Wis. man’s challenge of pot conviction goes up in smoke

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

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A Wisconsin man did not have a First Amendment right to possess marijuana, a state appeals court ruled last week.

Kenneth L. Driessen faced charges after a law enforcement officer noticed Driessen’s truck was driving down the wrong side of the road. During the ensuing traffic stop, the officer found marijuana and a brass smoking pipe in Driessen’s possession. A jury later convicted Driessen of possessing marijuana, possessing drug paraphernalia and operating a vehicle while intoxicated.

On appeal, Driessen argued that the state’s marijuana-possession laws were unconstitutional in part because they applied to individuals who believed marijuana was vital to their personal spiritual and religious development. He wrote that cannabis use was an “important part of his religious and spiritual experiences.”

In its March 22 decision in State v. Driessen, the Wisconsin appeals court rejected Driessen’s First Amendment argument. “Driessen fails to demonstrate he has a sincerely held religious belief that is burdened by the application of the state law criminalizing marijuana possession,” the court wrote.

The appeals court also noted that even if it were to accept that Driessen’s religious belief was sincere, the law would still be constitutional because it furthered the state’s compelling interest in avoiding the severe societal problems caused by use of the drug. The appeals court did not explain the problems it attributed to marijuana use, saying only, “We have previously held that because marijuana causes serious problems for society, there is a compelling state interest that overrides the First Amendment interest in using marijuana for religious purposes.”

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