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Religious Defense in California Marijuana Trial


September-October 1994

A judge in Riverside, California has allowed the use of a religious freedom defense in the case of a priest in the Israel Zion Coptic Church (IZCC) (California NORML fax alert, Sept. 1, 1994). Gregory Peck of Barrie Falls, Wisconsin was charged with marijuana transportation and possession with intent to sell when officers found 40 pounds of marijuana in his car during an immigration checkpoint stop. Peck is scheduled for trial on November 21.

The IZCC considers marijuana a sacrament. The followers of the church mix marijuana (symbolizing heaven and the body and blood of Christ) with tobacco (symbolizing the earth). The use of this mixture, ganja, is central to worship in the religion. Unlike the Ethiopian Zion Coptic Church, another church that has tried the religious defense in the past, the IZCC has strict prohibitions against buying or selling marijuana ("commercing" the drug). IZCC priests must specially cultivate plants for use in church worship.

In two Wisconsin cases, the defense has argued that the use of ganja is such a critical part of the practice of religion in IZCC (it is used in the "Rite of Reasoning") that to deprive the followers of the drug would be in violation of the First Amendment and state freedom of religion clauses. (State v. Matteson, Wisconsin Court of Appeals, District IV, 94-0770-CR is now pending. The Criminal Justice Policy Foundation provided assistance to the defense. See also State v. Peck, 143 Wis.2d 624, 422 N.W.2d 160 (1987)).

The IZCC has roots in the Coptic Orthodox Church, which was founded in 451 A.D. It claims the use of ganja in the church has been traced back before the writing of the Old Testament. The sect is related to the Jamaican Rastafarians, and has about thirty members.

In another case involving religious use of marijuana, Tom Brown, co-founder of Our Church near Fayetteville, Arkansas was arrested on August 12 for manufacture of marijuana. The government seized 434 plants. The members of Our Church (founded earlier this year by Brown and eight others) consider marijuana a sacrament (NORML fax alert, Sept. 1, 1994). [For more information, call Little Rock NORML at 501-562-3868.]