TUCSON, Ariz. – A Pima, Ariz. couple has stepped down as leaders of a church that considers marijuana a sacrament and deity.
Dan and Mary Quaintance say pending federal charges against them have made it impossible to properly lead the church. In February, the two were arrested in a car that contained 172 pounds of marijuana in the New Mexican town of Lordsburg near the Arizona state line.
The Quaintances are facing 40 years in prison if convicted on federal charges of conspiracy and intent to distribute marijuana.
Dan Quaintance, 53, said the church is now fractured, explaining that the 45-member congregation he and his wife founded in 1991 no longer has its spiritual leaders.
The Quaintances are scheduled to go on trial Oct. 30 in Las Cruces, N.M., though they hope the case will be dismissed before the end of the month. They're awaiting a decision from U.S. District Judge Judith C. Herrera on whether she'll dismiss the case on the grounds that religious freedom should allow them to use the illegal drug.
The government contends the church is a front for drug trafficking.
The couple's lawyers cite a February decision by the U.S. Supreme Court ruling that the government has no right to seize hallucinogenic tea containing a federally banned substance from members of a New Mexico church.
The tea, called hoasca, contains the substance dimethyltryptamine, or DMT, known for its hallucinogenic properties.
Members of the O Centro Espirita Beneficiente Uniao Do Vegetal, or UDV, said using the hallucinogenic tea during worship helps them gain union with God.
Prosecutors with the U.S. Attorney's Office in New Mexico, which also prosecuted the UDV case, do not comment on pending matters.
But in court documents, they say the Quaintances are "obsessed and focused on marijuana," and Dan Quaintance's writings about his worship are "disjointed, poorly supported, illogical ramblings." They conclude that the couple's "lack of sincerity is patent."
The Quaintances are out on bond and remain under court supervision. They must submit to weekly urine tests. They have been living without marijuana since their arrest.
"We're being deprived the benefits of connection — health-wise and spiritual-wise," Dan Quaintance said. "I think the judge is going to have a hard time ruling against us on the sincerity of our religious practice. If there isn't a favorable ruling on our religious freedom, then I don't believe there is a justice system in America."
Since the church was founded, at least 20 members have been prosecuted on possession and conspiracy charges, and some have served time in prison, said Mike Senger, a church member who lives in Florence and provides legal assistance to group members.
"Usually, we never win," Senger said. "But we may perhaps win in Mary and Dan's case because it is federal court, and there is quite a bit at stake. They are getting some reasonable due process in that court.
"It is a hellish, torturous experience for people who are peaceful and not criminals, who possess marijuana," he added. "We don't look at ourselves as criminals."