The Fight for Religious Use of Cannabis


By "Radical" Russ Belville

Our Executive Director, Allen St. Pierre, has penned a column for HIGH TIMES examining Roger Christie of the THC Ministry and the fight for recognition of religious use of cannabis.  One of my regular readers, a member of Roger’s church, has blasted Allen for “attacking” the church and its leader.  I felt I needed to weigh in on the issue.

First off, full disclosure: I am an out and proud atheist* who was raised in a Mormon background (draw your own conclusions).  Now some folks would say my atheism disqualifies me from commenting on religious matters.  I say it makes me the perfect neutral observer – I don’t favor any one religion over any other.

Second, if you believe, as I do, that all adults have a natural right to use cannabis (and, for that matter, any other plants), then you believe that religion can be one of many valid reasons why an adult may choose to use cannabis.  Just as health care can be another valid reason.  Or a Dave Matthews concert.

So, yes, I completely believe that you have a religious right to use cannabis.  I even believe that the First Amendment of the Constitution protects that right.

However – seeking recognition of that right in American courts is a fool’s errand.

As Allen notes, no court in the land is going to recognize a religion’s right to use cannabis.  The reasoning is that government must recognize your religious rights, unless doing so puts an undue burden on government’s enforcement of other laws.  For example, suppose you belong to a religion that mandates sacrificing a virgin on the equinox.  Obviously you’re not allowed to follow your religion when to do so puts an undue burden on the government’s mandate to prevent homicide.

The government has decided, and courts have affirmed, that they must prevent people from using cannabis.  Therefore, you cannot practice your ganja sacrament, because that places an undue burden on government preventing cannabis toking.  The courts know the minute they rule that THC Ministry has a legitimate right to use ganja sacrament, there will suddenly be millions of adherents to that church overnight and it would be impossible to determine who’s toking reverently and who’s just toking.

Yet I am still supportive of fighting the government to recognize religious use of cannabis.  There are slivers of hope, in that the courts have protected some Brazilian church’s use of ayahuasca, a powerful hallucinogen, and some Southwest Native American church’s use of peyote, another powerful hallucinogen.  But in these cases, the courts have figured that (a) these are churches and uses that go back through centuries of documented religious use, (b) very few people outside these churches use those drugs for non-religious purposes, (c) it is very easy to identify sincere adherents to the faith, and (d) letting these tiny few people use those drugs is not going to burden the government in its mandate to ban those drugs for the non-religious.  There is even a case of a Rasta in Guam who the courts implied was probably a bona fide religious user of cannabis and that should be protected, but unfortunately the case centered on whether he could import cannabis into Guam, not whether he could possess and use it while there, and the courts decided against him.

So to that end, I have no problem with Roger Christie and the THC Ministry.  However, I still say that if any religious use case is going to be won (and excuse me for being blunt) it is not going to be by a white guy from Hawaii who graduated in the Summer of Love who presaged his reverence for cannabis by opening up hemp companies and selling weed.  An American court might recognize the religious use of a bona fide Rastafarian, but even then, the decision would be limited to that group.

Even so, a federal case would have to come before the courts to be argued in the first place.  As a lawyer friend of mine who is certified to litigate before the Supreme Court told me, “First it would have to be a federal arrest, which we know only 1% of marijuana arrests are.  Then it would have to be enough marijuana for the federal cop to press charges and not just confiscate it and give a warning.  But it couldn’t be so much that a prosecutor could argue intent to deliver.  Finally, and I hate to be crass, but it would have to be a genuine dreadlocked black Rastafarian, preferably from outside the states, to sway a judge that it’s not just a hippie trying to get high.  So if you can get me a federal park ranger arresting a black Rastafarian with less than an ounce but more than a joint performing religious use of cannabis in a national park and a prosecutor willing to press that case in federal court, I can get a decision exempting religious use of cannabis… for that guy and the guys and gals like him in that church.”

