NORML Throws Religious Cannabis Users to the Lions
[Chris Bennett is a long-time contributor to Cannabis Culture, the former manager of Pot-TV, and the author of three books about the history of cannabis and religion Green Gold the Tree of Life: Marijuana in Magic & Religion, Sex, Drugs, Violence and the Bible, and Cannabis and the Soma Solution. Roger Christie has also allowed CC to publish his written response to NORML.]
I am writing this piece in response to two articles from noted NORML representatives that open fire on Rev. Roger Christie, founder of the THC Ministry in Hawaii.
Christie had been openly distributing cannabis as a religious sacrament for 10 years with NO opposition from local or state law enforcement. In March of 2010, his ministry was raided as part of multiple DEA actions targeting cannabis churches. He was subsequently arrested and is currently in jail; denied bail by federal authorities. Click here to read a Cannabis Culture interview with Christie from shortly after the raid.
The first of these articles, "NORMLizer – Holy Smokes?", is by NORML's Executive Director Allen St. Pierre and was published by HIGH TIMES online and in print. The second is by Russ Belville, (aka ‘Rad Russ’), whose article "On Religious Use of Cannabis" (also published here) was written in defence of the HIGH TIMES piece, due to the many hostile criticisms of St. Pierre’s assessment garnered in the comments section from supporters of Roger Christie.
Unfortunately, Rad Russ’ comments only serve to dig the hole deeper for NORML on this issue. The comment section on both articles at the time of this writing show a majority against St. Pierre and Belville on this matter.
The idea that representatives of a longstanding and generally respected organization such as NORML have chosen to focus their efforts on denigrating a well-known and loved activist such as Roger Christie, so needlessly and to no benefit, at a time when so much is taking place in the cannabis reform movement, boggles the mind.
It should also be noted that NORML itself has its critics. Many have commented on the organization's perceived lack of accomplishments over the past 40 years, some saying that by the 80s and 90s NORML had pretty much become just a lawyer referral service that provided clients to lawyers who had no interest in legalization what-so-ever. Groups such as the Marijuana Policy Project grew directly out of the disillusionment of staffers at NORML and it was not until various other groups formed and other individuals took the helm that the cannabis reform movement really started moving.
Steve Bloom of Celebstoner outlined some of these criticisms in his article Why's Everyone So Pissed Off at NORML?":
• Bill Maher (NORML Advisory Board): "I'm a little disillusioned with NORML. I’ve always said, one of the reasons there’s been so little progress on the marijuana front is that what the movement needs more than anything is some kick-ass, take-no-prisoners, Karl Rove-type lobbyist, you know? And that just never happens, because it’s all a bunch of stoners." […]
• Miriam White, a former NORML employee, claims NORML has not played fair with the Yippies over the years, dredging up decades-old animosity between Stroup and the '60s pranksters, who started the rally movement with smoke-ins in New York and Washington, DC just as Stroup founded the more buttoned-down NORML.?
• Cheech & Chong chooses to co-sponsor their upcoming Get It Legal with the MPP, despite the fact that Tommy Chong is on NORML's Advisory Board. When asked why, Chong comments: "NORML consists mainly of lawyers who like to get high."
• The Drug Policy Alliance (DPA) decides to partner with the Marijuana Policy Project (MPP) rather than NORML for their recent conference, setting off an explosive email response from St. Pierre.
California activist Todd McCormick commented in defense of Bill Maher's statement,
"NORML is about to celebrate (really?) their 39th year in business, but I have to ask my fellow activists: do you really think that 40 years of being in business in a mark of success? I see it as failure; I see it as old stale ideas being tried over and over by the same old men holding onto their egos and little positions of power. The reason MPP is hosting parties in the backyard of one of the founders of NORML is because NORML has not got the organizational capabilities of doing it themselves. The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. Well, my friends, I think it’s time we demand term limits on the directors and get some fresh ideas and direction in this organization or do we really want to be here in another 38 years wishing NORML was not so normal?"
Now considering this 40-year timeframe, St. Pierre’s advice for those fighting for religious cannabis freedoms in his "NORMLizer – Holy Smokes?" article seems a little ludicrous and definitely hypocritical:
"cannabis consumers, reformers and religious adherents should concentrate their efforts on the much broader reforms that can be achieved by cannabis legalization. In the end, this is a faster, more effective means to achieve genuine religious freedoms, rather than hoping that the current legal system (and body politic) under cannabis prohibition will be rational enough – or fair enough – to respect diverse religious practices consistently."
