Is religious use of marijuana a defense to a marijuana criminal charge? A recent Minnesota Court of Appeals case indicates the answer may be “yes;” in an unpublished opinion, In the matter of the Welfare of J.J.M.A., A13-0295, filed September 23, 2013. The Minnesota Court of Appeals reversed a juvenile’s delinquency adjudication; based on his sincerely held religious belief as a Rastafarian, on a petty misdemeanor marijuana paraphernalia charge.
The fifteen year old boy was a practicing Rastafarian. The Rastafari religion involves religious use of marijuana. And it has for nearly 100 years.
Minnesota Constitution stronger than federal
The lower court found him guilty of the paraphernalia charge. But it also found:
“Rastafari is a true religion and that J.J.M.A. has a sincerely held belief in the tenets of that religion.”
However, the lower court said, he “failed to satisfy his burden of showing that the Rastafari religion requires him to carry his pipe with him at all times.”
But the Minnesota Court of Appeals reversed that adjudication of guilt. And it did so citing Minnesota Constitution’s freedom-of-conscience clause, article 1, section 16:
“The right of every man to worship God according to the dictates of his own conscience shall never be infringed . . . nor shall any control of or interference with the rights of conscience be permitted . . . ; but the liberty of conscience hereby secured shall not be so construed as to excuse acts of licentiousness or justify practices inconsistent with the peace or safety of the state.”
Minnesota’s Constitution provides more protection for religious freedom than the United States Constitution does. There is no Rastafarian exception.
“’This language is of a distinctively stronger character than the federal counterpart’ because it ‘precludes even an infringement on or an interference with religious freedom.’”State v. Hershberger, 462 N.W.2d 393, 397 (Minn. 1990) (Hershberger II).
The Court’s four prong analysis
The court analyzed the four prongs of the compelling state interest balancing test, whether :
- the individual holds a sincerely held belief;
- the regulation burdens the exercise of religious beliefs;
- the state’s interest is overriding or compelling; and,
- the regulation uses the least restrictive means to accomplish the state’s interest.
The court ruled that defense evidence satisfied its burden to show a firmly held belief worthy of protection under section 16. The defendant had a firmly held belief in Rastafarian religion. The court contrasted this case with past cases where the defendants had failed to meet that burden; due to being unable to connect his conduct to a religious practice or principle.
The court said,
”once an individual has demonstrated a sincerely held religious belief intended to be protected by section 16, the burden shifts to the state ‘to demonstrate that public safety cannot be achieved by proposed alternative means.’”
And the court held that the state failed to meet this burden in this case.
Though the case did not address application of the defense to a marijuana possession case; it may be helpful in doing so. The case helps a Rastafarian defendant.
Given the fact that marijuana is safer than alcohol; the state should not meet its burden of proving restrictions on religious freedom by criminalizing marijuana improves public safety.
So a Rastafarian may have a religious use defense to a criminal marijuana charge.