I’m not saying it’s right.  I’m just saying that’s the way it is.

Where I have my issues with Roger Christie and the THC Ministry is in the selling of weed (excuse me, I meant, “freely giving sacrament to members of the church who then proceed to give the church cash donations based on a list that suggests the proper donation per eighth ounce of sacrament that only coincidentally matches the black market prices for weed”) and the selling of $250 “Religious Sanctuary Kits”.

From the THC Ministry website:

Minister’s Sanctuary Kit: $250 donation

The Kit includes: Sanctuary Plaques, ID Cards, Citizen’s Rule Book, 150 page manual to educate and empower a new Cannabis Sacrament Minister, Sacramental Plant tags, THC Minsitry [sic] Cannabis and Religion Guide and more …

For example, this kit includes a “Letter of Good Standing”, which is the key document to acquire state permission to legally marry people as a “cannabis sacrament” minister.

Which claims

THC Ministry Cannabis and Religion Guide: 130 pages of research, case law, articles and interviews concerning cannabis and religion.  Included in the kit are real Motions to Dismiss marijuana charges written by lawyers and used successfully by members of our Ministry.

In other words, Roger Christie is selling to the naive cannabis consumer for $250 a kit that promises “sanctuary” from “marijuana charges”.  Perhaps some of his members have used these motions to dismiss successfully; however, I have reported case after case after case after case after case over the past eighteen months where religious cannabis users are now studying their Bibles behind bars.  I could even accept sales of these kits if they came with the disclaimer, “WARNING: US Courts have failed to recognize the First Amendment right to cannabis sacrament.  We cannot guarantee your religious use won’t land you in jail.”  But without disclaimers, this pitch is reprehensible.

Another problem I have with the ministry: most religions aren’t based on their sacrament and most religions aren’t taking “donations” for it.  You don’t go to the Catholic Mass for the wine sacrament, you go for the ancient traditions, the Bible teaching, and the pew aerobics (though, interestingly enough, during Prohibition you could get a religious exemption for wine).  When you donate to the collection plate, it is not “suggested” how much you donate per little-paper-cup-shot of wine you got from the priest.

Even the Brazilian and Native American churches provide guidance in this concept: they aren’t using ayahuasca or peyote on a daily basis.  Those are reserved for sacred ceremonies that are performed infrequently and within specific settings.

I’ve said it before to the medical users and I’ll say it to the religious users: carving out an exemption for yourselves from the criminality of cannabis prohibition is always going to lead to undue restrictions for you at best and a jail cell at worst.  Only through legalization for all adults, even healthy atheists like me, can any cannabis user fully realize their medical and spiritual rights to cannabis.  If a Rastafarian, a cancer victim, and I all share a joint, we are not a “believer”, a “patient”, and a “criminal”.  We are all just human beings with the same inalienable right to use plants for any reason we choose so long as we harm no others doing so.  Your health and your religion do not change that joint in any way.

*I even hate that tag “atheist”.  That has such negative framing of “godless amoral unspiritual nihilist who mocks all those of faith”.  I use it in the sense of its roots: a = no, theo = God, ism = system.  I have no God system.  I do not profess to know whether there is God or not; I merely find no need to live my life within a system that recognizes one.

I’d actually prefer the mantle of “Jeffersonian Deist”.  Thomas Jefferson found all the miracles and deism around Christ to be silly superstitions of Iron Age shepherds and unreasonable to an enlightened mind and he published a Bible that kept all the philosophy of Jesus and deleted the walking on water and God’s son stuff.  But he, like other Founders, expressed a Deism, a belief that there was a Divine Providence, a Creator who brought us all into being.

For me, that “Divine Providence” is the infinitely complex Cosmos which itself may be conscious at a level far higher than a hairless hominid can comprehend, and, if so, is so far above needing the worship of some tiny bits of starstuff on a watery rock that our prayers to affect it are like the wishes of bacteria to affect the Stock Market.


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