Sacramental use of cannabis

I’m a member of a Jamaican Rastafarian church incorporated in Jamaica as the Ethiopian Zion Coptic Church (EZCC) in 1976, Act No. 11.  The sacrament of the EZCC is cannabis.

I was arrested in 1978 with 100 pounds of cannabis in Muscatine County in Iowa, and my appeal was heard by the Iowa Supreme Court in 1984.  The Iowa Supreme Court found that the EZCC is a bona fide religion under the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States, but found that the sacramental use of cannabis is not equally protected with the sacramental use of peyote by the Native American Church (NAC).  The court found there were restrictions on the sacramental use of peyote by the NAC that did not exist for the sacramental use of cannabis by the EZCC.

Immediately after the Iowa Supreme Court ruling in 1984, I incorporated the church in Iowa, Iowa Business No. 111308.  I later obtained a federal trademark on the name in 2016, U.S.P.T.O. Reg. No. 5,039,494 (First Use, March 30, 1984).

To understand what the Iowa Supreme Court was talking about, both the Iowa and the federal law contain exemptions for the sacramental use of peyote by the NAC.  A carefully reading of these two exemptions reveals what the court was talking about.

Iowa Code § 124.204 (2018)

8. Peyote. Nothing in this chapter shall apply to peyote when used in bona fide religious ceremonies of the Native American Church; however, persons supplying the product to the church shall register, maintain appropriate records of receipts and disbursements of peyote, and otherwise comply with all applicable requirements of this chapter and rules adopted pursuant thereto.

21 C.F.R. § 1307.31 (2018)

Native American Church.  The listing of peyote as a controlled substance in Schedule I does not apply to the nondrug use of peyote in bona fide religious ceremonies of the Native American Church, and members of the Native American Church so using peyote are exempt from registration. Any person who manufactures peyote for or distributes peyote to the Native American Church, however, is required to obtain registration annually and to comply with all other requirements of law.

What is immediately apparent is that the sacramental “use” of peyote is exempt, but not its cultivation or distribution.  I was arrested for distribution, which is not an exempt activity under the peyote exemption.  The sacramental exemption for peyote did not provide me with an equal protection argument in the court’s view.

In 1984, I also applied for a federal exemption like the one in 21 C.F.R. § 1307.31 (2018), which was finally denied by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1990, in a case called Employment Division v. Smith, 494 U.S. 872 (1990).  The Smith case did not mention the difference between the peyote and cannabis sacraments.  Instead, the court said the First Amendment did not protect the religious use of peyote as long as Oregon did not allow any other use of peyote.  In other words, the court said only First Amendment claims based on a violation of equal protection will be considered.  The court said that if the law is neutral toward religion and generally applicable in Oregon, then there is no First Amendment right to use peyote for religious purposes in Oregon.

Obviously, in 1990, the state of Iowa did not allow any other use of cannabis and that is why the Smith case was instructional for me.

In 2017, Iowa authorized the cultivation, distribution and use of cannabis for medical purposes in Iowa.  In 2018, cultivation of cannabis began in Iowa and cannabis products will soon be available for distribution this coming December.  We now have the authorized use of cannabis in Iowa, and we have a manufacturer licensed to cultivate and distribute that cannabis.

Even if Iowa law does not allow the manufacturer to distribute cannabis to the EZCC, there are states where anyone can buy cannabis legally and church members would be protected under both state laws (see 14 C.F.R. § 91.19 (2018)) and federal law for traveling in states (check each state first to make sure it’s legal in that state) and purchasing cannabis for sacramental use if there were exemptions, one in the Iowa Code and the other in the federal regulations, for the sacramental use of cannabis by the EZCC. 

The nation of Jamaica legalized the sacramental “use” of cannabis by Rastafarians for religious purposes in 2015, and also created a process for licensing cultivators and distributors to supply Rastafarians with our sacrament.

See DEA publication: Religious Exemption from the Controlled Substances Act

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