Eighth Circuit dismisses religious challenge to drug laws

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The US Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit on Monday rejected claims that federal and state drug laws violate the constitutional and statutory rights of a priest in the Ethiopian Zion Coptic Church, which embraces the sacramental use of marijuana. The St. Louis-based court affirmed a decision by the US District Court for the Southern District of Iowa, which ruled that plaintiff Carl E. Olsen did not state a claim under the First Amendment, the Fourteenth Amendment, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act or the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act . Olsen sought a declaratory judgment that marijuana is not a controlled substance when used for religious purposes and an injunction prohibiting government officials from enforcing the US and Iowa anti-drug statutes against him. The Eighth Circuit ruled that RFRA does not apply to state or local governments and that Olsen had already unsuccessfully litigated the RFRA issue as to the federal government. Noting that "there has not been a change in controlling law" since the prior cases, the court likewise held that Olsen had already litigated his free exercise and equal protection claims, and that he was not within the class protected by RLUIPA.

Olsen previously challenged drug laws in the First Circuit and the District of Columbia Circuit, among other jurisdictions. Proponents of marijuana use for medical rather than spiritual purposes won a legal victory this July, when a California court ruled that the state's medical marijuana program does not unconstitutionally interfere with federal drug laws. Last year, New Mexico joined about a dozen states that permit medical marijuana when Governor Bill Richardson signed a bill legalizing the drug for the treatment of "eligible conditions and symptoms." The US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit had ruled that federal drug laws could be enforced against a terminally ill patient using marijuana with a doctor's recommendation.

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