Rasta smoker wins appeal of marijuana conviction

Rome, Italy - If you're a Rastafarian in Italy, you might be able to possess more marijuana than the law allows everyone else.

Italy's highest criminal court has ruled that the fact Rastafarians consider marijuana use a religious sacrament should be taken into account if they are tried on trafficking charges, lawyers in a recent case and news reports said Friday.

Smoking pot in Italy is not a crime, but being caught with amounts considered too large for personal use can bring charges of trafficking.

The Court of Cassation threw out the drug trafficking conviction of a 44-year-old Italian Rastafarian, ruling that the amount he possessed was in line with the heavy use that comes with his religious beliefs.

The court annulled a 16-month jail sentence the defendant was given in 2004, defense lawyer Caterina Calia said.

Police had found the man with a few ounces (several grams) of marijuana, enough to make around 70 cigarettes, which he claimed were all for personal use, she said.

"Rastafarians usually smoke together," Calia said. "He is a Rasta and has argued that pot is a divine drug."

Calia said she had not seen the court's official explanation, deposited in court offices Thursday, for its ruling, so she declined to give details.

But Italian news organizations quoted widely from the court document.

Rastafarians "use marijuana not only as a medicinal ... but also as a possible way to obtain the psycho-physical state contemplation aims for during prayer," Turin daily La Stampa quoted the document as saying. "Belonging to that religion ... followers (must) use the sacred grass daily, up to 10 grams (0.35 ounces) a day for person."

Rastafarians worship Ethiopia's last emperor, Haile Selassie, who died in 1975, as a god. They preach unity with nature and smoke marijuana as a sacrament.

The Italian Health Ministry described the ruling as "disturbing."

"These rulings represent an element of destabilization for the pillars of secularism," Undersecretary Francesca Martini said in a statement.

Right-wing lawmaker Maurizio Gasparri also criticized the ruling, saying the Rastafari religion is more of a fashion trend in Italy.

"Someone stop the judges who live outside of reality," he was quoted as saying by the Apcom news agency.

An appeals court in Florence will now have to hear the case, keeping the Cassation's words in mind, Calia said.