Smoking cannabis a religious right, court told
Published On Thu Apr 8 2010
Rev. Brother Peter Styrsky sits in the witness box and answers his lawyerâ€™s questions with a crinkly smile.
With his grey beard, white hemp skullcap and glasses on his nose, he looks more like an avuncular rabbi than an accused drug trafficker.
But Styrsky, 52, and Rev. Brother Shahrooz Kharaghani, 31, are charged with trafficking in marijuana and hashish after police raided their church â€” Beaches Mission of God â€” on Queen St. E. on Oct. 25, 2006.
In a constitutional challenge to Canadaâ€™s drug laws, however, the two men argue that the cannabis plant is sacred to their religion, the Assembly of the Church of the Universe (COU), which claims about 35 active ministers and 4,000 members across Canada.
â€œItâ€™s the most spiritual thing that has ever happened to me,â€ Styrsky testified Wednesday.
The defendants are asking Ontario Superior Court Justice Thea Herman to rule that Canadaâ€™s Controlled Drugs and Substances Act has no force or effect with regards to cannabis because it infringes on their freedom of religion.
Cannabis is a sacred substance whose consumption brings adherents closer to God, Styrsky told his lawyer Paul Lewin.
â€œEvery time we use it, that connection is there and is undeniable,â€ said Styrsky, who ran for Toronto mayor in 2006, getting 945 votes.
The Crown argues otherwise, however. The menâ€™s sale of marijuana and the beliefs underlying it lack the essential characteristics of a religion, prosecutors say.
â€œThe COU offers no insight or answers into the existential questions (of) â€˜ultimate concernâ€™ which are the chief domain of religion; offers no comprehensive system of belief by which to live and offers no moral or ethical code,â€ federal Crowns Nicholas Devlin and Donna Polgar say in written submissions.
â€œIt offers only marijuana â€” however and wherever individuals want it.â€
The motion to strike down Canadaâ€™s cannabis prohibitions is expected to take a month, with both sides calling several witnesses. The Crown will draw on the testimony of religious experts.
It is the third time church members have raised religious Charter issues in defence of their cannabis use, but this is the fullest airing yet of the question.
To bolster the churchâ€™s claim to be a religious institution, Lewin presented to his client for comment various pieces of signage, framed artwork and boxes of religious books that filled the church â€” also known as the G13 Mission â€” at the time of the raid.
Styrsky smiled benignly at a framed print of a stylized marijuana plant that was displayed prominently in the church: â€œIn a nutshell, thatâ€™s our cross. Itâ€™s a tree, tree of life, tree of knowledge. Itâ€™s the basis of our religion,â€ he said.
Lewin and Kharaghaniâ€™s lawyer, George Filipovic, are also challenging the law on a broader basis: that it violates all religions that are based on beliefs in the inherent goodness of the marijuana plant, such as the Rastafarians.
But the Crown argues that even if the court finds that the churchâ€™s activities are protected as religious practices, the lawâ€™s prohibitions on trafficking are â€œreasonable and demonstrably justfiable limitsâ€ to the freedom of religion.
The pre-trial hearing continues Thursday.