In the 1970s and 1980s, there were more illegal pot farms on the Big Island of Hawaii than any two states combined. Soon, against the interests of Big Island residents, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) enacted a mass surveillance and eradication program, Green Harvest, to stamp out the plant and incarcerate growers as part of the organization's nationwide war on the drug. While Hawaii was one of the first states to vote to legalize medical weed in 2000, the state and local governments' relationship to the drug is fraught. In 2016, dispensaries for the limited number of patients who can buy medical marijuana under Hawaii's strict law still aren't up and running. Green Harvest, a program that has been accused of corruption and wrongfully seizing medical marijuana plants, is back in effect on the Big Island, despite being repeatedly denounced by residents.
In this political climate, Colorado transplant Roger Christie has become an example of Hawaii's drug war. In 2000, after applying for and receiving a license to perform marriages with a "cannabis sacrament," he started the Hawaii Cannabis Ministry, or THC Ministry, where weed is god. Based on the constitutional right to religious freedom, Christie argues that he and the members of his church—which, at its peak, had over 50,000 members—are free to grow and smoke cannabis because of their sincere belief that weed is a higher power.
The THC Ministry is to weed what the Satanic Temple is to abortion, though for some time the ministry actually succeeded in making its members a protected class. Christie says the state gave him its blessing to use cannabis in a religious context when they approved his marriage license, and he has since performed weed weddings, baptisms, and funerals. Miraculously, the state pretty much agreed with his interpretation, allowing him to form a church around the drug and practice uninterrupted for nearly ten years. That one government form gave the THC Ministry so much immunity that members didn't even have to live in Hawaii to be protected by the church's tacit exemption. Christie estimates that over 100 people have won legal cases for the right to use cannabis as a member of the THC Ministry.
However, all that changed recently, as I learned when I called Christie to talk about his church. Christie, who had previously been allowed to operate benignly, says he has become a target for law enforcement after he sued the state—and subsequently Big Island police chief Lawrence Mahuna—in a battle to stop the Green Harvest seizures. The DEA raided THC Ministry in 2010, and Christie—along with 13 members of the church, including his wife—was arrested.
Following the raid, Christie, in a sealed indictment, was charged with conspiracy to manufacture, distribute, and possession with intent to distribute more than 100 marijuana plants. He was subsequently held without bail for over three years in Honolulu's Federal Detention Center; his trial was systematically delayed. At one point, a group of Hawaii state senators petitioned President Obama for an investigation Christie's unconstitutional holding. Reports at the time of the trial explain that the federal attorney justified holding Christie, a first-time, non-violent drug offender, by labeling him a "danger to the community."
"It is entirely permissible under the Bail Reform Act to detain a person without bail/bond on the basis of dangerousness alone," the federal attorney said, according to reports at the time. Christie and his wife eventually accepted a plea deal that allowed them to appeal in San Francisco.
Christie, who completed the five years in prison stipulated in his plea deal in 2014, is now released and awaiting his appeal. We talked to Christie while he's on probation at his family's (non-cannabis) farm in Pahala, Hawaii.
BROADLY: Do you consider yourself a politician?
Roger Christie: I first became publicly involved in cannabis legalization when I ran for the mayor of Denver in 1979. I wasn't a politician. I just kind of decided to run for mayor. It was a natural thing. I didn't think it was moral to incarcerate people for non-violent crimes like marijuana possession. I moved to the Big Island on October 12, 1986, and I've since run for mayor twice here. It's not that I even want the job so much—I want the voice. I wouldn't do it if somebody else would. The voice for legalization and freedom for cannabis needs to be out there, and it needs to be heard. Fortunately now [legalization] is rolling pretty well, but it sure was lonely being a cannabis activist 20 or 30 years ago.
When did you start THC Ministry?
