As a minister of Hilo's THC Ministry, Roger Christie's preferred sacrament contains tetrahydrocannabinol, the main psychoactive substance in marijuana
But, as inmate No. 99279022 of the Federal Detention Center in Honolulu, Christie has not had access to his sacred rite in 17 months.
Arrested on July 8, 2010, and denied bail, Christie, 62, is set to spend his second Christmas in jail.
Thirteen co-defendants, including Christie's fiancée, Sherryanne "Share" St. Cyr, were allowed to post bond, but Christie was deemed by authorities to be a "danger to the community."
But no one will say why the Big Island pot minister, who operated openly for 10 years, is now so dangerous he can't be allowed home pending trial.
No one involved with the case would speak to Civil Beat about Christie. The assistant U.S. Attorney prosecuting the case, Christie's own federal defender and even the U.S. Attorney herself refused to respond to repeated efforts to contact them, via phone, email and even a trip to the U.S. Attorney's Honolulu office.
As detailed in USA v. Christie et al., Christie is charged with "knowingly and intentionally" conspiring to manufacture, distribute and possess marijuana along with harvested and processed pot and other products containing pot such as food, tinctures and oils.
According to the indictment filed in U.S. District Court in Honolulu, Christie's operations were conducted at his THC Ministry in Hilo, also known as the Hawaii Cannabis Ministry. If convicted of the charges against him, he could face a prison sentence of between five and 40 years for each count.
Christie has pleaded not guilty and is anxious to have his day in court.
Civil Beat was not able to get a face-to-face interview with Christie — a request to visit him at the detention center was rejected. But, we sent him questions via an email delivered by his fiancée. He sent his answers back through the mail.
In the Q&A with Christie, Civil Beat asked about the accusation that the THC ministry was just a front for committing crimes.
"That charge is false," he wrote. "Our case is easily provable — IF — we get to show ALL the evidence and witnesses in our favor to a jury. 'I swear to tell the truth, the WHOLE truth and nothing but the truth, so help me GOD.'"
Barring a plea agreement, a postponement of the trial or the dropping of charges, jury selection is scheduled to begin Feb. 28 in the Honolulu courtroom of U.S. District Court Judge Leslie Kobayashi.
The outcome of the case could be a significant victory for proponents of decriminalization, or a routine sentencing of just another drug dealer.
Who Is Roger Christie?
To his defenders, Roger Cusick Christie is a political prisoner being punished for exercising a constitutional and biblical right to enjoy marijuana. The minister has become a martyr, and a "Free Roger" and the "Green 14" campaign is underway.
Christie's love of ganja began three months before Richard Nixon was elected president.
"I smoked my first joint of 'Colombian Gold' cannabis in August 1968 and I immediately knew we were going to be friends," he states in an autobiography on his ministry's website.
Christie was born in Colorado and raised in New Jersey. He says he enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1970 but received an honorable discharge in 1971 as a conscientious objector to the Vietnam War.
Christie moved to the Big Island in 1986 as a "cannabis hemp liberation-human rights advocate." Among other things, he has operated a retail hemp business.
"My mission in life includes helping to liberate the cannabis hemp plant and to help replace cannabis, the tree of life, back into the garden of Eden," he states on the website. "May we all enjoy the rich, abundant and awakened life that is part of our Divine inheritance."
Christie founded a marijuana political action committee in 1987 and a hemp council in 1990. In 2000 he was ordained by the Reverend Dennis Shields into the Religion of Jesus Church. That year, Christie founded his Hilo ministry, which he says has "thousands of members around the world."
Christie says he is licensed to marry people by the Hawaii Department of Health as a "Cannabis Sacrament" minister, and has posted a certificate. DOH confirms the license's authenticity.
The 'Lowest Priority' Ordinance
Christie became well-known in the Big Isle community along with other pot-hemp enthusiasts like Aaron Anderson, Dwight Kondo and Jonathan Adler. He ran unsuccessfully for the Hawaii County Council in 1996 and Big Island mayor in 2004. (Adler and Anderson also ran for office.)
But Christie had better electoral success in 2008, when he publicly advocated for a ballot question that would make cannabis the "lowest priority" for Hawaii County police and prosecutors. Modeled on similar laws in a half-dozen U.S. cities, the ballot question was approved 53 percent to 37 percent by Big Island voters.
The ordinance allows people 21 and older to cultivate and possess up to 24 marijuana plants or 24 ounces of "dried equivalent" on private property. The county is also prohibited from accepting federal funds for marijuana eradication — the "Green Harvest" operations that have been conducted in the islands, especially in Hawaii County, since the 1970s.
The purpose of the ordinance is five-fold: to get cops focused on more serious crimes, to free up the court system, to empty prison space, to save taxpayer money for things like health and education and to reduce the "fear of prosecution" and the "stigma of criminality" from nonviolent citizens who "harmlessly cultivate and/or use Cannabis for personal, medicinal, religious, and recreational purposes."
For Hawaii — and especially for the Big Island, notorious for marijuana production but also police helicopter raids to confiscate crops — it is a groundbreaking law. But Christie and his supporters believe his involvement in its passage made him a law-enforcement target.
The Case Against Christie
Messages from Civil Beat to Assistant U.S. Attorney Beverly Sameshima, who is handling aspects of the case, and First Assistant Federal Defender Alexander Silvert, assigned to defend Christie, have not been returned.
