJUANA LAWS
IndyStar.com (IndyStar site includes graphics and videos.)
By Mark Alesia and Tim Evans
As Indiana’s Pied Piper of pot and founder of The First Church of Cannabis, Bill Levin naturally inspires elbow-nudging jokes about his church’s holy sacrament.
Yes, Levin has “high” expectations for the new church. Marketing is “baked” into his persona. To be “blunt,” he looks the part of a stoner, with his unkempt shock of white hair, ever-present cigar and hippie-dippy raps on love and peace and the wonders of weed.
But the man who wants to introduce Indiana to legal marijuana use, and is about to put the state’s new Religious Freedom Restoration Act to an unexpected test, is far more than a caricature.
He was raised in an upper-middle class Jewish home, managed punk bands, ran for political office, launched numerous businesses, traveled the world. He is the biological father of two, grandfather of one — and a counter-culture icon in a city hardly known for that scene.
Through it all, he has also been an inveterate huckster, causing some to question his current motives. Over the years, Levin has launched one money-making scheme after another, from party buses to digital advertising, some successful, some not. He once told a reporter, “My goal is to be rich.”And along the way he also filed for bankruptcy.
Now, at 59, Levin appears to have arrived at his moment — hatching a “big idea” that has garnered international attention.
Levin is being courted for a reality television show, and the worldwide publicity he has received since establishing the church earlier this year earned a rebuke from Fox’s Bill O’Reilly, who called him a “clown.” But the church has 44,000 likes on Facebook and raised more than $16,000 through crowd-funding.
Still, despite the lawyers he has lined up for whatever comes next, skeptics can’t help but wonder if this is just his latest money-making scheme, an elaborate joke, or maybe a proudly extended middle finger to political leaders who supported RFRA.
Levin insists it’s none of those things. To him, the transformation from punk rock promoter to Grand Poobah of The First Church of Cannabis is part of some greater cosmic plan.
“This is the accumulation of my life,” Levin said, “in one beautiful pile of love.”
The church will hold its first service at noon Wednesday, the same day RFRA goes into effect.
Levin, who greets people with two-armed hugs instead of handshakes, isn’t sure how many of the followers he calls “Cannaterians” will join him at the small church at 3400 South Rural St, but he’s preparing for a large turnout, including 22 local, national and international media outlets that contacted him about covering the service. That ceremony, Levin proclaimed proudly and without fear, will conclude with participants over the age of 21 “sparking up” the church’s namesake sacrament in a smokey communion.
The actual smoking — it’s a bring-your-own event — will be confined to the church sanctuary, freshly decorated with a stoner’s take on Michelangelo’s iconic Hand of God painting — complete with a joint inserted into God’s hand.
A tent in the parking lot will accommodate the overflow crowd and media, should it be needed, while food trucks will be on hand to sate the glassy-eyed worshipers.
Levin said he’s unfazed by Friday’s news conference where the Marion County prosecutor and chief of police warned that anyone attending the service, other than working media, would be subject to criminal charges.
“When you’re right, you’re right,” he said.
High on Indiana
The genesis of Levin’s new religion came in a treehouse on Indy’s Northside.
It was summertime in the late 1960s when a friend turned on Levin to his first taste of the herb that became central to his life.
“I was the guy in the neighborhood who got it from the older guy and then went around and turned on all the kids my age,” Levin said.
Today, he is more reserved — at least for Bill Levin. He said the church will not sell, possess or distribute the drug he calls “the world’s greatest health supplement.”
He enjoys challenging, even mocking, the people who recoil at the mere mention of marijuana — even for medicinal purposes. But he said his church is not a figurative middle finger to the lawmakers who maintain Indiana’s legal ban on marijuana, or to Gov. Mike Pence and his allies who passed RFRA.
“I don’t think they deserve the finger,” Levin said. “I think they deserve gratitude. They helped clear the pathway to a bright, new, exciting religion that’s going to dominate the world.”
State Sen. Scott Schneider, R-Indianapolis, a sponsor of the RFRA legislation, takes a much different view, calling the church “a mockery.”
“I don’t know if it’s just an excuse for a bunch of old stoners to get high or what it is,” Schneider said. “But it seems to me that it’s more of a publicity stunt than anything else.”
A legal maelstrom could ensue. Levin insists that RFRA, which limits government encroachment on religious freedoms, in effect, legalizes the use of marijuana at the church. He anticipates charter churches in other cities “just like Starbucks.”
If so, it will be just the latest in a decades-long string of counter-culture ventures Levin, a serial entrepreneur, has promoted since the 1970s. Most of his projects, like his new church, tried to capitalize on youth and pop culture. Punk and rock concerts. Alternative fashion. Porno party buses. All-age music venues. Tattoo supplies. Avante guard film. And, of course, pot.
