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Ogdensburg Rastafarian says no-pot court order forces him to choose between God and jail

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OGDENSBURG — The same system that gave Ibrahim M. Abdulghani his spirituality is now taking it away.

The 41-year-old Ogdensburg man is a practicing Rastafarian, and smokes marijuana as religious sacrament, often accompanied by Bible study. On Wednesday, that sacrament was taken away after he was put on probation for a February arrest.

Visibly disturbed in court when he was told he had to stay away from any illicit substances, including marijuana, Mr. Abdulghani said he was going to be “left in bad standing with the Lord.”

In the days following, Mr. Abdulghani has had time to reflect on his conversion to Rastafarianism, the spiritual significance to him of smoking “ganja” and his struggle to prevail over a court system he says forces him to choose between God and jail.

The federal government, as well as several Western states with substantial Indian populations, exempts religious use of peyote from criminal narcotics laws; however, a 1990 Supreme Court ruling allows governments to prosecute those who use illegal drugs even in religious rituals without violating the First Amendment right of religious freedom. Marijuana use remains illegal in New York.

On a sunny Friday afternoon, sitting on the floor of his 315 Belmont Courts apartment, Mr. Abdulghani tucked the dreadlocks he started growing 16 years ago, when he converted to Rastafarian, back into his Rasta beanie.

“Ganja, marijuana’s ancient name, is a tradition of my ancestors, and we call it by its ancient name because we have ancient rights over it as a people,” Mr. Abdulghani said. “The ganja is older than the Constitution. The Sanskrit, where it is written, is older than the Constitution, so how can the Constitution outlaw a culture before its time, before its existence? It was the opinion of man that outlawed marijuana.”

Mr. Abdulghani, a New Jersey native, was raised by a Muslim father and a Rastafarian mother and, at age 18, he converted to Rastafarianism from Islam and legally changed his name from Lester Gilliam to Ibrahim Abdulghani, a name his parents had called him from a very young age.

“I started Rasan, and after I started Rasan I had gotten into trouble and had to go cut my hair and go to boot camp. As you know, I have a regular record,” he said.

At the age of 25, Mr. Abdulghani was charged with the class C felony of criminal possession of a controlled substance and was sent to the Moriah Shock Incarceration Correctional Facility, a minimum security state prison in the hamlet of Mineville, Essex County.

“When I was in Shock, it taught me about family values, core values of living, and when I got out, I realized that if I wanted to be righteous, noble and at peace with myself, I have to accept who I am,” Mr. Abdulghani said.

He said he found himself more in tune with the practices of the Rastafarian movement and said his family taught him that the religious sacraments are the most important things and that he should never give them up, because if he were to do so, he would be lost.

So on Wednesday, when he was in court, where he pleaded not guilty to possession or transportation of unstamped cigarettes, he said he was placed in a situation that made him choose between God and jail. He was charged in February with possession of 10,080 individual untaxed cigarettes , a class E felony.

As a condition of his pretrial release on probation, Mr. Abdulghani is not allowed to test positive for marijuana; otherwise, he can find himself behind bars.

“If I practice what I believe gets me closer to my lord, I am going to be incarcerated,” he said. “So now I have to decide between God and jail, and that’s not fair because that is like saying I have to choose between heaven and hell.”

He said the 30-day period that it takes for marijuana to get out of his system is 30 days for his god to leave him.

“It takes a whole moon cycle, and that is what makes weed so spiritual,” Mr. Abdulghani said. “It is against my culture to use drugs, and when they gave me that drug test Wednesday, I tested positive for one thing and one thing only, and that was marijuana because it was a religious sacrament. I believe that ganja is the key and the cure to my mind, body and spirit, and he took that right from me to choose my sacrament with the Lord.”

Mr. Abdulghani’s wife, Danielle C., said her husband feels so strongly about not using narcotics that even after major surgery that left a scar up his back, he turned down a prescription for Vicodin.

Mrs. Abdulghani said that in the 12 years they have been together, he has always only smoked marijuana, and she considers their life together a normal one, with her husband’s smoking a part of that.

She added that not smoking has changed him. “He’s not like how he is now,” Mrs. Abdulghani said, referring to his state of duress. “He is a totally different dad, he’s a totally different husband, and he’s a totally different person. This is not him. It’s just not him.”

Mrs. Abdulghani said she disapproves of drugs in general as she has seen the impact they have had on her community.

“We live here and we have to see it every day, so for him to do what he does, it’s normal,” Mrs. Abdulghani said. “It doesn’t affect our children. They never see it.”

Mr. Abdulghani said that he always has referred to smoking as his ancient rights, and that his wife accepted him for who he was because he was a spiritual man, and that was the person she fell in love with.

He added that he was informed by Family Court that he was able to smoke ganja as a religious sacrament; however, he would not be able to be left alone with his children until 24 hours after he last smoked.

Now, being ordered not to smoke at all, Mr. Abdulghani said, he feels as if he has had his culture “beat out of him.”

“Then they send you to a program that tells you that you are now a drug addict, and the only thing you are is a Rastafarian, a spiritualist,” he said. “They have taken away your spirituality, your way of getting answers.”

Mr. Abdulghani’s way of “getting answers” comes in the form of carving wooden staffs or walking sticks.

“I zone out and I get in touch with my ancestors by doing ancient relic carvings. I smoke and I get creative,” Mr. Abdulghani said. “A mind without its sacraments and that’s uncreative can’t get in touch with its lord. I mean, how can you when something has been taken away from your lord?”

The absence of smoking has broken his creativity, he said.

“The understanding that it created within me and has always been with me, I have never been without it,” Mr. Abdulghani said. “This is the first time in my life that I have ever been made to stop using the substance that I consider sacred.”

Mr. Abdulghani said he believed that until he is found guilty, he should be able to practice his religious rights.

“If it is the separation between church and state, how can the state get involved with a religious sacrament while there is supposed to be a separation between the two?” he asked.

Since he has been told he no longer can smoke marijuana, Mr. Abdulghani has been spending a significant amount of time in the court’s law library, and even at home he sits on his floor and sifts through the pages of Black’s Law Dictionary, 6th Edition.

“It got me very, very, very upset, and so I have been looking up things on ancestral rules and things that I can use to fight for my right to still smoke,” he said. “I understand that if you think I’m guilty, but don’t take away my culture. It’s the same as cutting my hair. Why am I put in a Christian institution that’s against my culture and tells me that my god, myself and my ancestors are all drug addicts, when we are not; we are people of peace?”

What is Mr. Abdulghani’s next move?

“I’m gonna fight,” he said. “I’m gonna fight and I’m not going to give up. Because I believe that I should not be separated from God or his sacraments.”

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