HONOLULU – An Hawaii Island minister in jail for three years on drug charges is treated more like a terrorist than a free-spirited minister whose religious beliefs include the cultivation and use of marijuana, some lawmakers and civil rights advocates say.
The minister, Roger Christie, is being held in Honolulu’s Federal Detention Center, without bail and, as of yet, without a trial.
Roger, his wife, Share Christie, and 12 others — the “Green 14” — in 2010 were charged with the sale and possession of cannabis, but only Roger Christie has been held at the jail since July 8, 2010. The others were either released on bail or are cooperating with authorities.
Christie’s 1,095-day incarceration has been costly to taxpayers, who have paid $116 per day — or $127,020 in hall — to keep him jailed.
The case has captured the attention of Hawaii lawmakers, drug legalization advocates, local Libertarians, Republicans, Democrats and civil rights advocates.
“The government is trying to put us at a distinct disadvantage denying me bail and bond and making me into a ‘political prisoner’ even though I have a clean criminal record,” Roger told HawaiiReporter.com in an email.
Federal prosecutors deemed Christie, a state licensed and ordained minister who openly distributed marijuana as a part of his THC Ministry in Hilo, “a danger to the community.”
Prosecutors persuaded a magistrate judge and three judges on the U.S. District Court, as well as three panels for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, that the 64-year-old pacifist is dangerous because he’ll likely resume marijuana sales if released on bail.
In federal court papers, the government claims Christie operated a $1 million network, selling one-half pound of cannabis to 60 to 70 customers each day for a “donation” of the approximate street value, $400 per ounce.
The government seized nearly 2,300 marijuana plants, 33 pounds of marijuana, $55,000, nine weapons and four properties, court papers show.
Both sides blame the other for legal delays that have kept Christie behind bars.
The simple act of scheduling an in-person interview with Roger Christie has been difficult.
Numerous requests for the interview from Watchdog.org to the U.S. attorney’s office have been ignored since first submitted March 5. Tom Blumm, the assistant warden, denied access to Christie unless the U.S. attorney’s office grants permission first. According to the Christies’, no other media requests have been granted, including requests from National Geographic and Newsweek.
In fact, Christie has not been allowed to see visitors, with the exception of his attorney, Thomas Otake, and two state senators — Will Espero and Russell Ruderman — who serve on the Senate Public Safety Committee. Share said she was banned from the facility about a year ago, and the warden, David Shinn, has failed to respond to numerous written requests from Share Christie asking to see her husband.
“The government is using unfair tactics on both of us — a process of trying to wear us down by denial of even the normal rights that prisoners have. Without the ability to visit my husband, it’s as if I have been in prison as well for three years as he has,” said Share, who married Roger while he was in prison after dating him for many years prior.
Sens. Russell Ruderman, a Democrat from Hawaii Island, and Sam Slom, the Senate Republican Minority Leader, introduced separate resolutions asking the federal government to release Christie on bail pending trial.
Senate Resolution 42 and Senate Concurrent Resolution 75 were heard March 21. Hundreds of people came out to testify in support of Christie’s release.
Ruderman, who has known Roger Christie for 25 years, said, ” He is one of the most peaceful persons I know. To anyone who knows him, the claim that he is a danger to the community is absurd.”
Ruderman said while the charges against Roger Christie are federal, holding a defendant without bail while denying the constitutional right to a speedy trial is virtually unheard of in Hawaii. He said even people accused of serious crimes, such as large-scale drug dealers and violent criminals, are routinely released on bail pending trial.
Espero, who chairs the safety committee, said after a meeting with Christie: “I still feel that Mr. Christie should be released pending a trial.”
The Hawaii Democratic Party backed Christie in a 2012 resolution, and former Republican Sen. John Carroll and former Hawaii Island Mayor Harry Kim have supported him.
Tracy Ryan, vice chair of the Hawaii Libertarian Party, said Roger Christie poses no danger to the community.
“In 2008, voters of Hawaii County, where the THC Ministry operates, spoke clearly to this very issue. They passed a county resolution making marijuana the lowest priority of law enforcement. Clearly the ‘community’ does not agree that Reverend Christie poses any danger. If the people of the community do not consider the activity to be dangerous and the prosecution offers no evidence whatsoever as to its danger other than to say ‘it is illegal,’ no one is safe,” Ryan said.
Hawaii Senate Resolution 12 asked President Obama to “initiate a formal investigation into the conduct of federal law enforcement personnel in regard to the violation of the constitutional rights of Hawaii County Resident, the Reverend Roger Christie,” but the resolution never received a hearing.
Senate Judiciary and Labor Chair Clayton Hee ultimately decided to kill the measure, although it had already passed the Senate Public Safety Committee and received support from his colleagues and the public.
Challenging the Political System
Roger Christie was born in Colorado and raised in New Jersey. After graduating with a degree from a two-year college and obtaining a commercial pilot’s certificate, he went on to careers in the military, in business and in the religious community.
He enlisted in the Army in 1970 and trained as an intelligence analyst but refused orders to deploy to Vietnam and was discharged honorably as a conscientious objector.
In 1991, just five years after he moved to Hawaii, Roger Christie launched one of the world’s first hemp retail outfits, Hawaiian Hemp Co.. But the company was accused of importing 25 pounds of hemp seeds that law enforcement called “active,” which led to marijuana charges. He and his partners, Aaron Anderson and Dwight Kondo, were never convicted.
An ordained minister for the Religion of Jesus Church, a division of the Universal Life Church, Christie founded his own THC Ministry, also known as the Hawaii Cannabis Ministry. The group believes is a “gift from God” and should be used as a part of religious services. The ministry’s web site stated: “We use Cannabis religiously and you can, too.”
The state Department of Health granted Christie license number 00-313, which allowed him to perform marriages as a “cannabis sacrament” minister.
He ran for mayor in 2004 on a platform of legalizing marijuana, getting 3.3 percent of the vote. Share Christie ran for mayor in 2012 on the same platform and received 1.2 percent of the vote.
“We were always open and public about what our ministry did,” Share Christie said on their websites and You Tube, noting the government spent an enormous amount of money to discover facts they openly proclaimed at the Hawaii Island County Council.
“We thought we had federal immunity from prosecution due to Roger’s sincerity and the legitimacy of his ordainment and unique state license as a ‘cannabis sacrament’ minister,” she said.
“All the local and state cops left him and us alone and even said we were all good with them,” Roger Christie said.
“I’m sure our founding fathers, who grew Cannabis hemp, would be appalled at how we have treated what they fought for,” Share Christie said.
Roger said marijuana prohibition is a “modern-day witch-hunt,” and the Christies hope their case will be the “last marijuana trial” in U.S. history.
Christie’s next hearing in federal court is scheduled for 10:30 a.m. July 29, and his attorney plans to argue a religious defense motion.
Federal prosecutors did not respond to multiple media inquiries for this story.
The Drug Enforcement Administration, Internal Revenue Service, U.S. Postal Inspector, U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, and U.S. Attorney have spent millions of dollars more on its two-year investigation and prosecution of the ministry’s network, the Christies’ estimate.
Reach Malia Zimmerman at Malia@hawaiireporter.com