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Suspects Say Pot Is Part of Faith

Scott Sandlin, Albuquerque Journal, 26th August 2006

An Arizona couple who claim marijuana as deity and sacrament— as well as food, shelter and medicine— staked their religious freedom claim this week in federal court in Albuquerque.

Danuel and Mary Quaintance of Pima, Ariz., were arrested in February in Lordsburg with 172 pounds of marijuana in a car driven by another church member who has subsequently turned state's witness. Mary Quaintance's brother was subsequently arrested in Missouri with 300 pounds of marijuana and was joined as a fourth defendant in the case.

The Quaintances are charged with conspiracy and possession with intent to distribute more than 50 kilos of marijuana, which could mean substantial prison time upon conviction. The U.S. Attorney's Office contends the Quaintances are attempting to use religion as a cover for a drug organization.

The Quaintances say they have a right to cannabis as the central focus of the religion they co-founded, a diffuse, decentralized group of perhaps 130 adherents nationwide called the Church of Cognizance that functions primarily through "individual orthodox member monasteries." In support of their legal position, they point to a U.S. Supreme Court decision in another New Mexico case, O Centro Espirita Beneficente Uniao do Vegetal, or UDV. The 130 or so North American practitioners of that religion, many in Santa Fe, use a hallucinogenic tea called hoasca.

Over three days of hearings in the Quaintances' criminal case, U.S. District Judge Judith Herrera heard testimony from a Berkeley-trained anthropologist, a Zoroastrian priest and the Libertarian candidate for U.S. Senate in Arizona, who is the former sheriff in the county where the Quaintances live and is also a Mormon.

A Sincere Practice
The defense filed a motion to dismiss, saying the Quaintances' use of cannabis is a sincere religious practice.

Danuel Quaintance founded the Church of Cognizance in 1991 and registered it as a religious organization in Arizona in 1994.

The religion, he testified, is based on his own research and interpretation of religious texts and is a form of neo-Zoroastrianism, an ancient religion that holds sacred a drink made from a mountain plant called haoma. The plant, the drink and the god are the same in the teachings of Zoroaster. The Quaintances believe that cannabis, hemp or marijuana is haoma.

Deborah Pruitt, a cultural anthropologist and college professor in Oakland, Calif., who conducted doctoral work with Rastafarians in Jamaica, testified as the defense expert. She distinguished "experiential" religions from faith-based religions that rely on institutionalized doctrine passed down through specialists.

Christian pentecostals, Wiccans, practitioners of voodoo and Sufi trance dancing as well as participants in the peyote rituals of the Native American Church or UDV members share characteristics of religions that rely on direct experience to make contact with spirits or deities, she said.

The use of psychoactive substances in religion is not unusual in regions of the world where they occur, she said. In those religions, the plants are typically referred to as teachers and healers.

Pruitt said new religious forms are typically viewed by mainstream groups as cults or charlatans that challenge mainstream religions, but are no less genuine.

'A Priceless Gift'
Prosecutors called as their expert a retired scientist and Zoroastrian priest born in India and living in Canada to testify about the tenets of his religion. Jehan Bagli, whose research area was medicinal chemistry, said he was ordained at age 13 in the Zoroastrian religion.

Bagli said haoma in the ancient Zoroastrian tradition was a deity and plant that scholars believe may have had hallucinogenic properties.

But he said different plants were employed over the centuries and at present, "We have no knowledge what that plant was."

In present-day Zoroastrian ceremonies, he said, "the mind is considered a priceless gift. Any mind-altering substances are abusing that gift of god and would not be accepted."

Herrera said she would accept written arguments and review documents and transcripts before deciding whether to dismiss charges based on the Quaintances' assertion of their right to freely exercise their religion.

Marc Robert, attorney for Danuel Quaintance, will make the case that Quaintance is "a spiritual man who has followed his religious beliefs and practices at great personal risk."

Assistant U.S. Attorneys Luis Martinez and Amanda Gould will argue that the defendants are drawing from "a hodgepodge of unsupported speculations for most of their assertions... in an effort to cloak themselves in a religious mantel."

If Herrera finds that the Quaintances are sincere religious practitioners, prosecutors will be required to show that there is "compelling government interest" in burdening religion by barring use of marijuana under the Controlled Substances Act.

Meanwhile, the Quaintances are free on bond and conditions that include not using cannabis while the case is pending.

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