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Ohio Appeals Court Rejects Religious-Based Defense to Drug Charges

A man convicted of aggravated possession of drugs did not have a religiously-based defense to his possession of psychedelic mushrooms, an Ohio appeals court has ruled. The man had argued that he used the mushrooms for religious experiences and, as such, he should be immune from the drug laws.

In August 2017, Matthew G. Cook posted a picture on Facebook of a gloved hand holding psychedelic mushrooms. An accompanying post read: “I’m probably gonna catch a lot of shit for this, but I’m doing this to prove a point because I have faith, and I understand my purpose.”

A parole officer monitored Cook’s Facebook page and noticed the post. Because Cook was on parole, the officer called for assistance and went to Cook’s residence. In a subsequent search, the officers discovered mushrooms in various parts of the house. They found totes of mushrooms growing inside the home.

The state charged Cook with illegal manufacture of drugs, aggravated possession of drugs and possession of marijuana. Cook contended in a motion to suppress and dismiss that the officers violated his religious liberty rights under the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and the religious liberty provision of the Ohio Constitution, which provides that “all men have a natural and indefeasible right to worship Almighty God according to the dictates of their own conscience.”

Cook explained that he would take four grams of mushrooms and smoke a joint of marijuana to open his mind for his religious experiences. The trial court denied the motion to suppress, noting that Cook’s beliefs were “an attempt to justify his otherwise illegal actions.”

Cook filed a second motion, arguing that his rights were violated under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), a federal law that provides protection and religious liberty to prisoners and those involved in land-use disputes with the government. The trial court dismissed this motion, reasoning that the statute was not relevant.

The parties later reached an agreement in which Cook would plead no contest and the state would agree to the merging of the various charges into the aggravated possession charge. The trial court sentenced Cook to 24 months.

Cook later appealed, contending that the trial court erred in not providing proper protection to his religious liberty rights. He argued that he had sincere religious beliefs in the use of psilocin mushrooms and that those mushrooms and marijuana were central to his religious practices.

On appeal, the Court of Appeals of Ohio affirmed in its Feb. 10, 2020 decision in State v. Cook.

The Ohio appeals court noted that it must apply a strict scrutiny standard of review based on Ohio Supreme Court precedent. Under this standard, the state had to show that it had a compelling — or very strong — interest that was advanced in a very narrowly tailored manner.

However, even under a strict scrutiny standard of review, Cook lost his appeal.

The Ohio appeals court reasoned that “even assuming Cook’s ‘religious’ beliefs are sincerely held, and even assuming that the law restricts his practice, there is certainly a compelling state interest in regulating the use of Schedule I controlled substances.”

The appeals court also noted that the drug laws are “facially religion-neutral” and do not “target any specific sect of any religion.” Thus, the appeals court deemed the drug laws narrowly tailored.

David L. Hudson Jr. is a First Amendment Fellow at the Freedom Forum Institute, and a law professor at Belmont University who publishes widely on First Amendment topics. He is the author of a 12-lecture audio course on the First Amendment titled, “Freedom of Speech: Understanding the First Amendment” (Now You Know Media, 2018). He also is the author of many First Amendment books, including “The First Amendment: Freedom of Speech” (Thomson Reuters, 2012) and “Freedom of Speech: Documents Decoded” (ABC-CLIO, 2017).

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