By Elizabeth Warmerdam, Courthouse News Service
Federal law does not protect the right of two ministers of the Hawaii Cannabis Ministry to distribute large amounts of marijuana for their religious practices, the Ninth Circuit ruled (pdf) Tuesday.
A three-judge panel upheld the ministers’ drug-related convictions, rejecting their argument that the convictions violate their rights to exercise their religion under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.
The Rev. Roger Christie founded the Hawaii Cannabis Ministry in 2000 in Hilo, a city on the island of Hawaii, with the vision of it being a community where cannabis could be celebrated as a sacrament.
Advertising the ministry’s slogan — “We use cannabis religiously and you can too” — and promising that those who joined his flock would be out of the reach of federal drug laws, Christie saw the ministry gain 3,000 converts on the island, and another 62,000 worldwide.
The ministry’s website promised freedom from arrest and prosecution for marijuana charges as soon as members signed up, and made it clear that there was no minimum age to join and that even minors could become members.
The ministry, which obtained a portion of its marijuana from a black market in and around Hilo, distributed the drug to those who attended “communion” at Sunday services and also to those who went in person to the sanctuary. Members were given the cannabis in exchange for a suggested donation price.
By April 2009, the ministry was distributing more than half a pound of cannabis nearly every…