Ariz. high court rebuffs religious defense for pot use

Thursday, September 10, 2009

PHOENIX — A man isn't entitled to use Arizona's religious-freedom law to overturn his conviction for possessing marijuana while driving, the state Supreme Court has ruled.

The unanimous decision in Arizona v. Hardesty rejected Danny Ray Hardesty's argument that he was entitled to employ the same defense allowed for peyote use in Native American sacramental rites.

Hardesty said he belonged to the Church of Cognizance, a church whose main religious sacrament is allowing individual families to establish their own modes of worship.

“Hardesty's mode was to smoke and eat marijuana without limit as to time or place,” the Sept. 8 opinion noted.

Along with claiming a state constitutional protection that the Arizona Supreme Court said it didn't need to address, Hardesty sought to apply a 1999 state law prohibiting government from burdening a person's exercise of religion except when there's a compelling government interest and when government uses the least restrictive means.

The justices said it is already established that concerns about public safety and health give the government a compelling interest in restricting marijuana use.

The high court also concluded that Hardesty's claims that he had a right to use marijuana whenever he pleased, including while driving, meant nothing less restrictive than a ban would suffice.

In the trial court, a judge had granted a prosecution motion prohibiting Hardesty from using a religious-freedom defense.

An appeals court upheld his convictions, ruling in July 2008 that there is no constitutional right to use marijuana.

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