U.S. Attorney Florence Nakakuni and Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Kawahara also have not responded to requests from Civil Beat.
However, public court documents available in the case, USA v. Christie et al, say that Christie is accused of growing, selling and owning more than 100 marijuana plants, a violation of federal drug statutes. Marijuana, the indictment explains, is a Schedule I drug — a controlled substance ranked by the feds as equivalent to heroin, LSD, peyote, quaaludes and Ecstasy.
To authorities, Christie's ministry was merely a façade to allow him and others to legally grow and sell large quantities of dope, as evidenced by the plants, properties and $21,500 in cash confiscated in the case.
The U.S. attorneys single out a passage taken from the THC Ministry website:
Among other wonderful things, our Ministry helps to protect you from arrest, prosecution and/or conviction of "marijuana" charges — wherever you live — starting as soon as you sign-up, become ordained and receive your ministry documents. We provide a legitimate religious "defense to prosecution" for sincere practitioners over 21 years old.
The prosecuting attorneys said wiretaps of Christie underscored that intent and led to the "more sinister purpose" of selling pot. The word "sacrament" was code for marijuana, while the word "donation" was code for sale. One-eighth of an ounce of "grade A sacrament" sold for $50, an ounce for $400 — "retail price," according to a wiretap conversation of Christie, who said he obtained his crop wholesale.
The ministry also sold Cannabis Sanctuary Kits for $250, which included THC Ministry wallet-size cards and "sanctuary" signs to "protect" homes and gardens. Counseling and educational services, including cultivation tips, were also offered.
Christie asked to be placed on bail, arguing that he lacked any recent criminal history, would agree to drug testing while awaiting trial and would not return to his ministry's practices. A pre-trial services report recommended Christie abide by home detention and electronic monitoring.
But U.S. Attorneys Nakakuni and Kawahara said the defendant was a "danger to the community" because he is alleged to have "recommenced" his allegedly illicit business after authorities first searched his Hilo business on March 10, 2010 — four months before his arrest.
Nakakuni also called attention to Christie's public advocacy for the 2008 "low-priority" ordinance:
In truth, Christie had a hidden agenda in supporting the marijuana ordinance, namely, to enhance his marijuana sources of supply.
Finally, the memo argued that Christie had tried to help others hide their stashes from cops. According to authorities, 10 percent of the ministry's clients were medical marijuana patients — something legal in Hawaii — but the other 90 percent were ministry members.
Magistrate Judge Kevin S.C. Chang agreed that there was "clear and convincing" evidence that Christie was a danger, that there were no conditions that could assure the community's safety and that the defendant would go back to selling drugs.
Christie tried several more times to be released on bail — he even said he would be willing to stay in a halfway house — and twice appealed to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, all unsuccessfully.
In Defense of Christie
As noted earlier, Civil Beat could not reach Alexander Silvert, Christie's federal public defender.
But in a June 22 article in Honolulu Weekly, Silvert said he was considering filing two motions: one to suppress information that came from the wiretaps, the other to dismiss the case based on "misclassification" of marijuana under the federal drug code.
Asked about his current legal strategy, Christie cited four defenses:
• the motion regarding misclassification of marijuana;
• delaying the case ("Except for me being held without bail, delays in the case have been mostly to our advantage as we feel we have 'time on our side,'" he said);
• denial of First Amendment and due process and equal protection rights;
• and a "defense of necessity," which Christie explains involves demonstrating to the court that his "education and ordainment" of marijuana has helped reverse a crystal methamphetamine epidemic on the Big Island.
"We hope and pray that our case will be pivotal in ending the war on drugs; hence we call it," Christie told Civil Beat. "Imagine that."
Another possibility is a plea bargain. While Civil Beat can't confirm it with the U.S. attorney, Christie and St. Cyr both say they have been offered a deal that would cut prison time.
Christie was asked if he was not getting along with Silvert, as a motion was filed last month to have Silvert withdraw as counsel because of a breakdown in attorney-client relations. (Silvert is Christie's second attorney; Christie says his original public defender, Matthew Winter, is now in private practice.)
Christie did not respond directly to the question — in his Q&A with Civil Beat, Christie edited the questions — but he described Silvert as "honest, competent and well-experienced."
Asked how he is holding up in prison, Christie said, "I'm good. I'm motivated."
He spends most of his time thinking about how to win his case — and about politics and government, too.
"Can you imagine how good life could be if we win this case and Ron Paul becomes the next President?" he said in an email to Civil Beat over the weekend, referring to the GOP candidate's opposition to the war on drugs.
But there has also been time for self-reflection.
"I just unfortunately got us 'off-course,'" he writes, referring to St. Cyr, with whom he has planned a Jan. 7 marriage date at the detention center. "'Pride went before my fall,' I'll admit that. I hope people can forgive me of my shortcomings."
A couplet from a poem composed by Christie during his confinement illustrates that sentiment:
I did my best to follow bliss; smoked pot and smiled a lot,
but I was loose and having fun and this is what I got.
But time in jail has not dimmed Christie's views on marijuana. He still subscribes to High Times magazine and a cannabis newsletter titled West Coast Leaf.
Though denied his hemp seed diet, hemp cloth prayer shawl and "holy anointing oil," Christie is trying to make the THC Ministry a recognized religion in the U.S. Bureau of Prisons.
"Now it's my time to work for redemption, to demonstrate an even higher level of commitment to our cause, and for us to win this potentially historic case," he writes.
By Chad Blair
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