Pubdate: Wed, 27 Apr 2011
Source: Honolulu Weekly (HI)
Page: Cover Story
Copyright: 2011 Honolulu Weekly Inc.
Author: Cameron Johnson


Hilo's Marijuana Minister, Rev. Roger Christie (Still) in Jail

REV. ROGER CHRISTIE / "We are fed, we are loved and we have a roof 
over our heads." This mantra is a favorite espoused by the 
charismatic and popular Rev. Roger Christie, founder of The Hawaii 
Cannabis (THC) Ministry based in Hilo. After almost a year of federal 
detention, pending his July 6 trial for allegedly distributing 
marijuana, one wonders how Christie is coping without one of his 
daily essentials.

Christie believes that providing marijuana as part of the religious 
experience at the THC Ministry is protected under the Religious 
Freedom and Restoration Act. The federal government seemed to share 
his belief, seeing as no arrests were made after federal law 
enforcement officers raided his home and ministry in March 2010.

But last July, Christie was indicted for allegedly committing three 
felony marijuana crimes: conspiracy to manufacture, distribute and 
possess with intent to distribute 100 or more marijuana plants; 
manufacturing marijuana; and possession with intent to distribute 240 
marijuana plants. He was taken into custody July 8 and judged to be a 
"danger to society" by three federal judges, whose decisions to 
continue his incarceration pending trial have been upheld by federal 
appeals courts.

While arguing against Christie's release in October, Judge Alan Ezra 
admitted that he granted notorious millionaire bank fraudster Sukamto 
Sia "release with conditions" pending his trial over a decade ago, 
but said he couldn't trust Christie to stay out of trouble while 
housed in a Honolulu halfway house. Christie is being held without 
bond in Honolulu despite the fact that the court's own pretrial 
services division recommended he be released to his home in Hilo. His 
13 co-defendants-all facing the same three charges, some even 
more-were released on bond last year.

If convicted, Christie faces a minimum prison term of five years for 
each count and a maximum of 40 years. On July 9 in Federal Court, 
Christie pleaded not guilty to the charges, as did the 13 co-defendants.

In a Nutshell

"The case boils down to the fact that the federal government took 
umbrage to Christie's THC Ministry," says Don Wirtshafter, an Ohio 
attorney and fellow marijuana activist. "His ministry was starting to 
get legs and people were starting to believe that cannabis could 
exist in this land of religious freedom."

An outspoken advocate for the decriminalization of marijuana and the 
implementation of a medicinal marijuana program in Hawaii, Christie 
freely admits to providing the "sacrament," i.e. marijuana, to his 
parishioners as part of his religious beliefs. In the June 24 
indictment, Assistant US Attorney Michael Kawahara alleges Christie 
was the head of a group using the ministry as a front to sell and 
distribute marijuana. The prosecutor pointed out in an Oct. 22 
hearing that the charges against Christie are for distributing and 
manufacturing marijuana.

"It has nothing to do with any issue of religious belief," Kawahara 
said. Repeated phone calls to Kawahara at the US Attorney's Office 
for comment on Christie's case went unanswered.

According to court reports, Christie and his girlfriend, Sherryanne 
St. Cyr, engaged in the illegal manufacture, distribution and sale of 
marijuana. The pair allegedly had several employees, including 
Victoria Fiore and Jessica Walsh, both of whom worked at the ministry 
and assisted in the distribution and sale of the marijuana. In order 
to maintain an inventory, Christie had several suppliers, as well as 
other persons growing cannabis solely for Christie. His suppliers 
allegedly included Richard Turpen, Wesley Sudbury, Donald Gibson, 
Roland Ignacio, Perry Policicchio, John Bouey III, Michael Shapiro 
and Aaron Zeeman.

The Big Mistake

Recruited by Christie in 2009 to start a marijuana growing operation, 
Susanne Friend and Timothy Mann were to supply marijuana solely to 
the ministry. The indictment further states the pair had 284 thriving 
marijuana plants when a search warrant was executed on July 22, 2009. 
Christie and St. Cyr's Wainaku Terrace apartment was raided in March 
2010. FBI and IRS agents recovered $21,494 in cash at the apartment, 
as well as in a bank deposit box. The ministry office was also raided.

