East Hawaii News

Judge Reverses Position, Won’t Allow Religious Defense

September 12, 2013, 2:54 PM HST
* Updated January 22, 2:38 PM
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A federal judge on Wednesday reversed her earlier ruling that Roger Christie and his wife may use a religious defense against federal charges of manufacturing and trafficking marijuana.

Prosecutors had filed a motion asking District Judge Leslie Kobayashi to reconsider her July 31 bench ruling that Christie and his wife, Share, could use the Religious Freedom Restoration Act as a basis for defense of their operation of the Hawaii Cannabis Ministry, also known as the THC Ministry.

Assistant US Attorney Michael Kawahara argued in the Aug. 5 motion that the federal case upon which Kobayashi’s earlier ruling was based, United States v. Martines, which involved a follower of Rastafarianism, dealt with personal possession and use of marijuana and not with its distribution to others.

“Religion cannot be used to justify their manufacture and possession (of marijuana) with intent to distribute,” Kawahara said.

In support of his position, Kawahara also cited a 2004 case involving Michael Barnes, another member and minister of the Hawaii Cannabis Ministry.

US District Judge Susan Oki Mollway ruled in that case that Barnes could use a religious defense only in regards to his personal use.

During the past month, prosecutors have also submitted testimony from two of the Christie’s co-defendants that they say supports the argument against the use of a religious defense.

Prosecutors said Jessica Walsh and Victoria Fiore worked at the ministry’s “express” operation which dispensed marijuana in exchange for “donations.”

Both have pleaded guilty to conspiring to manufacture, distribute, and possess with intent to distribute marijuana involving more than 100 plants and await sentencing.

On Wednesday, Kobayashi ruled that “defendants’ practices and procedures in distributing marijuana through their ministry constituted a substantial risk of marijuana diversion to persons who were not members of defendants’ ministry, and for such persons to use the marijuana for purposes other than religious practice or belief.”

Roger Christie’s lawyer, Thomas Otake, could not be reached for comment.

A jury trial for the Christies and the two other remaining co-defendants, Wesley Mark Sudbury and Aaron George Zeeman, is scheduled for 9 a.m. on Oct. 8.

However, Kobayashi was scheduled to hear arguments today on a motion by Zeeman to continue his trial until a later date.

Kobayashi is also currently considering a motion filed in late July indicating that the Christies intended to rely on a defense of “entrapment by estoppel,” which means a defendant believes he or she was misled by the government into believing his or her conduct was legal.

That motion has been sealed.

In other developments in the case, four more of the Christies’ co-defendants, Richard Bruce Turpen, Roland Gregory Ignacio, Perry Emilio Policicchio and John Debaptist Bouey III, have recently entered guilty pleas.

Guilty pleas were previously entered by Timothy M. Mann, Susanne Lenore Friend, Donald James Gibson and Michael B. “Dewey” Shapiro, who were also arrested along with the Christies in 2010.

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