Is religious use of marijuana a defense to a marijuana criminal charge? A recent Minnesota Court of Appeals case indicates the answer may be “yes.” In an unpublished opinion, In the matter of the Welfare of J.J.M.A., A13-0295, filed September 23, 2013, the Minnesota Court of Appeals reversed a juvenile’s delinquency adjudication based on his sincerely held religious belief as a Rastafarian, on a petty misdemeanor marijuana paraphernalia charge.
The fifteen year old boy was a practicing Rastafarian – a religion that has incorporated religious use of marijuana for nearly 100 years. The lower court found him guilty of the paraphernalia charge, despite also finding that “Rastafari is a true religion and that J.J.M.A. has a sincerely held belief in the tenets of that religion,” because he “failed to satisfy his burden of showing that the Rastafari religion requires him to carry his pipe with him at all times.” The Minnesota Court of Appeals reversed that adjudication of guilt, based on the Minnesota Constitution’s freedom-of-conscience clause, article 1, section 16:
The right of every man to worship God according to the dictates of his own conscience shall never be infringed . . . nor shall any control of or interference with the rights of conscience be permitted . . . ; but the liberty of conscience hereby secured shall not be so construed as to excuse acts of licentiousness or justify practices inconsistent with the peace or safety of the state.
Minnesota’s Constitution provides more protection for religious freedom than the United States Constitution does. “’This language is of a distinctively stronger character than the federal counterpart’ because it ‘precludes even an infringement on or an interference with religious freedom.’” State v. Hershberger, 462 N.W.2d 393, 397 (Minn. 1990) (Hershberger II).
The court analyzed the four prongs of the compelling state interest balancing test:
1) whether the individual holds a sincerely held belief;
2) whether the regulation burdens the exercise of religious beliefs;
3) whether the state’s interest is overriding or compelling; and,
4) whether the regulation uses the least restrictive means to accomplish the state’s interest.
The court ruled that the evidence at trial satisfied the defense burden to establish a firmly held belief worthy of protection under section 16. It contrasted this case with past cases where the defendants had failed to meet the burden to establish a sincerely held religious belief, due to being unable to connect his conduct to a religious practice or principle.
The court stated, ”once an individual has demonstrated a sincerely held religious belief intended to be protected by section 16, the burden shifts to the state ‘to demonstrate that public safety cannot be achieved by proposed alternative means,’” and that the state failed to meet this burden in this case. Though the case did not expressly address the applicability of the defense to a marijuana possession case, it contains language that may be helpful in doing so.
Given the fact that marijuana is safer than alcohol, presumably the state will never be able to meet its burden of proving that restricting religious freedom with a statute that criminalizes marijuana possession somehow improves public safety.
Thomas C Gallagher is a marijuana lawyer in Minneapolis.