“God, that’s great! Please show me the blessings in this situation … and hurry! I am safe, I am loved and all is well.”
Sitting in a cell in the Federal Detention Center in Honolulu, Hawaii only four steel doors and three sets of X-ray machines separate you from friends, family and pristine beaches but they are literally a world away. I know because I experienced five days banged up there in 2017. My friend Roger Christie spent five long years there, his wife Share spent two years there and they chanted this blessing daily. Being a renegade activist for justice and equality sometimes comes at a high price and there’s no greater price than the loss of personal freedom.
The Reverend Roger Christie is an American minister in the Religion of Jesus Church, which regards marijuana as a ‘sacramental herb.’ He was the first person in U.S. history to be ordained and then licensed by a state government as a cannabis sacrament minister. Roger is also credited with discovering that cannabis hemp was the ‘fragrant cane’ described in Exodus 30:23 as an ingredient in the holy anointing oil used by Jesus and Moses.
In 1970 he had enlisted in the US army and was trained as an intelligence analyst at a ‘spy school,’ but became disenchanted, refused his orders to serve in Vietnam, and received an honourable discharge as a conscientious objector. This success inspired him to pursue legal options to overturn U.S. drug policy laws. He’s suffered numerous court battles and arrests and, as I’ve also had struggles due to cannabis prohibition, we’ve created a lifelong bond.
I first met Roger in 1986 when he relocated to the Big Island. It was the time when marijuana production peaked following the shut down of the sugarcane industry. Grown in back yards, abandoned cane fields, virgin forests, rugged lava fields and even papaya fields, by a broad cross section of the population, this herb became the life blood of our community. Mums and dads, uncles and aunts, brothers and sisters, and especially cousins, either grew a small patch or two or were hired to dry and trim the buds. Even grandparents got involved packaging and mailing multiple parcels of green gold to the U.S. mainland. Local businesses including house rentals, real estate, car sales, fertiliser stores, private schools and small restaurants all flourished. Our local health food store had trimming scissors and $25 bottles of champagne on the check out counter, during marijuana harvest season, when money flowed easily through the otherwise poverty stricken community. Pahoa was a peaceful and prosperous place to live at that time and we all believed we had found paradise.
But then life changed dramatically after Newsweek investigators wrote an article describing Puna as the ‘pot capital of the USA.’ A subsequent FBI operation, at Pahoa post office, disclosed 85% of all packages being mailed out contained the illicit weed. The notorious Drug Enforcement Agency moved in and began the largest marijuana eradication program in the U.S. – in our remote rural community! It was the start of the Federal, State and County ‘War on Drugs’. Green Harvest operations transformed the island with perpetual helicopter raids, house arrests, undercover agents and informants plus post office and airport inspections of packages and baggage. In 1986 the County of Hawaii destroyed 742,238 marijuana plants, mostly in Puna. A year later it destroyed 1.3 million plants and in 1988 over 1.8 million, which was estimated to be 77% of the total crop. Government authorities destroyed the community’s main cash crop, estimated in 1989 to have employed more than 15,000 people on the Big Island, one seventh of the population.
The sound of low flying surveillance helicopters became a regular occurrence and aerial raids came anytime. A friend printed a popular series of T shirts called ‘the birds of Puna’ portraying the variety of helicopters that regularly buzzed our houses, our farms, our parks and even our schools, at treetop level, in search of pot plants. They often had police or military officers dangling from a line, ready to drop onto a pot patch, and also sprayed toxic chemicals onto more remote plants and surrounding vegetation. They sometimes landed on our local roads and even our parks to unload their illicit cargo and on one occasion landed right in my yard at Bellyacres. This intimidating intrusion and the ear splitting sound of helicopters with the accompanying vehicles cruising our streets created the feeling of living in a war zone and heightened the fear and paranoia that comes with such oppressive activities. Our neighborhoods reeled from the shock and looked to place blame. Was it the fault of the growers? The Feds? The county officials? Or was it the ‘good old boys’ who resented the new underground economy that they weren’t controlling? All this had a devastating effect – many growers were incarcerated and subjected to harsh mandatory minimum prison sentences, land was confiscated, families were evicted and separated from their loved ones while many of the original hippies and ‘back to the land’ folks relocated to the U.S. west coast. Our peace and harmony was lost forever.
These oppressive activities divided our community, weakened our political representation and delayed any positive actions to heal the war wounds inflicted on the people of Puna. The bustling businesses of Pahoa Village, restaurants, juice bars, farm supplies, video stores, real estate and nightclubs, all fueled by pot money, started closing down. The price of an ounce of marijuana went from $100 to $300 and within a few years Puna had the worst methamphetamine crisis in the U.S. and Pahoa mainstreet became home to heroin addicts.
