Marijuana: controlled substance or religious sacrament?
In December 2015, the Portland branch of the United States Postal Service (USPS) seized a 5-ounce package of marijuana mailed from Eugene by Joy Graves — the leader of the Cottage Grove branch of Oklevueha Native American Church (ONAC) — who says it was intended to help an ailing ONAC member in Ohio.
According to a lawsuit filed against the USPS on Jan. 15 of this year, ONAC considers the marijuana “sacramental” and contends that its marijuana should not be subject to the Controlled Substances Act. The lawsuit, listing ONAC founder James Mooney, Graves and ONAC as plaintiffs, asks that the marijuana be returned.
The lawsuit also seeks a permanent injunction preventing the USPS from seizing any future packages of ONAC’s “sacramental cannabis,” which it says is used for “spiritual healing rituals.” The suit seeks relief for the plaintiffs under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act as well as the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act.
“I’m very upset that they have interfered in the way that they have, because the member who I was trying to help has been greatly suffering. Her faith has been broken,” Graves said in a press conference.
ONAC’s lead counsel in the lawsuit, Matthew Pappas, says the USPS’s seizing of the group’s marijuana doesn’t serve any “compelling government interest” needed for the government to interfere with his clients’ religious freedoms.
“Joy and all of those people, they are believers in this stuff,” Pappas says. The Oklevueha Native American Church believes “the Earth is a temple and all plants heal. Cannabis is a plant. It is their religious right, just like if someone wants to wear a colander on their head,” Pappas says — referencing how, in November 2015, a member of the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster was given a religious exemption by the Massachusetts Registry of Motor Vehicles to wear a colander on her head during her drivers license photo shoot — becoming the fourth American to be granted this exemption, according to USA Today.
The suit also adds that Mooney, who founded ONAC in 1997, is Native American and cites the American Indian Religious Freedom Act (AIRFA), as well as affiliation with several tribes, to bolster ONAC’s claim to religious legitimacy.
ONAC has been accused of misappropriating Native American culture to skirt the law.
“I’m not anti-marijuana. My concern is that they’re trying to use laws meant to protect Native American ceremonies to conduct illegal activity,” says Ruth Hopkins, who also says ONAC is “desecrating” Native American culture.
Hopkins, an enrolled member of the Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate in the Dakotas, is the chief judge of the Spirit Lake Tribe and has been critical of ONAC in the past. In regards to a card Mooney says is his tribal identification, Hopkins says that “Mr. Mooney is not enrolled in a state or federally recognized tribe.”
Writer and activist Jacqueline Keeler, a member of the Yankton Dakota Sioux and the Dineh Nation, says that ONAC attempting to “poach” Native American culture and ceremonies is “disgusting.” Keeler, a Dartmouth graduate, says that her people pray with corn, beans, squash and tobacco, and that marijuana is not traditional for them.
According to Pappas, tribal rights, such as those associated with the AIRFA, are “irrelevant” except to enhance ONAC’s claims to religious legitimacy. “The only thing that is relevant is religion,” Pappas says. “We don’t test Buddhist people to see if they are Chinese or Japanese. It’s not about Native American blood.”