Legal herb for Rastas?

US court decision could open the way for religious pot users to legally use their sacrament.

Ben Makahna: major court victory for Rastafarian tokers.Ben Makahna: major court victory for Rastafarian tokers.Ras Iyah Ben Makahna won a partial victory in the US' 9th Circuit Court after he argued that he used cannabis as a sacrament. The potential implications are astounding: sacramental users, especially Rastafarians, may be able to light up on federal lands and be protected by Makahna's precedent.
Ras Iyah Ben Makahna was arrested for possession and importation of marijuana seeds on January 2, 1991, at an international airport in his homeland of Guam, a US territory. He was on his way back from California when officials charged him with importation of a controlled substance. The American Civil Liberties Union soon became interested in his case, and offered legal assistance.

Makahna explained that Rastafarians are required by their religion to carry and use cannabis sacramentally: for him it was a choice between breaking the law, or sinning in the eyes of God.

"I was told by Rastafari Elder, Ras DaSilva, chairman of the Rastafari Centralization Organization, that Rastafari are required to use cannabis," Ras Makahna told Cannabis Culture. "JAH/GOD commands us to use all herb-bearing seed (Genesis 1:11, 29). The cannabis plant has also been identified as the Tree of Life, whose leaves will be for the Healing of the Nation (Revelations 22:2)."

Ras Makahna has been using sacramental cannabis for 25 years, but when asked how long he has been a Rastafarian, his response was theological.

"One does not become a Rastafari," he explained. "One either is a Rastafari, or s/he is not. We acknowledge Africa/Ethiopia as the cradle of civilization, Jah as God and Rastafari as the King of kings, Lord of lords. But Rastafari is more than a religion, or way of life. It is a state of mind. Self-realization is life's journey. Love the Light; separate yourself from dullness. Clarity is what we seek in all things."

Convincing faith

Makahna's faith was convincing to the Superior Court of Guam. In September of 2000, the court dismissed Makahna's charges prior to trial, ruling that applying marijuana laws to Rastafarians was a violation of Guam's Organic Act ? roughly equivalent to a state constitution ? and the Federal Religious Freedoms Restoration Act (RFRA). Both Guam's Organic Act and the RFRA specifically forbid the creation of laws that prohibit the free exercise of religion.

The prosecution eventually appealed to the 9th Circuit Court, whose decisions affect California, Hawaii, Oregon, Arizona, Montana, Idaho, Nevada, Alaska, the Northern Mariana Islands, and the federal territory of Guam. The case was heard in November of 2001, and by May of 2002 the court had decided that Ras Makahna may not have been guilty of possession, but could be brought to trial on charges of importation.

"Nothing before us suggests that Rastafarianism would require this conduct," wrote the judge, "Rastafarianism does not require importation of a controlled substance, which increases availability of a controlled substance and makes it harder for Guam to control."

Ongoing challenges

Despite the court's ruling, Ras Makahna was encouraged by the court's willingness to dismiss charges of possession for sacramental users prior to trial.

"As I overstand, the decision in my case has acknowledged that Rastafari possession, use and assumedly cultivation, is protected by the RFRA in the federal territories of the Ninth Circuit," he concluded. "This may include the federal parks."

Seven days after the 9th Circuit ruling ? on June 5, 2002 ? Ras Makahna was busted again. He was growing marijuana sacrament in the garage of his home when it caught fire, alerting police. He was charged with possession and intent to sell, giving him the chance to test his own precedent.

"I believe I was legal," he said, referring to the 9th Circuit ruling in his importation case. Then he chastised police for trying to make him look like a dealer by weighing everything from baggies to the glass mason jars he stored his sacrament in, calling it all "marijuana".

On July 2, 2002, shortly after his cultivation bust, Ras Makahna appealed his 1991 importation charges to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, arguing that the judge's decision was neither factual nor based upon evidence presented during the trial.

"Rastafari is required to possess, cultivate and travel with cannabis for medicinal and religious reasonings," Makahna said. "Much the way the Native American Indian Church travel with their medicinal-sacramental peyote or the Christian use wine and bread. Would you leave your Holy Bible at home when you went to gather for services?"

Before you grow dreadlocks and light up a joint on the steps of the courthouse, note that Ras Makahna's case is still proceeding through the courts, and whatever precedent he may have set still must be tested in court, so the ultimate impact of his case is undetermined. Cannabis Culture will keep you posted on the details.Ben Makahna: major court victory for Rastafarian tokers.

? Ras Iyah Ben Makahna: rasiya37@hotmail.com

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