In a July 31 decision, the Arizona Court of Appeals has held that there is no religious right to possess marijuana. In so doing, the court rejected the appellant's argument that his right to possess marijuana for religious reasons was protected by both the Arizona and the US Constitution.
The ruling came in Arizona v. Hardesty, a case that began when Daniel Hardesty was pulled over by a police officer in 2005 and subsequently charged with possession of marijuana and drug paraphernalia after the officer first smelled smoked marijuana in the vehicle, then found a joint Hardesty admitted tossing from his window. Hardesty, a member of the Church of Cognizance, argued at trial that he used marijuana for religious purposes and should be exempt from prosecution under both Arizona and federal law. The trial court disagreed.
Now, so has the appeals court. While the court accepted that Hardesty's religious beliefs were sincere, it rejected his arguments that under the free exercise of religion, he had the right to use marijuana as a sacrament. Hardesty had conceded that marijuana is a drug that could have harmful effects and that the state had a "compelling interest" in regulating it, but argued that it had not been regulated in a manner that was "least restrictive" when applied to religion.
In his opinion, Appellate Judge Sheldon Weisberg wrote that while the First Amendment guarantees an absolute right to hold a religious belief, it does not guarantee the same absolute right to put that belief into practice. Similarly, Weisberg held that provisions of Arizona law designed to protect religious freedom did not encompass the religious use of marijuana, citing the state legislature's outright ban on the use and possession of marijuana.
"This statute does not provide any religious exemptions nor does it contemplate an exemption for the use of marijuana that would be consistent with public health and safety," the judge wrote for the unanimous court. "By imposing a total ban, the legislature has deemed that the use and possession of marijuana always pose a risk to public health and welfare."
But the appeals court did leave open the possibility that it could decide differently if someone came before it persuasively arguing that marijuana is not as dangerous as the government suggests. In that case, the "compelling interest" of the state in maintaining a complete prohibition on marijuana would presumably be weakened.
Attorney Daniel DeRiezo, who represents Hardesty, told the Arizona Star after the decision that prosecutors had engaged in "Reefer Madness arguments" in alleging that marijuana use could result in serious harm. An appeal to the state Supreme Court is likely, he said.