Although a Native American church is allowed to use peyote during religious ceremonies, an appeals court recently determined they are not excused from federal marijuana laws. Despite the fact that peyote is a hallucinogenic and cannabis is not, both drugs are currently listed by the DEA as “dangerous” Schedule I narcotics alongside heroin and LSD.
Using cannabis during sweat lodge ceremonies, the Native American Church of Hawaii filed a complaint against the feds in 2009 after law enforcement officials seized marijuana belonging to a member of the church. According to the Native American Church of Hawaii, their cannabis use “is similar to the purpose of many other intensive religious practices – to enhance spiritual awareness or even to occasion direct experience of the divine.”
Seeking protection under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 and the American Indian Religious Freedom Act of 1978, the church fought to allow members to continue using cannabis during their rituals. Although federal law allows Native Americans to use, possess, or transport peyote for traditional ceremonial purposes, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals recently upheld the district court’s decision preventing members of the church from violating federal marijuana laws.
“It’s really disappointing,” church founder Michael Rex “Raging Bear” Mooney told the Associated Press. “Cannabis is a prayer smoke, so it’s a sacrament…through the effects of the medicine, it also helps us become closer to our creator. It puts us in a place, a state of mind, where we can actually feel the presence and an actual relationship with our creator.”
As more states continue to legalize marijuana for medicinal and recreational use, even the DEA will decide this summer whether to keep cannabis classified as a “dangerous” Schedule I drug alongside heroin, LSD, and peyote. According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), cannabis has been shown to kill cancer cells in the laboratory, but further research remains limited due to archaic federal marijuana laws.
In their opinion, the circuit judges wrote they are “skeptical” that the church’s cannabis use amounts to an exercise of religion. Judge Diarmuid O’Scannlain wrote, “Nonetheless, we need not reach this question on appeal, because even assuming such use constitutes an ‘exercise of religion,’ no rational trier of fact could conclude on this record that a prohibition of cannabis use imposes a ‘substantial burden.’”
Composed of at least 250 members, the Native American Church of Hawaii plans to appeal the court’s decision. Prohibited from using marijuana but permitted to use peyote, the church also “honors and embraces all entheogenic naturally occurring substances, including Ayahuasca, Cannabis (aka Rosa Maria and Santa Rosa), Iboga, Kava, Psilocybin, San Pedro, Soma, Teonanacatyl, Tsi-Ahga, and many others.”
Although the circuit judges argued that cannabis prohibition does not force the church to choose between religious obedience and government sanction, church members remain in violation of federal law if they continue to use marijuana during their ceremonies. Instead of advocating cannabis as an alternative to hallucinogenic drugs such as peyote or psilocybin, the feds continue to criminalize a medicinal plant.
“Man’s relationship with the divine can’t be dictated by any other person or government entity,” asserted Mooney’s lawyer, Michael Glenn, who plans on appealing the court’s decision.