Court Rejects Religious Defense of Marijuana Use

     (CN) – The Arizona Supreme Court rejected a man’s claim that he expressed his religion through unlimited marijuana use.

     Danny Ray Hardesty was arrested for possession of marijuana while driving. He argued that his religion, the Church of Cognizance, allowed individual families to worship in their own ways.
     Hardesty’s method of worship, according to the ruling, was to “smoke and eat marijuana without limit as to time or place.”
     The trial court granted the state’s motion to exclude Hardesty’s religious freedom defense at trial. The judge agreed, and Hardesty was convicted.
     The appeals court affirmed the decision, noting the state’s interest in prohibiting marijuana use.
     Arizona’s Supreme Court reviewed the case as a matter of first impression and statewide importance.
     In order to establish a claim under Arizona’s Free Exercise of Religion Act (FERA), Hardesty needed to prove that a government action was burdening his sincerely held religious belief.
     Hardesty argued that his action was protected by the same principle that allows Native Americans to use peyote in their religious rites.
     The government is required to use the least invasive means when restricting religious freedom, but because Hardesty claims the right to use marijuana at any time, the state argued for a total ban.
     Writing for the court, Chief Justice Rebecca White Berch said the uses of marijuana and peyote do not operate along parallel lines. She noted two important differences: Native Americans only use peyote in religious ceremonies, while Hardesty claimed the right to use marijuana at any time; and trafficking of the drugs has different impacts on society, as 19 pounds of peyote were trafficked over an eight-year period, as opposed to 15 million pounds of marijuana.
     “Although religious exercise may provide a valid defense under (Arizona law),” Berch wrote, “in the circumstances of this case, Hardesty’s defense fails as a matter of law.”

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