By Malia Zimmerman | Watchdog.org
HONOLULU — Dope-smoking Big Island minister Roger Christie learned his legal fate Monday, and his case has invigorated lawmakers and advocates who believe, as Christie does, that marijuana should be made legal.
Christie was held for 3 years and 9 months in Hawaii’s Federal Detention Center without bail and or a trial on charges related to growing and distributing marijuana.
The 64-year-old preacher, who claims marijuana is a religious sacrament and openly sold cannabis in Hilo as part of his services at his THC Ministry, was sentenced to 60 months in prison and four years of supervised release by U.S. District Judge Leslie Kobayashi as a part of a plea deal with federal prosecutors. He’ll be credited with time served, and could be released within two months, said Thomas Otake, Christie’s attorney.
Roger’s wife, Sherryanne “Share” Christie, was sentenced to 27 months in federal prison and three years of supervised release, the maximum time allowed under federal law. She will likely begin her imprisonment in the next two months, just as her husband is released.
During the 2014 session, which ends this week, the Christies’ case energized drug legalization advocates and civil libertarians, who backed several measures to legalize marijuana for recreational use or decriminalize the drug. Those measures failed largely because of opposition from law enforcement.
However, House Bill 1503 gained lawmakers’ approval. The bill prevents landlords from evicting tenants who use medical marijuana.
Gov. Neil Abercrombie is expected to sign the measure.
House Concurrent Resolution 48, which establishes a task force of physicians, patients and caregivers and community allies to make recommendations for a dispensary system, also passed the Legislature this year.
Religious freedoms violated?
Share Christie’s defense attorney portrayed her client as an innocent participant who believed her husband’s claim that the marijuana distribution to church members as “sacrament” was legal.
However, assistant U.S. attorney Michael Kawahara, who oversaw the case, claimed Share Christie, 62, was the primary manager of a drug business who handled finances and directed employees.
The judge told the Christies they could continue to participate in religious services, but wouldn’t be allowed to use marijuana or be in the presence of someone with marijuana.
The case involving the Christies received national attention, because the couple used religious freedom as a part of their defense under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.
The Christies’ attorneys also produced witnesses in earlier hearings offering evidence about the harmlessness of marijuana and how the drug should be made legal throughout the country. They noted 19 states have approved marijuana for medical use and two states, Colorado and Oregon, have approved marijuana for recreational use.
Although no cost estimate was released, the government likely spent millions of dollars on the two-year investigation into the Christies’ operation between 2008 and 2010, Share Christie said in an earlier interview with Watchdog.org.
A thorough investigation
How keen were the authorities on nabbing the Christies?
The Drug Enforcement Administration, the Internal Revenue Service’s Criminal Division, the Department of Homeland Security, the Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and Explosives, the U.S. Postal Service, the U.S. Marshals Service, the National Park Service, the Sheriff’s Office, the Department of Public Safety, the Hawaii Police Department and the Honolulu Police Department were all involved in the investigation, which included extensive wiretapping and undercover drug buys from the Christies.
As a result of the investigation, 13 people working with the THC Ministry were indicted. Roger Christie apologized to them in court Monday.
“I did my best to make the THC Ministry a safe, legal place to worship and to obtain sacrament and medical marijuana. I hope they can forgive me for my errors in judgment,” he said.
Government records show Roger Christie pled guilty in September 2013 to “conspiring to manufacture, distribute, and possess with intent to distribute marijuana, involving 100 or more marijuana plants and two separate tax counts for failure to file federal income tax returns for calendar years 2008 and 2009.”
Share Christie pled guilty to “conspiring to manufacture, distribute, and possess with intent to distribute marijuana, involving 50 or more marijuana plants.”
Intrigue built around the case because media from around the country were prevented from interviewing Roger Christie in prison, including Watchdog.org, who tried several times over a period of four months to get permission.
During the 2013 legislative session, the Hawaii Senate Committee on Public Safety, Intergovernmental and Military Affairs passed two resolutions urging the federal government to release the Big Island Minister on bail, pending trial.
Both Sens. Russell Ruderman, D-Hawaii Island, and Senate Minority Leader Sam Slom, R-Hawaii Kai-Diamond Head, introduced similar resolutions in support of Christie. Will Espero, D-Ewa, the chair of the Senate Committee on Public Safety, Intergovernmental and Military Affairs, supported the resolution.
Reach Malia Zimmerman at Malia@hawaiireporter.com