Ninth Circuit: Religious Freedom Not A Defense For Marijuana Charges

On June 14th, in US v. Christie, No. 14-10233  the Ninth Circuit affirmed the conviction of two ministers of the “Hawaii Cannabis Ministry” for violations of the Controlled Substances Act (CSA).

Reverend Roger Cusick Christie founded the “Hawaii Cannabis Ministry,” envisioning the congregation as “a community wherein cannabis could be celebrated as a sacrament.” See US. v. Christie. True to his word Christie passed out the ‘holy sacrament’ during bi-weekly ceremonies where members of the congregation would pay a suggested ‘donation’ in exchange for cannabis in various forms.  Additionally, Christie distributed marijuana to members who came in-person to the Sanctuary, again in exchange for a suggested ‘donation.’

A grand jury indicted Rev. Christie, and several of his associates, inter alia numerous Controlled Substances Act violations. See 21 U.S.C. §§ 841(a)(1), 841(b)(1)(B), 846, and 856(a)(1).  Christie was convicted and sentenced to sixty months in prison.  On appeal, Christie alleged violations to his right to freely exercise his religion, as guaranteed by the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 (RFRA), 107 Stat. 1488, 42 U.S.C. § 2000bb.

The 9th Circuit disagreed:

We have little trouble concluding that the government has a compelling interest in preventing drugs set aside for sacramental use from being diverted to non-religious, recreational users. A risk of “diversion,” after all, simply means the threat that cannabis—an illegal, Schedule I controlled substance—will wind up in the hands of people whose use is disconnected from any sincere religious practice. Such illegal, non-religious use, by definition, finds no protection under RFRA.

Moreover, the panel reasoned:

The Ministry’s distribution protocol required those who wished to obtain cannabis during the week to appear in person and to present a membership card or a state-issued medical marijuana card. Prior to the Spring of 2009, recipients were also required to meet privately with Rev. Christie. By April 2009, the Ministry was distributing more than half a pound of cannabis among approximately sixty to seventy people daily via their express service. Id.

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