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May 29, 2002

Federal Court Rules in Rastafarian Case

In an opinion issued Tuesday by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, some marijuana-using Rastafarians may be protected under a religious-freedom law passed by Congress in 1993. 

The case began in 1991 when Benny Guerrero, returning from a trip to Hawaii, was stopped by officials at Guam's international airport. Mr. Guerrero evidently attracted the eyes of authority because he was carrying a book about Rastafarianism and marijuana. A search of Guerrero's luggage turned up five ounces of marijuana and some Cannabis seeds. He was arrested and charged with importation of a controlled substance.

In his defense, Guerrero argued that he was a practicing Rastafarian and that his use of marijuana was religious.  His importation of the herb was, he argued, protected under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, a law that blocks the federal government from unjustifiably infringing on a person's practice of religion. 

After litigating the case for more than ten years, the Ninth Circuit ruled on Tuesday that while the Religious Freedom Restoration Act might protect some Rastafarians who possess or smoke marijuana as part of their religious practices, it does not protect the importation of marijuana, even if that marijuana was intended for religious use. According to the Ninth Circuit, while the practice of Rastafarianism sanctions the smoking of marijuana, nowhere does the religion sanction the importation of marijuana.  

As Guerrero's lawyer Graham Boyd pointed out in an interview with the San Francisco Chronicle, the court's ruling was "equivalent to saying wine is a necessary sacrament for some Christians but you have to grow your own grapes." 

The ruling also has much in common with the current situation facing people, such as AIDS and Crohn's Disease patients, who find that marijuana alleviates some of their pain and provides other medical benefits such as increasing their appetite. Although eight states now permit citizens to use marijuana for medicinal purposes with the approval of their doctor, the federal government has loudly stated its intention to criminally prosecute anyone who dares to supply a sick person with medical marijuana. Thus, people whose health is already compromised are forced to shovel dirt and labor over a Cannabis garden, or make friends with a marijuana dealer.

According to the latest Household Survey on Drug Abuse, over 16 million Americans used an illegal drug in the last 30 days. The overwhelming majority of these people, just like the overwhelming majority of people who use legal drugs, did so responsibly and without problems. Some of those people may find that their use of an illegal drug occasioned a religious experience, and others may find that use of an illegal drug provided pain relief that they have been unable to achieve by any other means. To the extent that the vast majority of these 16 million Americans used an illegal drug without causing harm to others, our criminal justice system ought to leave them alone and instead focus on protecting us from dangerous criminals.  

Instead, the government has just requested over 19 billion dollars of tax-payer money to fight yet another year of the "war on drugs" and it's not about to let religion, medicine, or basic human rights, for that matter, stand in its way. 

Lost in the haze of its zero-tolerance prohibition policy, and drunk on its hyperbolic rhetoric about how marijuana leads you through the Devil's gateway, the government continues to flex its weary muscles in an antiquated effort to save as many souls from damnation as possible. 

Enough is Enough.

Richard Glen Boire is legal counsel for the Center for Cognitive Liberty & Ethics

Resources:

Ninth Circuit's Opinion in Guam v. Guerrero

The ACLU's legal briefs and press releases in Guam v. Guerrero

The Religious Freedom Restoration Act

CCLE's Drug Policy Pages

CCLE's Psychedelics Pages

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