In 1990 Roger along with Aaron Anderson and Dwight Kondo had founded the Hawaiian Hemp Company in downtown Pahoa. It was one of the first retail hemp stores in the world. In 1996 the authorities forced them to close. Roger and Aaron were charged with importing hemp seed, exactly the same hemp seed purchased regularly by several local farm stores for feeding birds. As very public marijuana activists they had become targets for the conservative, status quo establishment who had yet to accept the truth about the amazing benefits of this god given plant.
With the police, the DEA, County and State officials fully focused on the marijuana ‘War on Drugs’ a new and extremely serious social problem was created that destroyed hundreds of families and caused incredible hardship throughout the community. The casualties of the crystal methamphetamine epidemic began to spread across the island. Serious crime, including violent offences, escalated and social services were overwhelmed with broken families, abandoned children and abused wives. The devastating effects are still felt today.
Responsible and informed community members appealed to government authorities for a program to help to address this ‘meth’ scourge which felt like a big black cloud impacting us all. It took ten years for authorities to listen but by then it was too late because serious damage had been done. The social service agencies struggled with an impossible task and welfare became the way of life for most families in Puna. The district now has one of the lowest per capita incomes anywhere in the U.S. with all the social problems that brings.
This was the community where I had innocently chosen to locate Bellyacres, our jugglers community. In 1987 Pahoa was considered a sleepy, peaceful and mellow rural village and now this new wave of violence was affecting almost everyone. It was definitely not the idyllic, subtropical jungle hideaway I had originally thought of adopting as my home.
Roger wanted to protect Hawaii from this savage ‘Operation Green Harvest’ and to educate people about the positive aspects of a cannabis economy. In 1996 he ran unsuccessfully for a seat on the Hawaii County Council and in 2004 he failed in an election bid for Mayor of Hawaii County, but he also had some successes. In 1999, county officials had to cancel their participation in Green Harvest, because Roger had impeached the mayor and six council members for failing to undertake a ‘mandatory program review.’ “It’s a terrorist war against Hawaii,” he claimed, “Armed people swoop down on innocent families, frightening people, their pets, and their farm animals. They spray poison from helicopters. It’s an unconstitutional hate crime – genocide carried out against a peaceful culture seeking to use its god-given sacrament. The county council is stacked with retired police and active lawyers who benefit from marijuana prohibition. They have an obvious conflict of interest. They are supposed to do a review every four years to analyse the impacts of this program, but they haven’t done one for 30 years.”
Acting as his own lawyer, Roger filed a massive lawsuit asking for injunctive relief against the helicopter programs. He alleged, “The County did not foresee the results of its marijuana eradication program, like methamphetamine filling the vacuum left by a shortage of cannabis, children made orphans because their parents have been arrested and or imprisoned, cars and homes seized, panic caused by helicopter noise and invasion, poverty, foreclosures, even death. They have not counted the cost.” He saw his lawsuit as a template for fighting marijuana eradication efforts anywhere, and that has proven true.
In 2000, the Reverend Roger founded the THC Ministry, to serve members who used cannabis for personal, private sacramental use only. It was the same year that Hawaii legalized medical cannabis for qualifying patients and it appeared that change was imminent. Led by California, in 1996, medical cannabis laws were being passed across the U.S.A., eventually gaining acceptance in 35 states by 2020.
With this national development and the success of a “Peaceful Skies” campaign, led by Roger in 2008, marijuana became the lowest priority for Big Island law enforcement. Voters approved the measure 34,957 to 25,464 and obtained several other victories for less punitive marijuana penalties. Local police and federal authorities disrespectfully said they would continue enforcing marijuana laws despite this vote. Hawai`i County Police Chief Lawrence Mahuna claimed the measure was a resolution, not a law, and said, “there will be no change how we prioritize the enforcement of marijuana. The resolution does not invalidate federal law. It doesn’t legalize marijuana. We will continue in our efforts to reduce the availability of illegal marijuana.” Fortunately, Harry Kim our mayor at the time was understanding and did not want families broken apart as they had been by the previous draconian laws so he quietly pulled in the reins on County participation in marijuana eradication. Finally, we experienced some relief from the Vietnam era helicopter intrusions that had plagued our neighborhoods since the late 1980’s.
Buoyed by this success Roger ran the THC Ministry (aka Hawaii Cannabis Ministry) in Hilo, Hawai’i for ten years. According to the Ministry’s website, “We use cannabis religiously and you can, too.” Roger believes that spiritual and/or religious use of cannabis hemp is worthy of Federal Government recognition and protections and his life’s mission is to achieve the goal of equal justice under law for cannabis sacrament. His THC Ministry services included counseling, fellowship, weddings, funerals and Roger organized marijuana law reform rallies across the islands. When asked about government retaliation he said he wasn’t worried. He was open and honest with local officials and believed they respected him. But!
