No Religious Right to Smoke Marijuana, Judge Rules

Canada’s laws against smoking marijuana don’t violate the country’s constitutional guarantee of freedom of religion, a judge ruled Monday.

Ontario Superior Court Justice Thea Herman delivered her judgment Monday after hearing weeks of evidence called by two pot-smoking clergymen and opposing federal prosecutors.

Rev. Brother Peter Styrsky, 53, and Rev. Brother Shahrooz Kharaghani, 32, were charged with trafficking in marijuana and hashish after police raided their church — Beaches Mission of God — on Queen St. E. on Oct. 25, 2006.

In a constitutional challenge to Canada’s drug laws, however, the two men argued that the cannabis plant is sacred to their religion, the Assembly of the Church of the Universe (COU), which claims about 35 active ministers and 4,000 members across Canada.

Styrsky testified that smoking pot was the most spiritual thing that has ever happened him.

The defendants had asked Herman to rule that Canada’s Controlled Drugs and Substances Act has no force or effect with regards to cannabis because it infringes on their freedom of religion.

“The applicants have established that their use of cannabis was, at least, in part related to a sincerely held religious belief,” Herman wrote in her judgment.

However, while she found that the prohibition against pot possession limited their freedom of religion, she also found that the laws controlling its use meet a “pressing and substantive” goal: “the avoidance of harm to Canadians, in particular, the avoidance of harm to vulnerable individuals.”

The limits are justified because there is no reasonable way to allow for the use if cannabis for religious use, Herman wrote. “It is difficult, if not impossible for an outsider to identify the religious user and religious use because religious use is barely distinguishable from recreational use.”

Styrsky, who got 945 votes in Toronto’s 2006 mayoral race, testified that cannabis is a sacred substance whose consumption brings adherents closer to God.

The Crown argued that the men’s sale of marijuana and the beliefs underlying it lack the essential characteristics of a religion.

Crown prosecutors Nicholas Devlin and Donna Polgar argued that the church offers no insight or answers into the existential questions of “ultimate concern,” offers no comprehensive system of belief by which to live and offers no moral or ethical code.

It is the third time church members have raised religious Charter of Rights issues in defence of their cannabis use, but this is the fullest airing yet of the question.

Defence lawyers Paul Lewin and George Filipovic are also challenging the law on a broader basis: that it violates all religions that are based on beliefs in the inherent goodness of the marijuana plant, such as the Rastafarians.

But the Crown argued that even if the court were to find that the church’s activities are protected as religious practices, the law’s prohibitions on trafficking are “reasonable and demonstrably justifiable limits” to the freedom of religion.

“Peace and love,” Styrsky said after hearing Monday’s decision. “We'll move on.”

He added that church members still planned to hold their religious services, and said he and his co-accused are considering an appeal.

- Article from The Toronto Star.


Toronto judge rejects pot smoking as a religious right

by The Canadian Press

TORONTO — A religious group has lost its bid to be exempted from Canada's marijuana laws.

The Church of the Universe uses the drug as a sacrament and argues the law infringes on their freedom of religion rights under the charter.

Prosecutors had told a Toronto judge that allowing the church's application would effectively legalize marijuana, as others would claim a religious right as well.

Justice Thea Herman ruled against the church today.

The constitutional challenge came in the case of two church members charged with trafficking marijuana.

Peter Styrsky and Shahrooz Kharaghani allegedly sold pot to undercover officers in 2006, and their case is back in court Feb. 21.

Last year, the Supreme Court of Canada dismissed an application from church founders Walter Tucker and Michael Baldasaro for leave to appeal their 2007 marijuana trafficking convictions.

The men sold small amounts of pot to an undercover police officer who posed as a new church member.

On its website, the church refers to marijuana as God's "Tree of Life" and that God's children have a right to use it as a sacrament in "their lives and worship."

"Church members are encouraged to surround themselves with the holy Tree of Life, not just inhaling it, but wearing it, growing it, writing on it, eating it, etc.," the site reads.

"They decide for themselves ways and times to use God's Tree of Life."

- Article from CTV News.


Marijuana law challenge denied by Ont. court

by CBC News

An Ontario judge has thrown out a legal challenge that claimed Canada's marijuana laws violate the freedom of religion provisions of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

The challenge was brought by two Toronto men who are reverends in a group called the Church of the Universe. They are facing charges of marijuana trafficking but say pot is a central tenet of their religion.

Madam Justice Thea Herman of Ontario's Superior Court found Monday that the church deserves protection under the charter.

And she said the laws against possessing marijuana limit the men's freedom of religion.

But she ruled that the limit is reasonable under Section 1 of the charter and said distributing marijuana is not an activity that deserves protection as a religious freedom.

- Article from CBC News.

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