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People v. Torline.

2020 COA 160. No. 18CA1156.  Constitutional Law—Marijuana—Freedom of Religion—Affirmative Defense.

November 12, 2020


Defendant is an ordained minister with the Hawaii Cannabis Ministry, which incorporates cannabis into its religious practices, including by providing marijuana to members of its congregation. Police officers observed defendant walking in and out of a garage and loading garbage bags into a truck, which another person then drove away. Officers stopped the truck for a traffic infraction, a police dog alerted to the presence of drugs, and police discovered that the trash bags contained marijuana. The officers contacted defendant, who said there was a marijuana growing operation inside the garage, and he consented to a search of the operation. The prosecution charged defendant with cultivation of marijuana, 30 or more plants, and possession with intent to manufacture or distribute marijuana or marijuana concentrate, more than five pounds but not more than 50 pounds.

Defendant’s counsel advised the trial court that he wanted to raise an “affirmative defense” to the charges on grounds that defendant’s constitutional rights were violated because he engaged in the charged conduct pursuant to a sincerely held religious belief. Defense counsel also asked the trial court to instruct the jury on that defense. The trial court denied the motion to instruct the jury on the proposed defense, and defendant was convicted as charged.

On appeal, defendant contended that CRS § 18-18-406 was unconstitutionally applied to him in violation of the Free Exercise Clauses of the Federal and State Constitutions, so the trial court erred by declining to instruct the jury on his defense that his conduct was constitutionally privileged. The incorporation of marijuana and marijuana concentrate into religious rituals is subject to regulation on equal terms with secular marijuana use. Colorado law does not penalize such conduct because of its religious character. Therefore, the Free Exercise Clause does not excuse people and organizations from complying with CRS § 18-18-406. Here, applying CRS § 18-18-406 to defendant’s conduct did not violate his constitutional rights, so there was no legal basis for his proposed defense. Consequently, the trial court correctly rejected the defense, his jury instructions, and his proffered evidence in support of the defense.

Defendant also argued that the prosecution did not prove that his conduct occurred in Colorado. However, sufficient evidence supported the court’s finding that the charged conduct occurred in Colorado.

The judgment of conviction was affirmed.

Official Colorado Court of Appeals proceedings can be found at the Colorado Court of Appeals website.

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