Err … Allen, with 40 years and counting, as Todd McCormick has noted, maybe you and NORML are the ones who need to try a new approach instead of launching assaults on those that do?
However, despite these criticisms against NORML, I have to say that in my opinion both Allen St. Pierre and Russ Belville have been amongst the more outstanding NORML activists in recent years, and I was impressed with the work of both throughout the Proposition 19 campaign. I suppose that is why I find this attack on an imprisoned activist so disappointing.
Other activists have suggested the term "attack" is too harsh for what has taken place here at the hands of Rad Russ and St. Pierre, but I think those individuals need to take a closer look at what was written.
Allen St. Pierre:
"The recent federal raid and arrest of THC Ministry founder Roger Christie in Hawaii is the cautionary tale of a questionable business model used to fund public-interest advocacy, as well as the legal jeopardy inherent in trying to game the American criminal-justice system. Christie, a self-styled "minister" from Hawaii, founded the THC Ministry in the 1990s based on the incorrect assumption that citizens organized as a church or religious organization who employ cannabis as a sacrament are exempt from criminal prosecution under the Controlled Substances Act of 1970."
Belville’s article continues in this vein with another jab at Christie in his comment that Christie and THC Ministries was no more than "opening up hemp companies and selling weed". This statement, like St. Pierre’s comments that Christie’s ministry was a "business", is not only untrue but is a particularly unkind and potentially harmful attack on a man in prison. How is an individual like Roger, who provided good clean sacrament to other religious users who at minimal cost through his mission, any more of a "company selling weed" than a dispensary which provides medicinal quality marijuana to patients? How else are bona fide religious users to acquire their sacrament? Could you imagine imagine if someone made an accusation about a cannabis dispensary being a business, and selling cannabis for profit? This would be even worse in a case where the dispensary owner was in jail!
But then, Russell’s assessment of medical exemptions is not much better:
"I’ve said it before to the medical users and I’ll say it to the religious users: carving out an exemption for yourselves from the criminality of cannabis prohibition is always going to lead to undue restrictions for you at best and a jail cell at worst. Only through legalization for all adults, even healthy atheists like me, can any cannabis user fully realize their medical and spiritual rights to cannabis."
Imagine if the movement, years ago, actually heeded advice such as this in regards to medical marijuana? Would it now be legal in 15 states and Federally in Canada?
NORML is one of the largest cannabis reform organizations in the world with well-known activists and a very popular website - sadly, these statements from NORML make it seem to readers that Roger Christie was in this for profit. I have known Roger for almost two decades and I know this is not the case.
Hokulani Cheneviere, a friend of Christie, commented on Allen St. Pierre’s HIGH TIMES article:
"If Roger profited off of cannabis in his ministry, then tell me why he has to use a public defender? His residence is a tiny 2 bedroom one bath condo in a questionable area of Hilo. He drives a ten year old Toyota, had barely $35,000 to his name, of which over $20K of that was a reserve fund for expenses in the ministry. He is actually somewhat embarrassed that he has so little material wealth at age 61. All the money he made was used to help the huge population of below poverty level citizens on this island and to employ a moderate staff, and for overhead, which was considerable. He ran his ministry openly in downtown Hilo for EVERYONE to see with the "GANJANOMICS" banner hanging prominently from the front Hilo Bay facing windows. Did he make some mistakes? He surely did, but certainly not from a motive of greed but to help others and his irrepressible optimism that what he was doing was protected by the first amendment."
This is Roger’s situation as I know it as well, and I have even donated $500 to Roger’s case knowing he has no funds himself and no way of raising any to fight his case from jail. Roger relies on support from those outside of his prison cell, and both the St. Pierre and Belville pieces will surely help to kill that support.
On top of that, neither article explores the facts of the case - that there is no evidence of any large cash return, or that the amount of marijuana is only 2 pounds spread over charges for a total of 14 defendants, all of whom have been hurt by these comments. Also absent from NORML's analysis is the fact that Roger Christie has no previous criminal record and has been an activist for 20 years while operating his ministries honestly and with great integrity, right out in the open, and has still been denied bail after 4 attempts. This makes it difficult for the activist to defend himself from the charges and build a case, and to deal with the unfair criticisms of the likes of St. Pierre and Rad Russ.
One of Russ's first comments in his article reveals his clear bias in the matter:
"I am an out and proud atheist who was raised in a Mormon background (draw your own conclusions). Now some folks would say my atheism disqualifies me from commenting on religious matters. I say it makes me the perfect neutral observer – I don’t favor any one religion over any other."
