A federal judge sentenced marijuana advocate Roger Christie to five years in prison Monday for marijuana trafficking and for failing to file income tax returns for 2008 and 2009.
Christie, 64, handed out marijuana at his The Hawaii Cannabis Ministry in downtown Hilo in exchange for donations. He maintains that the marijuana is a sacrament but pleaded guilty in September as part of a conditional plea deal with the prosecutor.
U.S. District Judge Leslie E. Kobayashi, who handed down the sentence, had earlier denied Christie’s bid to have marijuana conspiracy, manufacture, possession and distribution charges against him dismissed under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.
The deal allows Christie to appeal the ruling. If he wins, he will be allowed to withdraw his guilty pleas and have his convictions overturned.
Five years was the mandatory minimum amount of prison time Christie was facing for conspiring to manufacture and possess with intent to distribute 100 or more marijuana plants.
Kobayashi also ordered Christie to pay the government $13,944 in unpaid taxes.
"What a very strange experience this has been for the last 45 months," Christie told Kobayashi.
He has remained in custody since his arrest in 2010, with the court rejecting his multiple requests for bail.
Because of that, defense lawyer Tommy Otake said Christie has already served nearly all of his prison term and could be released in the next month or two.
The Bureau of Prisons can reduce an inmate’s period of incarceration by up to 15 percent for good behavior and release the inmate to a halfway house for the last six months.
Christie’s wife, Sherryanne, 62, pleaded guilty in September to trafficking 50 or more marijuana plants under the same plea deal as her husband.
Kobayashi sentenced her Monday to 27 months in prison but suspended the start of the sentence until after the appeal is over.
"I already feel like I’ve been in prison. I really miss my husband," Christie said.
She was not facing a mandatory minimum. The 27-month term is what prosecutor Michael Kawahara and the court’s probation office recommended.
"She was second in command," Kawahara told Kobayashi. "After all, she was the first lady of the ministry."
Christie married her husband in a visitor waiting area at the Federal Detention Center in 2011, she said, because that was the only way she could see him.
Otake said Roger Christie is grateful for the opportunity to appeal his convictions. But he said federal marijuana laws are antiquated and the recommended sentences for them are excessive.
"In a day and age in which 19 states have legalized marijuana for medical use, two for recreational use, it seems absurd that there would be a mandatory minimum of five years for Roger and that Sher would have to be sentenced to 27 months." Otake said.
Sherryanne’s lawyer, Lynn Panagakos, told Kobayashi that the federal marijuana laws were written before what was believed to have been dangerous about the drug was disproved. She asked Kobayashi to sentence Christie to just the four days she was in custody following her arrest in 2010.
"Of course, she’s disappointed," Panagakos said of her client. "But she’s got bond pending appeal, and we’re grateful to the court for that."
After they complete their prison terms, the Christies will be under court-supervised release for four and three years, respectively.
Kobayashi said the Christies will not be prohibited from advocating their religious beliefs but that they will be prohibited from possessing or consuming illegal drugs and substances, including marijuana, and will have to undergo regular drug testing. They will not be prohibited from associating with THC Ministry members, but they cannot knowingly be in the presence of people who possess or who are using marijuana.
There were 12 other people who were indicted with the Christies in 2010. They either grew marijuana for the ministry or worked at the ministry. Eleven have pleaded guilty.
Five of them have been sentenced and have already completed their prison terms. The 12th defendant was scheduled to stand trial in October but failed to show.