I'm a spiritual guy, so I joined a metaphysical church back in the 80s when I first got to the Big Island. They were afraid to talk about cannabis at the service, even though we were all cannabis smokers. I thought, What's the deal? This is the center for spiritual truth, and this is our truth. We use cannabis to get high, and getting high is a spiritual term and activity (we're not raising our own bodies off the ground—something else is elevating us). So I left that church for another one, the Religion of Jesus Church, that was from Hawaii as well and started by Pastor Jim Kimmel. He called cannabis his sacrament, and that was a brand new thing for me. I liked the respect they gave cannabis. Saint Augustine says that a sacrament is the visible form of an invisible grace, which is a really beautiful way to describe cannabis.
I was at that church for several years, and they asked me to be ordained as a minister. I finally did that in 2000, and shortly after that I applied to the State of Hawaii to marry people as a cannabis minister. I put that right on my application—"Cannabis Sacrament Minister"—and they approved it! It was shocking. I didn't expect it to go so smoothly. So essentially the State of Hawaii made a contract with me. They accepted my cannabis sacrament ministry as a legitimate way to legally marry people. That was in June of 2000, the very same month that medical marijuana legality started. But I didn't need medical marijuana—I had the state's blessing. I've tried to legalize cannabis for many years in many different ways, and here this door just opened up for me. The government blessed me and my cannabis ministry. I was fully grateful and I thought, What can I do with this license? How can I serve my community?
I became an activist partly, if I may digress, because I was trained as an analyst at a US Army spy school during the Vietnam War. I did graduate from the intelligence training, but I refused to go to Vietnam because I was against the war. Instead of being court-martialed and thrown into prison for refusing to serve, I sued the army and won. I did this all on my own, without a lawyer, when I was 21. I got my honorable discharge and full GI Bill. My company commander said the reason that I won was one word: sincerity. That word has been very important to me my entire life. I told my truth in a very dangerous situation against the government, and I've used that lesson my whole life. So with cannabis, I just told my truth: I'm a cannabis sacrament minister. And the government said, "Great! Here's your license, young man."
What types of services did the church perform?
The church was donation based. We just wanted to lift people up. By far, most of the members joined the church for free. The church is for spiritual people who get high with cannabis. We provided a spiritual home and sanctuary for people.
What does a weed funeral look like?
As you can imagine, it's a very sacred service when anyone is called to help with a funeral. I was very honored to be called upon and bring a kind of stability and good vibes. We did funerals for people who were members. We added the cannabis to the ceremony as a way to honor the dead and make the people who were left behind feel better. We had the sacrament smoke, of course, but we also had an anointment with holy oil. Holy anointing oil is mentioned in the Bible 163 times. There's a recipe in every Bible for the holy anointing oil, and it's supposed to include cannabis. In almost every single Bible, [cannabis] has been mistranslated, but in the Torah you can see it. In the English-language Bibles it's been translated as "fragrant cane." We put the cannabis back in the recipe and started making it. It's fantastic. We anoint people's heads with cannabis anointing oil, and we've gotten shocking results with it. It opens up the head chakra in a very precise way. We've cured gangrene.
In the eyes of the law, were the activities of the THC Ministry actually protected under religious freedom?
Up until recently, yes. I ran the ministry for just under ten very happy years. I was honored and respected on just about every level of Hawaii government and law enforcement. I got great coverage in all the local newspapers for being the first person in the US to get a license to use cannabis to legally marry people. And I did. I started marrying people with cannabis as the sacrament. Then I thought, how big can this get? This license protects me, and it protects the people I marry in a wedding, so I must be allowed to grow it and transport it and possess it. And everybody agreed. I was kind of an insider and friends with law enforcement for a long time.
I started to wonder if this license would protect other people, so I started the THC Ministry. I made membership cards with my marriage license number on it and printed them up by the tens of thousands. I thought I could run interference for people who became members of our ministry, who otherwise didn't have a legal defense for their cannabis use. If they ever got arrested for growing or using cannabis, they could show their ID card, and I would be involved in their case. That became true.
Has it not worked in some cases?
