By Allen St. Pierre
The recent federal raid and arrest of THC Ministry founder Roger Christie in Hawaii is the cautionary tale of a questionable business model used to fund public-interest advocacy, as well as the legal jeopardy inherent in trying to game the American criminal-justice system. Christie, a self-styled “minister” from Hawaii, founded the THC Ministry in the 1990s based on the incorrect assumption that citizens organized as a church or religious organization who employ cannabis as a sacrament are exempt from criminal prosecution under the Controlled Substances Act of 1970.
From its inception, the THC Ministry’s prospects for legal legitimacy were small to minuscule. Since the 1970s, numerous religious-exemption cases have been litigated, but few have succeeded; the latter include a small sect of Native Americans who have traditionally used hallucinogenic peyote buttons in their religious ceremonies, as well as the occasional Rastafarian who could prove a long history of practicing the faith and used a modest amount of marijuana. Regrettably, appellate courts have consistently denied religious exemptions to members of the Ethiopian Zion Coptic Church, so-called New Age faiths and other Christian-oriented religious sects.
To further complicate matters, Christie also drew negative attention from federal and state law enforcement – as well as drug-policy reform organizations and civil-rights groups like the ACLU – for actively marketing and selling his so-called “religious defense kits” (at $250 apiece!) to the naïve and uniformed, claiming that being ordained by the THC Ministry would protect anyone in the flock from arrest or prosecution. Sadly, several of these true believers are now in jail.
Should there be a religious exemption to cannabis-prohibition laws? Absolutely! However, the legal and/or political prospects of such a thing happening are practically zilch. Supreme Court rulings – most notably in 2006, in the case of Gonzales v. O Centro Espirita Beneficente União do Vegetal, where the religious defendants used ayahuasca, a powerful South American herbal sacrament traditionally used by the Santo Daime church in Brazil – should make it fairly clear that while small, committed religious sects may be permitted to use an otherwise illegal drug as a sacrament, the high court only allows such religious exemptions under circumstances for which cannabis will never be able to qualify: i.e., the sect of people using the drug has to be very small and well defined; access to the drug has to be limited to that defined group; and the drug can’t already be in mass use (or abuse) in the general population.
NORML has always supported – and always will continue to support – the use of cannabis by adults for religious purposes. But cannabis consumers, reformers and religious adherents should concentrate their efforts on the much broader reforms that can be achieved by cannabis legalization. In the end, this is a faster, more effective means to achieve genuine religious freedoms, rather than hoping that the current legal system (and body politic) under cannabis prohibition will be rational enough – or fair enough – to respect diverse religious practices consistently.
Allen St. Pierre is the executive director of NORML in Washington, DC. You can contact NORML at www.norml.org or by calling 888-67-NORML.