To be clear, religious freedom, a right guaranteed by both the American Constitution and the Canadian Charter of Rights, is not supposed to be about one religion’s right over another's - it is supposed to be about the freedom of all religions. Russell’s statement that he is an atheist puts him completely outside of this realm. His views are that secular recreational use, which I am personally not against, is on par with religious use, which I would say is no more true than in the case of medicinal use, and one which there is no clear definition or argument for in either the American Constitution or the Canadian Charter of Rights, as there clearly is in the case of the religious use of cannabis. It is this possibility which apparently most irks Belville, as he posted in a recent prisonhouse response from Roger Christie that: "Supposing that I need to join your 'God club' to avoid prison for marijuana use... that's offensive."
Russ continues with his misinformed stance stating, "no court in the land is going to recognize a religion’s right to use cannabis", echoing St. Pierre’s statement that there is no hope for ever achieving a religious exemption, which in the wider USA, is just not true.
We have the example of a Rastafarian living in the unincorporated US territory of Guam, where the Supreme Court ruled that Rastafarians have a religious right to possess marijuana, free from criminal prosecution. A similar victory was achieved by a Rastafarian in Italy.
Russ's next comment is also rather curious coming from a proponent of legalization:
"The reasoning is that government must recognize your religious rights, unless doing so puts an undue burden on government’s enforcement of other laws. For example, suppose you belong to a religion that mandates sacrificing a virgin on the equinox. Obviously you’re not allowed to follow your religion when to do so puts an undue burden on the government’s mandate to prevent homicide."
This is a statement that sounds similar to one I have heard before in the courts, in the case of the late Rev. Ian Hunter, (who ironically drowned under the influence of DMT, the active chemical in the ayahuasca brew that both Russell and St. Pierre mention in their articles as deserving a religious exemption [not to say I am opposed to the exemption for ayahuasca]). In Hunter's case the antiquated second-generation Canadian Judge Montague Drake II, who was over 70 years old and presiding over his last case, ruled that although he believed the defendant Ian Hunter was sincere in his beliefs, and although he acknowledged that cannabis had played a role as a sacrament in religion, he could not allow it to go further as it would open the law up to cannibals, who eat people as part of their religion, and Thuggees, who ritually murder people in theirs. But the comparisons of both Drake and Belville are completely unfounded in this matter, as murder and cannibalism require victims whose own rights would be violated by being murdered or consumed. Cannabis use, on the other hand, is a victimless crime. Ian’s case set a good precedent regarding cannabis seeds when he received only a few hundred dollars in fines. It opened up the gates to a slue of Canadian seed sellers afterwards, so he chose not to appeal the final decision.
Belville continues with his uninformed comments, acknowledging that,
"There are slivers of hope, in that the courts have protected some Brazilian church’s use of ayahuasca, a powerful hallucinogen, and some Southwest Native American church’s use of peyote, another powerful hallucinogen. But in these cases, the courts have figured that […] these are churches and uses that go back through centuries of documented religious use".
This is wholly untrue - neither the União do Vegetal (UDV) who won the ayahusaca case in the US, or the Native American Church are centuries old churches, and both are relatively new syncretic religions. Although the use of Ayahausca-like preparations is documented to go back centuries, what we consider now to be the UDV church was founded on July 22, 1961 in Porto Velho Rondonia, Brazil by Jose Gabriel da Costa (Mestre Gabriel).
Likewise, peyote has been used for centuries or longer, but in the case of the Native American Church, (NAC) it is another relatively new syncretic religious practice. Quanah Parker is credited as the first big leader of the Native American Church, which was introduced to North American tribes in the 1880s, and was formally incorporated in 1918 in Oklahoma. Ironically, in the case of the UDV, lawyers from a faction of the NAC actually filed an "amicus" or "friend of the court" with the Government against the UDV indigenous use of peyote with the claim that since the UDV was not an indigenous religion of indigenous people, and was instead, like the THC Ministry, multi-ethnic, they should not qualify for the same sort of exemption that the NAC has received for their. This was basically the same argument made by the Government in the case.
In regards to cannabis use: like these churches, Roger’s ministry is a relatively new Church and syncretic faith; however, unlike the sacraments of these churches, the documented use of cannabis for spiritual purposes, goes back not centuries, but at least 5500 years and its use as such has been considerably widespread. A role for its use in this context can be found in the origins of such existing traditions as Taoism, Hinduism and Sikhism, and Zoroastrianism.
