NewsBriefs BUTTONS

Minister in Hawai'i Found Guilty of Marijuana Possession Despite Religious Use Defense


May-June 1997

A jury in Kealakekua, Hawai'i found Dennis Shields guilty of the misdemeanor of marijuana possession, rejecting his argument that his religious use of marijuana is exempt from prosecution (Rod Thompson, "Religion not enough to clear pot smoker," Honolulu Star-Bulletin, April 11, 1997,

Shields, 49, is a minister in the Religion of Jesus Church, founded in 1969 by James Kimmel. In 1994, Shields aided police when they raided his house, voluntarily showing them 7.9 ounces of marijuana and admitting it was his. He said he had a right to marijuana because it is a sacrament in his church, and that right is guaranteed by the U.S. Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 (RFRA) (P.L. 103-141).

Deputy Prosecutor Melvin Fujino had formally agreed with Shields and his attorney Jack Schweigert that Shield's religious belief is sincere. However, Circuit Judge Ronald Ibarra rejected Shields' defense, saying that his religion must mandate the use of marijuana. [RFRA does not, in its text, require that a religious practice be mandatory to be protected by it. Early interpretations in the U.S. Courts of Appeals in prison cases read a "mandatory" element into the statute, but later cases -- in other circuits -- have not. -- EES] Shields and others testified that the use of marijuana is important in their religion, but not required. Ibarra sentenced Shields to a 90-day suspended jail term and a year's probation. Shields could have received a year in jail and a $2,000 fine. Shields said he will appeal.

Shields said he will meet with church elders, including Kimmel, and determine whether to make marijuana mandatory for members, but that he didn't like the idea philosophically. "We practice freedom of choice as part of our belief system," he said.