In the past several years, cannabis has achieved a major victory with many states acknowledging its medicinal benefit and legalizing it to card-carrying patients. But, a 2009 case in Hawaii that has recently been revived looks to answer an age-old question: can (and should) marijuana be legal for religious purposes?
The case in question is spelled out by The Wall Street Journal and begins with law enforcement officers seizing a pound of weed from FedEx that was addressed to a member of the Oklevueha Native American Church. The intended recipient, Michael Rex “Raging Bear” Mooney, promptly sued the heads of the Justice Department and the D.E.A., arguing that his 250-person church should have the right to use marijuana for religious purposes and that this is protected by the First Amendment and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.
For those of you unfamiliar with the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, the law broadly prevents other laws from impeding on someone’s ability to freely practice their religion. More specifically, the law was put in place to help Native Americans and protect their right to transport, posses, and use peyote in sacred religious rites. Logically, Mooney believes that this should extend to cannabis, as it is an inherent part of his church’s religious rituals.
Since neither Mooney nor the church were prosecuted or even charged for the seizure, a lower court originally threw out the lawsuit, but the case has since been reopened by the Ninth Circuit under the decision that prosecution was not a prerequisite for the lawsuit, but, rather, that simply seizing the church’s marijuana was grounds enough for the complaint.
For now, the case sits awaiting a lower court to decide on how to continue this case, but the incident begs the question about whether marijuana for religious use is a next step in the relationship between the government and pot. Besides Native American groups, there are many religious organizations who claim to use cannabis as part of their religious rituals, most notably the Rastafari movement.
So far, groups have found little success in using freedom of religion as a defense in marijuana cases, with a 2010 Denver Post article (link: http://www.denverpost.com/ci_15386979) noting that instances in Hawaii, Alaska, and Arizona have all resulted in convictions for the defendant. But, with the laws being as they are, is it the place of courts to dictate what religions are legitimate enough to seek protection under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act and which are not? After all, if Mooney is successful in his suit against the seizure of his pound of marijuana, what is to keep anyone from claiming ties to religions that use marijuana for religious ceremonies. Perhaps some conditions, such as registering with local law enforcement and maintaining a certain minimum number of church members, should be used to substantiate religious marijuana use claims, resulting in only known congregations receiving the privilege of being able to use, transport, and purchase cannabis for religious purposes.
For now, it seems that decisions like these are left to the local level, with individual law enforcement agencies deciding whether or not to prosecute offenders and no real landmark decision having yet occurred with regards to use of marijuana as a religious freedom. But that could all change with Mooney and Oklevueha Native American Church. Time will tell.
Do you think Mooney should win his lawsuit for the seized marijuana? Do you think pot should be legal for religious purposes? Could the religious benefits of marijuana be just as great as the medicinal ones?