Cover Story

Rev. Roger Christie
Let us inhale, I mean pray.

Drug Kingpin or Political Prisoner?

Hilo’s Marijuana Minister, Rev. Roger Christie (still) in jail

Quoted

“The case boils down to the fact that the federal government took umbrage to Christie’s THC Ministry. His ministry was starting to get legs and people were starting to believe that cannabis could exist in this land of religious freedom.” Don Wirtshafter

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Cover image for Apr 27, 2011

Illustration by Manny Pangilinan

Rev. Roger Christie / “We are fed, we are loved and we have a roof over our heads.” This mantra is a favorite espoused by the charismatic and popular Rev. Roger Christie, founder of The Hawaii Cannabis (THC) Ministry based in Hilo. After almost a year of federal detention, pending his July 6 trial for allegedly distributing marijuana, one wonders how Christie is coping without one of his daily essentials.


Christie believes that providing marijuana as part of the religious experience at the THC Ministry is protected under the Religious Freedom and Restoration Act. The federal government seemed to share his belief, seeing as no arrests were made after federal law enforcement officers raided his home and ministry in March 2010.

But last July, Christie was indicted for allegedly committing three felony marijuana crimes: conspiracy to manufacture, distribute and possess with intent to distribute 100 or more marijuana plants; manufacturing marijuana; and possession with intent to distribute 240 marijuana plants. He was taken into custody July 8 and judged to be a “danger to society” by three federal judges, whose decisions to continue his incarceration pending trial have been upheld by federal appeals courts.

While arguing against Christie’s release in October, Judge Alan Ezra admitted that he granted notorious millionaire bank fraudster Sukamto Sia “release with conditions” pending his trial over a decade ago, but said he couldn’t trust Christie to stay out of trouble while housed in a Honolulu halfway house. Christie is being held without bond in Honolulu despite the fact that the court’s own pretrial services division recommended he be released to his home in Hilo. His 13 co-defendants–all facing the same three charges, some even more–were released on bond last year.

If convicted, Christie faces a minimum prison term of five years for each count and a maximum of 40 years. On July 9 in Federal Court, Christie pleaded not guilty to the charges, as did the 13 co-defendants.

In a Nutshell

“The case boils down to the fact that the federal government took umbrage to Christie’s THC Ministry,” says Don Wirtshafter, an Ohio attorney and fellow marijuana activist. “His ministry was starting to get legs and people were starting to believe that cannabis could exist in this land of religious freedom.”

An outspoken advocate for the decriminalization of marijuana and the implementation of a medicinal marijuana program in Hawaii, Christie freely admits to providing the “sacrament,” i.e. marijuana, to his parishioners as part of his religious beliefs. In the June 24 indictment, Assistant US Attorney Michael Kawahara alleges Christie was the head of a group using the ministry as a front to sell and distribute marijuana. The prosecutor pointed out in an Oct. 22 hearing that the charges against Christie are for distributing and manufacturing marijuana.

“It has nothing to do with any issue of religious belief,” Kawahara said. Repeated phone calls to Kawahara at the US Attorney’s Office for comment on Christie’s case went unanswered.

According to court reports, Christie and his girlfriend, Sherryanne St. Cyr, engaged in the illegal manufacture, distribution and sale of marijuana. The pair allegedly had several employees, including Victoria Fiore and Jessica Walsh, both of whom worked at the ministry and assisted in the distribution and sale of the marijuana. In order to maintain an inventory, Christie had several suppliers, as well as other persons growing cannabis solely for Christie. His suppliers allegedly included Richard Turpen, Wesley Sudbury, Donald Gibson, Roland Ignacio, Perry Policicchio, John Bouey III, Michael Shapiro and Aaron Zeeman.

The Big Mistake

Recruited by Christie in 2009 to start a marijuana growing operation, Susanne Friend and Timothy Mann were to supply marijuana solely to the ministry. The indictment further states the pair had 284 thriving marijuana plants when a search warrant was executed on July 22, 2009. Christie and St. Cyr’s Wainaku Terrace apartment was raided in March 2010. FBI and IRS agents recovered $21,494 in cash at the apartment, as well as in a bank deposit box. The ministry office was also raided.

