Des Moines man’s 45-year fight over drug laws takes a new turn

By: - February 22, 2023 1:18 pm

A 71-year-old Des Moines man is contesting a 2022 decision by the state to deny him a medical cannabidiol registration card. (Photo by kmatija/iStock/Getty Images Plus)

Forty-five years after being arrested in West Liberty with 129 pounds of marijuana in his car, Carl Olsen is still waging legal battles over Iowa’s drug laws.

The 71-year-old Des Moines man is contesting a 2022 decision by the state to deny him a medical cannabidiol registration card. That decision, made by the Iowa Department of Public Health, which is now the Iowa Department of Health and Human Services, was upheld last summer by an administrative law judge.

Citing his longstanding religious beliefs, Olsen is now asking a Polk County District Court judge to review the state’s actions and remand the matter back to the DHHS with an order to approve his application for a card.

“The state has set up a program of legalized cultivation, distribution and possession – and they want to tell me that I cannot participate in that program and that my religious claim is not as great as a medical claim,” Olsen said Wednesday. “And you can’t do that. That’s unconstitutional.”

Under Iowa law, the cards are issued to qualified “patients” who want to obtain medical cannabidiol for a strictly defined set of medical purposes.

The requirements for obtaining a card are that the person must be at least 18 years old; a permanent resident of Iowa; and have written certification, signed by a health care practitioner, confirming the person has one of the debilitating medical conditions that state lawmakers have determined qualify for treatment with medical cannabidiol.

In applying for a card, Olsen provided the state with all of the required information except for the certification of a health care practitioner, and he made no claim that he suffers from any of the debilitating medical conditions on which access to medical cannabidiol is based.

He did, however, attach to his application a “declaration” citing a religious need for the card, noting that he is a member of the Ethiopian Zion Coptic Church, which considers cannabis use to be part of its religious doctrine.

The state has conceded that Olsen’s association with the church is longstanding and that his church does, in fact, adhere to a belief involving the sacramental use of cannabis.

But in denying Olsen a card, the state noted that under Iowa law, those who seek access to a card are not defined as “applicants” or “candidates,” but as “patients.”

That choice of words, as well as the law’s enumeration of specific, qualifying medical diagnoses, “reflects a clear desire by lawmakers to narrowly tailor access to medical cannabidiol registration cards,” the state argues, adding that public health officials have no authority to waive certain requirements for access.

In contesting that decision, Olsen argues the state’s position violates his constitutional claims of free exercise of religion and due process.

The Ethiopian Zion Coptic Church was first incorporated in Jamaica in 1976. Several years later, Olsen incorporated the church in Iowa.

Court records show Olsen was arrested in 1978 after being pulled over by West Liberty police with 129 pounds of marijuana in his car. He was convicted of possession of a controlled substance with intent to deliver, He appealed, but the Iowa Supreme Court affirmed the conviction, ruling that his right to equal protection was not violated by Iowa’s laws on marijuana use.

Olsen says he served seven months of what amounted to a five-year sentence, with two separate five-year sentences being served concurrently.

In 1985, he filed a court petition seeking a declaratory judgment that would have stated that Iowa’s criminal statutes regarding controlled substances discriminated against his religious beliefs. The Iowa Supreme Court denied that request.

1n 1990, the U.S. Supreme Court denied constitutional protections for the sacramental use of marijuana by the Ethiopian Zion Coptic Church.

Since then, Olsen has remained active in the fight to change state and federal drug laws. In recent years, he has filed lawsuits against the governor and the Iowa Bord of Pharmacy. The most recent case was in 2018, when he challenged the board’s decision to refrain from recommending that legislators allow the religious use of cannabidiol extracts.

“I haven’t used marijuana for 33 years, but I am certainly not going to forget that it’s part of my sacrament and that I’m being screwed,” Olsen said Wednesday.

Olsen is not the only Iowan now asserting a religious right to access and use certain drugs. Last year, the Iowaska Church of Healing sued the IRS in U.S. District Court, challenging the federal agency’s decision to deny the church status as a nonprofit, tax-exempt organization.

State records indicate the church was formed in Iowa in September 2018, and is run by Admir Dado Kantarevic, along with Billy Benskin and Merzuk Ramic. Currently, the church’s official headquarters are Kantarevic’s former home in Des Moines.

Iowaska’s teachings are built around the use of ayahuasca, which is brewed from the leaves of the shrubs and vines found in the Amazon. The church acknowledges that under the federal Controlled Substances Act, an ingredient of ayahuasca called dimethyltryptamine or DMT, is a Schedule I drug and a hallucinogenic alkaloid, and that there is no statutory exemption allowing for its use in religious ceremonies.

In January 2019, Iowaska filed an application with the IRS seeking tax-exempt status and was denied because the church’s use of the Sacrament of Ayahuasca in its religious practices was illegal.

A trial date has yet to be scheduled in the case, and last summer both sides filed motions for summary judgment in their favor. The court has yet to rule on those motions.


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Clark Kauffman
Clark Kauffman

Deputy Editor Clark Kauffman has worked during the past 30 years as both an investigative reporter and editorial writer at two of Iowa’s largest newspapers, the Des Moines Register and the Quad-City Times. He has won numerous state and national awards for reporting and editorial writing.