From: radman (resist@best.com)
Date: Wed Jun 07 2000 - 22:26:31 CUT

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    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
    around 20.
    "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
    oceangoing vessels.
    "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
    was left.
    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
    to avoid.
    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
    the Caribbean."
    "I've been behaving myself," Brown said. "It (the Tampa protest) was just
    a situation."

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