Marijuana as First Amendment right

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Marijuana as First Amendment right

The Rutherford Institute, a Charlottesville-based organization that defends civil liberties, is currently representing Carl Eric Olsen in his 30-year struggle for religious freedom. That in itself is not noteworthy, as The Rutherford Institute specializes in religious cases. But what is unusual is the particular religious freedom for which Olsen is fighting. Since the early ’70s, Olsen has been a member of the Ethiopian Zion Coptic Church (EZCC), a religious group that holds that marijuana is a sacrament, and whose members smoke it all day, every day.


Rutherford Institute Founder and President John Whitehead loves his hemp cereal. Rutherford is taking on the case of Carl Eric Olsen, who is fighting for the right to smoke pot as part of his religion.

The EZCC has existed in Jamaica since at least the 1940s, and was first incorporated in the United States in Miami in 1975. In the late ’70s and early ’80s, the Church was involved in several major drug busts, netting as much as 38,000 pounds of marijuana in one raid in 1978.

"I [have been] arrested over and over again," Olsen says from his home in Iowa, and over and over again he has challenged those arrests, losing every time.

But things may be different now. Under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), Olsen, 55, is claiming that the government is keeping him from practicing his religion. According to the RFRA, the courts must use "strict scrutiny" in cases involving religion to make sure that an individual’s First Amendment rights have not been violated.

Enter The Rutherford Institute. Despite a seemingly straight-laced image, defending the right to smoke pot is not necessarily at odds with the Institute’s mission. John Whitehead, Rutherford’s founder, says that the issue is not drugs, but religious freedom. "The question," Whitehead says, "always comes down to, ‘What kind of power does the government have?’" In the case of marijuana legislation, the answer for Whitehead is too much. Whole Foods, he says, used to sell a hemp cereal that he was particularly fond of, but "when Bush got into office…[the government] went crazy for a while" and pulled the cereal off the shelf. "I love my hemp cereal," says Whitehead.

In a 1979 case, the Florida Supreme Court wrote, "(1) the Ethiopian Zion Coptic Church represents a religion within the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States; (2) the ‘use of cannabis is an essential portion of the religious practice.’" Nevertheless, the U.S. Court of Appeals upheld a ruling in 1990 denying Olsen a religious exemption to smoke marijuana. That ruling meant that he could no longer be a practicing member of the EZCC.

"Without being able to gather with other people and smoke marijuana," says Olsen, "my religion does not exist."

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