Although he has “tried and loved every drug under the sun,” Levin said he hasn’t had alcohol since 1988 and the only drugs he uses today are marijuana and aspirin.
“If cannabis helps us communicate with ourselves, our friends and higher deities, there’s no reason we shouldn’t celebrate life’s great adventure together with cannabis,” Levin said.
Despite what he sees as the state’s backward stance on marijuana — more than 20 states now allow use of the drug in some form — he’s a proud advocate of Indiana. He says it’s a great a place to live and to get high. Levin noted that the Hoosier State originated the“Bubble Gum” strain of cannabis, a multiple award winner in the High Times Cannabis Cup.
“The best s— I ever smoked was not in Amsterdam, not in Denver,” Levin said. “Hell no. It’s here. We have some of the best growers in the world. God bless Purdue.”
John Barillo, a longtime friend of Levin’s, said he believes deeply that Levin is sincere about the new church. Barillo marveled that Indianapolis could produce such a colorful character.
“It’s almost like a tropical flower growing outdoors in Indiana,” Barillo said. “You look at him and go, ‘How the hell did you take root here and grow?'”
Country club childhood
William Jay Levin was born in 1955 in Chicago and adopted by Robert and Marcia Levin.
Robert Levin, a World War II veteran who died in 1987, had a marketing degree from Indiana University and made a good living at the family-run toy wholesaler Kipp Brothers in Indy. He served on the boards of the Indianapolis Zoo and Indianapolis Hebrew Congregation. He also was a member of the Downtown Kiwanis Club and Broadmoor Country Club.
Marcia Levin, who died in 2005, graduated from Shortridge High School and attended IU for two years, according to her obituary. She later finished her degree at IUPUI and worked 20 years for the United Way, and spent her retirement years volunteering in the community.
As a boy, Bill Levin worked at the Kipp Brothers warehouse, where he was surrounded by toys and carnival supplies such as rubber chickens and paddle balls. And like THC, he said, marketing is in his blood.
“I can look at something and have it completely marketed before the person finishes a sentence,” he said in a 1995 interview with The Star. “I’ll know who to market it to, how to market it, how to start a buzz and even the cost and financial breakdown. It’s just one of those stupid things that has been embedded in my head.”
His parents didn’t expect him to apply that skill outside the mainstream.
“I think that they had an idea of what they wanted Bill to do, and what they wanted Bill to be,” Barillo said. “And he wanted nothing to do with it.”
Levin said he rebelled against his parents’ country club lifestyle and clashed with his mother, so they shipped him off to boarding schools in Maine and Ohio. But, as a young adult, he found his way back to Indy, bouncing from adventure to misadventure.
He worked with punk bands, including the Zero Boys, a landmark Indianapolis-based band that garnered international attention. But he also ran into issues with the law. He said he was arrested in the 1980s for having a small grow chamber for pot and the case was dismissed. He also said he had public intoxication arrests during his drinking days.
He took a job running a pub in Broad Ripple and opened a leather boutique for punk bands. In 1987, though, the Indianapolis News profiled Levin in a new role — wearing a coat and tie and selling a high-caffeine soft drink, Jolt, a precursor of today’s energy drinks.
“In this town, promoting punk rock gets you survival money,” Levin said at the time. “You can afford to eat and pay rent, but that’s it. My goal is to be rich.”
Levin, however, found himself having to file for bankruptcy in 2005.
The filing listed $144,108 in liabilities, including child support in Marion County, and assets of $13,860. Levin claimed income of $24,000 in 2002 but no income in 2003 or 2004.
“I didn’t have money, I didn’t have a job,” Levin said. “I’ve always ended up working for myself. If you get older and you’ve worked for yourself most of your life, then you go out and say, ‘Yeah, I had a party bus for 10 years,’ that’s not a very good reference to go work at somebody else’s business.”
But two months after the bankruptcy filing, he withdrew the request. In the interim, his mother died.
Julie Lahr, Levin’s ex-wife and mother of his two daughters, said in an interview last week that she did not know about the bankruptcy filing, but she was paid in full for child support.
“What do I think of his latest gig?” Lahr said. “Just another exploit. He has reinvented himself just a couple of times. So it’s no surprise he’s Grand Poobah of a church.”
While she said she hasn’t had a relationship with him in 20 years, she believes “he’s fully aware it’s not a real church.”
“He’s been a marijuana advocate for a long time,” Lahr said. “I think this is ‘by any means necessary.’ I think it’s funny.”
Their older daughter, Lexy Levin, 24, said she’s proud of her father and that the church is legitimate. She said she lived with her dad during high school.
“He’s genuine,” she said. “He always means well. He really does have a good heart behind this.”
