Superior Court of Guam Upholds Freedom of Religion for Rastafarian 8/20/99

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Richard Milsom for DRCNet

If you have ever wondered what a strong interpretation of the 'free exercise clause' of the First Amendment guaranteeing freedom of religion might mean for the 'war on drugs,' then you may be very interested in news of a legal decision recently handed down in the US Territory of Guam.

On July 29, 1999, Judge Michael J. Bordallo of the Superior Court of the United States Territory of Guam dismissed the charge of 'Importation of a Controlled Substance' (a 'First Degree Felony') originally lodged against Ras Iyah Ben Makahna in 1991.

Mr. Makahna, a practicing Rastafarian, had asserted that the marijuana that he had in his possession was essential to the practice of his religion and, as such was included under the freedom of religion protections of the United States Constitution.

Guam's government attorneys have until August 27, 1999 to declare whether or not they will appeal Judge Bordalla's decision.

The legal ramifications of this case are complicated by the fact that Guam, as a US Territory, is subject to provisions of the 1899 Treaty of Peace which was enacted when Spain ceded authority over Guam to the US after the Spanish-American War. In addition, as a territory, Guam's relationship to federal statutes and Supreme Court decisions is somewhat different than is the case for the 50 states.

Ras Iyah Ben Makahna's defense relied upon the First Amendment of the US Constitution, the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), and Guam's own 'Organic Act' which guarantees religious liberty to residents of the island territory.

The Superior Court of Guam held that, due to legal factors deriving from Guam's territorial status, the 1997 decision of the Supreme Court that overturned RFRA (City of Boerne v. Flores) was not binding in this case.

An extraordinary coalition of drug policy reform activists, civil libertarians and members of a diverse collection of religious communities worked for the passage of RFRA-which was passed as an attempted response to the famous 1990 'peyote case' (Employment Division, State of Oregon v. Smith).

Undoubtedly, this case will leave many freedom of religion and drug policy reform activists throughout the United States wondering 'what might have been' if RFRA had not been overruled by the same court whose earlier action it sought to counter.

The 'Guam case' of 1999 may also inspire some serious thought about 'what might yet be' in terms of possible legal protection of the religious use of currently outlawed plants held sacred in certain religious communities.

The Superior Court of Guam is on the web at http://www.justice.gov.gu/superior/.

Note: Senate Bill 1428 would prohibit DRCNet from linking to the sites below:

For information on the effects of the drug war upon religious freedom in the US, visit http://www.erowid.org/freedom/religious/religious.shtml.

Visit http://www.lycaeum.org and http://www.maps.org for information about "entheogens" or the religious use of substances.

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Issue #104, 8/20/99 Household Survey Reports Decrease in Teen Use, While Overall Use Remains Flat | Superior Court of Guam Upholds Freedom of Religion for Rastafarian | San Francisco Plans Methadone Expansion | Members of California Congressional Delegation Urge Governor to Sign Needle Exchange Bill | ACLU Sues Oklahoma School District Over Student Drug Testing | United Kingdom: Liberal Democrat Leader Charles Kennedy Calls for Royal Commission on Drug Policy | NORML Foundation Launches Marijuana Ad Campaign in San Francisco | Lindesmith Center Seminar Series, Autumn 1999 | Errata: Methamphetamine Bill Alert, Kubby Plant Count | Editorial: Governor Bush's Cocaine Problem
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