Pima couple uses freedom of religion to fight drug charges

Pima, USA - A local couple who claims to practice an ancient religion that deifies and allows them to consume marijuana will be in court next month to fight for freedom to practice their religion.

Dan and Mary Quaintance of Pima are the founders of the Church of Cognizance, which practices the Zoroastrian religion.

Because the church’s members, or cogniscenti, believe that the cannabis plant is an ancient holy entity and use the plant as its holy sacrament, the Quaintances have found themselves in legal trouble because the use, distribution and possession of the substance is illegal in the United States.

In February, the couple was arrested in New Mexico for having 172 pounds of marijuana in their possession. The Drug Enforcement Agency took the Quaintances into custody and executed a search warrant, with help from the Southeastern Arizona Drug Task Force, on their property in Pima.

Though the task force was aware of the group and its activities, it did not have enough evidence for a search warrant until the task force joined with the DEA, Task Force Spokesman Dave Boyd said.

Though the search warrant produced minimal results, the couple were jailed briefly on the possession charges. Released until their dismissal hearing, the Quaintances are dealing with several different release orders, which have made it difficult — if not impossible — for them to be involved with their church.

“The first release order said we couldn’t talk to any members of our church, but we could talk to the press,” Dan said. “That was amended to allow us contact with members of our church, but we weren’t supposed to talk to the press or promote our church in any way. It has been changed again, and we really aren’t sure who we can or cannot talk to.”

The Quaintances were scheduled to go on trial in New Mexico next week, but their lawyer filed a motion to dismiss the charges. That motion will be heard in mid-August, and Dan said his lawyer already has approval from the judge to bring in archaeological and religious experts to testify.

Though federal prosecutors say religious freedom does not exempt the use of illegal drugs, the Quaintances and their attorney, Mario A. Esparza, say differently based on a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision.

In March, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled unanimously that a small religious group based in Santa Fe, N.M., that combines Christianity and American Indian practices could use hallucinogenic tea in its ceremonies. The decision was based on the 1993 Religious Freedom Resto-ration Act, which says the government needs to justify any action that would substantially burden people from practicing their faith.

“The Arizona Constitution is very clear about providing people with the right to practice their religion unmolested,” Dan said. “We and some of the higher-ups in our church see this as a hate crime against the people who practice our faith.

According to its Web site, the Church of Cognizance preaches: “With good thoughts, good words and good deeds, we honor marijuana as the teacher, the provider and the protector.”

“For us, the marijuana is the protector, provider and teacher, promoting good thoughts, good words and good deeds,” Dan said. “None of that is harmful to the health or safety of society in general.”

He also said, however, he does not refer to cannabis as “marijuana” because “that is the name it has been demonized under.” The plant used in the Church of Cognizance religious rites is Haoma, which is the ancient name for the cannabis plant.

“I did extensive research into this topic before founding the church — I didn’t just jump into this,” Dan said. “Archaeology has shown a correlation between cannabis and the Tree of Life in the Bible.”

Dan said there are scientific studies that show THC, the active ingredient in cannabis, gives people the creativity to think for themselves, better analyze situations and regulate almost every function in the human body.

“We don’t sit around and get intoxicated all day,” Dan said. “We never consume marijuana to the point of impairment, nor do we encourage others to.”

Using the archaeological evidence and information from studies that have come out of respected institutions, such as the University of Arizona and Harvard University, the Quaintances believe they can make a case for the continuance of their church’s practices.

“We filed the founding of the church at the Graham County Recorder’s Office in 1994 and declared our sentiments,” Dan said.

The Quaintances live in Pima with their son and daughter and their families, which is the common practice of members of the church.

“Each group has a family-oriented monastery, and they hold the same beliefs about the sacredness of the haoma plant,” Dan said. “We live close to our family and get to see our grandchildren everyday. We love it, as do our grandchildren, and, hopefully, when we are no longer able to care for ourselves, they will be there to help care for us.”

The church consists of more than 72 registered monasteries in 42 states and several other countries. The average age of a member is 35. Though it seems that the church has grown quickly since its beginning, Mary said the growth is actually very slow compared to others.