Cannabis Churches Dispensaries in Disguise??

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Image from USA Today

By Greg Zeman

Now that California’s adult use regulations are in full effect, there are two basic cannabis business categories: legal and illegal. The big picture is still developing, with major markets like Los Angeles still tying up licensing loose ends, but the line has been drawn between cannabis companies that play by the official rules and those that will either shutter or go underground.
And then there are the cannabis churches, which claim cannabis as a holy sacrament. California government officials say they’re actually unlicensed dispensaries trying to circumvent regulation.

In San Jose, one of the California cities that did begin adult use sales on Jan. 1, the Coachella Valley Church offers the same products as a dispensary, only they do not require a medical card, just a one-time $10 membership fee. Their menu lists various cannabis products, along with the “tithe” required to receive the “sacrament.”

San Jose City Attorney Rick Doyle told WGRZ 2 that it’s not his place to judge the theological validity of a cannabis church, but that such operations — including CVC — are in clear violation of the law.

From WGRZ 2:

“I’m not going to say they’re not churches, but to the extent that they’re distributing marijuana, they’re an illegal dispensary, in my view.”

Doyle has requested a permanent legal injunction to stop the Coachella Valley Church from providing marijuana, and a court hearing is set for Jan. 22. He recently got a court order to shut down operations of a similar church, the Oklevueha Native American Church of South Bay, he said.

In the actual city of Coachella, California — where cannabis dispensaries are prohibited by local law — there are at least two self-proclaimed cannabis churches in operation, but the city recently won the first legal battle in their effort to shut them down.

From the Desert Sun:

After months of litigation, the City of Coachella has won its first fight in a war against two unlicensed marijuana dispensaries that claim to be religious institutions. On December 6, the judge presiding over the case against Mien Tao Church found in favor of the city, which had requested a lockout.

Some cannabis church proponents point to a 2006 ruling by the Supreme Court concerning the use of ayuhuasca as a sacrament, a practice the court found was protected by the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act. But more recently, cannabis-specific rulings have set a less promising precedent.

In 2016, the Supreme Court refused to hear an appeal of the suit brought by a Hawaiian cannabis church against then-Attorney General Loretta Lynch and the U.S. Attorney for the District of Hawaii, upholding the verdict of the Ninth District Court, which found insubstantial evidence to support the church’s claim that cannabis prohibition hindered their religious practice.

Judge Diarmuid F. O’Scannlain, from the court’s opinion:

“Put simply, nothing in the record demonstrates that a prohibition on cannabis forces Mooney and Oklevueha to choose between obedience to their religion and criminal sanction, such that they are being ‘coerced to act contrary to their religious beliefs.”

Craig and Marc Wasserman are the Los Angeles-based attorneys behind Pot Brothers at Law, a firm that specializes in all facets of cannabis law. They also provide the community with free legal advice through their Instagram page, where they expressed a strong aversion to the idea of cannabis churches.

“Do not give your money to any attorney who says they can set you up as a church,” the Pot Brothers at Law wrote on Instagram. “It’s a rip off and you will get shut down. Don’t fall prey to unscrupulous [attorneys] or online services.”

Religion is a very personal thing, and there’s no law against incorporating legally purchased medicinal or adult use cannabis into your spiritual practice, but if you use that practice a legal strategy for avoiding taxes and licenses, you better hope for a miracle.

Original Publication in Cannabis Now.