LOS ANGELES — A minister with mail order credentials who faces drug charges for distributing marijuana through his Hollywood church argued unsuccessfully Tuesday that federal law protects his use of the drug because he believes it is a religious sacrament.
The Rev. Craig X Rubin, 41, the leader of the 420 Temple who has appeared in episodes of the Showtime comedy “Weeds,” faces up to seven years in prison if convicted of possessing marijuana for sale. Jury selection was set to begin Wednesday.
He and some 400 members of his church believe marijuana is a religious sacrament and burn and smoke pot during services.
“We feel pot is the tree of life mentioned in the Bible, so it is incorporated into the ceremony,” Rubin said before the hearing began.
Though he was ordained in 1990 by the Universal Life Church — which, for a fee, will ordain anyone — police and prosecutors describe Rubin as a drug dealer. The Beverly Hills-born minister was arrested last fall and freed after posting $20,000 bail.
Rubin, who is representing himself, has asserted his protection under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act — a 1993 federal law designed to prevent government from imposing laws that restrict religious freedoms.
During Tuesday’s hearing, however, Superior Court Judge Mary H. Strobel ruled that Rubin could not use the federal law as a defense because he faces only state charges.
Rubin told the judge he would file a writ challenging her ruling and would consider a plea deal if it stands.
“I have to get myself a private lawyer,” Rubin said in an interview afterward. “I’m getting knocked around in there.”
Both the defense and the prosecution said they could not find any cases in California where marijuana use was found acceptable on religious grounds. Deputy District Attorney Bob Chen seemed astounded that Rubin has never denied possessing and distributing the pot.
“It seems to me he is conceding that at this temple, they were selling marijuana,” he said.
Rubin, wearing a red tie and neat pinstriped black suit, nodded and smiled.
Rubin alleges federal agents joined police on the November raid and that authorities used excessive force when arresting congregants. The federal law mandates that police, when there is a compelling government interest, may intervene using “the least restrictive” means. Rubin said he will testify that an officer held a shotgun to his head during the bust.
Rubin, a University of California, Los Angeles, graduate with no legal experience, fluently cited prior cases and appeared to answer the judge’s questions to her satisfaction.
A lawyer consulting on his case commended his legal acuity.
“He is as good as I’ve seen any defendant representing himself,” said Michael Levinsohn, who works in the offices of Bruce Margolin, director of the Los Angeles chapter of National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws.
On Monday, however, Rubin was unaware he would be called to select a jury. He said he spent the weekend praying and smoking with Indians in a sweat lodge at the bottom of the Grand Canyon.