(CN) - A convicted meth dealer who claims to be a celebrant of a cannabis-based religion in Montana cannot smoke marijuana during his probation, the 9th Circuit ruled Thursday.
Charles Wade Lafley told his probation officer that he was "spiritually moved" to smoke marijuana, even though he was prohibited from doing so as part of his five-year probation sentence for conspiracy to manufacture and possess with intent to distribute methamphetamine.
At a revocation hearing, Lafley admitted to smoking marijuana, drinking alcohol, refusing to be tested for substance abuse and driving on a suspended license, all in violation of his supervised released.
Lafley invoked the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 in arguing that he should be allowed to smoke marijuana while on probation because it is part of his religious life as a member of Montana Cannabis Ministries. He claimed that "his free exercise rights under the First Amendment entitled him to a religious exemption [to the standard conditions of his probation] that would allow his continued use of marijuana for religious purposes," according to the ruling.
A medical marijuana card also allows Lafley to buy marijuana with a prescription under Montana state law.
Randy Leibenguth, a leader of the Montana Cannabis Ministries and "a Cannabis Sacrament Minister, a dispensary owner, and a D.J.," testified at the hearing about the church's beliefs, the ruling states.
"Leibenguth consistently defined the Montana Cannabis Ministries' beliefs in terms of its 'religious sacrament,' marijuana," according to the ruling. "He testified that the Ministries' key 'belief is that cannabis brings us closer to God, it provides us with a spiritual unity, spiritual unifier.' He further testified that the Ministries' key religious practice is 'baptism by fire,' which entails 'lighting a lighter or any sort of match or anything else on the religious sacrament, inhaling that and exhaling.'"
U.S. District Court Judge Donald Molloy didn't buy it, saying, "with ... all due respect ... it doesn't sound like a religion to me, it sounds like a way to smoke marijuana," as quoted in the 9th Circuit's ruling.
The federal appeals court in Portland affirmed based on the governments' broad "compelling-interest" discretion.
"The government has a compelling interest in denying a convicted drug felon a religious exemption that would permit him to use drugs while serving his term of supervised release," Judge Sidney Thomas wrote for a unanimous three-judge panel.
The panel also found that it would burdensome and impractical to make Lafley's probation officer separate sacramental drug use from any nonreligious uses.
"Lafley argues instead for conditions prohibiting his use of drugs other than marijuana, prohibiting his recreational use of marijuana, requiring self-reporting of his alleged sacramental use of marijuana, and/or mandating urine testing for the use of other controlled substances, among others," Thomas added. "All of these are as impractical as they are insufficient. A positive drug test does not indicate whether the use was recreational or sacramental, and restricting testing to other controlled substances would not accomplish the end of preventing Lafley from using illegal drugs during his supervised release. Requiring continuous monitoring of Lafley's marijuana use to determine whether the use was recreational or religious would place an unreasonable burden on a probation office."