S. Arizona couple face prison for what they say is religious use of marijuana
PIMA — The Church of Cognizance, which has quietly operated here since 1991, has an unusual tenet –its worshippers deify and use marijuana as part of their faith.
Until federal authorities charged them with possessing 172 pounds of their leafy green sacrament earlier this year, church founders Dan and Mary Quaintance say they smoked, ate or drank marijuana daily as a way of becoming more spiritually enlightened.
But now, with added conspiracy charges, the Quaintances face up to 40 years each in prison in a case they call religious persecution.
Federal prosecutors say religious freedom does not exempt the use of illegal drugs. The Quaintances say it does. They also say a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision allowing a religious group’s use of a hallucinogenic tea containing a federally banned substance should nullify the charges against them.
The couple is scheduled to go on trial in Las Cruces, N.M., on July 18, though defense lawyers are asking for a delay.
“They have a bona fide religion and the only marijuana they utilize is for the practice of their religion,” said Mary Quaintance’s attorney, Mario A. Esparza. “Our Constitution in the United States guarantees that freedom of religion, and the Quaintances are being punished for the very thing the Constitution stands for.
“They did not distribute to anyone outside of the church and they never profited from it,” Esparza said.
The Church of Cognizance, which leaders say has 72 monasteries located in members’ homes nationwide, has a simple motto: “With good thoughts, good words and good deeds, we honor marijuana; as the teacher, the provider, the protector.”
Dan Quaintance, 54, says the church has 40 to 50 members in Arizona, but cannot estimate how many there are nationwide. Leaders say members must be 18 to join, and he says the average age of worshippers in Arizona is 35. Dan, who preaches at weddings and funerals of church members, says the church does not sell its sacrament or proselytize.
“Laws exist to protect people from injury and we’ve injured nobody,” said Dan Quaintance, an Iowa native, Vietnam veteran and retired welder who identifies himself as his church’s “chief cognoscente.”
“Marijuana is the averter of death,” he said. “The energy and spirit that is in marijuana is God. You consume the plant and you consume God. You are sacrificing your body to the deity.”
The Quaintances were arrested Feb. 22 in Lordsburg, N.M., just seven days before the U.S. Supreme Court ruled unanimously that a small religious group based in Santa Fe that combines Christianity and American Indian practices could use hallucinogenic tea in its ceremonies. The tea, called hoasca, contains dimethyltryptamine, or DMT, known for its hallucinogenic properties.
A variety of religious groups representing millions of members filed briefs supporting O Centro Espirita Beneficiente Uniao Do Vegetal, or UDV, and its use of hoasca — among them the Arizona Civil Liberties Union, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, the National Association of Evangelicals and the Union for Reform Judaism. Some supporters likened banning the tea to a federal ban on sacramental wine.
Graham County Sheriff Frank Hughes says that in his 10 years on the job, he’s never had a complaint about the Quaintances, who live in a small rectangular home in the sparsely populated rural community of Pima, about 90 miles northeast of Tucson.
Their home sits on a four-acre property that’s dotted with old vehicles. Alongside their house is a wall made out of tires, which the Quaintances say eventually will form the boundary of an outdoor chapel.
The couple’s 31-year-old daughter, Zina; her husband, Tim; and their three children have a home on the property, as do the Quaintances’ 28-year-old son, Dennis, and his wife, Vanessa, and their son.
Their home bears no resemblance to a traditional church, inside or out. Yet the Quaintances call it a monastery and are adamant that the church they founded together is a sincere, legitimate faith — on par with any mainstream religious denomination.
A tapestry of Bob Marley smoking a large joint decorates the front hallway, and inside, the couple has a few handmade pipes, some of which have won ribbons in the glazing division of the Graham County Fair. Most of their pipes and other sacramental accessories were seized when authorities searched their home March 3, they say.
The Quaintances do not grow their sacrament but, rather, say they rely on donations of it, which they pick up from church “couriers.” That’s what they say they were about to do when they were arrested.
They smoke the marijuana or sometimes blend it into a milk-like drink, saying it helps them to become more enlightened and in tune with the universe. Until they were arrested, the Quaintances say they’d smoked or ingested the plant every day of their 33-year marriage, even before they formed their church. Both were marijuana users when they met, and they credit the plant to helping their marriage survive.
“It makes you better at what you do, enhances who you are. It is the most beautiful plant on Earth,” said Mary Quaintance, 51, a homemaker from Northern California who married Dan in 1973, when she was 18. They met while Mary worked as nurse’s aide in Chico, Calif., and rented a room from Dan’s parents.
Dan Quaintance, who grew up in the United Methodist faith and once was president of his church youth group, says finding marijuana helped him finish high school, later kick a heroin addiction and get through acute pancreatitis.
