Does the prohibition of cannabis restrict religious freedom? Marijuana and the First Amendment

By: Simon Eddisbury

The First Amendment guarantees American citizens the right to practice their faith without the fear of prejudice. Yet, the dozen or so religious groups whose beliefs involve the sacramental use of marijuana can often find themselves on the wrong side of the law. In Christian churches, wine is often consumed as part of the service. Alcohol is arguably a far more harmful substance than marijuana, so does banning the use of cannabis in religious ceremonies constitute religious discrimination? I caught up with Carl Olsen, a marijuana activist and member of a mansion of Rastafarianism known as the Ethiopian Zion Coptic Church, to find out just how difficult it can be to practice a religion that holds cannabis sacred in a country where its use has been prohibited.

Firstly, can you tell us a little bit about yourself and your church?
I have been a member of the Ethiopian Zion Coptic Church since it was incorporated in Jamaica in 1976. During the 1960s, I was lost in this world, unable to discern my purpose in life. One of my friends went to Jamaica in 1970 and met a man by the name of George Baker Ivy, who became the focal point that drew us together in the name of Jah, Rastafari. George Baker Ivy died in 1970, but lasting friendships were made and the Ethiopian Zion Coptic Church was eventually incorporated to carry on the legacy. Because the sacrament of the Ethiopian Zion Coptic Church is cannabis and because of the worldwide conspiracy to make it illegal, the distribution of cannabis became a highly lucrative source of revenue for the Ethiopian Zion Coptic Church, and its wealth grew rapidly throughout the 1970s.  At the close of the decade, the CBS television news program ‘60 Minutes’ profiled the Ethiopian Zion Coptic in a story titled ‘Holy Smoke,’ focusing on the attention that the church had drawn from the seizures of tons of marijuana at various church properties in Florida, where the United States branch of the Ethiopian Zion Coptic Church was located. The Ethiopian Zion Coptic Church was the largest agricultural producer in Jamaica. In 1980, I was arrested with two dozen other members of the church while unloading a boat carrying 20 tons of marijuana off the coast of Maine in New England. Eventually, the church properties were seized by the Internal Revenue Service and many of the members were put in prison. I appealed from my conviction, but I eventually went to prison in 1984 and was released in 1986, two years before my sentence was completed due to a clerical error by the warden at the prison that I was in. In the early 1990s, I asked to be returned to prison to complete my sentence, but the U.S. Prison System declined my offer, formally excusing me from completing it.

You mentioned it is your belief that there is a worldwide conspiracy to make cannabis illegal. Can you expand on this?
The banning of cannabis was added into the U.N. Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, which was authored primarily by the United States. It was demonised in the United States during the first half-century, from around 1910 to around 1940.

So how did you feel when you were arrested? What was your reasoning behind asking to return to prison?
I felt like I was a martyr in a civil rights struggle. I asked to be allowed to complete my sentence because I was making an application for the restoration of my voting rights and I didn’t want anything unexpected coming up to interfere with that.

And, if I’m correct, your defense for your activities was that banning the religious use of cannabis contravened the First Amendment?
Yes. Although the First Amendment does not protect activities that injure the rights of another individual, the theory goes that religious conduct is protected as long as it isn’t hurting anyone. State courts in Florida, as well as in Iowa, found that the Ethiopian Zion Coptic Church was a bona fide religion, so the First Amendment was clearly applicable to our defense. The courts determined that the risk of diversion outweighed our right to use marijuana because of its general classification as being a dangerous drug, which was not what we were expecting. We were expecting that the courts would have to set us free unless they could show that it caused actual harm. The United States Supreme Court clarified this in 1990 in a case by the name of Employment Division v. Smith, where the court stated that laws of general applicability, which are neutral toward religion, will not be held to the ‘actual harm’ standard and can be upheld if their enactment was supported by a general finding that the activity is harmful. ‘General applicability’ means there are no exceptions to the law for anyone for any purpose. Obviously, since 1996, states in the United States have been gradually accepting the secular, medical use of cannabis, allowing qualified patients to cultivate their own plants. 15 states have done this so far. If you look at prescription medicines, you’ll notice that none of them can be manufactured in your own home, so this secular use of cannabis is significant in terms of a religious claim for the sacramental use of cannabis.

