Source:   The Olympian
Contact:  Authorities Alarmed: A marijuana defendant's claim of religious freedom
could endanger drug laws, prosecutors say.

By Joel Coffidis
The Olympian

     In a case that one Thurston County deputy prosecutor contends could
topple the state's marijuana laws, a Tumwater man is using a
religiousfreedom defense for his possessing the drug.

     Prosecutors are so concerned that they asked the state Court of
Appeals to issue an emergency stay Friday.  The court granted the stay,
halting the trial of Gene Ross Balzar in county Superior Court.

  Balzar, 32, was arrested Nov. 24 by Olympia police after a traffic stop.
Police found a pound of marijuana in his car.  Balzar contends he is a
shaman with the Rainbow Family of Living Light and was on his way to a
religious rite where the drug was to be given out.

     The stay was granted during the prosecution's closing arguments,
after Superior Court Judge Richard Hicks found that Balzar could claim as
his defense that his actions were protected under the 1993 Religious
Freedom Restoration Act.  Hicks' ruling then left it to jurors to decide
whether the defense has merit.  Because the state would lose the right to
appeal if Balzar were acquitted, Deputy Prosecutor William Halstead took
the unusual step of seeking the stay, said Jon Tunheim, a deputy county

     "It could certainly render the (state's) marijuana laws useless,"
Tunheim said.  Future defendants could simply say they are smoking
marijuana for religious purposes, he said.

     Defense attorney Paul Reed said Tunheim's interpretation is
ridiculous.  Each case would be different, and defendants would need to
prove their marijuana use is a focus of their religious beliefs, Reed

     "It has to be a deeply held religious belief," Reed said.

     Balzar was charge with possession of more than 40 grams of marijuana,
possession of marijuana with intent to deliver and possession of cocaine.
The religious defense applies to the pot charges but not the cocaine
charge, Reed said.

     Prosecutors contend that Balzar testified that his marijuana use is
limited to such things as assisting with meditation.

     "His use of marijuana is not central or required for his religious
practice," Tunheim said.  Thus, the state is not burdening his ability to
practice his religion, which is protected by the First Amendment to the
U.S. Constitution.

     Reed disagreed.

     "It's a sacrament he used for ceremonial purposes," Reed said.

     According to the Encyclopedia of American Religions, the Rainbow
Family of Living Light is a loosely organized network of people, informal
groups and communes that grew out of the counterculture movement of the
late 1960s.

     Marijuana is on of the Godcreated herbs, and it's viewed as having
sacramental value, said Gideon Isreal, owner of the Rainbow Valley
peacegathering site near Littlerock and a Rainbow Family adherent.

     "I believe when you smoke marijuana it does open up a channel that
makes it easier to communicate with God, or the loving spirit within you,"
Isreal said.

     The case is the first use of the 1993 religion act in a pot
possession case in Washington.

     The 9th U.S. circuit Court of Appeals in San Fransisco has rejected
the act as a defense in a case involving possession of marijuana with
intent to deliver, but it left open the act's use for possession of the
drug, Tunheim said.

     However, Reed noted that the 9th Circuit didn't do an indepth
analysis in the decision involving the possessionwithintent ruling,
leaving open the use of the act as a defense on that charge as well.

What's Next
     On Monday, the state Court of Appeals will review whether the 1993
Religious Freedom Restoration Act can be used as a defense in the
marijuanapossession case, or whether the Superior Court trial should
resume before the state court hears the appeal.