Church or illegal dispensary? Rastafarian confident his faith lets him exchange pot for donations
Legal experts question whether freedom of religion argument would hold up in court
There's a back room at Toronto's historic Broadview Faith Temple that looks a lot like a cannabis dispensary, but the man who will be running the place describes it differently.
"This is where members of the Rastafarian faith [will] come in and get sacrament," said David Holmes, 52, the founder of the Sanctuary of the Rastafarian Order Ministry, which will soon open its third Toronto location 296 Broadview Ave.
To Holmes, sacrament refers to cannabis.
The Rastafari religious movement, an Africentric faith with no central authority and a wide diversity of beliefs and practices, started in Jamaica in the 1930s and is widely associated with marijuana use — although smoking is not required. Cannabis use, Holmes said, is a method of communing with God in his interpretation of the faith.
"For us it's sacrament, no different than the Catholic Church," he said. "They have wine, we have cannabis."
None of the Sanctuary of the Rastafarian Order Ministry locations are officially licensed to sell pot. Holmes flouts federal laws by growing and distributing his own cannabis without a producer or retail licence. Holmes, who has run dispensaries in the past, was one of more than a dozen people arrested during a police raid at a B.C. pot farm in 2015, but was never charged.
In online reviews, many describe Sanctuary of the Rastafarian Order Ministry locations as dispensaries, offering a wide selection of dried cannabis flowers, CBD oils and edibles — which are still illegal for sale in Canada — available to purchase.
Legal experts say its uncertain how a court would interpret the freedom of religion argument should Holmes and the Sanctuary of the Rastafarian Order Ministry wind up facing charges.
"To the police and the City of Toronto, I'd appreciate it if you guys came to service," Holmes told CBC Toronto.
"If you find that we're doing something illegal, then come get us."
Wine analogy doesn't work, legal expert says
In a statement to CBC Toronto, Toronto police did not say if they consider the church's operations illegal.
"The Toronto Police Service in not in a position to speculate on what happens inside the Sanctuary of Rastafarian Order Ministry," said Const. Caroline de Kloet. "If someone wants to report illegal activity they can contact police."
Anna Su, an assistant professor at the University of Toronto, says she's not confident the ministry would prevail in court.
"Even if cannabis is now legal, it is still regulated by law and the Rastafarian church has to comply with it," she said in an email.
Su believes that since cannabis is legal, a religious group actually has less reason to actively disobey laws. She also said Holmes's argument around Catholic churches serving wine doesn't hold water.
"The wine analogy does not work because wine is not highly regulated in the same way as the selling/dispensing of cannabis," she said.
'Sincerity of the faith' required
Holmes's ministry opened its first location in Burnaby, B.C., in 2012, and has since opened two other operations in that province.
At all of ministry's locations, Rastafarians can make a donation in exchange for weed, and so can anyone else willing to sign an affidavit proclaiming their "sincerity of the faith," he said
The gregarious Holmes said the distribution of cannabis is an expression of the Rastafarians' right to religious freedom. It is also an open act of rebellion against Canada's legal but highly regulated cannabis industry.
"If this is a problem where I have to go deal with the courts, I don't have a problem with that," said Holmes.
"Persecution is nothing new if you're a Rastafarian."
'It's not about the money'
Holmes is cagey about the actual process of cannabis exchanges at the sanctuary, and he wouldn't say how much weed the ministry gives out based on the size of a donation.
When asked about criticism that his organization is merely using religion as a cover to sell pot, Holmes insists that money isn't a factor.
"If you don't know what we do, it's easy to make that assumption. But if you roll with me for a week, you'll see that it's not about the money. It's about the people," he said.
Holmes said cannabis donations go toward its charitable operations, which include helping Rastafarian prisoners and others exiting the justice system.
With the new, larger space at the Broadview Faith Temple, which is shared with a Christian parish, Holmes says he also plans to offer meal services and winter shelters for people in need. That charitable mission depends on the ministry's ability to accept donations for cannabis, which makes up about a third of the organization's financial intake, Holmes said.
Will it hold up?
Since opening his first location in Toronto in 2018, Holmes said the ministry's operations haven't been challenged by local police or any level of government, though he feels confident he could win a legal battle.
Given that recreational cannabis was only made legal in Canada on Oct. 17, 2018, there is little precedent to indicate how a court case centred around weed and religion would unfold.
Benjamin Berger, a law professor specializing in religion and constitutional law at Toronto's York University, said there is "a reasonably broad protection" for freedom of religion under Canada's Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
"No rights are absolute in Canada, and that includes freedom of religion," he said.
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If a religious group's ability to distribute cannabis was ever challenged, Berger said a court would have to determine if that restriction was reasonable.
"The status of the practice, how it interacts with other public goods, with other laws. All of that is relevant," he said.