Indeed, in regard to Hinduism and Zoroastrianism, recent archeological evidence of a 4500 year old temple in Afghanistan, where evidence of ancient cannabis use was found, indicates that the sacred inebriant known as Haoma in Persia and Soma in India, and which clearly inspired both, was a cannabis preparation. This has been the subject of an upcoming documentary.
It should also be noted that the evidence for this goes far beyond this recent archeological find and a considerable amount of historical information makes the clearest case yet for the identity of this ancient sacrament as cannabis, as I have recently documented in my latest book Cannabis and the Soma Solution.
When one considers the well-known influence of Zoroastrianism on Judaism, Christianity and Islam, combined with increasingly academically accepted role of cannabis in Judaism and Christianity as well as amongst Islamic groups such as the Zoroastrian-influenced Ismaili and certain Sufi groups, it is easier to understand where those seeking religious freedoms for cannabis use are coming from.
In fact, the rediscovery for this particular role of cannabis may well turn out to be the single greatest religious revelation of our generation, and Roger Christie has been riding right at the front of that wave. Moreover, as the basis for our modern drug wars are clearly paralleled with the medieval witch hunt (both are largely based on the concept of Christians vs. the Devil’s Weed), this is, in many ways, already a religious war. Cannabis, as the Tree of Life, is the answer to that paradigm; the plant-based Shamanic origins of modern religion, documented through the history of the cannabis sacraments, is the paradigm shift.
For those who would like to write off such claims as the pipe dreams of the ganja-inspired, they should read through the affidavits of the three respected American Professors who provided statements for my case and who would likely do the same for Roger’s.
Interestingly, much of this historical information regarding cannabis and religion was verified in a report prepared by the Canadian Law and Government Division.
This newly compiled historical information is clearly relevant to these cases. Jocelyn Kula, who was Health Canada's witness in my own case, noted this in correspondence with Sante Daime members in regards to their tentatively granted exemption for ayahuasca in comparison with other such cases. A Memorandum to the Assistant Deputy Minister, found in documents that my lawyer Kirk Tousaw acquired through the Access to Information Act, states:
"If Health Canada issues this exemption, it will be the first time that an exemption in the public interest will be based on consideration of religious rights. The Department has received only two such requests in the past and both were denied. In the first case the use of Catha edulis forsk (also known as khat) for ceremonial purposes within the Somali community was denied due to the toxic nature of the substance and its uncontrolled and unsupervised use in the community. In the second case, a request for the religious purposes by the Church of the Universe was also denied due to insufficient evidence as to the practices of the alleged religion and the use of the substance as a sacrament."
In my own case, Jocelyn Kula, under cross examination when she was being called on as a witness for Health Canada (after further researching my file, only bothering to acquire my book after the initial rejection), acknowledged both a historical role for cannabis in various religions as well as my own obvious sincerity of belief.
One of these Professors, Carl Ruck, recently testified in another Canadian case that holds many similarities to the THC Ministry case. Court battles such as these are but one way this rediscovered religious reality will come to be recognized.
Belville sees a further distinction between the case of THC Ministry and the examples of the UDV and NAC in that in the cases of the latter "very few people outside these churches use those drugs for non-religious purposes, (c) it is very easy to identify sincere adherents to the faith, and (d) letting these tiny few people use those drugs is not going to burden the government in its mandate to ban those drugs for the non-religious."
But this is no standard at all for the definition of what constitutes religious freedom, the fact that many people use cannabis as a sacrament is all the more reason to support cases like Roger’s, not dissuade people from supporting such cases. As well, Russell seems to think reliigous freedom is some how interwined with a number of people, and if it were, what number would be to small, and what to large? Luckily that is not a factor in the definition of religious freedom either. That exemptions for medical marijuana exist in 15 US states and federally in Canada is an example that working exemption processes can be developed. Combined with cannabis’ relative safety compared to these other sacraments alongside our collected knowledge of its long term effects, Russ’s line of reasoning is rather weak.
To his credit, Russ does acknowledge that there is "a case of a Rasta in Guam who the courts implied was probably a bona fide religious user of cannabis and that should be protected, but unfortunately the case centered on whether he could import cannabis into Guam, not whether he could possess and use it while there, and the courts decided against him."
