By JOHN BURNETT
Tribune-Herald staff writer
The founder of a Hilo ministry that openly promoted marijuana use as a sacrament pleaded guilty Friday in federal court to possession of almost 300 pot plants but reserved the right to appeal his case based on religious grounds.
Roger Christie, who founded The Hawaii Cannabis (THC) Ministry entered a plea to one count of conspiring to manufacture, distribute and possess marijuana and two counts of failing to file tax returns, for the years 2008 and 2009.
Sentencing is set for Jan. 22 at 2:45 p.m. before U.S. District Judge Leslie Kobayashi, and Roger Christie faces up to 20 years imprisonment on the marijuana charge, with a mandatory minimum term of five years. The maximum term of imprisonment on each tax offense is one year.
As part of the plea deal, Christie will forfeit his Wainaku apartment and $21,494 confiscated by the feds during a raid in 2010. Other marijuana-related charges were dropped in return for the plea.
Christie’s wife, Sherryanne “Share” Christie, pleaded guilty to one count of conspiring to manufacture, distribute and possess marijuana. Share Christie, who appeared in court holding a white purse adorned with an embroidered marijuana leaf, also reserved the right to appeal her case on religious grounds. She could receive up to 20 years in prison.
“Roger and Share are not giving up their fight today. They’re simply taking their fight to a higher court,” said lawyer Thomas Otake, who represents Roger Christie.
His client decided to plead guilty, Otake said, after Kobayashi ruled against allowing a defense based on the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993, which allows certain Native American religions to use the hallucinogens peyote and ayahuasca as sacraments.
Otake said the ruling put the Christies at a disadvantage and they decided to take the case to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
Federal sentencing guidelines could allow Roger Christie to be released from custody in about six months, with credit for more than three years he has served while being held without bail, Otake said.
Share Christie, 62, has been free on bail since 2010, when federal agents arrested the couple and 12 other people. She’ll remain free on bail while she appeals. She and her lawyer, Lynn Panagakos, left court without commenting.
The charges stemmed in part from wiretaps on Christie’s business and personal telephones, as well as the searches of his home and safe deposit box.
Federal authorities said they seized 3,000 plants with a retail value of $4.8 million during raids on the Christies and their co-defendants three years ago. They also said they recovered nine firearms.
The prosecutor, Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Kawahara, said there was little religion in Roger Christie’s ministry.
“We believe, and from the undercover wiretapping investigation that we did in this case, that the religious idea is merely a front that camouflaged a long-term marijuana trafficking operation,” Kawahara said.
Under Christie’s “express” orientation to the ministry, started in 2009, new members just showed their ID card, paid the full donation price for marijuana, then walked off with their “sacrament,” he said.
Otake said Kawahara’s claim contradicted the judge’s ruling, which he said accepted the church as a legitimate ministry but stated that the government had a compelling interest in regulating it.
Roger Christie’s cause has received national attention, with marijuana advocates saying his pretrial detention without bail was unconstitutional. Some called him a political prisoner in the feds’ “war on drugs.”
During Christie’s incarceration, voters in Colorado, where Christie was born, and Washington, have passed initiatives legalizing adult personal use of marijuana.
The Associated Press contributed to this story.