Ninth Circuit affirms convictions of Hawaii Cannabis Ministry leaders

United States v. Christie, Nos. 14-10233, 14-10234 (9th Cir. June 14, 2016).

The Hawaii Cannabis Ministry used marijuana religiously. Once you became a member of the Ministry—and it was easy to become a member—you would receive a “Ministry ID card.” Every day, through its staff members, the Ministry distributed marijuana to those with ID cards. The staff members didn’t confirm that the person picking up the pot was really the person listed on the Ministry ID card, and didn’t restrict further distribution. This state of affairs prompted the federal government to charge Reverend Roger Christie and his wife Sherryanne, the leaders of the Ministry, with unlawful manufacture and distribution of marijuana. The two entered conditional guilty pleas.

The Christies’ main argument on appeal is that their prosecution violates the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA). The government has not challenged the sincerity of the Christies’ religious beliefs, or their view that the federal marijuana laws substantially burden their practice. The question, instead, is whether the government has a compelling interest in prosecuting the Christies that can’t be satisfied in a less restrictive way—i.e., less restrictive to the Christies’ religious practices. 

The Ninth Circuit says that the government had a compelling interest in restricting marijuana from being distributed to those outside the Ministry. And, in what seems to me the far weaker part of the opinion, the court also holds that the government had no less restrictive way of furthering this interest than by prosecuting the Christies. The Christies ask why the government couldn’t merely shut down the Christies’ daily distribution of marijuana to anybody with a Ministry ID card—why the need for a criminal prosecution? The Ninth Circuit responds that this alternative would still allow the Christies to give out marijuana at Sunday services—marijuana that then could be distributed. Fair enough. But couldn’t the federal government just insist that the Christies require on-site consumption of marijuana? Why wouldn’t this less restrictive alternative to criminal prosecution prevent distribution of marijuana outside the putatively religious community? The Ninth Circuit doesn’t really say. 

What’s really going on here seems pretty clear: the Ninth Circuit doesn’t believe that the Christies’ religious beliefs are sincere. That belief may well be justified. But the explicit rationale for the court’s decision is unconvincing.