But Russ continues:
"However, I still say that if any religious use case is going to be won (and excuse me for being blunt) it is not going to be by a white guy from Hawaii who graduated in the Summer of Love who presaged his reverence for cannabis by opening up hemp companies and selling weed. An American court might recognize the religious use of a bona fide Rastafarian, but even then, the decision would be limited to that group."
The example of Rastafarianism, which originated in the 1930s, is like the UDV and THC Ministries - another case of a 20th century syncretic religion - not some centuries-old continuous and unbroken tradition. Thus, Belville’s statements here - bad enough already for being uninformed and firm predictions on the outcome of cases yet to take place - further expose his true opinion of Roger Christie and the modern spiritual paradigm of the initiates of the "Summer of Love". Sadly, his comments come off like Eric Cartman’s complaints of "Stupid Hippies", only much less laughable.
Obviously, although he claims no religious bias in his statements due to his atheism, Rad Russ does demonstrate it in his reference here to those practiced by "Black" Rastafarians, vs. "White" religious users, such as Roger Christie and thousands of others. Why his statements regard one’s ethnicity, when the situation being discussed is religious faith, may make sense to an atheist like Rad Russ, but is lost on this white spiritual user. The ironic thing here is that, historically, cannabis use came relatively late to much of "Black" Africa, and is generally thought to have come in medieval times via Islamic traders (although there is much earlier evidence of Egyptian use), where as sacramental cannabis use amongst "White" people, in this case near modern Ukraine, extends back 5500 years, and the ritual use of cannabis is widely believed to have spread throughout much of the ancient world via Indo-European Scythian groups.
I suppose I am particularly insulted by these disparaging articles not only because of my admiration of Roger Christie and my own spiritual beliefs regarding cannabis as a Reverend in the Church of the Universe, but also due to the fact that in Canada, I currently have a proactive case against the Canadian Government regarding many of these same issues winding its way through the Federal court system.
Having authored and co-authored three large books on this subject and dozens of published articles in other books and magazines, this is a subject I know something about, and one which I have written about for Opposing Views, one of the sites where Russ’s piece was posted, as well as Hightimes which ran the St. Pierre article, (in the December issue, I might add, making it NORML's Christmas message to the cannabis community!)
However, in my own case, I am not facing jail time or charges, it is all proactive and solely based on the Government’s refusal to grant my request for a religious exemption, which opened things up to a charter challenge based on religious freedom in the Canadian Federal Court system.
From prison, Roger has told me he wished he had pursued a similar avenue in the USA and filed for an exemption from the CSA for religious purposes via this form, and has suggested that future US religious users do the same if they wish to see such a case work its way through the court system unfettered by criminal charges (that make it nearly impossible to get down to the Charter and Constitutional issues which they should be addressing).
Interestingly, both St. Pierre and Belville make a comparison with the ayahuasca based church the UDV, who have won an exemption for their sacrament in the USA, and they both see the basis of it as a reason not to give one for cannabis. I, however, see just the opposite.
Here in Canada, where an exemption for ayahuasca has been granted to the Sante Daime, the government clearly does as well.
While writing this article, I have been in court in my own case over documents received through a freedom of information request on ayahuasca that the courts had allowed, but which the crown has appealed on based on a technicality on how they were entered, as they feel it weakens the government’s reasoning on their case for rejection of my request for a religious exemption. Ironically, the Santa Daime had an historical split in their own organization over the sacramental use of cannabis, as some members had been using it in their ceremonies as ‘Santa Maria’ and others opposed this use.
Belville notes a key difference in these ayahuasca and peyote cases in comparison to the use of cannabis as a sacrament in that the NAC, UDV and Sante Daime, "aren’t using ayahuasca or peyote on a daily basis. Those are reserved for sacred ceremonies that are performed infrequently and within specific settings." This is true, and it is a difference.
Like many Rastas in Jamaica and Saddhus in India, people like myself, Roger, and others use cannabis on a regular basis. A better comparison in our case would be with the acts of prayer or meditation with the cannabis used as a means to facilitate such intent, and our knowledge of its spiritual history fuelling that effect in many ways.
Religion is about faith and belief. People like me and Roger Christie have even more than that through our research and study - we have knowledge of the spiritual and religious history of cannabis, which gives us the conviction of our ways, and that knowledge is only now beginning to really take root.
The ignorance of such matters on the part of individuals like Russell Belville and Allen St. Pierre make their attacks more understandable and forgivable, and are but a minor hurdle in our very legitimate fight for our religious freedoms and our effort to make way for the Tree of Life.