This is where Christie made an enormous mistake in the eyes of 
federal judges Alan Kay, Gary Chang and Alan Ezra. The wording in the 
March warrants, explained federal public defender Matthew Winter in 
an appeal for bond, convinced Christie that his church was viewed as 
legitimate by the US Government, so he returned to administering to his flock.

In the March search warrant, Special Agent Brian Kon stated, "I 
recognize that the THC Ministry and its affiliated Hawaii Cannabis 
College... is arguably a functioning entity with employees, and that 
a seizure of the Ministry's computers may have the unintended effect 
of limiting the Ministry's ability to provide certain arguably 
legitimate services to its customers..."

Judge Ezra, during an Oct. 22 bond hearing, expressed concern that 
Christie had not changed his views and would continue providing 
marijuana for church members. "He just kept doing it," said Ezra to 
Winter. "And presumably because he believes what he's doing is OK...

"So why-why would somebody who was under scrutiny of law 
enforcement-both the County of Hawaii and federal [officials]- and 
who just continued to do what he was doing, be deterred now? Simply 
because he's got to face trial?"

Having a search warrant executed on your property is different than 
facing pre-trial sanctions by the court, argued Winter, to no avail.

Prosecuting attorney Kawahara argued Christie's actions, after the 
execution of the March search warrant and leading up to his July 8 
arrest, show that Christie is "a danger to the community," and that 
he will not stop violating the law, even with the possibility of 
federal prison hanging over his head.

In response to the defense's notion that Christie was not under any 
court order to stop running THC Ministry after the March 2010 search, 
Kawahara echoed Judge Kay's earlier sentiments, wondering how "the 
light didn't come on" for Christie that he should stop providing 
marijuana to others.

"If such spoon-feeding was necessary, that's not a person that you 
can trust to be put on bond," he argued. "That's the kind of person 
you have to detain because he's not going to listen on his own. And 
that's the basic problem here."

Christie's continued detention was sealed when Judge Kay, in an 
atypical move, followed the traditional hard line of the prosecution, 
denying Christie bond based on his behavior after the March 2010 
search warrant was executed, even though all of his co-defendants 
were released-some of whom were facing even more serious charges than 
Christie himself.

Christie's Accomplices

Turpen is charged with knowingly and intentionally manufacturing 
marijuana, a schedule I controlled substance, involving 1,000 or more 
marijuana plants. He's also charged with intent to distribute those 
1,108 plants. Sudbury is charged with manufacturing marijuana 
involving 100 or more plants. He is also charged with the intent to 
distribute those plants. Gibson is charged with manufacturing 
marijuana involving 100 or more plants. He is also charged with the 
intent to distribute those plants. Ignacio and Policicchio are 
charged with manufacturing marijuana involving 50 or more plants. 
They are charged with the intent to distribute those plants. John 
Bouey III and Michael Shapiro are also charged with manufacturing 
marijuana, with Bouey III accused of growing 26 plants and Shapiro 
accused of growing two plants.

Christie's girlfriend, who is alleged to be Christie's "business 
partner" in the ministry, was released to their home in Hilo, 
according to public defender Winter in a bond appeal. According to 
the government's case, St. Cyr was a joint signatory on the safe 
deposit box from which cash was seized, and was present during at 
least one of the searches that resulted in the seizure of marijuana. 
Allegedly, she was "deeply involved" in the distribution of marijuana 
and recorded on numerous wiretapped conversations making alleged drug 
deals. She, however, was released.

And He Broke the Bread, and Rolled a...

"The thing is," argued Winter in his court filings, "Christie readily 
admitted he was providing marijuana to members of his church, for a 
donation, to take as a sacrament. Even before his arrest, Christie 
consented to multiple interviews with state and federal law 
enforcement agents on his use of cannabis as a sacrament, or outward 
and visible sign of divine grace."

In other words, wrote Winter, "his use and advocacy of marijuana has 
been well known to local, state and federal authorities for some 
time. In fact, the State of Hawaii even granted him a license to 
perform weddings as a Cannabis Sacrament Minister in 2000."

Christie has been operating the ministry for a decade on the Hilo 
bayfront and he's even run for mayor of the Big Island twice. 
Regarded as a man of integrity within the Big Island community, two 
now-former Big Island county councilmembers, Emily Naeole-Beason and 
Kelly Greenwell, wrote to the court urging for Christie's release 
pending his July 6 trial date.

