Pubdate: Sat, 06 Feb 2016
Source: Orange County Register, The (CA)
Copyright: 2016 The Orange County Register
Author: Jordan Graham


A national Native American church that courts have allowed to possess 
and distribute peyote soon will open branches in three former Orange 
County pot shops where they plan to use and dispense marijuana and 
other illegal drugs as part of religious ceremonies.

What's more, church members say almost anyone can join the religion 
and partake in its hallucinogenic sacraments, regardless of whether 
they have Native American heritage.

Representatives from the Oklevueha Native American Church, which 
claims over 200 branches nationwide, said they recently signed leases 
in Costa Mesa, Huntington Beach and Westminster, targeting former 
marijuana dispensary storefronts where landlords don't mind having 
pot on the premises.

And as much as those cities have fought to boot the church's pot shop 
predecessors  conducting a police raid on one last week in Costa Mesa 
and receiving a court order Wednesday for another to shut down in 
Huntington Beach - several federal court rulings might make the 
cities powerless in preventing the church from storing and 
distributing drugs at those same locations.

Matthew Pappas, the church's attorney and a Long Beach-based medical 
marijuana lawyer, said his client's legal grounds to keep and 
dispense drugs derive from a 2006 U.S. Supreme Court ruling allowing 
another Native American church to use hallucinogenic tea and a 2000 
federal law banning local zoning from burdening religious practices.

"It is not up to other people to determine the subjective legitimacy 
of any religion," Pappas said. "This religion at its very core is 
that it is the earth that gives us sacraments and everything that we 
need to heal."

In 2005, after the church had been raided by authorities, the Utah 
Supreme Court ruled church members who used peyote were exempt from 
prosecution because they used it "in bona fide religious ceremonies."

"I want to bring these healing medicines to the masses," church 
founder James Mooney said. "We don't knock on doors and tell everyone 
we have the answers. ... We come from a society that derives from 
Christian-Judeo beliefs. So it's hard to get beyond that religion is 
what they say it is."

But Orange County cities said they might not let the church operate 
freely, especially if it plans to sell the sacramental drugs.

"Whatever they call themselves, that's a violation of our ordinance 
prohibiting medical marijuana dispensaries," Costa Mesa spokesman 
Tony Dodero said. "We're going to enforce our ordinance regardless."

Huntington Beach City Attorney Michael Gates said the city's response 
might depend on how the church operates once in town.

"Although the state and federal governments give different treatment 
to this issue, the city's ability to regulate these businesses based 
on land use has not changed," Gates said.

"If it is a normal medical marijuana dispensary, as retail and 
distribution, claiming to be a church, that would be problematic," Gates said.

If those cities take legal action against the church, Pappas said his 
client would not hesitate to sue them. In November, Pappas and the 
church filed a federal lawsuit against Sonoma County after sheriff's 
deputies raided a church branch there and destroyed marijuana plants.

The three Orange County locations are transitioning from pot shops to 
churches, and Mooney said he'll be visiting the new branches within 
the month to bless them and make them holy so the sacramental healing 
can begin in Orange County.
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom