ACLU Asks U.S. Appeals Court to Defer to Guam High Court on Rastafarian’s Right to Use Marijuana for Religious Purposes

Press Release November 1, 2001
Media Contact

Richard Alleyne, ACLU National Office at (212) 549-2689 or Vanessa Chong, ACLU of Hawai'i at (808) 522-5900

HONOLULU–In a first-of-its-kind case involving the right of a Rastafarian in Guam to use marijuana for religious purposes, the American Civil Liberties Union on Monday will tell a federal appeals court that fundamental religious freedoms should not be stunted by one nation’s “war on drugs.”

“Just as eight states have passed local laws recognizing the usefulness of marijuana for medicinal purposes, the U.S. territory of Guam should be allowed to guarantee individuals the right to use marijuana for religious purposes without fear of federal interference,” said Graham Boyd, Director of the ACLU’s Drug Policy Litigation Project.

The ACLU is representing Rastafarian and Guam native Ras Iyah Ben Makhana, (also known as Benny Toves Guerrero), before the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals this Monday, November 5, in People of Guam v. Benny Toves Guerrero.

In a landmark ruling last year, Guam’s highest court held that use of marijuana by a Rastafarian for religious purposes is protected under the Free Exercise Clause of the Constitution of Guam. Historically, federal courts have recognized the special competence of territorial supreme courts to rule on matters of local tradition and culture, according to Nelson Tebbe of the ACLU, who will be arguing the case on behalf of Makhana.

“Rastafarianism is a legitimate religion,” Tebbe said. “Our client Ras Makahna is a devout adherent to this religion, and the use of marijuana as a sacrament is necessary for the practice of this faith. Guam’s high court is best suited to understand and appreciate the unique customs of its people.”

The case arose on January 2, 1991, when Ras Makhana was arrested at the A.B. Won Pat Guam International Airport carrying marijuana. He was charged with importation of a controlled substance.

Makhana moved to dismiss his indictment on the grounds that the prosecution violated his right to freely exercise his religion under the Constitution of Guam and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. A lower court agreed and on September 8, 2000, the Supreme Court of Guam affirmed the lower court’s ruling. The government of Guam then appealed that ruling to the Ninth Circuit.

“We are hopeful that the Ninth Circuit will allow the ruling of the Guam Supreme Court to stand,” said Tebbe. “Much progress has been made in promoting the medicinal and healing properties of marijuana. We must be careful to not allow the hysteria caused by the ongoing war on drugs to infringe upon religious freedoms.”

Guam is an island of about 160,000 people in the North Pacific Ocean. It is 549 square miles — about three times the size of Washington, D.C. Guam is an organized, unincorporated territory of the U.S. with policy relations under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Department of the Interior. Its legal system is modeled on the U.S. and is covered by U.S. federal law and local Guam law.

Daniel Abrahamson of the San Francisco based Lindesmith Center joined the case as co-counsel when it went to the Ninth Circuit for review.

A young woman holds a sign that says "End the Drug War."

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