Religious use of pot seen as legal refuge

As spiritual events go, it was an unusual request.
“If there’s anybody here who’s a member of law enforcement, you don’t have to identify yourself, just please leave,” the Rev. Timothy Tipton told a crowd at Denver’s Oriental Theater. “This is a private event.”
Thus went a stop on the Cannabis Church Revival Tour, a three-event swing along the Front Range last week promoting the religious use of marijuana and its potential as a legal defense against pot prosecution. The tour was organized by the Rev. Roger Christie, founder of The Hawaii Cannabis Ministry, as a way to spread awareness about his church and its affiliates. But Christie said his visit to Colorado had, in part, a more specific purpose: to reach out to people disgruntled by new state medical-marijuana laws they think are too restrictive.
With two laws that place tighter regulations on medical-marijuana patients and dispensaries poised to go into effect next month, some marijuana activists have begun discussing what they believe is an alternate pathway to legally using marijuana — even if courts have generally not agreed with them.
Christie touted religious use of cannabis as a legal refuge for marijuana users of all stripes protected by the First Amendment — as long as they are sincere.
“You can still have cannabis, but you don’t have to be sick,” he said. “Or if you are sick, you don’t have to go to the doctor. A lot of people go to the doctor for legal protection. We provide another source of legal protection.”
The problem, though, is that courts have often looked askance at that stance.
The U.S. Supreme Court in 1990 ruled that states could pass “generally applicable” laws — including drug laws — that have “incidental” effects on religious practice without violating the First Amendment’s protection of religious freedom.
Since then, state courts in Hawaii, Alaska and Arizona, as well as at least one federal appellate court, have rejected freedom-of-religion defenses in marijuana cases. Just recently in Clear Creek County, a judge convicted a man in a marijuana possession case after deciding his religious beliefs weren’t sufficient to exempt him from state law.
Christie said the church has had 108 legal victories across the country, but that number includes only cases where charges were dropped or not filed. The church has yet to achieve a jury victory, and Christie said he is pursuing a federal lawsuit in Hawaii he hopes will set a precedent protecting spiritual use of marijuana.
In the meantime, he said, church members could request trials and try to win over juries with the sincerity of their beliefs. Christie said church members sign a document attesting to their sincerity and must wash their hands with hemp soap before entering the sanctuary.
Kathleen Chippi, a Nederland dispensary owner who is starting a cannabis ministry, said she will ask new church members to take cannabis theology classes.
“If you want to use cannabis as sacrament and use that as a defense, you need to know what you’re talking about,” Chippi said.
Religious users believe marijuana brings them closer to God and is referenced in the Bible.
“I like to say that we get high to say, ‘Hi’ to the Most High,” Christie said.
Those whom Christie anointed as new church members at the revival said they were attracted more by the spiritual connection they feel when using cannabis than by the chance of using marijuana legally.
“My whole life, I’ve been smoking weed,” said James Aguilar, a 41-year-old Denver resident who is also a medical-marijuana patient. “And I just thought it would be good to join something I believe in.”