ALBUQUERQUE – A couple from Pima, Ariz., arrested in a car that contained 172 pounds of marijuana say the drug is a sacrament in their religion. The U.S. attorney’s office contends they’re trying to use religion as a cover for a drug organization.
Danuel and Mary Quaintance staked their religious freedom claim in federal court here this week in a three-day hearing in connection with their February arrest in Lordsburg on drug charges, the Albuquerque Journal reported Friday in a copyright story.
The couple are charged with conspiracy and possession with intent to distribute more than 50 kilograms of marijuana found in the car in which they were riding. The driver, another church member, has turned state’s witness.
U.S. District Judge Judith Herrera said she would take written arguments and review transcripts and documents before deciding whether to dismiss the charges based on the Quaintances’ right to freely exercise their religion.
Danuel Quaintance’s attorney, Marc Robert, portrays him as “a spiritual man who has followed his religious beliefs and practices at great personal risk.”
Assistant U.S. Attorneys Luis Martinez and Amanda Gould argue that the defendants are drawing from “a hodgepodge of unsupported speculations for most of their assertions … in an effort to cloak themselves in a religious mantel.”
The Quaintances contend they have a right to marijuana as the central focus of the Church of Cognizance, founded by Danuel Quaintance in 1991 and registered as a religious organization in Arizona in 1994.
The couple say the church, which has about 130 adherents nationwide, functions largely through “individual orthodox member monasteries.”
They cited a February ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court in a case involving a small Santa Fe-based church to bolster their arguments. In that case, the court ruled that O Centro Espirita Beneficiente Uniao do Vegetal may use a hallucinogenic tea as part of a four-hour ritual intended to connect with God. Hoasca tea, which contains an illegal drug known as DMT, is considered sacred to the Brazilian-based religion.
Danuel Quaintance testified the Church of Cognizance is based on his research and interpretation of religious texts and is a form of neo-Zoroastrianism, an ancient religion that holds as sacred a drink made from a mountain plant called haoma.
In the teachings of Zoroaster, the plant, the drink and the god are the same. The Quaintances believe cannabis, hemp or marijuana is haoma.
Deborah Pruitt, a cultural anthropologist and college professor in Oakland, Calif., testified for the defense that mainstream religions typically view new religious forms as cults or charlatans, but said they are no less genuine.
She distinguished faith-based religions that rely on institutionalized doctrine passed down by specialists from those that rely on direct experience. Christian pentecostals, Wiccans, voodoo practitioners, Sufi dancers and members of the Native American Church all have characteristics of religions that rely on direct experience for contact with deities or spirits, she said.
Jehan Bagli, a retired scientist and Zoroastrian priest, testified for the prosecution that in current Zoroastrian ceremonies, “the mind is considered a priceless gift.”
Any mind-altering substances abuse that gift and would not be accepted, he said.
Bagli said haoma in the ancient Zoroastrian tradition was a deity and plant that scholars believe may have had hallucinogenic properties. He said scholars don’t know what the plant was.
If the judge rules the Quaintances are sincere religious practitioners, prosecutors would have to show compelling government interest in burdening the religion by barring the use of marijuana.