Pubdate: Sun, 07 Feb 2016
Source: Los Angeles Times (CA)
Copyright: 2016 Los Angeles Times
Author: Jeremiah Dobruck


Costa Mesa police say there was nothing to indicate that mall 
storefront was Native American sanctuary.

Police officers who thought they were shutting down a marijuana 
dispensary in Costa Mesa last month were in fact raiding a Native 
American church that uses cannabis and other controlled substances in 
its spiritual ceremonies, according to a lawyer representing the 
organization's founders.

Attorney Matthew Pappas said Oklevueha Native American Church was 
opening a branch in Costa Mesa when police stormed the Harbor 
Boulevard location.

Costa Mesa has banned marijuana sellers in the city, but Pappas 
contends that Oklevueha's more than 200 chapters across the country 
are shielded by federal religious freedom laws.

"These are churches, not marijuana dispensaries," said Pappas, who 
compared parishioners' use of cannabis, peyote and natural herbs to 
sacramental wine.

But Costa Mesa police officials said they saw nothing during their 
raid of the stripmall storefront that indicated it was a church.

"There was no indication that it was acting as anything other than a 
marijuana dispensary," Sgt. Pat Wessel said.

Police have been on the lookout for dispensaries, based on residents' 
complaints that some are still operating despite a 2005 city ban.

After surveillance, city off icials said, police determined that a 
dispensary named Releaf Wellness was operating out of a unit in the 
2000 block of Harbor Boulevard.

About 3: 30 p. m. Jan. 27, police and code enforcement officers 
served a search warrant, Wessel said.

Inside, officers said they found two large safes containing marijuana 
products and $ 6,000 in cash, according to city spokesman Tony Dodero.

Police believe the location had been a dispensary long enough to 
become wellestablished. Even while officers were inside, several 
customers came to the door, Dodero said.

During the raid, police said, f ive people were arrested on suspicion 
of distributing marijuana. Pappas said none of them was affiliated 
with the church.

According to Dodero, police found paperwork showing the arrestees 
were employees at the dispensary.

It's unclear whether the Orange County district attorney's office 
will f ile charges against those arrested. Prosecutors sent the case 
of at least one of the suspects back to police for further investigation.

It's not clear when the location came under the auspices of 
Oklevueha. Police said they learned of the church's existence after the raid.

Pappas chalked up the raid to a misunderstanding. The church often 
establishes branches where dispensaries or other marijuana-related 
businesses had been located to benefit from understanding landlords, 
he said. That transition is underway at the Harbor Boulevard site, 
Pappas said, but he was unable to provide a date for the shift.

Pappas said Oklevueha has been misconstrued and persecuted across the 
country since its 1997 founding in Utah. The church doesn't require 
members to have Native American heritage, he said, and doesn't allow 
controlled substances to be distributed outside the congregation.

In November, Pappas filed a lawsuit on behalf of the church in U. S. 
District Court in Northern California alleging that sheriff's 
deputies in Sonoma County stormed a church location and destroyed 
sacramental cannabis plants, violating members' religious rights.

Despite the raid in Costa Mesa, Pappas said the church plans to 
remain in the city.

"We're not taking offense at it," Pappas said. "It's a 
misunderstanding. So let's move forward and work positively. There 
will be a branch in Costa Mesa."
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom