The illicit marijuana market is the bane of every legal operator’s existence. Illegal dispensaries outnumber lawful ones 3-1 throughout California, and state officials have committed themselves to cracking down hard on unlicensed operators. But what happens when its faith – not funding – that drives these operations?
The idea of cannabis as a religious sacrament isn’t new. Numerous religions – historically and presently – have used cannabis as an entheogen to induce a spiritual experience. Courts, however, haven’t always been so kind.
Last year in Indiana, for example, a judge ruled that a local First Church of Cannabis would not be legally allowed to use marijuana as a religious sacrament, finding it would be impossible to battle illicit drug trade “while allowing a religious exception that would be ripe for abuse.”
But in Indiana, unlike in California, possession of non-medicinal marijuana is still illegal. But as our Los Angeles cannabis church lawyers know, that doesn’t mean cannabis churches here are exactly safe – especially if they’re operating without licensed approval from the state.
Lawsuit Alleges Cannabis Church Raid Unlawful
One cannabis church leader in Humbolt County is suing the state’s Department of Fish and Wildlife for allegedly violating the rights of the church when it raided the property last year and destroyed an uncounted number of cannabis plants located in five greenhouses.
Plaintiffs allege due process right violations. Authorities reportedly came to the site because they had a search warrant, authorized by the court, which allowed them to enter private property, search for evidence of a crime, which could then be seized and used as evidence in a criminal case. However, that is not what they did. They destroyed private property. Plaintiffs claim that destruction was not warranted and in fact illegal.
The CFW claims it is allowed to destroy illegal substances, and that they knew it was illegal because the site wasn’t licensed by either county or state. However, the church argues the farming of cannabis on site wasn’t for commercial purposes, rather for religious ones. A determination on commercial v. religious purpose cultivation is a legal conclusion – one agents with a law enforcement agency aren’t trained or authorized to make. Thus, the church is arguing violation of their 14th Amendment rights.
If the claim doesn’t succeed on violation of 1st Amendment religious rights grounds, there is a good chance it may on 14th Amendment due process grounds.
Los Angeles authorities said they have been essentially been playing wack-a-mole with cannabis churches that close and then reopen a few weeks later under different names and in different locations. Most do conduct religious services and sometimes things like yoga. But they also dispense marijuana, usually for a “suggested donation.” This, the city says, is what differentiates it from a sacrament, noting the Catholic church doesn’t charge for sacramental wine.
Courts Will Have Difficult Questions to Answer
Our cannabis lawyers know that at the heart of these cases, at least on 1st Amendment freedom of religion grounds, are impossibly difficult questions like:
- What is religion?
- How do you prove faith?
- How can you tell if a congregations’ beliefs are sincere?
Those things are somewhat intangible and widely open to interpretation – and notoriously difficult for courts to answer.
What many of these cases may come down to is money. At cannabis churches located throughout the state, people aren’t technically paying for the plant. They are, however, tithing. Some members donate money. Some buy memberships. Some of these churches have been marked on dispensary listing sites – occasionally with prices attached to their selections. These facilities are very likely to run afoul.
People Turn to Black Market When Legal Options are Few
It’s estimated that there are more than 2,800 dispensaries operating without a license in the state.
Even if these facilities didn’t have an unfair economic advantage, not bound to pay heavy taxes and abide a long list of stringent rules applicable to licensed facilities, they might still thrive. That’s because in 80 percent of cities in this state, marijuana dispensaries are banned. That means people essentially have no choice but to turn to these centers. And that could be part of the reason for the rise in cannabis churches too.
The Los Angeles CANNABIS LAW Group represents growers, dispensaries, ancillary companies, patients, doctors and those facing marijuana charges. Call us at 714-937-2050.
Inside the War for California’s Cannabis Churches, Nov. 23, 2019, By Arit John, The New York Times