The First Amendment does not protect a "ganja minister's" right to cultivate more cannabis plants than state law allows, the Colorado Court of Appeals ruled on Thursday.
Aaron Snyder Torline was an ordained minister with the Hawai’i Cannabis Ministry. According to the group’s website, the founder of the ministry was the first licensed “cannabis sacrament minister” in the country, after receiving a license from the state of Hawai'i in 2000. Members use the “Holy Cannabis sacrament” for prayer, meditation and worship, including baptisms, weddings and funerals.
In July 2016, a police dog in Mesa County alerted officers during a traffic stop to the presence of marijuana in a truck. Law enforcement spoke with Torline, who helped load the bags of cannabis into the vehicle. Torline acknowledged his grow operation, and told officers he had 115 plants under cultivation, with approximately 10 plants processed per month.
Mesa County prosecutors charged him with cultivation of 30 or more marijuana plants, and possession with intent to manufacture or distribute marijuana. The defense, however, challenged Colorado law limiting the amount of marijuana to be possessed and cultivated, citing his religious affiliation.
“As a ‘ganja minister,’ Torline provides marijuana to members of his congregation, which numbers approximately thirty people in Grand Junction,” explained Judge Anthony J. Navarro in the Court of Appeals’ opinion.
Torline argued Colorado's prohibitions violated the U.S. and Colorado constitutions to the extent they infringed upon his free exercise of religion. Even for a nontraditional religion, like the Hawai’i Cannabis Ministry, the First Amendment protects a person’s beliefs if they are sincere and meaningful.
The three-member appellate panel believed Torline’s understanding of the free exercise clause was too broad, noting that it protects the profession of religious beliefs without limit, but not necessarily religious conduct. Turning to a 1990 U.S. Supreme Court decision that upheld the denial of unemployment benefits to two Oregon men who ingested peyote as part of a Native American religious ceremony, the panel explained that Colorado’s limits on marijuana possession and cultivation were generally applicable and did not single out any religion.
“The statute advances the legitimate interests of public health and safety and is rationally related to that end,” wrote Navarro. “Nor are we aware of circumstances suggesting that the legislation was motivated by religious animus.”
The founder of the Hawai’i Cannabis Ministry, Roger Christie, also received a conviction earlier in the decade for breaking marijuana laws in that state.
"I was pleased that the Court of Appeals acknowledged and cited at least 10 other state and federal jurisdictions that have rejected this challenge to the marijuana laws," said Daniel P. Rubinstein, the district attorney for Mesa County.
The case is People v. Torline.