HONOLULU – The Hawaii Supreme Court has ruled against a Big Island man who claimed he had to smoke marijuana to practice his religion in what he called the Hawaii Cannabis Ministry.
The court decided that Joseph Sunderland's freedom of religion didn't give him the right to smoke marijuana, but it didn't rule on whether Hawaii's strong privacy protections would have shielded him.
"The law prohibiting possession of marijuana ... applies to everyone," similar to traffic laws, said prosecuting attorney Janet Garcia. "Otherwise, you could have someone who says, 'My religious belief is that I shouldn't have to stop at a stop sign."'
One justice, however, argued in a dissenting opinion that privacy rights guaranteed by the Hawaii Constitution should allow people to smoke marijuana in their homes.
Justice Steven Levinson wrote in the court's split decision Sept. 21 that the framers of Hawaii's constitution intended to limit criminal punishment to cases where people are harmed.
"The issue is whether ... a fundamental right to privacy ... constrains the state from criminalizing mere possession of marijuana for personal use. My thesis is that it does," Levinson wrote in his dissent.
The case started when a Big Island police officer spotted a six-inch pipe on Sunderland's kitchen table in 2003 while the officer was looking for a missing child.
Sunderland told the officer the pipe was his, and he had a right to use it to exercise his religious beliefs. In fact, he said he had smoked marijuana from the pipe that morning.
He showed the officer a card indicating his membership in a religious organization called the "Cannabis Ministry," and he told the officer he had been practicing his religion since he was 16 years old.
Sunderland was charged with promoting a detrimental drug in the third degree for possession of the pipe and the marijuana residue inside.
"I believe that God put the holy herb onto this earth to help mankind to better understand him," Sunderland testified at trial.
He was found guilty and ordered to pay $175 in fines and fees.
His attorney, public defender Deborah Kim, said she will ask the Hawaii Supreme Court to reconsider the privacy issue.
"The court has ducked the question of whether the right to privacy prevents the police from enforcing marijuana laws when someone is using marijuana in their home for religious purposes," Kim said. "The question is still very much open."