In 2008, an undercover law enforcement officer entrapped Roger into selling him marijuana. Then a wiretap on three telephone lines used by Roger resulted in the interception and recording of 17,000 phone calls and on March 20, 2010, Federal agents raided Roger’s Cannabis Ministry, assisted by eleven govt agencies. The prosecution claimed he ran a huge pot-growing and selling organisation masquerading as a religious group and arrested Roger along with 13 others. All the detainees were speedily released on bail or signature bond awaiting trial but the Judge decided to keep Roger locked away in federal custody until his trial, claiming he was a ‘danger to the community.’ This is how fascist authorities deal with political dissidents, in China, in Russia and also in the U.S.A.
The tide was turning, for the end of marijuana prohibition, but Roger was caught in the undercurrents. Hawaii Governor Abercrombie wrote to the D.E.A. on Feb. 10, 2012 and told them that Hawai’i medical marijuana patients needed a “secure and consistent source of the drug to supply legitimate patients”. He added that “it is clear that the long-standing classification of medical use of cannabis in the United States as an illegal Schedule 1 substance is fundamentally wrong and should be changed.” It still remains illegal today.
In the spring of 2013, following hundreds of supporting testimonies, the Hawaii Senate passed resolutions “urging the federal government to release Roger pending trial.” Roger was visited by Senator Russell Ruderman and Senator Will Espero but was totally denied any contact with reporters from National Geographic, Newsweek and Honolulu Civil Beat who wanted to interview him. Senator Ruderman stated, “I have known Roger for over 25 years. He is one of the most peaceful persons I know and the claim he is a danger to the community is absurd. It is a travesty of justice to refuse bail to Mr Christie while granting it to rapists, woman beaters and murderers.” Only a few politicians listened.
Facing up to 40 years in a federal penitentiary, if convicted, Roger pleaded guilty to conspiring to manufacture, distribute, and possess more than 100 marijuana plants. He was forced under duress to forfeit a condominium apartment on Kauila Street in Hilo which was a gift from his late Mother. On April 28, 2014, Roger was sentenced to five years in federal prison. He was given credit for the four years he had already been incarcerated without bail, without a trial and without any media contact. He was sentenced to four years of probation refraining from use of marijuana or other controlled substances or from being in the presence anyone using marijuana which put a huge strain on his ability to spend time with his old friends. He was subjected to drug testing but always tested negative.
During the proceedings the U.S. Judge denied Roger’s motion that marijuana was misclassified as a Schedule 1 – most dangerous substance with “no recognised medical use in treatment in the U.S.A.” despite medical Cannabis being legal in Hawai’i since June 2000 and in an increasing number of jurisdictions nationwide. One hopeful sign came when it was ruled that Roger was a ‘sincere and religious’ Cannabis Minister, but then his religious defence was denied on the grounds that the U.S. government had a ‘compelling interest’ in keeping cannabis illegal!
When Roger was allowed to return to the Big Island Dena and I invited him and his wife Share to speak at a special Sunday service held at the Universal Unitarian church at S.P.A.C.E. They shared a message of hope and faith that there were blessings coming and they provided inspiration for us to trust that the absurd war on marijuana would eventually end. History has since shown us this truth in many U.S. states and several large countries.
The persecution of Roger never stopped; he was denied early release of probation and only completed his four year federal probation, with no violations, in May 2020. It was a long arduous journey but he made it out alive to continue pursuing his mission.
Roger’s activist history and track record of accomplishments played a significant role in ending the war on marijuana locally and nationally. The medical marijuana program of Hawai`i was run for 14 years by the Dept. of Public Safety but finally moved over to the Dept. of Health in 2014 giving it the public health focus it deserves. Since this time it has only been in cases of severe abuse that people get busted in Hawaii if they have a permit.
This medical marijuana legislation changed my life a lot, I was one of the first to get a permit and felt a huge sense of relief to be legally growing my own medicine. Marijuana growers could have plants at home and no longer had to secretly hike over rugged lava or through dense jungle terrain to find remote locations acting like renegade guerrillas.
To further address legal acquisition of cannabis, in 2016, the Hawaii government established eight dispensaries in the state. In August 2017, the first legal medical cannabis dispensary sale was made in Maui. That same year a pilot program began allowing the Dept. of Agriculture to oversee the cultivation of industrial hemp for agricultural or academic research. In 2017, Hawaii passed legislation to remove criminal or civil sanctions for the ‘planting, growing, harvesting, possessing, processing, selling, or buying’ of industrial hemp. In 2019 small amounts of cannabis became decriminalized with a bill making possession of three grams or less of marijuana punishable by a $130 fine. Under the former law, possessing even a tiny amount of cannabis was punishable by up to 30 days in jail, a fine of up to $1,000, and a possible life-altering criminal record. As Dylan professed, “The Times They Are A-changin’ and Roger played a huge part in all these changes.
Finally, if enjoying the benefits of a God given plant for spiritual, medical or recreational purposes makes a person like Roger a renegade while Genesis 1:29 says, “I have given you every herb bearing seed which is on the face of the earth for meat” It begs the question- “Does that make GOD a renegade too?”
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