First Church of Cannabis Lawsuit: Marijuana “Rites” of Faith Falter in Court

Marijuana did not pass muster as a holy sacrament with an Indiana state circuit court judge last year, citing now-Vice President-then-Indiana-Governor Mike Pence’s championed Religious Freedom Restoration Act. Whether the state appellate court might have agreed about the legitimacy of the First Church of Cannabis and its use of the drug for religious purposes won’t be known anytime soon. According to Indiana Public Media, the Indiana Court of Appeals dismissed the case after the plaintiff, founder of the church, failed to pay a court transcript fee or respond to the state’s motion to dismiss with an argument for why the court should allow the case to move forward. cannabis attorney

Los Angeles marijuana attorneys know the case won’t have much of an impact here in California, but it was interesting from a legal standpoint for how it might have impacted other states where the drug remains illegal for any purpose.

The state’s RFRA established a legal standard (unique to Indiana) requiring the government prove a compelling reason to restrict someone else’s religious practices and a burden of proof to show that it is doing so in the least burdensome way possible.

An attorney for the cannabis church argued that state laws barring possession of marijuana prevented members of the congregation from their lawful “cannabis rites,” and the fact that church was newly-founded shouldn’t exclude it from entitlement to this protection. The use of marijuana as a sacrament, it was initially argued in the complaint first filed three years ago, was rooted in long-held beliefs of Native Americans, existing long before even the formation of the U.S. Government. Further, the state’s argument that it needed to restrict the use of marijuana was a difficult sell when many other states (like California) have already legalized the drug.

Defendants who had been named in the cannabis lawsuit had been then-Gov. Mike Pence, as well as the state capitol’s mayor and state and metropolitan police agencies.

The final appeal, however, was lost it seems not because the church’s argument lacked merit but because it failed to keep fighting. It’s unclear what it’s odds might have been had a proper response and appropriate legal fees filed. Still, the dismissal was issued “with prejudice,” which means the case can’t be refiled by the same plaintiffs on the same legal grounds.

The state’s attorney general praised the outcome, insisting laws on marijuana prohibition are necessary to protect the health and safety of residents, adding (seemingly tongue-in-cheek) that the “devout worshipers… may find more fertile ground in another state to legally consume their sacrament, but they won’t be lighting up in Indiana.”

This is despite the fact the church is recognized as a nonprofit by federal agencies such as the Internal Revenue Service. The church’s founder, who goes by the title of “Grand Poobah,” said the church will continue to practice their religion by helping the community and continuing to “preach the gospel of cannabis.” Although he told the Indianapolis Star he’d not spoken to his cannabis attorney about the dismissal, he believed the issue to be one of timing.

Meanwhile, 33 states have legalized the use of cannabis for medicinal uses, while 10 states allow it for recreational use. The problem, according to the First Church of Cannabis’ founder, is that there are those within government who remain “willfully ignorant” to the medicinal and spiritual benefits of cannabis, adding that he “feels sorry for them,” and that he and the church will do their best to continue spreading the education.

The Los Angeles CANNABIS LAW Group represents growers, dispensaries, collectives, patients and those facing marijuana charges. Call us at 714-937-2050.

Additional Resources:

Why Indiana court dismissed Church of Cannabis RFRA case to allow marijuana as a sacrament, Jan. 3, 2018, Indianapolis Star

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