November 24, 2008
The Arizona Court of Appeals has ruled that a man who said his marijuana use was based on the practices of his religion cannot avoid anti-marijuana laws on religious grounds.
The judges ruled that Arizona may impose a total ban on marijuana use because of the known harms associated with the drug. However, they did say that individuals could attempt to use religious arguments in future cases if they can also demonstrate that marijuana use is not as harmful as government officials contend.
The case involved Arizona resident Daniel Hardesty, who was convicted of marijuana possession and placed on probation despite arguing that his church, the Church of Cognizance, believed that marijuana yields a connection to spiritual enlightenment. The church was founded in 1991 and is based on "neo-Zoroastrian tenets," according to a church official.
In issuing its ruling, the appellate court compared the First Amendment's right to believe with the right to act in accordance with those beliefs. Appellate Judge Sheldon Weisberg said that unlike the right to believe, the right to act is not absolute, and governments can restrict certain actions as long as they constitute "neutral laws of general applicability," such as the marijuana control laws.
"By imposing a total ban, the Legislature has deemed that the use and possession of marijuana always pose a risk to public health and welfare," Weisberg wrote in the court opinion.
The judge acknowledged the ability of Native Americans to possess peyote for their religious ceremonies, but added that in that case government authorities have not been able to determine that peyote was being used at levels that compromise public health.