Medical marijuana is spreading in acceptance, with Illinois this month becoming the 20th state to legalize medical marijuana.
This week a Federal court judge ruled that religion can be used as a defense in a marijuana distribution charge. But so far no states have legalized religious marijuana use, even though there is compelling reason to do so.
People consume alcohol for religious reasons, especially Jews. At least 25 states even allow minors to consume alcohol for religious purposes. So why not legalize marijuana for legitimate religious purposes?
Various world religions include the practice of ritual drinking of alcohol. Christians drink communion wine. Jews drink Kiddush wine, Passover Seder wine, and consume alcohol on festivals such as Purim where the tradition is to celebrate by drinking until one can't distinguish Haman (our enemy) and Mordecai (our hero).
Last year, Northwestern University defrocked Chabad rabbi Dov Hillel Klien for serving alcohol to underage students. Klien maintains that he was serving moderate amounts of alcohol for legitimate religious purposes, such as Kidush wine on Shabbat, with the knowledge of university officials. Klien is currently suing Northwestern for religious discrimination and for "singling (Jewish groups) out from other campus religious organizations that 'commit the same acts' -- meaning Christians who celebrate the Eucharist with wine."
Similarly, many religions engage in ritualistic marijuana smoking dating back thousands of years. It was used in the worship of the Hindu deity, Shiva, and most widespread today by Rastafarian's as a Bible study, and meditation aid.
Roger Christie is a minister of the Religion of Jesus Church, which uses marijuana as a "sacramental herb." Christie and 13 others associated with his ministry are currently facing marijuana possession and trafficking charges for offering pot as a part of supposed religious services in Hawaii.
Whether Christie was using and selling marijuana for bona fide religious purposes, or as a cover for conventional drug dealing is unclear, but the question remains whether marijuana should be permitted for sacramental use.
Even though religious marijuana use is not generally permitted, in 2006 the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously ruled that the Brazilian-American church União do Vegetal could import and use illegal drugs in worship services. Native Americans are routinely given exceptions to use an illegal Schedule I substance called peyote.
Under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), passed by Congress in 1993, amended in 2003 to only include the federal government and its entities, the government is required to show a "compelling interest" in order to "substantially burden" a legitimate religious practice. If hallucinogens like peyote can be legal under this standard, why should more mild drugs like marijuana be any different?
(Although some states have adopted mini-RFRAs, many states are still governed under the Employment Division v. Smith case which allows states to pass neutral laws of general applicability, such as drug laws, even if those laws incidentally affect religious practices under the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment).
Even Prohibition, which banned alcohol in the U.S., exempted wine "for sacramental purposes, or like religious rites." Why not exempt marijuana for genuine religious purposes?
Alcohol is a drug like marijuana with potentially harmful effects. But if alcohol is widely accepted for religious use among Jews and others -- maybe marijuana should be too.
Original version was published in The Forward.