Freedom of Religion as Defense Against Marijuana Charges?

The New York Times recently ran an article discussing a Hawaii-man’s attempt to argue freedom of religion as a defense to criminal marijuana charges.  Roger Christie is the founder of the Hawaii Cannabis THC Ministry.  Mr. Christie was indicted, along with multiple co-defendants, for cultivating and distributing marijuana.  It is Mr. Christie’s position that his activity is protected by the First Amendment.

On July 29, Mr. Christie will argue to the Hawaii federal court that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act protects his activities.  This Act was passed by Congress in 1993 and requires that the government shows a “compelling interest” whenever it “substantially burdens” a religious practice.  Courts have granted exceptions relying on this Act, such as the use of peyote for American Indians.  There is concern with granting such an exception for marijuana because of the large recreational market for marijuana, not necessarily related to any legitimate religious practice.  Not only does the large recreational market present a hurdle to Mr. Christie’s defense, but Mr. Christie will also have to establish that he is, in fact, practicing a religion.  That said, the courts have never offered a clear definition for “religion.”

The legislative shift in attitude towards marijuana may also come into play.  A handful of states have made changes to legalize recreational marijuana use, including Colorado.  The number of states that have legalized marijuana is far out numbered by the number of states that have criminalized its use, but it is nonetheless an argument that may help mitigate the concern surrounding granting a religious freedom exception for marijuana use.  On the other hand, marijuana is still illegal under federal law.

To read the full New York Times article: 


The Rev. Roger Christie in 2008 with specimens of the plant that is crucial to his church but got him in trouble with the law.