It was during his illness that he began researching marijuana’s use among ancient cultures, and he started to think about forming his own church. As he reread the Bible, he believed many passages that referred to a leaf, tree or plant were talking about marijuana.
“Religion is basically putting your faith in what you rely on,” he said. “Jesus started his church because of what he believed and learned.”
He filed a “declaration of religious sentiment” on behalf of the Church of Cognizance with the Graham County Recorder’s Office in 1994, though Dan, his family and other members say the church dates to 1991.
Services at the Church of Cognizance aren’t scheduled. According to the Quaintances, members call the monasteries and arrange a worship time, which typically includes using marijuana and listening to sermons by fellow cognoscenti that talk about peaceful existence.
“Dan and Mary are two of the most beautiful, wholesome people,” said Daniel Jeffrey, an enlightened cognoscente in Puna, Hawaii. “We’re not involved with herb for any kind of profit gain. If you tell people that, their mind just can’t grasp it.”
Still, Charles Haynes, a senior scholar at the Virginia-based First Amendment Center, says any group seeking an exemption to the nation’s drug laws, even for religious purposes, has a “hill to climb.”
And he says the federal government is likely in a better position to win against the religious use of marijuana than it was for the hallucinogenic tea case, given the prevalence of marijuana and the federal government’s concern about a drug problem in the country.
The hallucinogenic tea is difficult to find and reportedly doesn’t taste very good, Haynes said, noting the same is true for peyote, which also is a federally banned substance.
A federal exemption for peyote exists when it’s used for religious practices by members of the Native American Church. In Arizona, people using peyote who aren’t members of the Native American Church also are exempt as long as the peyote is used for a “bona fide religious purpose” in a manner that doesn’t threaten the public. But there are no such exceptions for marijuana.
“Marijuana is difficult, even if they have a sincere religious belief,” Haynes said. “The federal government has already successfully fought efforts to get a medical exemption.”
The U.S. Constitution contains no legally recognizable definition of religion, but courts still can apply a test of sincerity, said Jeremy Gunn, director of the Freedom of Religion and Belief program for the American Civil Liberties Union, which supported the UDV church.
If, for example, a group of prisoners calling themselves the Church of Cabernet and Filet Mignon argued religious belief as a reason to be served wine and better food, the government would have a right to question the sincerity of their theological belief, he said.
“The UDV case did not open the floodgate,” he said. “The government needs to show why it makes sense to apply the drug laws in that circumstance. In the UDV case, the hallucinogenic tea is honestly a traditional part of the religious practice.”
The office of the U.S. attorney for New Mexico, David C. Iglesias, prosecuted the UDV case, and also is prosecuting the Quaintances. His office declined to comment on a pending case.
The Quaintances have no history of criminal convictions in Arizona, where they’ve lived since 1986, but both have prior convictions for marijuana possession in Washington state, records show. Dan Quaintance says he also has a 1974 conviction from California for driving under the influence and spent 30 days in jail for that offense.
The Quaintances spent two weeks in a New Mexico jail after their arrest this year and, as part of their court-ordered release, must have regular urine tests to ensure they aren’t using any marijuana. Both say that living without their deity for the first time in more than three decades is extremely difficult.
The complaint against the couple, which was amended, includes two other defendants — Timothy Jason Kripner, 23, of Tucson and Joseph Allen Butts, 48, of California.
The revised complaint raised the stakes in the case, adding conspiracy charges and more than 220 pounds of marijuana. Dan Quaintance says Kripner and Butts are both certified couriers for the church. Kripner was traveling with the Quaintances when they were arrested, and authorities say Butts was involved in a conspiracy with them to distribute marijuana.
“They may take Dan and Mary down but they will never take the church down,” Mary Quaintance said.
Sidebar: The debate
It is illegal to possess any amount of marijuana in the United States. At least eleven states have passed legislation that allows people to possess and use the drug for medical purposes with a doctor’s recommendation, but the U.S. Supreme Court last year ruled the federal government could continue to prosecute people even in those states.
On Feb. 29, the U.S. Supreme Court, in a unanimous decision written by new Chief Justice John Roberts, ruled that the U.S. government had no right to seize hallucinogenic tea containing a federally banned substance from members of a New Mexico church, or to prohibit its use. Members said using the hallucinogenic tea during worship helped them gain union with God. The Supreme Court based its decision on the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which says the government needs to justify any action that would substantially burden people from practicing their faith.
Dan and Mary Quaintance say their Church of Cognizance believes marijuana is a receptor to God. For more details, see their Web site at coc.enlightener.net/cgi-bin/index.cgi.