Christie's criminal history consists of one deferred prosecution for 
promoting a detrimental drug in 1992. Christie served honorably in 
the US Army and was trained in intelligence operations.

In the meantime, THC Ministry has closed its doors in Hilo, in a 
voluntary, albeit unsuccessful, bid by Christie to secure release to 
a half-way house pending the trial. Christie and his co-defendants 
have a trial date set for July 6 in Honolulu. If found guilty, 
federal prosecutor Kawahara has signaled he will move to seize 
Christie's cash and property, as well as holdings of St. Cyr, Turpen, 
Ignacio and Policicchio.

Religious War

"The thing about Christie's case is... that he's a totally 
non-violent guy," says Wirtshafter. "And they're holding him in 
prison, in federal detention with no bond, over the issue of 'Oh my 
God he might sell cannabis again!' They're accusing Roger of a crime 
- -- [and] he doesn't get bond? He's too dangerous? That's the part 
that irks me."

Also, adds Wirtshafter, they've put the trial off for a year, because 
the case is so complex with many wire-tapped conversations and 
video-taped surveillances. The prosecutors have all the information, 
and Christie is sitting in a prison cell with no access to a computer 
or to the evidence.

"He's sitting in isolation, and you can't prepare for anything while 
in prison," Wirtshafter says. "Every defendant, all 14, arrested in 
this case qualified for the federal pretrial release. They really 
believe they have a right to do this." Wirtshafter says he's known 
Christie the past 20 years, but hasn't seen him in several years and 
has not been involved in the THC Ministry.

If the 14 defendants go to trial, Wirtshafter thinks the trial could 
last up to three months "over not much at all." From Wirtshafter's 
knowledge, the whole case hinges on one taped conversation during 
which marijuana was spoken of.

"That's what they're pointing out is the big harm here," he says. 
"The government gets ferocious over this bond thing. US attorneys are 
raised on this idea 'marijuana is awful and we have to get rid of 
it.' It's this rabid government prosecution of little cases while 
they're ignoring the real problems of crime.

"There are a lot of people growing large quantities of marijuana and 
making a lot of money on this, but this is more of a religious war on 
the part of the government shown by the fact that they're going after 
this truly religious adherence."

[sidebar by Lucy Jokiel]


On May 31, 2002, a three-judge panel for the Ninth Circuit Court of 
Appeals ruled to limit federal prosecutions of Rastafarians who use 
marijuana for sacramental purposes on federal property or in US 
territories. The judges determined that protections granted by a 1993 
federal religious-freedom law permits the personal use and possession 
of marijuana, but not the sale or importation of marijuana for 
religious purposes.

The case followed criminal prosecution in Guam for the alleged 
importation of five ounces of marijuana and 10 grams of marijuana 
seeds. The defendant asked the trial court to dismiss the indictment, 
claiming that the criminal statutes violated his right to freely 
exercise his religion under the Organic Act of Guam and the federal 
Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA). Rastafarians traditionally 
use marijuana in religious rituals to enhance their consciousness of 
the relationship between God, creation, and the individual soul.

The trial court, the Guam Supreme Court, and the Ninth Circuit all 
agreed, concluding that the federal territory's controlled substance 
statute substantially burdened the defendant's right to freely 
exercise his religion. The decision applies to federal lands in nine 
western states and American territories.

The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution says the government 
cannot make laws "prohibiting the free exercise" of religion. Some 
people say using marijuana as a religious sacrament, and forcing them 
not to use marijuana clearly prohibits the free exercise of their 
religion. Others believe that the use of any type of intoxicant for 
religious purposes is illegal.

In December 2006, a federal judge in Albuquerque, New Mexico, ruled 
against the founders of an Arizona church who claimed that their 
marijuana was for religious use. The judge stated that the defendants 
did not have a legitimate religious belief in marijuana, but instead 
had "adopted their 'religious' belief in cannabis as a sacrament and 
deity in order to justify their lifestyle choice to use marijuana."

This ruling sends a signal that courts are not likely to extend the 
Supreme Court's ruling on protecting the religious use of marijuana.
- ---
MAP posted-by: Richard Lake