Religious freedom at center of pot case

Paris, USA - Arguing that he uses marijuana for religious reasons, a 48-year-old Mexico man has filed suit against the state and two law enforcement agencies, charging violation of his constitutional rights.

Norman Hutchinson filed the complaint against the state of Maine, the Maine Drug Enforcement Agency and the Mexico Police Department last week in Oxford County Superior Court.

Hutchinson stated he is a member of the Religion of Jesus Church, which mandates the use of cannabis based on 12 tenets. These include the belief that cannabis "increases ability to feel the presence of God," helps conquer addiction to tobacco and alcohol, creates peace and "is a good thought-stimulating neuro-hormone," according to the Religion of Jesus Church Web site.

"Sacramental cannabis helps one find and feel that God within," Hutchinson said in the lawsuit. "Sacramental use of cannabis generally stimulates thought, evokes questions and nourishes sacred feelings."

Hutchinson charges the agencies with violating his right to free exercise of his religion under the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and Section 3 of the Maine Constitution; violating the Freedom of Religion Restoration Act of 1993; violating his civil rights under the U.S. Code, false imprisonment, trespass, invasion of privacy and negligent and intentional infliction of emotional distress.

Hutchinson was indicted in November 2004 and charged with aggravated marijuana cultivation and the criminal forfeiture of an ATV alleged to have been used in the cultivation.

According to an affidavit by MDEA agent Tony Milligan, the Dixfield Police Department informed the agency that they had found a person with Hutchinson's ATV tending marijuana plants off Route 2 in Dixfield in August 2004. The individual said Hutchinson employed him to grow marijuana and also grew and sold marijuana out of his home.

A search of Hutchinson's home at 21 Granite St. found 55 marijuana plants, processed marijuana, grow lights and other equipment. All were seized.

After the indictment, defense attorney William Cote filed a motion to dismiss the case, arguing that "cultivation and use of marijuana is the manner and season of worshipping God according to the dictates of (Hutchinson's) conscience." Cote later sought to allow the introduction of certain passages from the King James Bible at trial and to include additional instruction to the jury.

In September 2005, Hutchinson pleaded guilty to an amended charge of marijuana cultivation and forfeited the ATV to the Dixfield Police Department. He was sentenced to serve 60 days of a 364-day sentence and one year of probation, during which he was to attend substance abuse counseling and not use illegal drugs.

Hutchinson was later ordered to serve an additional 120 days on a probation violation charging further marijuana cultivation.

In court motions following his conviction, Hutchinson unsuccessfully sought through Oxford County Superior Court and the Maine Supreme Judicial Court to amend the probation conditions to allow him to use marijuana. He also asked that his ATV be returned, saying he had loaned it to a friend for use in collecting firewood, but the forfeiture was also upheld.