This is where Christie made an enormous mistake in the eyes of federal judges Alan Kay, Gary Chang and Alan Ezra. The wording in the March warrants, explained federal public defender Matthew Winter in an appeal for bond, convinced Christie that his church was viewed as legitimate by the US Government, so he returned to administering to his flock.

In the March search warrant, Special Agent Brian Kon stated, “I recognize that the THC Ministry and its affiliated Hawaii Cannabis College… is arguably a functioning entity with employees, and that a seizure of the Ministry’s computers may have the unintended effect of limiting the Ministry’s ability to provide certain arguably legitimate services to its customers…”

Judge Ezra, during an Oct. 22 bond hearing, expressed concern that Christie had not changed his views and would continue providing marijuana for church members. “He just kept doing it,” said Ezra to Winter. “And presumably because he believes what he’s doing is OK…

“So why–why would somebody who was under scrutiny of law enforcement–both the County of Hawaii and federal [officials]– and who just continued to do what he was doing, be deterred now? Simply because he’s got to face trial?”

Having a search warrant executed on your property is different than facing pre-trial sanctions by the court, argued Winter, to no avail.

Prosecuting attorney Kawahara argued Christie’s actions, after the execution of the March search warrant and leading up to his July 8 arrest, show that Christie is “a danger to the community,” and that he will not stop violating the law, even with the possibility of federal prison hanging over his head.

In response to the defense’s notion that Christie was not under any court order to stop running THC Ministry after the March 2010 search, Kawahara echoed Judge Kay’s earlier sentiments, wondering how “the light didn’t come on” for Christie that he should stop providing marijuana to others.

“If such spoon-feeding was necessary, that’s not a person that you can trust to be put on bond,” he argued. “That’s the kind of person you have to detain because he’s not going to listen on his own. And that’s the basic problem here.”

Christie’s continued detention was sealed when Judge Kay, in an atypical move, followed the traditional hard line of the prosecution, denying Christie bond based on his behavior after the March 2010 search warrant was executed, even though all of his co-defendants were released–some of whom were facing even more serious charges than Christie himself.

Christie’s Accomplices

Turpen is charged with knowingly and intentionally manufacturing marijuana, a schedule I controlled substance, involving 1,000 or more marijuana plants. He’s also charged with intent to distribute those 1,108 plants. Sudbury is charged with manufacturing marijuana involving 100 or more plants. He is also charged with the intent to distribute those plants. Gibson is charged with manufacturing marijuana involving 100 or more plants. He is also charged with the intent to distribute those plants. Ignacio and Policicchio are charged with manufacturing marijuana involving 50 or more plants. They are charged with the intent to distribute those plants. John Bouey III and Michael Shapiro are also charged with manufacturing marijuana, with Bouey III accused of growing 26 plants and Shapiro accused of growing two plants.

Christie’s girlfriend, who is alleged to be Christie’s “business partner” in the ministry, was released to their home in Hilo, according to public defender Winter in a bond appeal. According to the government’s case, St. Cyr was a joint signatory on the safe deposit box from which cash was seized, and was present during at least one of the searches that resulted in the seizure of marijuana. Allegedly, she was “deeply involved” in the distribution of marijuana and recorded on numerous wiretapped conversations making alleged drug deals. She, however, was released.

And He Broke the Bread, and Rolled a…

“The thing is,” argued Winter in his court filings, “Christie readily admitted he was providing marijuana to members of his church, for a donation, to take as a sacrament. Even before his arrest, Christie consented to multiple interviews with state and federal law enforcement agents on his use of cannabis as a sacrament, or outward and visible sign of divine grace.”

In other words, wrote Winter, “his use and advocacy of marijuana has been well known to local, state and federal authorities for some time. In fact, the State of Hawaii even granted him a license to perform weddings as a Cannabis Sacrament Minister in 2000.”

