Supreme Court To Native American Church: We Won't Make You Exempt From Marijuana Laws

By Kelly Burch 12/05/16

The Native American Church of Hawaii claims that the drug is an essential part of religious services. 

Supreme Court To Native American Church: We Won't Make You Exempt From Marijuana Laws

The Supreme Court has declined to hear the case of a Hawaii church that claims using marijuana is a part of their religion and therefore should be exempt from federal marijuana laws. 

The Native American Church of Hawaii was asking to be protected from seizure of marijuana and other legal consequences under the U.S. Religious Freedom Restoration Act. However, the Supreme Court will not hear the case, meaning that an April ruling from a lower court will stand. 

In that ruling, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the prohibition of marijuana doesn’t impose a significant burden on the church members’ ability to practice their religion. The court felt that the church did not give enough evidence about its religious beliefs other than the belief in the power of marijuana.

"It's really disappointing," Michael Rex 'Raging Bear' Mooney, who founded the church, told the Associated Press after the Circuit Court ruling. "Cannabis is a prayer smoke, so it's a sacrament ... through the effects of the medicine, it also helps us become closer to our creator. It puts us in a place, a state of mind, where we can actually feel the presence and an actual relationship with our creator.”

The church uses marijuana during sweat lodge ceremonies. However, in Hawaii recreational marijuana use is illegal (although medical marijuana is available).

The lawsuit started in 2009 when a church member had his pot taken away. A similar lawsuit in California was dismissed earlier this year. There, two members of the Oklevueha Native American Church were suing Sonoma County after about 600 marijuana plants were seized. 

Although it seems that the federal government is not willing to make marijuana use permissible during religious ceremonies, Native Americans are permitted to use peyote in religious ceremonies. This hallucinogenic drug, derived from a cactus plant, is illegal for recreational use in all 50 states—with an exception for the Native American Church after a 1979 Supreme Court ruling. 

It is unclear whether The Native American Church of Hawaii plans to change its religious ceremonies to fit within the law. After the April ruling, Mooney’s lawyer, Michael Glenn, seemed to indicate that it would not. 

"Man's relationship with the divine can't be dictated by any other person or government entity," he said.

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Kelly Burch writes about addiction and mental health issues, particularly as they affect families. Follow her on TwitterFacebook, and LinkedIn.

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