HONOLULU - A Big Island man who openly used his ministry to promote marijuana use was sentenced Monday to five years in federal prison for having 300 pot plants as part of a distribution ring.
Roger Christie, founder of The Hawaii Cannabis Ministry, also known as the THC Ministry, has served nearly four years in federal detention. Based on how credit for time served is calculated, he could be released in a month or two, defense attorney Thomas Otake said.
Soon after Christie was sentenced, his wife, Sherryanne Christie, was sentenced to 27 months in prison for her role in the case.
A federal grand jury indicted the Christies and 12 others on marijuana trafficking counts after a 2010 raid of the ministry. Christie has been in federal detention since, while his wife has been free on bail.
The Christies have tried to fight the charges on religious grounds.
The couple pleaded guilty after a judge ruled against allowing a defense based on the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.
They entered into conditional plea agreements last year, reserving the right to appeal aspects of the case on religious grounds.
Roger Christie said at his sentencing hearing that he looks forward to appealing.
"I'm sorry my actions or inactions have left my co-defendants in legal trouble," Christie said.
His wife won't have to start her prison term until after the case goes before the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
"I feel like I've already been in prison," said Sherryanne Christie, who married her husband in 2011 in a visiting room at the Honolulu Federal Detention Center. "I really miss my husband."
Roger Christie said in court that his religion is based on helping people heal through the "sacrament" of medical marijuana.
U.S. District Judge Leslie Kobayashi also sentenced Christie to four years of supervised release. Kobayashi said she wanted to sentence Christie to just one year of supervision, because during that time he'll be subject to restrictions that limit his involvement in his religion. But she couldn't deviate from the mandatory minimum.
His conditions will include not using or possessing marijuana or being in the presence of anyone using or possessing marijuana. He'll be able to participate in his religion in other ways.
Those conditions will apply to his wife while on supervised release.
Prosecutor Michael Kawahara said religion was a "camouflage" for drug dealing, with the couple receiving "suggested donations" for marijuana.
Christie "was always pushing the limits to see how far he could go in his marijuana trafficking activities under the auspices of the ministry," prosecutors said in court documents filed last week. "Christie was clearly in this marijuana trafficking business for financial gain, inasmuch as the ministry's marijuana and associated paraphernalia sales . . . were the sole source of income to sustain co-defendant Sherryanne L. Christie . . . and himself."
The documents state that the couple lived a modest but comfortable lifestyle. Roger Christie also pleaded guilty to two counts of failing to file a tax return. As part of his plea agreement, he will forfeit his Hilo apartment and more than $21,000 seized by federal agents.