STILL TOKING AFTER ALL THESE YEARS
A former member of a pot-smoking church talks about his arrests and why
marijuana should be legal. He was arrested for pot possession at a
marijuana legalization rally last year after lighting up in front of a
cop. Although the charges are a misdemeanor, Jeff Brown, who lives in a
small town outside Orlando, continues to fight them, claiming pot smoking
is part of his religious ritual.
It may seem a tired defense, but Brown and the handful of marijuana
legalization advocates who showed up in court to support him take it
seriously. Brown, 45, looked the part as he sat in Judge Mark Wolfe's
courtroom, waiting for his hearing. His long, sun-streaked hair was pulled
back in an orange band, his kinky beard tickled his sternum, and he wore
his loose-fitting gray suit over a T-shirt for marijuana legalization.
But Brown is not just a casual pot smoker who's taking a wild shot at
escaping the charges. His life fits his look and his defense. He is a
former member of the Ethiopian Zion Coptic Church in Miami, which got
national attention in the 1970s for arguing that members could legally
smoke pot because it was part of their religion.
In the church's heyday during the mid-1970s, Coptic followers lived in the
Miami church, a $270,000 home on Star Island near homes of celebrities like
Don Johnson. Every morning at 5, Coptics sat in separate circles, smoking
pot from a clay pipe and chanting Christian songs. Their voices and the
heady smoke wafted through the tony neighborhood, irritating other
residents. A fight over zoning and marijuana use ensued that ended up in
Tallahassee at the state Supreme Court. The national media descended;
60 Minutes taped men, women and children inside the church toking.
Brown, a Miami native, said he got involved with the Coptics when he was
"They told me if you are looking for God you have to look within," Brown
said. "Everybody had always been saying just the opposite. And I liked
marijuana. That drew me."
The church had no connection to the Coptic Church of contemporary Ethiopia
and Egypt, nor did it have any doctrinal link to the Rastafarian faith in
Jamaica, even though it grew from there. It relied on the Christian Bible,
but its interpretations differed from conventional faiths. For instance,
the church taught that abortion was wrong, but members were comfortable
using four-letter words to oppose it. And the church was strict in many of
its rules. Men didn't cut their hair or beards.
The state Supreme Court ruled against the church on the Miami zoning issue,
but did not specifically prohibit pot smoking at other locations. But all
the attention was like dropping a ball of spun gold from a rooftop: the
Coptic world unraveled fast. Brown was among 19 church members indicted by
a federal grand jury in 1979 on charges of drug smuggling and
possession. From 1973 to 1979, state and federal drug enforcement seized
105 tons of pot from church members in Florida, New Jersey and
Jamaica. Federal authorities said it wasn't humanly possible for the
estimated 2,000 members to smoke that much pot. And numerous informants,
along with the luxurious lifestyle associated with the church, indicated
the pot was being sold. The DEA found that the Zion Coptic Church owned
thousands of acres in Florida and Jamaica, as well as luxury cars and eight
"Money became all too important," Brown said of the church. "They had a
hierarchy set up. It wasn't right in a lot of ways. Some of the basic
teachings were right on. They taught to love one another. And that the
plant wasn't harmful."
The church continued its pot-related activities while arrested members were
released on bond. In 1981, several Coptics, including Brown, were arrested
in Maine for attempting to smuggle 34 tons of pot. All their prayers
couldn't keep them out of jail.
Brown was convicted of drug smuggling and pot possession on the initial
charges later that year. He was convicted of the Maine charges shortly
thereafter. He spent five years in federal prison, where he continued to
puff his faith until the prison began urinalysis testing in 1984. Brown
tested positive. "They put me in the hole," he said of his
punishment. "The first time they would put you in for 15 days. The next
time, 30. That pretty much shut things down."
After being released from jail, Brown spent about 10 years in the hills of
Jamaica. He became Rastafarian, a Jamaican religion that also advocates
pot use. He said he didn't agree with some of the Coptic tenets, such as
sharing pot with kids.
Meanwhile, the Ethiopian Zion Coptic Church has fallen apart. The Internal
Revenue Service slapped a $2.7-million lien against the church and
confiscated the house. Lawyers and other parts of the government got what
About five years ago Brown returned to Florida to be closer to his
family. He now helps run a shopping center for a friend in Clermont. The
charges he faces in Tampa stem from a pot legalization rally held in
February 1999 at Lowry Park Bandshell in Tampa. One of his friends was
being arrested for lighting a hemp bomb. Brown, angry, proceeded to light a
joint in front of the police.
"They arrested a friend of mine, and I decided to be an idiot," Brown
said. "In reality it was a peace offering."
Brown, who is representing himself, asked for the charges to be dismissed,
claiming that they violate Florida freedom of religion laws. A Tampa judge
rejected that argument, but Brown has appealed that decision. In the
meantime, he has pleaded no contest to the possession charges. If he loses
his appeal, the punishment for his crime will be probation, community
service, fines and a drug test. The latter is what Brown says he's trying
Although Brown could easily be called a marijuana extremist because of his
days with the Coptics, supporters of marijuana legalization aren't just
longhairs anymore. New Mexico's governor has even campaigned for
legalization. Last month, thousands of protestors showed up for pot
legalization rallies around the nation, including St. Petersburg and
Tampa. Nine protestors were arrested in Tampa.
Wearing a T-shirt professing marijuana's finer points, Michael Henkel, a
former state house candidate, argues that denying people the right to smoke
pot is against the First Amendment. Henkel and Robert Quail, president of
the Pinellas County chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of
Marijuana Laws, said marijuana is less harmful than a shot of whiskey, and
it also can help save the environment. Its marginally psychoactive sister,
hemp, was used to make paper, fabric and fuel until cannabis was prohibited
in the 1930s.
Brown calls it "a gift from God." If people were allowed to grow pot, it
would eliminate the black market that he left behind. Although he no
longer condones the Coptic lifestyle, he gets a tad wistful when recalling
it. "It was quite interesting. I was young, traveling around on boats in
"I've been behaving myself," Brown said. "It (the Tampa protest) was just
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