Christie has been operating the ministry for a decade on the Hilo bayfront and he’s even run for mayor of the Big Island twice. Regarded as a man of integrity within the Big Island community, two now-former Big Island county councilmembers, Emily Naeole-Beason and Kelly Greenwell, wrote to the court urging for Christie’s release pending his July 6 trial date.

Christie’s criminal history consists of one deferred prosecution for promoting a detrimental drug in 1992. Christie served honorably in the US Army and was trained in intelligence operations.

In the meantime, THC Ministry has closed its doors in Hilo, in a voluntary, albeit unsuccessful, bid by Christie to secure release to a half-way house pending the trial. Christie and his co-defendants have a trial date set for July 6 in Honolulu. If found guilty, federal prosecutor Kawahara has signaled he will move to seize Christie’s cash and property, as well as holdings of St. Cyr, Turpen, Ignacio and Policicchio.

Religious War

“The thing about Christie’s case is… that he’s a totally non-violent guy,” says Wirtshafter. “And they’re holding him in prison, in federal detention with no bond, over the issue of ‘Oh my God he might sell cannabis again!’ They’re accusing Roger of a crime — [and] he doesn’t get bond? He’s too dangerous? That’s the part that irks me.”

Also, adds Wirtshafter, they’ve put the trial off for a year, because the case is so complex with many wire-tapped conversations and video-taped surveillances. The prosecutors have all the information, and Christie is sitting in a prison cell with no access to a computer or to the evidence.

“He’s sitting in isolation, and you can’t prepare for anything while in prison,” Wirtshafter says. “Every defendant, all 14, arrested in this case qualified for the federal pretrial release. They really believe they have a right to do this.” Wirtshafter says he’s known Christie the past 20 years, but hasn’t seen him in several years and has not been involved in the THC Ministry.

If the 14 defendants go to trial, Wirtshafter thinks the trial could last up to three months “over not much at all.” From Wirtshafter’s knowledge, the whole case hinges on one taped conversation during which marijuana was spoken of.

“That’s what they’re pointing out is the big harm here,” he says. “The government gets ferocious over this bond thing. US attorneys are raised on this idea ‘marijuana is awful and we have to get rid of it.’ It’s this rabid government prosecution of little cases while they’re ignoring the real problems of crime.

“There are a lot of people growing large quantities of marijuana and making a lot of money on this, but this is more of a religious war on the part of the government shown by the fact that they’re going after this truly religious adherence.”

FATHER, SON & HOLY SMOKES

On May 31, 2002, a three-judge panel for the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled to limit federal prosecutions of Rastafarians who use marijuana for sacramental purposes on federal property or in US territories. The judges determined that protections granted by a 1993 federal religious-freedom law permits the personal use and possession of marijuana, but not the sale or importation of marijuana for religious purposes.

The case followed criminal prosecution in Guam for the alleged importation of five ounces of marijuana and 10 grams of marijuana seeds. The defendant asked the trial court to dismiss the indictment, claiming that the criminal statutes violated his right to freely exercise his religion under the Organic Act of Guam and the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA). Rastafarians traditionally use marijuana in religious rituals to enhance their consciousness of the relationship between God, creation, and the individual soul.

The trial court, the Guam Supreme Court, and the Ninth Circuit all agreed, concluding that the federal territory’s controlled substance statute substantially burdened the defendant’s right to freely exercise his religion. The decision applies to federal lands in nine western states and American territories.

The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution says the government cannot make laws “prohibiting the free exercise” of religion. Some people say using marijuana as a religious sacrament, and forcing them not to use marijuana clearly prohibits the free exercise of their religion. Others believe that the use of any type of intoxicant for religious purposes is illegal.

In December 2006, a federal judge in Albuquerque, New Mexico, ruled against the founders of an Arizona church who claimed that their marijuana was for religious use. The judge stated that the defendants did not have a legitimate religious belief in marijuana, but instead had “adopted their ‘religious’ belief in cannabis as a sacrament and deity in order to justify their lifestyle choice to use marijuana.”

This ruling sends a signal that courts are not likely to extend the Supreme Court’s ruling on protecting the religious use of marijuana.