The Rutherford Institute, a Charlottesville-based organization that defends civil
liberties, is currently representing Carl Eric Olsen in his 30-year struggle for
religious freedom. That in itself is not noteworthy, as The Rutherford Institute
specializes in religious cases. But what is unusual is the particular religious
freedom for which Olsen is fighting. Since the early '70s, Olsen has been a member
of the Ethiopian
Zion Coptic Church (EZCC), a religious group that holds that marijuana is
a sacrament, and whose members smoke it all day, every day.
Rutherford Institute Founder and President John Whitehead loves his hemp cereal.
Rutherford is taking on the case of Carl Eric Olsen, who is fighting for the right
to smoke pot as part of his religion.
The EZCC has existed in Jamaica since at least the 1940s, and was first incorporated
in the United States in Miami in 1975. In the late '70s and early '80s, the Church
was involved in several major drug busts, netting as much as 38,000 pounds of marijuana
in one raid in 1978.
"I [have been] arrested over and over again," Olsen says from his home
in Iowa, and over and over again he has challenged those arrests, losing every time.
But things may be different now. Under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), Olsen, 55, is
claiming that the government is keeping him from practicing his religion. According
to the RFRA, the courts must use "strict scrutiny" in cases involving
religion to make sure that an individual's First Amendment rights have not been
Enter The Rutherford Institute. Despite a seemingly straight-laced image, defending
the right to smoke pot is not necessarily at odds with the Institute's mission.
John Whitehead, Rutherford's founder, says that the issue is not drugs, but religious
freedom. "The question," Whitehead says, "always comes down to, 'What
kind of power does the government have?'" In the case of marijuana legislation,
the answer for Whitehead is too much. Whole Foods, he says, used to sell a hemp
cereal that he was particularly fond of, but "when Bush got into office…[the
government] went crazy for a while" and pulled the cereal off the shelf. "I
love my hemp cereal," says Whitehead.
In a 1979 case, the Florida Supreme Court wrote, "(1) the Ethiopian Zion Coptic
Church represents a religion within the First Amendment to the Constitution of the
United States; (2) the 'use of cannabis is an essential portion of the religious
practice.'" Nevertheless, the U.S. Court of Appeals upheld a ruling in 1990
denying Olsen a religious exemption to smoke marijuana. That ruling meant that he
could no longer be a practicing member of the EZCC.
"Without being able to gather with other people and smoke marijuana,"
says Olsen, "my religion does not exist."
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