The U.S. State Department has released its annual report to Congress on international religious freedom issues, again examining the relationship between marijuana laws in other countries and how they either respect or violate the rights of certain believers to practice their faiths.
For 2022, the report revealed increased tolerance in some countries for religious groups like Rastafarians who use cannabis ceremonially, with spiritual leaders saying that they’ve been encouraged by reform efforts to legalize or decriminalize marijuana.
In certain nations like Saint Lucia, religious organizations said that the government had actively engaged them on cannabis issues. And while certain groups in other countries continue to fight for ending prohibition—a policy that they say infringes on their religious rights—the trend in 2022 was more positive than past years for those who consume marijuana as part of the spiritual tradition.
The report notably does not detail how the ongoing criminalization of cannabis federally in the U.S. affects the rights of religious groups domestically. But while President Joe Biden directed a review into marijuana scheduling last year, prohibition remains the law of the land and makes no exception for spiritual use.
Here’s a breakdown of what the report found:
A law that decriminalized marijuana “also recognizes the government’s responsibility to uphold the religious rights of persons of the Hindu and Rastafari faiths,” the report says.
“The law 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 places of worship,” it continues.
However, the special religious license doesn’t permit the commercial sales of marijuana, and the State Department notes that “some Rastafarians with licenses to cultivate cannabis complained that police targeted them for arrest for transporting cannabis, which the law permitted between private residences and private places of worship.”
Rastafarians reported that the government has continued to violate “their constitutional right to religious freedom by prohibiting the legal use of marijuana in ceremonial rituals,” the State Department said. But there are plans in the works to allow legal access to medical cannabis.
“Rastafarians said police continued to profile and arrest them for possessing small quantities of marijuana used in ceremonial rituals,” it says. “If convicted of a crime, Rastafarians were not exempt from the prison’s short-hair policy and were required to cut their dreadlocks.”
The report also noted that Rastafarians who faced drug-related convictions were placed in rehabilitation centers.
In 2022, “the government entered consultations with Rastafarian religious leaders on medicinal cannabis and industrial hemp legislation,” and Rastafarian leader Rithmond McKinney “said the discussions were a step in the right direction in sanctioning marijuana use for the Rastafarian community. The government said it expects to introduce the bill in 2023.”
In Dominica, Rastafarians “continued to press the government for complete legalization of marijuana use for religious purposes following the decriminalization of possession of less than one ounce of marijuana in 2020,” while cultivation remained prohibited.
“Representatives of the Rastafarian community, however, again said authorities did not enforce the law against using marijuana when the community used it in its religious rites,” the department said. “In July, Prime Minister Roosevelt Skerrit announced his support for allowing a domestic medical marijuana industry.”
Rastafari in Ethiopia said that they’ve faced suspicion from other communities because of “their spiritual use of marijuana.”
Rastafari in Guyana said that a law that continues to criminalize possession of up to 15 grams of cannabis “infringed on their religious practices.”
They also said that legislation enacted last year to allow counseling and community service as an alternative sentence for possessing up to 30 grams still “discriminated against Rastafarians because the law hindered their constitutional right to freely practice their religion.”
The Rastafari Council “continued to petition the government to legalize the use of small amounts of marijuana for religious purposes,” and a council member “said he believed the new law discriminated against Rastafarians because it hindered their constitutional right to freely practice their religion.”
Rastafari reported facing discrimination when seeking to serve in the Jamaica Defense Force (JDF). While the military institution said it does not discriminate based on religious identity, they maintained strict rules prohibiting the use of cannabis and mandating hair length standards.
The requirements “were the obstacles to Rastafarian participation in the force.”
“Rastafarians continued to report wider societal acceptance, despite continued negative stereotyping and stigma associated with their wearing locs and smoking marijuana,” the report says.
“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,” the State Department said.
Last November, Rastafarians held a peaceful protest to “denounce the fact that they cannot legally use marijuana in their religious ceremonies” under the Dangerous Drugs Act.
Police arrested 12 Rastafari members during that protest, and they were “later released on bail.”
“The constitution provides for freedom of religion and prohibits discrimination based on religion,” the report says. “The government continued to ban public marijuana usage except for registered places of worship of the Rastafarian religious community or any place authorized by the Prevention and Abatement of the Misuse and Abuse of Drugs Act.”
A top government official earned bipartisan support for their proposal to implement a 2019 court ruling that allows “citizens to legally use marijuana in private places.” That includes use “for religious activities, as well as in registered spaces of worship for members of the Rastafarian faith.”
The government engaged with both the Saint Lucian Christian Church and Rastafarian community on cannabis policy issues last year after the country decriminalized possession of up to 30 grams of marijuana for personal use.
“Rastafarians continued to say they were accepted in society, and overall, the country’s citizens were becoming more tolerant of their way of life—especially regarding their traditional cultivation of cannabis,” the report says, noting that “possession and use of two ounces or fewer of marijuana is decriminalized, including for religious rites.”
“As a result of the decriminalization of possession of small amounts of marijuana for personal use, observers said there was widespread and increasing use of cannabis on the country’s main island, which they believed suggested broader societal acceptance of its use,” it says.
Rastafarians advocated for the legalization of marijuana, and the Seychelles Interfaith Council ultimately came out in support of legalizing cannabis for medicinal purposes, while ensuring that polices were enacted to prevent youth consumption.
In Sierra Leone, Rastafarians said that the “government continued to prohibit the production, sale, and consumption of marijuana, although they again did not report any arrests or fines of their members during the year.”
“Rastafarians said this prohibition under the country’s law was an infringement on their religious freedom to access cannabis, which, they said, was a core component of their religious practices,” the report says.
The report notes that possessing up to 30 grams of cannabis is legal, while public consumption remains prohibited.
“The law also provides a pathway for removing prior marijuana convictions from a person’s criminal record, including those using marijuana for religious rituals, and it allows individuals to cultivate plants for personal use,” it says.
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.