‘Pot church’ member sentenced to three months in jail

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On Monday morning, Shahrooz Kharaghani was sentenced in a Toronto courtroom by Ontario Superior Court Justice Thea Herman to three months in jail for possession for the purpose of trafficking marijuana, concluding a case that stretched back to 2006.

On the surface, neither the charge nor the sentencing was particularly dramatic but the case evolved into one of the most complex and challenging drug cases in recent Canadian legal history, Charles Lewis writes in The National Post:

Kharaghani, along with co-accused Peter Styrsky, who was released earlier this month for time served, are members and ministers in the Church of the Universe, a group of several thousand adherents that believes the cannabis plant is the “tree of life” and marijuana and hashish are sacraments that open the door to communing with God.

That forced the court to deal with the highly philosophical issue of what constitutes a religion and how an individual’s religious belief can be judged to be sincere instead of simply a ruse for criminal activity.

Throughout the trial Judge Herman addressed both men as “Brother,” the same way members of the church would address the men, lending a sense of credence to their self-proclaimed religious identity.

Defence lawyer George Filipovic said there will be an appeal based on what he called the judge’s wrong decision to allow the law against cannabis to trump a Charter right to the free expression of religion.


“There’s a larger principle for religious rights here,” he said in an interview. “I see it as a human rights violation and the only way it would be worse for this religious group is if these people were put to death. If this ruling stands it will destroy their religion.”

The judge should have struck down the existing laws against cannabis and let Parliament decide if there could be exemptions, he said.

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This post was last updated: Jun. 6, 2011