A Big Island couple that openly used their ministry to promote marijuana use was sentenced to multiple year prison terms Monday for the promotion and distribution of the drug.
Roger Christie, 64, was sentenced to 60 months in federal detention and four years of supervised release. His wife, Sherryanne "Share" Christie, 62, received a prison sentence of 27 months, followed by three years of supervised release. Both sentenced were handed down by federal Judge Leslie Kobayashi.
In September the couple agreed to a plea deal with federal prosecutors that kept both cases from going to trial. Roger Christie pleaded guilty to conspiring to manufacture, distribute and possess 100 or more marijuana plants as well as two separate counts of failing to file federal income tax returns. Share Christie pleaded guilty to conspiring to manufacture, distribute and possess 50 or more marijuana plants.
Prosecutors said the Christies used their THC Ministry in downtown Hilo as a front to profit from marijuana sales. During sentencing Monday, assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Kawahara pointed to recorded conversations of the couple as proof a donation system used by the ministry was a sham.
"It may have been that very much in the beginning there was some kind of religiosity that Mr. Christie believed in, but as it was his primary means of support, what he did quickly became a business," Kawahara told reporters outside the courthouse.
In court, Roger Christie apologized to twelve co-defendants who were also prosecuted for taking part in ministry activities.
"I'm sorry that my actions or inactions led our co-defendants into legal troubles, and that our arrest left our medical patients to fend for themselves," Christie said. "I did my best to make the THC Ministry a safe, legal place to worship and to obtain sacrament and medical marijuana. I hope they can forgive me for my errors in judgment."
Having already served more than three years and nine months in federal detention, Roger Christie's attorney said his client could soon be released to a halfway house. Thomas Otake also said Christie looks forward to appealing certain aspects of his conviction under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which Kobayashi ruled could not be used as a defense by either of the Christies.
"We expect Roger Christie will be released real soon, hopefully in the next month or two," said Otake. "The plea agreement allows us to appeal certain things and we will do that."
Meanwhile, Share Christie will remain a free woman while she awaits a decision on her pending appeal. Under terms agreed to by Kobayashi, Christie must report to prison 45 days after the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco issues a ruling. Christie's attorney, Lynn Panagakos, said her client's appeal would also rely on how the lower court interpreted certain aspects of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, including whether the court was incorrect in finding the government had a compelling interest in prosecuting the case.
"Some of the issues are sufficiently novel that depending on how the 9th Circuit rules, both the government and the defense are interested in possibly pursuing this to the Supreme Court," said Panagakos, while Share Christie stood by her side.
With marijuana laws becoming increasingly liberal across the country, the irony of the federal jail sentences handed out Monday by Kobayashi is not lost on the Christies or their attorneys.
"What you have is the federal government sentencing Rev. Christie to five years in jail for marijuana when 19 states have approved it for medical use (and) two states have approved it for recreational use," said Otake.
In court, Share Christie spoke about the enforcement of marijuana laws and expressed hope that her plight and that of her husband will help spur further change.
"I do pray about the drug war being changed," said Christie. "It is a war on the people... it really is."
Both of the Christies are being allowed to resume activities of the THC Ministry while on supervised release, however neither will be allowed to possess or use marijuana.