The U.S. State Department has again made clear that religious discrimination against marijuana consumers is a problem in other countries—though it also once more declined to mention that such discrimination inherently occurs in the U.S. due to ongoing federal prohibition.
In its latest annual Report on International Religious Freedom, the department identified about a dozen countries and territories where cannabis policies either discriminate against consumers or where marijuana laws have been reformed to better respect religious liberties. The document shows similar themes as in past years.
“I’m here one more time, proudly, to talk about freedom and free societies. And while America is not a perfect nation by any means, we always strive towards that more perfect union, trying to improve,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said at a recent press conference on the report, which covers developments that took place in 2019. “We remain the greatest nation in the history of civilization.”
Here’s a breakdown of what the report found:
Antigua and Barbuda
The Caribbean nation decriminalized cannabis, enabling the government to “uphold the religious rights of persons of the Hindu and Rastafarian faiths,” the report states. “It allows these persons to apply for a special religious license to cultivate the plant within their private dwelling, use the plant for religious purposes within their private dwelling or within their approved place of worship, and transport the plant between their private dwelling and approved place of worship.”
“In the wake of decriminalization of marijuana use and cultivation for religious purposes, Rastafarian leaders continued to state publicly the government had taken steps to recognize the dignity and worth of the Rastafarian community,” the State Department noted.
That said, the cannabis license for religious purposes “does not permit any commercial or financial transaction involving any part of the cannabis plant.”
Rastafarians in the Bahamas have said that the government continues to discriminate against them “because of their dreadlocks and their religious use of marijuana.”
In December, the Bahamas National Commission made a recommendation to sanction the religious use of cannabis for Rastafarians, the report notes.
“Prime Minister Hubert Minnis, whose party had a strong legislative majority, was an outspoken advocate of reforming marijuana laws,” it continues. “Parliament took no legal action on the recommendation by year’s end.”
In the meantime, “Rastafarians said police continued to arrest them for possessing small quantities of marijuana used in ceremonial rituals and said prison authorities cut the dreadlocks of Rastafarian prisoners.”
“Rastafarians expressed objections to the government’s proposed Medicinal Cannabis Industry Bill, introduced in August, which would legalize marijuana for medicinal purposes, while remaining silent on whether other personal use, including for religious rituals, would remain prohibited,” the department found.
It acknowledges, however, that the attorney general said late last year that a committee “would begin discussions on the use of marijuana for sacramental purposes.”
The report notes that the Czech government has denied registration to the Cannabis Church, and that decision has been upheld after several appeals.
“Rastafarians continued to press the government for complete legalization of marijuana use, stating they considered decriminalization to be a commercially focused half measure,” the State Department said. “Representatives of the Rastafarian community again reported authorities did not enforce the law against using marijuana when they used it in their religious rites.”
The prime minister has pushed for decriminalizing cannabis for medical, recreational and religious purposes, though legislation has not yet been enacted to that end.
While low-level possession of marijuana is decriminalized in the nation, Rastafarians said the ban on possessing more than 15 grams “infringed on their religious practices.”
“The Guyana Rastafari Council continued to petition the government to legalize the use of small amounts of marijuana for religious purposes, but according to the council, authorities again would not consider the proposal, stating that reviewing drug legislation remained a low priority for the government,” the report states.
“Rastafarians continued to report wider societal acceptance despite what they said was their continuing to be typecast as marijuana dealers, as well as certain limitations associated with their wearing dreadlocks and smoking marijuana,” the department said.
Meanwhile, Jamaican officials have said they would be applying pressure on the U.S. to pass legislation protecting banks from being penalized for servicing cannabis businesses.
The country also recent announced that it will be allowing medical marijuana patients to make cannabis purchases online for pickup at “herb houses” as a social distancing measure to help combat the coronavirus pandemic.
As in several other nations included in the review, “Rastafarians continued to object to the laws making use and possession of cannabis a criminal offense in country, stating its use is a part of their religious doctrine.”
Saint Kitts and Nevis
The ban on personal consumption of marijuana was deemed unconstitutional in the dual-island nation last year, meaning “Rastafarians may smoke marijuana as part of their religious activities.” The report also acknowledges that legalization legislation has been introduced but not yet enacted.
That bill would legalize cannabis for “medicinal and scientific, religious and recreational purposes.”
Rastafarians said that they’ve engaged in constructive conversations with government officials about various social issues, including marijuana legalization.
“In July the government established a commission to develop recommendations regarding possible steps towards legalizing or decriminalizing marijuana. The commission’s mandate focused on the commercial benefits of cannabis production,” the report states. “According to a government official, the commission was required as part of the public consultations needed to amend the constitution, but the Rastafarian community said the government was using the commission to delay making a decision on decriminalization or legalization until after the next parliamentary election in 2021.”
Saint Vincent and the Grenadines
Following the legalization of medical cannabis, “government officials stated publicly that Rastafarians and Hindus could use cannabis for sacramental purposes.” The Rastafarians community was also prioritized for cannabis cultivation licenses.
“Rastafarians said they still faced societal discrimination because of their religious practices but cited the legalization of medical marijuana as evidence of the continued increase in societal acceptance of and tolerance for Rastafarian culture and traditions,” according to the report.
“The government continued to enforce a law prohibiting the production, sale, and consumption of marijuana,” the department said. “Rastafarians said this prohibition was an infringement on their religious freedom to access cannabis, a core component of their religious practices.”
Trinidad and Tobago
Late last year, lawmakers in Trinidad and Tobago approved legislation decriminalizing low-level marijuana possession. Another bill filed last year would establish a licensing scheme for the cultivation and sale of cannabis for medical, research and religious purposes.
“Prior to the [decriminalization] law’s passage, several Muslim organizations asked the government to conduct an independent analysis of the pros and cons of decriminalizing marijuana,” the report says. “Members of the Rastafarian community supported the law. Pro-marijuana activists criticized the legislation for not going far enough to legalize marijuana use and cultivation.”
The State Department report does not discuss domestic cannabis policy or its discriminatory effects on marijuana consumers, even as U.S. courts have continually rejected cases arguing that religious exceptions should be made to the country’s cannabis criminalization laws that result in hundreds of thousands of arrests every year.
“Our nation is so special and it’s the greatest nation in the history of civilization,” Pompeo argued at the press conference earlier this month. “It’s so special that challenges like the ones that we’re confronting here in the United States today will be managed head-on, there will be a political process that’s engaged of, there will be wide open debate, and our core principles—the fact that we respect every human being because they are made in the image of God—will be reflected in the way that the United States responds to these challenge.”
Photo courtesy of Mike Latimer.