Yes. Before the raid, around six people had been arrested. There's two things that make the defense work: sincerity and legitimacy. I used to say to people, "I can provide you the legitimacy, but sincerity is up to you." Sometimes people got arrested, and they were not sincere. They were using the ministry to grow and sell pot. That's not what it was for.
What happened for me was I had a beautiful, ocean-front building in Hilo for ten years, where we provided church services and cannabis sacraments. I counseled people, I performed weddings, I performed baptisms, and I occasionally performed funerals. It was a beautiful, rewarding experience for many years.
If the government had pretty much left you alone for all these years, why did they suddenly raid the church?
I went a little too far. Well, I didn't think I went too far, but in the year 1999 I sued the mayor and six councilmen to stop the Green Harvest helicopter eradication program. They were eradicating fields without search warrants and just stealing the bud. I didn't like that, and a lot of people didn't like that, but I was willing to stand up and do something. I sued the government, and I won. I stopped the helicopter eradications for one year; they rejected the federal funding because I had a very valid case to impeach the mayor. That was a giant success.
It opens up the head chakra in a very precise way. We've cured gangrene.
I was able to delay Green Harvest for a year, but I wanted to do it on a permanent basis. I drafted a law in the mid-2000s called Peaceful Sky [which would make adult "personal use" of cannabis a "lowest law enforcement priority" on the Big Island]. The county ordinance passed in 2008 in a public vote. We were so elated. Can you imagine, the pro-cannabis people won a law like that on the Big Island? But about two years later I open a newspaper, and there's our chief of police saying he wasn't going to obey it. I was like, are you kidding me? So I called him up—of course I knew him—and I confronted him about it. I asked, is the report accurate, did they get it wrong? And he said, "No, I'm not going to obey this county law. I'm going to obey state law and federal law, which say cannabis is illegal." I told him he had just violated his oath to the citizens of Hawaii County who pay his salary, and I'm going to have to bring you up on charges. I'll see you at the police commission.
So I went to the police commission, which is a civilian review agency of the police department in every county that almost nobody knows about, and I filed a report. Bingo, the next day I'm on the front page for bringing charges against the police chief for violating his oath of office. The cannabis minister going up against the police chief was a big deal. It went on the agenda for the next police commission meeting to bring charges against the police chief, and on the day of the hearing he retired. The next police chief honored the law for about a year—the helicopter raids completely stopped—but then it went back to business as usual.
But after the police chief retired I went from being an insider to an outsider, and they wanted to take me down. After putting me under extreme investigation, sending undercover agents, GPSing my car, the police finally arrested me and my then-girlfriend, now wife, and a dozen other people in July 2010. I was charged with federal crimes, denied bail eight times, and never got a trial. After telling me that I was legally within my rights for ten years, they took me out.
They also tried to claim I had a fake ministry, but it's the prohibition of cannabis that is a complete fraud.
What's the next step in your case?
Thank God I'm out of prison, first of all. They tried to send me to prison for 480 years for distributing marijuana, a Schedule I drug. They also tried to claim I had a fake ministry, but my wife and I actually got a court ruling that establishes we're a legitimate ministry. It's the prohibition of cannabis that is a complete fraud.
Now I'm on appeal. We rejected the first plea deal. We rejected it again the second time they offered it when they added more charges—we really wanted a trial—and we finally got a plea bargain that included a very rare appeal in San Francisco, which we accepted. I finished my mandatory minimum prison sentence about a year ago and I'm on probation. My wife is on supervised release, and she's still facing 27 months in prison if we lose the appeal. Hopefully we'll win the appeal. I can get my home back, my wife can be free, and we can win religious freedom for cannabis for everybody in the US. We want to be the last marijuana trial.
So I'm assuming you're not able to celebrate 4/20? :(
The THC Ministry would do a political service and a spiritual service on 4/20. I would rent the county park and have a ceremony. We would never get arrested. One year, it even fell perfectly on Easter. Since I was arrested, I haven't had weed in six years.
You can follow Roger Christie's appeal on The Last Marijuana Trial.