Idaho court rejects man’s religious-based defense on pot charges

Friday, December 23, 2011

A man charged with drug-possession charges hasfailed to convince an Idaho appeals court that his marijuana usage was religiously based.

Police stopped Cary William White in June 2007 because a headlight on his vehicle was out. The officer noticed a green, leafy substance in plain view. White admitted he had been smoking marijuana earlier that day. The officer arrested him, charging him with possession of marijuana and drug paraphernalia.

White originally pleaded not guilty, filing a motion to dismiss based on religious-freedom grounds. After a magistrate rejected that motion, he entered a conditional guilty plea, retaining the right to appeal the denial of the motion to dismiss. He had argued that his religious-freedom rights had been violated under the First Amendment, the Idaho State Constitution and the Idaho Free Exercise of Religion Protected Act.

On appeal, the Idaho Court of Appeals rejected White’s constitutional arguments in its Dec. 14 decision in State v. White. The appeals court addressed his claims under the Idaho Free Exercise of Religion Protected Act, which provides for heightened protection for religious freedom.

That law says the government “may substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion only if it demonstrates that application of the burden to the person is both: (a) essential to further a compelling government interest; and (b) the least restrictive means of furthering that compelling governmental interest.”

In order to prevail under this statutory claim, White had to show that he had engaged in an exercise of religion and that the state had substantially burdened that religious exercise.

White contended that his use of marijuana was similar to the Christian practice of communion and that it helped him attain a relaxed and clarified state of mind essential to spiritual self-discovery. He claimed that “the sacrament of Marijuana is a gift from my creator and I enter into the experience of Marijuana with the intent to bless it.”

The appeals court, however, questioned whether White’s use of marijuana was religiously motivated.

“As the magistrate found, there was also evidence that White’s marijuana use is based on more secular precepts,” the appeals court wrote. Suggesting such evidence to the appeals court was White’s admission that he started using marijuana after falling off a ladder and injuring his back several years earlier. The court also noted that White was a not a member of any recognized religious group that used marijuana as part of its religious exercises.

The Idaho appeals court concluded that “there was substantial and competent evidence to support the magistrate’s findings of fact that White’s marijuana use is not substantially motivated by a religious belief.”

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