End of Hilo’s Holy War?
Rev. Roger Christie / With a new attorney and a delayed trial date, Hilo’s marijuana minister plans to challenge the basis of the government’s case by calling into question the Drug Enforcement Agency’s (DEA) current, allegedly disingenuous, classification of marijuana. Facing anywhere from five to 40 years in federal prison for crimes relating to the distribution of marijuana, Rev. Roger Christie, founder of The Hawaii Cannabis (THC) Ministry, appears to be digging in his heels, even as his co-defendants (“the Green 13”) are making deals with the government.
Before his arrest (and to this day) the popular Christie believed providing marijuana as part of the religious experience at THC Ministry in Hilo was protected under the Religious Freedom and Restoration Act (RFRA). Though he operated openly as a state-licensed cannabis minister out of a Hilo storefront for 10 years, it turns out the federal government does not agree Christie is protected by the RFRA. After a prolonged and extensive investigation involving undercover agents and wiretaps, federal law enforcement officers raided Christie’s home and church in March 2010.
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 on July 8, 2010, and is currently being held without bond in federal detention.
Matthew Winter, Christie’s original federal defense attorney, has moved on to private practice. His new attorney, who took him on in late April, First Assistant Federal Defender Alexander Silvert, is filing motions in preparation for trial, now set to begin on October 4 before Judge Leslie E. Kobayashi.
“Some of the [marijuana] growers have pled or are going to plead guilty,” Silvert says. “No one in the church yet has pled, but we believe that some of those people may be cooperating [with the prosecution], which will lead to an eventual plea.
“On our end, everything is still very much up in the air, and all options are being considered,” Silvert says. When asked about the prospect of Christie reaching some kind of plea agreement with the prosecution between now and October, Silvert would not comment. Assistant US Attorney Beverly Sameshima, who is handling some aspects of the government’s case, also demurred when asked about any current negotiations, stating she couldn’t comment on anything that’s not public.
“It’s still pending,” Sameshima says of the Christie prosecution. Silvert, tipping his hand, says he’s looking at filing two motions. One motion is to suppress the information the government gleaned from the wiretaps. A second motion is to dismiss the case altogether, based on the misclassification of marijuana under the drug code.
Wiretaps are based on necessity, says Silvert. In order to get a wiretap, law enforcement officers have to prove that all other means to get information have been exhausted. The defense believes the government did not show necessity, based on the fact there was an undercover agent working inside the THC Ministry, as well as the simple fact the church was operating openly out of a Hilo storefront. “If those means are available, what is the necessity of getting the wiretap?” asks Silvert.
Since 1970, marijuana has been classified by the federal government as a Schedule I drug, on par with heroin, LSD and PCP, drugs with a very high potential for abuse. “Our argument is that they have failed to do any review of the classification of marijuana,” and, therefore, the case against Christie should be dismissed, says Silvert. “There will come a time, just like in all things, where a judge is going to be more open-minded. Is that going to be now or in the future?”
In light of a grass-roots effort to re-classify marijuana as a far less dangerous Schedule III drug, Christie himself has optimistically named his current ordeal “the last marijuana trial.”
“If that is,” Christie writes, “then Cannabis MUST (his emphasis) be legal, at least for religious uses in the USA federal system, and in all the states. That solid information could, would and should make for ‘the last marijuana trial,’ like there was a ‘last witch hunt’ back a few centuries ago.”
Christie claims this information is not hard to verify. In his letter he goes on to say that some people are working to promote a national dialogue and debate over the sacramental uses of cannabis in order to pressure Congress to change the federal law, and “hopefully to dismiss our indictment.”
“Egypt changed its government in 18 days,” he writes. “With the power of the media and instant communication with the Internet, we’re imagineering a national movement to lobby Congress to make the long-overdue change according to the First Amendment with the Controlled Substance Act of 1970.”
As a pre-trial detainee, Christie writes he is practicing his spirituality, giving thanks for his blessings and feeling a greater love for life than he did before his arrest.
In a post script Christie writes that his treatment in the federal detention facility is “humane, professional and surprisingly respectful.”