Pubdate: Sat, 23 Nov 2013
Source: Albuquerque Journal (NM)
Copyright: 2013 Albuquerque Journal
Author: Patrick Lohmann
Bookmark: (Spiritual or Sacramental)


Man Busted With Marijuana Says It Is for Religious Purposes

Richard L. Chavez, aka "Rasta Ritchi," smokes marijuana as a 
religious sacrament, and he smokes a lot of it.

So when Bernalillo County sheriff's deputies arrived at his home at 4 
a.m. two months ago, they discovered upwards of 75 plants - some of 
which stood more than 12 feet tall in Chavez's South Valley front 
yard - and more than 8 ounces of pot.

They arrested him, and now he's facing felony charges of possession 
of marijuana with intent to distribute, despite what Chavez claims is 
his religious right to smoke marijuana as a practice of his faith.

"This is the murder they caused," Chavez said Thursday as he pointed 
to the loose dirt and four-inch-deep holes where his marijuana crop 
once stood. "... I use herb to enlighten my mind, and they're trying 
to treat me as a criminal."

Chavez's attorney, John McCall, said New Mexico does not have any law 
currently on the books that would protect Chavez from criminal 
charges for using marijuana, even if he were using it religiously. 
However, McCall said recent state case law could make New Mexico 
uniquely poised to relax drug laws for those using controlled 
substances in practicing their faith.

Chavez, 41, was also arrested in 1997 in Albuquerque on marijuana 
possession charges after he'd been a Rastafarian for almost two 
decades. Those charges were dismissed by a District Court judge who 
said the charges should be dropped because jurors were not instructed 
about Chavez's "religious right to use marijuana." The Court of 
Appeals ultimately overturned that ruling and referred the case back 
to District Court, and the charges were reduced to a misdemeanor 
disorderly conduct charge, McCall said.

Even though the appeals court rejected the lower court's ruling, the 
subsequent opinion included testimony from a Caribbean expert who 
testified that Rastafarianism is a legitimate religion, McCall said, 
in addition to a then-recent court opinion from Guam that recognized 
a person's right to smoke marijuana as a sacrament.

McCall said New Mexico has a history of fighting for religious use of 
illegal drugs, and that has left courts here "primed for a decision like this".

In 2006, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of Jeffrey Bronfman, a 
Santa Fe resident who adhered to an obscure Brazilian religion that 
sanctified the use of ayahuasca, a potentially psychoactive concoction.

Also, New Mexico courts have allowed Native Americans and later 
non-Indians to use peyote, a hallucinogen, for religious purposes. In 
1991, New Mexico's United States District Court Judge Juan Burciaga 
wrote an opinion allowing non-Indian use of the drug and issued an 
influential opinion that said prohibiting drug use as part of 
religious exercise is a violation of Constitutional rights.

A spokeswoman with the District Attorney's Office said Chavez's case 
is under review as prosecutors await more information from law 
enforcement. She said they so far haven't received any information 
about Chavez's religious background.
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