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Heroin dealer cites religious freedom as his defense. Court says yeah, but what about the buyers?

A user prepares to inject heroin. A drug dealer in St. Louis claimed that he sold the drug only for religious purposes. (Fernando Vergara/Associated Press)

Timothy Anderson admitted that he sold heroin, lots of it. And that he didn’t intend to stop. But he said he did so as “a student of Esoteric and Mysticism studies,” and that he had created a religious nonprofit group to distribute heroin to “the sick, lost, blind, lame, deaf and dead members of God’s Kingdom.” So prosecuting him criminally would be a violation of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, passed in 1993 to prohibit the government from unduly burdening a person’s exercise of religion.

Anderson was on to something here. (Except for the part about distributing to the dead. That may have been a bit off.) The Supreme Court previously ruled under the religious freedom act that a small sect of a Brazilian religion could import ayahuasca, containing the hallucinogen dimethyltryptamine, because a sect in New Mexico used it as part of a sacramental tea. And the government has also given an exception to Native Americans for peyote, even though both it and ayahuasca are Schedule 1 drugs, considered the most dangerous in the narcotics pyramid.

From 1993: Signing of Religious Freedom Act Culminates 3-Year Push

Before his trial in St. Louis in 2015, Anderson demanded that the case against him be thrown out, noting that the religious freedom act states that “the government may substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion only if it is in the furtherance of a compelling governmental interest and is the least restrictive means of furthering that compelling interest.” Anderson wrote that he was running a “faith-based system” that offered detoxification treatment by the distribution and controlled use of heroin to “consenting adults only” as a “method of bringing the individual to a drug-free state.” He stated that he did not “formally ascribe to any organized religion” and that his “religion beliefs derive from his transcendental union with the divine,” court records show.

A federal judge in St. Louis did not hold a hearing on this motion, records show. District Judge Rodney W. Sippel found that the government “has a proper and compelling interest in the regulation of heroin,” that prohibition of heroin was the “least restrictive means” of achieving that interest, and denied Anderson’s motion. A jury then convicted Anderson of conspiracy and distribution and Sippel sentenced him to 27 years in prison.

Anderson appealed. And the decision of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 8th Circuit, issued last week and first reported by the Kansas City Star, acknowledged that “a reasonable observer may legitimately question how plausible it is that Anderson exercised a sincerely held religious belief by distributing heroin.” But since there had not been any hearings to explore the underpinnings of Anderson’s faith, and no one wants to be attacking anyone’s religion, the 8th Circuit assumed that the government substantially burdened his exercise of religion. Was that legal?

Well yes, the court ruled. Not just because it was heroin, though. Circuit Judge Raymond Gruender wrote that there was no claim that “the recipients of the heroin used it for their own religious purposes.” That distinguished it from the “groups who have won accommodations for the sacramental use of peyote and [ayahuasca],” on one hand, and Anderson’s “religious exercise on the other,” Gruender wrote. He also noted that “Anderson’s religious exercise involves heroin distribution,” not just holy individual usage, and that “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.’”

And so, for now, there remains no exception in federal law for the religious use of heroin. Anderson can still appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. Judging by his voluminous pro se filings in St. Louis, that seems likely.