Court overrules church’s use of pot as sacrament

Says founders lack a ‘sincere’ religious belief

A federal judge has ruled against the founders of a Southeastern Arizona church that deifies marijuana and uses it as a sacrament, saying they don’t have a “sincere” religious belief.

In her refusal to dismiss charges against Dan and Mary Quaintance, U.S. District Judge Judith C. Herrera in Albuquerque wrote that evidence indicates the pair “adopted their ‘religious’ belief in cannabis as a sacrament and deity in order to justify their lifestyle choice to use marijuana.”

Herrera’s Dec. 22 order means the government’s criminal case against the Quaintances will proceed in the new year. The couple is scheduled to go to trial on Jan. 16 on criminal charges of possessing more than 100 pounds of marijuana, as well as conspiracy charges.

“She doesn’t fully understand our doctrine,” Dan Quaintance said Tuesday of Herrera’s decision. “This is very upsetting to the members of our church. It was quite a holiday present.”

The Quaintances face up to 40 years each in prison if they are convicted as charged. They expect to appeal the decision.

The couple was arrested with 172 pounds of marijuana on 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.

Members of the O Centro Espirita Beneficiente Uniao Do Vegetal, or UDV, 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.

Citing the UDV case, the Quaintances asked that their charges be dismissed. A three-day hearing on their request was held in Albuquerque in August, and the Quaintances had been awaiting a decision from Herrera since then.

The U.S. Constitution contains no legally recognizable definition of religion, but courts still can apply a test of sincerity.

In her decision, Herrera cited evidence she said indicates the Quaintances created the church to justify their belief that marijuana should be legalized. “Defendants cannot avoid prosecution for illegal conduct simply by transforming their lifestyle choices into a ‘religion,’ ” she wrote.

The Church of Cognizance, which leaders say has “monasteries” 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.”

The Quaintances don’t 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.

The pair say they founded their Church of Cognizance in Pima, Ariz., in 1991.

A “declaration of religious sentiment” on behalf of the Church of Cognizance was filed with the Graham County Recorder’s Office in 1994. Until their arrest this year, the Quaintances had not faced any criminal charges related to their church.

Free on bond, the Quaintances continue to live in Pima, about 90 miles northeast of Tucson, though they remain under court supervision and must submit to regular urine tests. Prior to their arrest, the couple say they smoked or ingested marijuana daily.

In court documents, prosecutors from the U.S. Attorney’s Office said the Quaintances are “obsessed and focused on marijuana,” and Dan Quaintance’s writings about his worship are “disjointed, poorly supported, illogical ramblings.”

Dan Quaintance, 54, said the church has 40 to 50 members in Arizona, but he cannot estimate how many there are nationwide. Members must be 18 to join. Since the case became public this summer, more people have been inquiring about joining the church, he said.

Both Dan and Mary, who is 51, stepped down as leaders of the church following their arrests. But the couple hope to one day resume what they view as their worship.

“Normally on Christmas we would have shared the herb with our friends and church members,” Dan Quaintance said.

“Instead we had presents. We were a little empty. … What’s happening to us is a clear violation of the U.S. Constitution. It’s clear we are sincere.”

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Religion News Blog posted this on Wednesday December 27, 2006.
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