Couple behind THC Ministry pleads guilty
Updated On: Sep 27 2013 08:45:00 PM HST
After walking out of U.S. District Court as a convicted marijuana trafficker, Share Christie said she and her husband Roger will not back down. The Hilo couple agreed to change their not guilty pleas after reaching a deal with federal prosecutors.
“The larger picture (is) that we do want to see the war on drugs gone,” Share Christie said in an exclusive interview with KITV4. “You know it's been a war on our people, (and) we are missing generations."
After spending the past the three-and-a-half years in federal detention while awaiting trial, Roger Christie, 64, pleaded guilty to one count of conspiring to manufacture, distribute and possess marijuana with the intent to distribute. He also pleaded guilty to two counts of failing to file a tax return for income earned in 2008 and 2009.
Share Christie, 62, pleaded guilty to one count of conspiring to manufacture, distribute and possess marijuana with the intent to distribute. However, in a highly unusual deal, the Christies will be allowed to appeal their convictions to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco, and possibly all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court in the nation’s capital.
U.S. Attorney Michael Kawahara said it made sense for the government to accept the plea deal with the Christies given the fact the case was likely to continue even upon conviction.
“If we had gone to trial (and) if the defendants were convicted, we would still have to worry about appeals and the like,” Kawahara told reporters.
Roger Christie faces a maximum of 20 years in prison for the drug trafficking charge, and one year for each charge of tax evasion. However, Christie’s attorney Thomas Otake said the government is likely to impose a sentence of five years, which means Christie could be released in six to seven months because of time served. If that’s the case, Christie could be a free man during the appeals process.
“We're very positive about our chances on appeal,” said Otake. “The court made it clear that there were issues decided in this case that have never been decided before.”
Share Christie also faces a maximum of 20 years in jail, but as part of the plea deal, she will likely remain free on bond while awaiting appeal.
“We anticipate a sentencing recommendation from the government in the neighborhood of 27 to 33 months, and we reserve the right to argue for less than that,” said Lynn Panagakos, Share Christie’s attorney. “We are hopeful that the court will grant Share Christie bail pending appeal, so in the event we're vindicated on appeal, Ms. Christie will never have to spend a day in jail.”
One of the Christies' main arguments is the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which aims to prevent the enforcement of laws that burden a person's free exercise of religion.
“For the good of the people, we can start really looking at cannabis in a more enlightening way as the tree of life,” said Share Christie. “That's why we're here. We really feel it is the tree of life, and that it can heal the nations.”
Federal Judge Leslie Kobayashi, who presided over the case before the plea deal was reached, has already ruled the THC Ministry is a bona fide religion. The Christies believe marijuana is a sacrament, and offered it as such to their congregation.
"She did rule further that the government had a compelling interest in regulating this ministry, but she did say the THC Ministry is a legitimate ministry and that Roger and Share's beliefs were sincere," said Otake.
However federal prosecutors claim the Christies' ministry was simply a front to make cash. The government points to wiretaps that showed Roger Christie turned a profit of $1,500 to $2,000 on every pound of marijuana he sold, and at times Christie did not meet with buyers for a ministry orientation.
"Bottom line, you take away all the ministry and what you have is a person acting just like a drug trafficker," said Kawahara.
Roger Christie’s attorney countered that just like any other church, the THC Ministry had a substantial amount of overhead, including rented office space and employees.
"Those donations, whatever so-called profit that came of it, was used to simply keep the church running,” said Otake. “It wasn't a situation where Roger and Share were getting rich or making money off of this."
Otake said for the two years Roger Christie failed to file tax returns, his income was $40,000 to $50,000, which would have resulted in roughly $6,000 in federal taxes.
Otake said the government refused to grant Roger Christie bail because it feared he would resume selling marijuana to ministry followers. After a government raid in March, 2010, Otake said Christie resumed his distribution activities.
“When we searched the second time in July of 2010, the ministry was in full force and effect again,” said Otake. “Since that was all being done under his direction, under federal law that’s what you call a danger to the community.”
When asked if it was hypocritical to prosecute the Christies while the federal government ignores the enforcement of federal marijuana laws in Colorado and Washington where the drug is now legal, Otake drew a distinction to the current law in Hawaii.
“Until such time that the state of Hawaii and the people of the state of Hawaii do not adopt any kind of state laws like they do in Colorado and Washington, we will continue to enforce the Controlled Substance Act to its maximum,” said the U.S. attorney.
For Share Christie, her conviction and that of her husband represents a chance to educate the country about marijuana laws, and how the drug should be regulated much like alcohol.
“I still don't believe that people should be using cannabis at a young age,” she said, “but I really do think they should be educated. Silence equals consent, so if you don't stand up for your rights, that's what you get.”
Under terms of the plea deal, the Christies will forfeit $21,494 in cash as well as an apartment in Hilo.
Sentencing for Roger Christie has been scheduled for Jan. 22, while Share Christie’s sentencing hearing is set for Jan. 27. Otake said he will ask that the couple be sentenced on the same date.
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