Ahead of his time
In person, Levin is engaging and charismatic, and knowledgeable about the history of cannabis and the future of pop culture.
“He was about 15 years ahead of his time,” said long-time acquaintance Barillo. “He’s a very forward thinker. He’s very into where pop culture is going to be.”
Among Levin’s self-employment ventures was Indy Online, an attempt to create a local version of America Online. He also made an early dive into virtual reality, but was unable to capitalize on it.
In the late 1990s, Levin started working with NORML, a group that promotes reform of marijuana laws. But personal problems — Levin explained “my life was falling apart a little bit” — prompted him to flee to Thailand for a change of pace.
When he returned, he started his own pro-marijuana organization, ReLegalize Indiana. He ran in two political races as a Libertarian, with marijuana legalization a keystone of his platform. In 2011, he received more than 10,000 votes for an at-large seat on the City-County Council. Last year, he ran for state representative, losing to the incumbent Democrat, 6,520 to 788.
He said he got into politics because he watched Superman as a child, “and truth, justice and the American way is embedded into my brain. I believe in those words. I really do.”
Levin expressed support for the military in a 2009 Facebook post, writing, “Go HUG a VET today and tell them THANK YOU for their service to our wonderful country. How come we do not have a Police and Fire mans (sic) Day? I think they deserve THANKS TOO!”
Levin also had warm feelings for the IRS after filing for non-profit status for the First Church of Cannabis. It took a mere 27 days to get approval.
“All I have to say is, God works in mysterious ways, brother,” Levin said.
Mellowing with age
In a recent interview in his office at the church, Levin said his attitude about money has changed.
“I don’t really want to be rich,” he said. “I need three squares a day. I need about four or five cigars. I need a few smiles on my friends’ faces. And that’s about it.”
Levin said he will not take “anything above poverty wages” as Grand Poobah of the church. But the marketing man absolutely has his sights set on merchandise sales — t-shirts, not weed — and chartering the church in other cities and countries.
“I want to see the church grow and expand,” Levin said. “Again, I don’t need s—. What the f— do I need? I got a 36-year-old girlfriend. I’m 59 years old. I’m happier than f—. … I see it as a huge growth of a loving religion. I’m not looking at it as a cash cow. I’m looking at it as helping others to develop freedom of religion.”
The church had raised $16,184 on the crowd-funding site Gofundme.com as of Friday. The goal is $20,000.
But among the many supportive comments on the page, there were a few skeptics.
“LOL, you stoners are being ripped off … buy a new bong instead,” read one of the comments.
The building and land that the church purchased from Strait Gate Christian Church was assessed last year at $155,000. The church is charging membership fees of $50, which Levin said is needed for phone, utilities and mortgage.
“Nothing more than functional things,” he said.
And, he has lawyers.
“Paaaaaaaaay your lawyers,” Levin said in an interview, drawing out the word pay.
Those lawyers could become vital to how the story of The First Church of Cannabis plays out if Levin is dragged into a court fight.
“He has gone to great lengths to make sure all of the legalities are taken care of,” said Neal Smith, chairman of the board of Indiana NORML.
Levin seems to be expecting a legal battle.
“This is a court case that is going to be welcomed by both parties,” he said. “Any decision the state makes on religious laws, they’re going to have to be very committed to. And that goes across the board, because what’s good for one religion is good for all.”
To Lexy Levin, the Bill Levin many see as a cartoon character is simply dad — and a good one.
Despite the occasional eye-rolling moment, she called him a “mensch,” a Yiddish term for a person of integrity and honor. She won’t be at Wednesday’s service because of work, but said she supports the church.
The “Deity Dozen,” a homespun list of guidelines for church members written by Bill Levin, was quite familiar to Lexy, who described herself as “a daddy’s girl.”
“His ‘Deity Dozen’ was more or less the way he raised me,” she said. “You don’t be an a——, finish your fights, don’t ever hit somebody first, stand up for what you believe in. He was always a very, very supportive father. He had his ups and downs just like every other parent. But he raised me pretty well, I like to think.”
Levin’s oldest daughter also finds it troubling that people would try to label the church as a money-making scam.
“I don’t think it’s a scheme whatsoever,” she said. “He’s not in it to make money. I do think that regardless of who brought it up, or how it got brought up, labeling (marijuana) as a medical plant is a good thing.”
She believes her father is sincere in his push to create a new religion that includes pot.
“People think, ‘Oh, it’s (just) drugs’ … and it really isn’t,” she said. “It really isn’t to him.”
(Contact Mark Alesia at (317) 444-6311. Follow him on Twitter: @markalesia. Contact Tim Evans at (317) 444-6204. Follow him on Twitter: @starwatchtim.)