Calif. officials crack down on churches selling marijuana

By Ray Downs  |  Nov. 19, 2017 at 6:22 PM
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Nov. 19 (UPI) -- California authorities this month are moving to close several churches that have been selling marijuana.

At the Citadel Church of La Puente in La Puente, Calif., Los Angeles County Sheriff's Deputies arrested two individuals and seized between $20,000 and $30,000 in marijuana on Nov. 15. In a press release, the LACSD said it conducted a three-week surveillance operation and found the church was actually a "dispensary selling marijuana, concentrated cannabis such as marijuana wax, various marijuana packaging and edibles such as the likes of chocolate bars."

Further north in San Jose, Councilwoman Devora Davis is going after two marijuana-friendly churches -- the Coachella Valley Church and the Oklevueha Native American Church -- for being "illegal dispensaries."

"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 told the San Jose Mercury News.

Staff at the Coachella Valley Church previously said that their use and sales of marijuana is legal due to religious freedom laws. Members of the church have to be 18 and, if hey have a state-approved medical marijuana card, they can buy non-taxed marijuana and participate in a religious service held once a week. The marijuana is not taxed because the church is classified as a tax-exempt organization.

Co-director Donny Lords said the marijuana sales are more like a "donation" and members are encouraged to bring their own supply to the services.

"We'll distribute it if somebody forgets to bring it," he said.

Davis disagrees with the Coachella Valley Church's reading of the tax laws.

"They're basically violating law if they don't pay taxes on cannabis sales, even if they're not a dispensary," she said.

The three marijuana-selling churches are just the latest to come under scrutiny by California law enforcement.

In Roseville, Calif., on Oct. 31, officials sent a cease and desist letter to the Temple for Healing and Meditation just says after the church opened its doors on Oct. 25. The THM doesn't hide the fact that it sells marijuana and it advertises its products on WeedMaps.

But THM's attorney, Christian Peirano, told Fox 40-TV that the selling should be condoned because profit isn't a motive.

"The main focus behind 'selling drugs' is whether or not you're exceedingly doing it for a commercial purpose, in other words, just to make a profit," Peirano said. "The marijuana in this particular situation is to sustain the church itself."

In Coachella last month, officials won an injunction against the Mien Tao Church of Health, Body and Mind to stop distributing marijuana, reported the Desert Sun.

Also in October, police in Yuba County, Calif. arrested 46-year-old Heidi Lepp, the leader of a Rastafarian church, on charges of conspiracy and marijuana cultivation, reported KCRA-TV.

Recreational marijuana will be officially legalized in California on Jan. 1, 2018. It's unclear how the new laws regulating marijuana will affect churches that hope to engage in the practice of marijuana distribution.

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