Church Members Argue Pot Laws Violate Religious Rights


Assembly of the Church of the Universe

​In a constitutional challenge to Canada’s marijuana prohibition, two men are arguing in court that the cannabis plant is sacred to their religion. The men are members of the Assembly of the Church of the Universe (COU), which claims about 35 active ministers and 4,000 members across Canada.

Rev. Brother Peter Styrsky, 52, and Rev. Brother Shahrooz Kharaghani, 31, are charged with trafficking in marijuana and hashish after police raided their church, Beaches Mission of God, back in October 2006, reports Peter Small of the Toronto Star.
Styrsky, in court Wednesday, explained his transformation from an angry, frustrated delivery driver to a more spiritually content person as a minister within the Church of the Universe, reports Shannon Kari at the National Post.
“[Cannabis is] the most spiritual thing that has ever happened to me,” Styrsky testified Wednesday.

Brett Gundlock/National Post
Peter Styrsky (left) and Sharooz Kharaghani leave court on April 7 in Toronto

​The defendants are asking Ontario Superior Court Justice Thea Herman to rule that Canada’s Controlled Drugs and Substances Act has no force with regards to marijuana because it infringes on their freedom of religion protections in the Charter of Rights.
This is the first time that a Canadian court has been asked to set out a framework to decide whether a group and its practices qualify for Charter protection on religious grounds, according to Kari.
The motion to strike down Canada’s cannabis prohibition is expected to take a month, with both sides calling several witnesses. Experts on the history of psychoactive drug use in mainstream religions, as well as the criteria necessary to qualify as a religion, are scheduled to testify at the four-week hearing.
It is the third time church members have raised religious Charter issues in defense of marijuana use, but this is the fullest exploration yet of the question.
Styrsky’s lawyer, Paul Lewin, and Kharaghani’s lawyer, George Filipovic, are also challenging the law on a broader basis: that it violates all religions, such as Rastafarianism, that are based on beliefs in the inherent goodness of the marijuana plant.
The Church is not seeking an “absolute right” to consume and distribute marijuana, Lewin explained. The attorney said both men only wanted to use the herb for religious purposes and with regulations similar to those in place for medical users.
Styrsky and Kharaghani are charged with marijuana trafficking offenses from September, 2006, for allegedly selling “street-level” amounts of cannabis to Toronto police agents.