Cannabis leafThe U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit recently upheld the convictions of two ministers of the Hawaii Cannabis Ministry who admitted using and distributing large quantities of cannabis in accordance with their religious beliefs.  The Hawaii Cannabis Ministry was founded in 2000 in the City of Hilo, Hawaii as “a community wherein Cannabis could be celebrated as a sacrament.”  According to one of the ministers, “[t]he consumption, possession, cultivation, and distribution of cannabis are essential and necessary components of the THC ministry.”  The Cannabis Ministry distributes marijuana both to its members and to medical marijuana users.

The Cannabis Ministry achieved rapid success, winning 2,000 to 3,000 converts in Hawaii and another 62,000 worldwide.  This success was based in part on the Ministry’s slogan: “We use cannabis religiously and you can too.”  The Ministry’s website also advertised that its members would know neither “arrest,” “prosecution,” nor “conviction of marijuana charges … starting as soon as you sign up.”  The Ministry’s website even stated that minors could join.  Reportedly, the Ministry turned no one away, and even “boasted of enrolling people who ‘come in on a cruise ship and they, you know they are just here for a day and they need … you know?”

The Ministry would provide its members with “a broad menu of cannabis products to pick up and to take away with them: ‘packets,’ ‘live plants,’ ‘clones,’ ‘seeds,’ ‘candy,’ ‘brownies and chocolate chip cookies all with cannabis,’ ‘holy anointing oil,’ and ‘tinctures.’”  In return for the cannabis products, the Cannabis Ministry members would provide a “donation” in some amount.

According to the Ninth Circuit, the Ministry “wrote down a handful of rules nominally designed to ensure that cannabis went out only to Ministry members or medical marijuana users.  But in practice these rules were little more than parchment barriers.”  The Ministry did not confirm that people seeking marijuana were who their Ministry ID cards identified them to be.  Further, the Ministry “never advised people who came through the express service that there were restrictions on what ‘members’ could do with the sacrament,” such as use it only for religious purposes.

In 2010, a grand jury indicted the Ministry’s reverends and associates with several crimes, including violation of the Controlled Substances Act (CSA).  Two ministers pled guilty to one count of conspiracy to manufacture and distribute marijuana.  One minister was sentenced to 60 months in prison followed by 4 years of supervised release.  The other minister was sentenced to 27 months in prison and 3 years of supervised release.

The ministers challenged their convictions under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), which requires that when government substantially burdens religious exercise it must justify the burden through a compelling government interest advanced in the least restrictive means possible.

The Ninth Circuit found that the government had a compelling interest in “mitigating the risk that cannabis from the Ministry will be diverted to recreational users” and that “mandating [the ministers’] full compliance with the CSA would help to advance this compelling interest to a meaningful degree.”  The Ninth Circuit specifically pointed to the black market for cannabis in the city of Hilo, as well as the risk that cannabis would end up in the hands of minors.  The ministers argued that recent Department of Justice memoranda regarding the CSA with respect to marijuana show that the DOJ has abandoned marijuana enforcement efforts, but the Ninth Circuit rejected this argument.  The Ninth Circuit further found that the government satisfied the least restrictive means requirement, and rejected the ministers’ claims to the contrary.

The Ninth Circuit’s decision in United States of America v. Christie is available here.

* trivia:  The Hawaiian word for cannabis is “pakalolo” (read New York Times article here).  Hawaii has the highest proportion of production to use in the country (see report, available here).

Original photo by Frances EllenSome rights reserved.