Arizona Court: Drug Laws Trump Religious Use of Marijuana

The seal of the Church of Cognizance.The seal of the Church of Cognizance.The state’s interest in banning marijuana outweighs the religious beliefs of an individual that he is entitled to use the drug anywhere, the Arizona Supreme Court ruled today.

In a unanimous opinion, the justices said state law permits the government to “burden the exercise of religion” only if it shows a compelling interest and that the restrictions are the “least restrictive means of furthering that interest.” And Daniel Hardesty conceded to the court that there is some governmental interest in the regulation of marijuana.

But Chief Justice Rebecca White Berch said that, given the claim by Hardesty that his membership in the Church of Cognizance allows him to use marijuana anywhere and anytime — including driving — it is clear that the “least restrictive means” of the government to further its interests in protecting the public is an outright ban.

Today’s ruling, however, does not foreclose the possibility that the state’s high court might not conclude that some other religious use of marijuana is acceptable.

Berch pointed out that courts have allowed users of peyote to use federal laws to shield them from prosecution against state drug laws. She said, though, there is “an obvious difference” between the situations.

“Members of the Native American Church assert only the religious right to use peyote in limited sacramental rights,” the chief justice wrote. “Hardesty asserts the right to use marijuana whenever he pleases, including while driving.”

Hardesty was arrested in 2005 after being stopped by police while driving in Yavapai County.

At trial, Hardesty testified that he had been a practicing member of the Church of Cognizance since 1993. And a church official said that the religion, founded in 1991, is based on “neo-Zoroastrian tenets” and that marijuana provides a connection to the divine mind and spiritual enlightenment.

Today’s ruling is the second defeat in two years for members of the Church of Cognizance.

Last year a Graham County couple that claims to have founded the religion in the early 1990s were found guilty of possession and conspiracy with intent to distribute marijuana after being stopped with 172 pounds of marijuana in their vehicle near Las Cruces, N.M. A federal judge in New Mexico rejected their religious freedom arguments.

Dan Quaintance was sentenced to five years in prison; his wife, Mary, was sentenced to two to three years.

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