The growing number of countries that are moving to repeal harsh penalties against marijuana use are helping to reduce religious discrimination against Rastafarians and other groups, the U.S. State Department noted in an annual report released on Wednesday.
But while the federal government is again making it a point to outline ongoing cannabis-related discrimination in some foreign countries and territories, the latest edition of the Report on International Religious Freedom declines to recognize the inherent discrimination that exists in the U.S., where marijuana remains federally illegal.
“Religious freedom is a human right; in fact, it goes to the heart of what it means to be human—to think freely, to follow our conscience, to change our beliefs if our hearts and minds lead us to do so, to express those beliefs in public and in private,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a briefing about the report. “For many people around the world this right is still out of reach.”
The new State Department document discusses cannabis policies in more than a dozen nations and how they intersect with religious liberties, including by noting that a growing movement toward legalization and decriminalization is helping to reduce discrimination that has been prevalent in the past.
Here’s a breakdown of what the report found:
This country is one that is enacting reforms that are leading to a reduction in feelings of religious discrimination connected to cannabis.
It decriminalized marijuana “for any use” and the new law “recognizes the government’s responsibility to uphold the religious rights of persons of the Hindu and Rastafarian faiths,” the State Department said.
Further, members of these faith groups are allowed 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.”
The special license does not provide for commercialization or legal sales, however.
“Some Rastafarians continued to state the government violated their constitutional right to religious freedom by prohibiting the legal use of marijuana in ceremonial rituals,” the report states. “Rastafarians said police continued to arrest them for possessing small quantities of marijuana used in ceremonial rituals.”
Members of this group said law enforcement has been “disrespectful and intimidated them during detention.”
But change could be coming, with Prime Minister Hubert Minnis backing a policy change that would enable “Rastafarians and other religious groups who use cannabis for sacramental purposes be allowed to possess, cultivate, and use it for that reason.”
The prime minister said that, beginning this year, people with prior marijuana possession convictions could have their records expunged. However, that would require legislative action.
Meanwhile, the State Department notes that the Bahamas Christian Council opposes legalization, quoting the group as saying it “can see no societal or national advantage” to the reform.
This is another nation that is seeing moves to reform cannabis laws.
The government last year announced its intention to decriminalize marijuana, which would be a welcome reform to the Rastafarian community, the report notes. Still, members of that group said they “hoped eventually further measures would enable them to cultivate marijuana on their farms for personal as well as commercial use.”
“Based on media reports, there appeared to be minimal opposition from mainstream religious organizations to the government’s marijuana decriminalization decision,” the department said.
Rastafarians the State Department spoke to noted that the “commercial and medicinal benefits of marijuana cultivation were well established, and the community was optimistic about further liberalization.”
This nation has seen cannabis reforms that are seen as not going far enough by some.
Last year, the government decriminalized the possession of up to 28 grams of marijuana for adults for personal religious use.
But “Rastafarians continued to press the government for complete legalization of marijuana use, stating they considered decriminalization to be a commercially focused half-measure,” the report says. “Representatives of the Rastafarian community said authorities did not enforce the law against using marijuana when the community used it in its religious rites.”
The report briefly notes that the Evangelical community discussed the possibility of cannabis legalization in talks with Rastafarian leaders.
Rastafarians “continued to state a law criminalizing the possession of 15 grams or more of marijuana infringed on their religious practices” and late last year the government’s cabinet responded by approving a decision to amend the law to remove custodial sentencing for small amounts of cannabis.
“Rastafarians continued to report wider societal acceptance despite continued negative stereotyping and stigma associated with their wearing locs and smoking marijuana,” the report says, adding that there was significant media attention paid to the 75th birthday of the late cannabis icon Bob Marley, “a Rastafarian advocate whose music and rhetoric helped popularize the religion in the 1970s.”
That said, the Jamaican Defense Force generally does not accept Rastafarians into its ranks, with the “strict codes of conduct regarding hair length and the prohibition of marijuana use among its members [being] obstacles to Rastafarian participation in the force.”
The report says that “Rastafarians continued to object to laws making the use and possession of cannabis a criminal offense in the country, stating its use was a part of their religious doctrine.”
This is another country where recent legal changes related to cannabis are helping to address aspects of discrimination against certain faithers.
Saint Kitts and Nevis legislators approved a bill last year that establishes a medical cannabis program, “aligning the law with a 2019 High Court ruling that the country’s prohibition of the cultivation and possession of cannabis was unconstitutional and an infringement on the freedom of conscience and religion of the Rastafarian community.”
“The law permits the private use of marijuana, including for religious activities,” the report says. “Under the legislation, the newly created Medicinal Cannabis Authority is responsible for issuing cultivator’s licenses exclusively for citizens of the island to grow cannabis for use in private residences and registered places of worship.”
The report notes that representatives of the Rastafarian community say “continued government enforcement of marijuana laws discouraged Rastafarians from using marijuana for religious purposes,” noting that “police increased enforcement of marijuana laws, including raids on marijuana plantations during the COVID-19 lockdown period.
But Rastafarians say they have had “constructive dialogue” with community leaders and local governments, and the “primary issue discussed was encouraging the government to legalize marijuana for religious purposes.”
A government commission was created to create recommendations on potential cannabis reforms. Rastafarians said “they were awaiting the public release of the report and were encouraged by the general trend towards decriminalization and legalization of marijuana in the Caribbean.”
“They said this trend could eventually lead to legal reforms that would allow Rastafarians to legally use marijuana for religious purposes,” the State Department notes.
“Marijuana use is permitted for medical purposes and scientific research,” the report says. “According to government statements, the use of marijuana is also permitted for religious sacraments, but this policy is not enshrined in law.”
The State Department also noted that “officials continued to support Rastafarians and all other religious groups’ use of cannabis for sacramental purposes.”
Lawmakers are considering broader marijuana reform legislation, with government officials noting to U.S. personnel that Prime Minister Ralph Gonsalves’s position is that “Rastafarians and all other religious groups were permitted to use cannabis for sacramental purposes.”
“The government continued to enforce a law prohibiting the production, sale, and consumption of marijuana, which Rastafarians said infringed on their freedom to access cannabis,” the report says, noting that marijuana use is “a core component of their religious practices.”
Possession of to 30 grams of cannabis is lawful, but public consumption remains prohibited, the report says.
“The law also provides a pathway for the expungement of prior marijuana convictions, including for those using marijuana for religious rituals, and it allows individuals to cultivate plants for personal use,” it continues.
The State Department report again 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.
Photo courtesy of Mike Latimer.