Tuesday, April 10, 2012

9th Circuit: Church Marijuana Use Suit Is Ripe; But No Monetary Damages Under RFRA

Oklevueha Native American Church of Hawaii, Inc. v. Holder, (9th Cir., April 9, 2012), is a suit under the 1st Amendment and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act by a church whose sacramental earth-based healing ceremonies involve the consumption of marijuana.  In 2009, law enforcement officers seized a pound of marijuana intended for Oklevueha use from FedEx. Plaintiffs claim that even though no criminal charges have been filed against them, they fear for their ability to continue to grow, use and distribute marijuana for religious purposes. Among other things, they sought injunctive and declaratory relief to prevent enforcement of the Controlled Substances Act against them. The district court dismissed the claim on ripeness grounds. The 9th Circuit, however, reversed, holding:
Plaintiffs need not allege a threat of future prosecution because the statute has already been enforced against them. When the Government seized Plaintiffs’ marijuana pursuant to the CSA, a definite and concrete dispute regarding the lawfulness of that seizure came into existence.
The 9th Circuit also rejected the government's argument that plaintiffs should have first applied to the Drug Enforcement Administration for an exception. It said that it would not read an exhaustion requirement into the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. The court however rejected plaintiffs' claim for return or compensation for the marijuana that was seized in 2009.  It held that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act's "appropriate relief" provision does not authorize suits for money damages against the federal government, just as under the Supreme Court's Sossamon decision, similar language in the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act does not authorize damage suits against states. Yesterday's Honolulu Star-Advertiser reports on the decision.