HONOLULU (AP)?- The founder of an organization that openly promotes marijuana use pleaded guilty on Friday in federal court to possessing nearly 300 pot plants as part of a distribution ring but reserved the right to appeal his case on religious grounds.
Roger Christie of Hilo entered the plea to one count of conspiring to manufacture, distribute and possess marijuana plants. This count carries a minimum sentence of five years and a maximum of 40 years in prison.
He also pleaded guilty to two counts of failing to file a tax return. Sentencing was scheduled for Jan. 22. Prosecutors agreed to drop other drug charges.
Christie, 64, who founded the Hawaii Cannabis Ministry, will forfeit his apartment and more than $21,000 discovered by federal agents during their investigation that determined he had 284 plants.
Christie's wife, Sherryanne Christie, pleaded guilty to one count of conspiring to manufacture, distribute and possess marijuana. She also reserved the right to appeal her case on religious grounds.
She appeared in court holding a white purse with an embroidered marijuana leaf stitched to the front.
"Roger and Sherr are not giving up their fight today. They're simply taking their fight to a higher court," said lawyer Thomas Otake, who represents Roger Christie.
His client decided to plead guilty, Otake said, after U.S. District Court Judge Leslie Kobayashi ruled against allowing a defense based on the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.
The ruling put the Christies at a disadvantage and they decided to take the case to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, he said.
Sentencing guidelines could mean Roger Christie will be released in six months, with credit for more than three years he has served while being held without bail, Otake said.
Sherryanne Christie, 62, has been free on bail since 2010, when federal agents arrested the couple and 12 other people. She will remain free on bail while she appeals. She and her lawyer left court without commenting.
The charges stemmed in part from wiretaps on Christie's business and personal telephones, as well as the searches of his home and safe deposit box.
Federal authorities said they seized 3,000 plants with a retail value of $4.8 million during raids three years ago. They also said they recovered firearms.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Kawahara said that there was little religion in Roger Christie's organization.
"We believe, and from the undercover wiretapping investigation that we did in this case, that the religious idea is merely a front that camouflaged a long-term marijuana trafficking operation," Kawahara said.
Under Christie's "express" orientation to the ministry, started in 2009, new members just showed their ID card, paid the full donation price for marijuana, then walked off with their "sacrament," he said.
Otake said the claim by the prosecutor contradicted the judge's ruling, which he said accepted the church as legitimate ministry but said the government had a compelling interest in regulating it.