So what exactly is the role of cannabis within your religion?
It is written in 1 Corinthians 12:12-14: ‘For as the body is one, and hath many members, and all the members of that one body, being many, are one body: so also [is] Christ. For by one Spirit are we all baptized into one body, whether [we be] Jews or Gentiles, whether [we be] bond or free; and have been all made to drink into one Spirit. For the body is not one member, but many.’ The same as your physical blood supplies nutrients to the extremities of your physical body, the members of the spiritual body of Christ have blood (blessed be the tie that binds our hearts in Christian love), which is cannabis. Cannabis is an intensifier and a purifier, which binds us together to work as one in unity for the good of all.

Why do you think the right to use cannabis for religious purposes is so important?
The use of cannabis for religious purposes is essential to prevent the extinction of life on the planet. God made us to have a special relationship with this plant so that we would never forget our responsibility to take care of the environment.

Other religions, notably the Centro Espírita Beneficente União do Vegetal and the Native American Church, have been permitted to use hallucinogenic drugs in their ceremonies. Why do you think these groups have been allowed to use substances that would otherwise be illegal, whereas religious marijuana use is strictly prohibited?
The União do Vegetal case was over a federal seizure of hoasca [a psychoactive drug], so the Religious Freedom Restoration Act was applied. The NAC has had a religious exemption in the federal regulations since the drug law was written, so they were grandfathered in. The courts have said that there is no significant problem with diversion in the religious use of hoasca by the União do Vegetal or the religious use of peyote by the NAC. That is really the only difference with the religious use of marijuana. Marijuana is the most popular controlled substance. Seizures of hoasca and peyote by law enforcement are almost nonexistent.

What are your views on cannabis being legalized for recreational rather than spiritual purposes? Are you for or against this?
There is no such thing as recreational use of marijuana. All use of marijuana is spiritual and medicinal.

What steps are you taking to try and achieve your goal of a society where cannabis is free to use?
In the 1984 decision in my case, the Supreme Court said the Iowa lawmakers had given the responsibility for the classification of marijuana to the Iowa Board of Pharmacy, which had not changed its classification as a dangerous substance. In 2008, after 12 states in the United States had accepted the medical use of cannabis by allowing patients to grow it themselves, I filed a petition with the Iowa Board of Pharmacy to reclassify marijuana as medicine here in the state of Iowa. The board initially rejected my petition, but I appealed and an Iowa court ordered them to reconsider. In 2009, the Iowa Board of Pharmacy held four public hearings across the state in four cities and accepted both verbal and written statements. The board reviewed all of the current scientific data available and reached a unanimous conclusion in 2010 that marijuana is medicine. That means that the 1984 decision of the Iowa Supreme Court is now based on an outdated classification, which is no longer valid, giving me another opportunity to raise my religious claim. I could raise that claim now, but I’m still working with the Iowa Board of Pharmacy to clarify the meaning of their ruling. The situation is rapidly evolving.

What would you say to those who try and claim that it is somehow harmful to society for a church to advocate the use of cannabis?
If you think cannabis is dangerous, come and prove it to the Iowa Board of Pharmacy. That is how the law works. You have to present your evidence to the Iowa Board of Pharmacy because our law says that they are the qualified experts who must decide whether marijuana is harmful on behalf of the state. Speak now or hold your peace.

What have been your greatest successes to date in your fight for its legalization?
The court ruling in 2009 that required the Iowa Board of Pharmacy to evaluate the scientific evidence on the medical use of cannabis was my first big success. The unanimous ruling from the Iowa Board of Pharmacy in 2010 that cannabis is medicine is my second and biggest success.

Finally, how can people get involved with your cause and register their support?
I have several websites and I do accept donations. The websites are;;;;; and

bringing you that fire! stay tune for more posts.

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