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.
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
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 &
Circuit's Opinion in Guam v. Guerrero
ACLU's legal briefs and press releases in Guam v. Guerrero
Religious Freedom Restoration Act
Drug Policy Pages
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