A drug dealer tried an innovative legal strategy to defend his heroin business in court: He argued religious freedom laws protect him, because his religious beliefs drive him to sell heroin to people. Therefore, he claimed, the government shouldn’t prosecute him for dealing heroin.
On Wednesday, the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals was clear about this interpretation of the law: No, that’s not anywhere close to correct.
The court summarized defendant Timothy Anderson’s situation:
Anderson filed a pretrial motion seeking dismissal of the indictment. In this motion, Anderson admitted that he distributed heroin, but he argued that the Government’s decision to prosecute him under the Controlled Substances Act (“CSA”) violated his free exercise rights under RFRA [the Religious Freedom Restoration Act]. Anderson alleged that he “is a student of Esoteric and Mysticism studies” who created “a religious non-[p]rofit” to distribute heroin to “the sick, lost, blind, lame, deaf, and dead members of Gods’ [sic] Kingdom.” As such, he argued that the Government’s decision to prosecute him violated RFRA because his practice of distributing heroin was “an exercise of [his] sincerely held religious belief.”
The court, however, bought none of this.
In the opinion, Eighth Circuit Court Judge Raymond Gruender first questioned the sincerity of Anderson’s claims: “We note that a reasonable observer may legitimately question how plausible it is that Anderson exercised a sincerely held religious belief by distributing heroin.”
Gruender also wrote that previous rulings finding that hoasca or peyote can be used for religious purposes arguably don’t apply here — “on the basis that heroin simply is more dangerous than either hoasca or peyote,” and because “the Government is not prosecuting Anderson for engaging in a ‘circumscribed, sacramental use’ of heroin” but “for distributing heroin to others for non-religious uses.”
But, ultimately, Gruender argued that the real issue here is that the government simply has a compelling interest to restrict the supply of heroin, and prosecuting Anderson is a proper way to carry out that interest. That complies with the two key requirements established by the federal RFRA, which requires that the government have a compelling interest to infringe on a person’s religious beliefs and take the least restrictive means possible to enforce those interests.
“Anderson does not even allege that the recipients of his heroin used it for their own religious purposes. Rather, he alleges only that his distribution allowed him to exercise his own religious beliefs,” Gruender wrote. “Thus, we have no difficulty concluding that prosecuting Anderson under the CSA would further a compelling governmental interest in mitigating the risk that heroin will be diverted to recreational users.”
Gruender added, “Anderson has indicated that he will not stop distributing heroin under any circumstances, stating that he ‘does not want to compromise his faith in any way.’ As such, we are convinced that prosecuting Anderson under the CSA represents the least restrictive means for the Government to further its compelling interest in mitigating diversion of heroin to recreational users.”
So there you have it: If you’re going to try to sell heroin, maybe don’t try to use your faith as a defense.