Skip to main content

Marijuana: Arizona Supreme Court Rejects Religious Freedom Claim

Submitted by Phillip Smith on (Issue #600)
Politics & Advocacy

Arizona's law protecting religious freedom does not apply to a man convicted of smoking marijuana while driving, the state Supreme Court ruled Monday. The ruling came in Arizona v. Hardesty.

In that case, Daniel Hardesty was arrested while driving in Yavapai County and charged with marijuana possession. At trial, he testified that he was a member of the Church of Cognizance, an Arizona-based religion that says it embraces neo-Zoroastrian tenets and uses marijuana for spiritual enlightenment. He argued that Arizona's 1999 law limiting the state's ability to "burden the exercise of religion" meant he could not be prosecuted because he was exercising his religious beliefs.

The trial judge disagreed, and Hardesty was convicted. He appealed to the state Supreme Court, and has now lost there, too. In a unanimous opinion, the justices held that while the state religious freedom law mandates restrictions on religious practices only if it shows a compelling interest and that the restrictions must be the "least restrictive means of furthering that interest," the state does have a compelling interest in regulating marijuana use and Hardesty's claim that the Church of Cognizance allows him to use marijuana anywhere or any time, including driving, made it clear that the "least restrictive means" was an outright ban on marijuana.

Chief Justice Rebecca White Berch, who authored the opinion, made a distinction between federal laws that allow Native American Church members to use peyote without fear of prosecution under state law and the religious freedom claim made by Hardesty. There was an "obvious difference" between the two situations, Berch said. "Members of the Native American Church assert only the religious right to use peyote in limited sacramental rights. Hardesty asserts the right to use marijuana whenever he pleases, including while driving," she wrote.

Monday's ruling was the second defeat in as many years for the church. Church founders Dan and Mary Quaintance were convicted of marijuana possession and conspiracy to distribute marijuana after being stopped with 172 pounds of pot in New Mexico. A federal judge in New Mexico rejected their religious freedom arguments. Dan Quaintance is currently serving a five year prison sentence, and Mary Quaintance is doing two to three years.

Permission to Reprint: This content is licensed under a modified Creative Commons Attribution license. Content of a purely educational nature in Drug War Chronicle appear courtesy of DRCNet Foundation, unless otherwise noted.


TrebleBass (not verified)

It is a shame that scientific studies have not been done to determine the level of marijuana intoxication that impedes driving. I bet it would be a lot. And also, there isn't any means of assessing how high someone is at any given time.

On the religious right to use, I would argue that anyone can make that claim. I think, depending on how the person decides to see it, all drug use can be considered religious. Religion (although people define it in many different ways in different contexts), can be defined as "that which matters to you in the most intimate level or that forms an integral part of how you have decided to live your life". Under that definition, few things are more religious than drug taking. Also, you know the expression that says that some people do some things "religiously". Like, let's say a basketball player trains every day, rain or shine, you can say: "that guy trains 'religiously"', or "basketball is a religion to that guy". Well, it really is. It's not just an expression. If basketball is that important to that person, then it literally can be seen as part of that person's religion (obviously, it depends on how the person himself defines religion, but he could decide that basketball is his personal religion).

There is a saying that says "religion is the opium of the masses" (which, in this case, implies that religion is bad, but i don't think religion is necessarily bad). I agree that religion is the opium of the masses, but opium isn't necessarily bad. Similarly, you could say: "opium is the religion of many", but religion isn't necessarily good.

Regardless of whether it's good or bad, religion is something very intimate. Only each person can decide what his or her religion is. It makes perfect sense to me that anybody could claim that their drug use is part of their religion.

Fri, 09/11/2009 - 8:30pm Permalink

Freedom to farm "every herb bearing seed" is the first test of religious freedom. Religious traditions of Cannabis use predate written history and span the globe.

In the absence of harm to others, individual spirituality cannot be judged, defined or dismissed. If Cannabis is part of your spiritual evolution, then the government rightfully has nothing to say about it, unless you harm someone.

There is no mention of whether Mr. Hardesty was operating his vehicle in a safe manner while under the influence of Cannabis. It is a spurious and prejudicial assumption, wreaking of "Reefer Madness," that just because a driver has used marijuana, he is guilty of operating a motor vehicle unsafely.

There have been several studies done that indicate most people's driving skills are not impaired at typical levels of marijuana use.

If there's interest in justice, since there was no one hurt by Mr. Hardesty's driving while loaded, then he ought to be left alone and his spiritual choice respected.

Fri, 09/11/2009 - 11:37pm Permalink
maxwood (not verified)

Don't forget a certain percent of the salary of every judge and every Supreme Court Justice is paid out of cigarette taxes. Duh...

To get a little more sophisticated, said sintaxes also help hire lots more sheriff's deputies, court employees etc. which contribute to making life easy and powerful for the judge somewhere up there atop the pyramid. The closer you get to the top of the system, the closer wedded you are to Big 2Wackgo.

Sat, 09/12/2009 - 3:15pm Permalink
Rural WA (not verified)

I've read the opinion and think nobody is in the right. DUI is a legitemate public safety law and Hardesty doesn't have a right to endanger other peoples lives by driving while impaired. But he wasn't even charged with DUI (or it wasn't an issue in the case) and the court's opinion is absolutely irrational. The bottom line is that the court is enforcing a state religion against against minority religions.

States (and individuals) do have some compelling interests that override some acts by people who are acting from sincere religious beliefs. If I recall correctly, Son of Sam murdered people because he sincerely believed his dog was relaying orders from God to murder those people. New York had a perfectly legitemate power to interfere with that religious conduct to protect the public safety and the rights of people not to be murdered outweighed Son of Sam's right to kill them for religious reasons. I don't think many people will dispute such an extreme example.

If Arizona had sufficient evidence to arrest Hardesty for impaired driving, he should have been arrested and gone to trial for DUI or plead out to the charge like anyone else. That would be a compelling interest and least restrictive means of enforcing it.

Instead the court barely made passing reference to impaired driving and went off on a crazy rant about marijuana and the need to enforce a state religion against heretics.

"To arrest you they advise, such fury they devise
But the Devil in them lies, and hath blinded both their eyes"

Sun, 11/08/2009 - 5:17am Permalink

Add new comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.
This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.