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Feds Recognize Religious Discrimination Against Marijuana Consumers

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The U.S. State Department identified several instances of discrimination against religious groups that ceremonially use marijuana in an annual report on religious freedom released last week.

The document does not include mention of cannabis discrimination in the U.S., however, where marijuana consumption remains federally prohibited regardless of religious context.

Cannabis appeared in more than a dozen sections of the report focusing on various countries, with mentions primarily concerning the use of marijuana by those who practice Rastafarianism. While there were some positive developments for the religious group noted in the document, members in multiple countries said anti-cannabis laws continue to foster a discriminatory climate.

In the Bahamas, for example, Rastafarians “continued to be arrested for possessing small quantities of marijuana they used in ceremonial rituals” and said that “the government discriminated against them in discussions on the legalization of marijuana for medicinal use.”

Rastafarians in Sierra Leone describe prohibition “as an infringement on their religious freedom to access cannabis, as it is a core component of their religious practices.” The State Department said that two members were arrested for cannabis-related offenses, including a high priest whose marijuana was seized.

While cannabis is prohibited in Dominca, Rastafarians said the law is not enforced when the plant is used in a religious ceremony. However, they complained of excess government scrutiny, which they attributed to their association with marijuana.

In Barbados, Rastafarians also contested the government’s prohibition of marijuana and said that immigration officials “gave extra scrutiny to Rastafarian women at checkpoints as pretexts to search for marijuana.”

Rastafarians in Malawi, Guyana, Saint Vincent, Saint Kitts and Nevis and Saint Lucia expressed similar frustration over their respective governments’ cannabis policies. (Though not mentioned in the report, which covers 2018, Saint Kitts’s High Court ruled this March that adults can legally consume marijuana for personal use.)

The Caribbean nation of Antigua and Barbuda decriminalized marijuana last March, and the government “publicly apologized to the Rastafarian community for previous discrimination.”

“The Rastafarian community had argued against previous prohibition of marijuana, stating it was a restriction to their religious practice and that marijuana was integral to the community’s religious rituals,” the State Department wrote. “In the wake of decriminalization, Rastafarian leaders said publicly the government had taken steps to recognize the dignity and worth of the Rastafarian community.”

Rastafarians also made gains in South Africa last year, with the country’s Constitution Court upholding a lower court ruling that deemed the government’s ban on cannabis possession and cultivation for personal use unconstitutional.

The Municipal Court in Prague also ruled on appeal in March that the Czech Republic’s Ministry of Culture must reopen registration for the Cannabis Church to be recognized as a religious group. The office requested additional information for the registration but has not yet taken action on the church’s application.

The federal reports don’t reflect the U.S. government’s position on cannabis policy; rather, they simply offer an overview of the religious landscape internationally. The State Department has put out reports mentioning marijuana’s relationship to discrimination faced by religious groups around the world each year since at least 2015.

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Photo courtesy of Brian Shamblen.

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Kyle Jaeger is Marijuana Moment's Sacramento-based senior editor. His work has also appeared in High Times, VICE and attn.

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