Several California law enforcement and district attorney’s offices are cracking down on churches posing as dispensaries to sell marijuana products.
The Coachella Valley Church in San Jose, the Oklevueha Native American Church in South Bay and The Citadel Church of La Puente in Los Angeles are among the houses of worship being targeted for selling weed. The churches have been identified by law enforcement officials for allegedly operating illegal, unlicensed dispensaries. Church leaders also argue that their nonprofit status as a religious congregation allows marijuana sales to be considered tax-exempt.
Members of the Coachella Valley Church staff and congregation had previously argued that they use pot and cannabis for spiritual purposes and are exempt from sales restrictions under religious freedom statutes, Mercury News first reported. The church claims to be one of the country’s first federally recognized Rastafarian Cannabis churches.
“It helps me to clarify my own mind, to get to my sense of purpose and start living my truth,” Grant Atwell, a shaman who is also known by his Native American name, Star Touches Earth, said of the church’s marijuana use in a recent interview. “The majority of adults have come across it in their lifetime…However, we have to use it appropriately, in a good way for medical and sacred ceremony.”
Councilwoman Devora “Dev” Davis told Mercury News Monday that the investigation to crack down on the San Jose marijuana churches is a “priority.”
“It’s a priority for me, so I will be doing everything I can to shut down illegal pot clubs, regardless of whether they call themselves churches or not,” Davis said. She noted that City Attorney Rick Doyle informed her that the two houses of weed and worship “have been in the hopper as part of the regular process of shutting down illegal dispensaries as they pop up.”
Coachella Valley Church director Donny Lords argues that the church’s nonprofit status means that not only are the weed sales legal — they should also be tax-exempt. Oklavueha Native American Church of South Bay also claims the same legal exemption allowing for non-taxable marijuana sales.
In addition to health regulation concerns over the unlicensed pot products, Davis says the churches have no legal basis for claiming tax-exempt statuses to sell ganja goods on church premises. However, Davis acknowledged that law enforcement can’t prevent church members from smoking marijuana on private church property.
“The cannabis tax applies whether you are a legal or not-legal dispensary,” Davis said. “They’re basically violating law if they don’t pay taxes on cannabis sales, even if they’re not a dispensary.”
This comes as San Jose’s city council unanimously voted Nov. 14 to allow the city’s 16 licensed pot shops to sell non-medicinal cannabis beginning in 2018. Cannabist lobbyists in Silicon Valley applauded the move, citing that every district in San Jose voted in favor of Prop. 64 in 2016. The ballot measure legalized recreational use for adults over the age of 21.
However, the San Jose city council legislation does not change zoning regulations that require minimum distances from churches, schools and other areas deemed “sensitive.”
The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department recently seized more than $20,000 worth of marijuana from The Citadel Church of La Puente, which was also falsely operating as an illegal dispensary. Concentrated cannabis products such as marijuana wax, weight scales and other weed edibles were also found on church grounds.