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Inmate Suing for Right to Smoke Cannabis as Part of His Religious Practice

James Rose says South Carolina prison guards shaved his head after he asked for marijuana in 2017.

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Inmate Suing for Right to Smoke Cannabis as Part of His Religious Practice
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Rastafarian inmate James Rose has sued the South Carolina Department of Corrections for violation of his religious freedoms while imprisoned. Primary among his demands are that his jailers allow him to grow out his dreadlocks and smoke marijuana, a cornerstone practice of the faith that originated in Jamaica. In his lawsuit, Rose reports that his dreadlocks were forcibly shaved in the prison.

“The injuries I’ve sustained related to the events were migraine headaches, psychological trauma, mental anguish (depression), panic attacks, and nightmares,” Rose wrote in the handwritten document that he filed on Monday. The 41-year-old is suing the department to the tune of $1 million in punitive and actual damages. Rose is currently serving a life sentence in the maximum security McCormick Correctional Institution due to charges stemming from the 2013 murder of Lincolnville resident Leland Shannon Jr.

Traditionally, Rastafarians consume marijuana for a variety of reasons, among them to aid meditation, produce heightened feelings of community, and to invoke religious visions. Cannabis usage stems from various scriptures from the Christian Bible, including Revelation 22:2, which states “the leaves of the tree served to heal the nations.” Rastafarians often refer to cannabis as lamb’s bread, callie, iley, wisdom weed, or holy herb. Aside from smoking the drug, members of the faith use it as a cooking spice, tea, and medicine.

Rose’s case is by no means the first time that Rastafarians have found that the US legal system infringed on their ability to practice their religion. In 2017, a Pennsylvania man saw his lawsuit dismissed after claiming that a state prison violated his rights by insisting that he cut his hair. In that instance, the judge noted that mandatory hair cutting was essential for prison hygiene and that it prevented incarcerated individuals from hiding “weapons and contraband” in their mane.

In 1998, then-attorney general Janet Reno published a legal opinion stating that Rastafarians do not have the right to smoke cannabis in the United States, given federal laws of prohibition. In Jamaica, religious use of the plant was legalized for Rastafarians in 2015 along with a host of other decriminalization measures related to cannabis.

Not all petitions to practice their freedom of religion by Rastafarians serving time in the United States have been rejected. Earlier this year, Deon Glenn was permitted to wear his hair in dreadlocks while serving out a life sentence. His case was built in part on the Leviticus commandment “They shall not make baldness upon their head, neither shall they shave off the corner of their beard, nor make any cuttings in their flesh.”

US District Judge Patricia Gaughan ruled in Glenn’s case that prison requirements that inmates cut their hair were indeed in violation of their right to practice the Rastafarian faith. The judge made it clear that she did not think her ruling should be applied to all inmates.

“I grew dreadlocks as a part of my Rastafarian religion and asked to be accommodated with marijuana as part of my religion and practice,” Rose stated in his lawsuit. He claims prison guards at Lieber Correctional Institution “used excessive force to maliciously and sadistically cause harm” when they physically restrained him and shaved his head on April 17, 2017, after Rose asked them for cannabis.

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