Circuit Court Ruling Allows For Religious Defense In Marijuana Cases

Rastafarians can defend themselves against charges of marijuana possession on religious grounds, the Ninth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals has ruled.

Citing the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act, the three judge appeals panel overturned the lower court convictions of three individuals charged with possessing marijuana. The Circuit Court ruled that a Montana District Court Judge had violated the act by failing to allow the Rastafarian defendants to present evidence demonstrating marijuana’s sacred role in their religion. However, the Court upheld additional drug convictions against the defendants.

“The court’s decision to negate the marijuana possession charges against these defendants is a significant ruling,” stated NORML Deputy Director Allen St. Pierre. “To the best of NORML’s knowledge, this decision is the first time that a marijuana conviction has been overturned on the basis of freedom of religion.”

The Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 strengthened protections for religious groups and was intended to curb criminal prosecutions that interfere with religious beliefs. The act requires the government to show a compelling interest for any prosecution that significantly hinders the exercise of religious freedom.

“Under RFRA, … the government had the obligation, first, to show that the application of the marijuana laws to the defendants was in furtherance of a compelling governmental interest and, second, to show that the application of these laws to these defendants was the least restrictive means of furthering that compelling governmental interest,” Judge John Noonan wrote for the court.

In addition, the court maintained that the government could challenge the defendant’s claims that they were, in fact, Rastafarians.

The government should be free to cross-examine [the defendants] on whether they … are Rastafarians and to introduce evidence negating their assented claims,” added Judge Noonan. “It is not enough in order to enjoy the protections of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act to claim the name of religion as a protective cloak.”

For more information, please contact Allen St. Pierre of NORML at (202) 483-5500.