A curious phenomenon has arisen across California: the proliferation of churches offering any worshiper cannabis as a sacrament. The problem is that cities in California are starting to take issue with these churches’ idea of a higher power.
Increasingly, local authorities are cracking down on cannabis churches. They say such churches are nothing more than dispensaries in disguise, operating outside of the rules that official dispensaries have to follow. But one congregation, the Vault Church of Open Faith, is pushing back. It’s suing the city of San Diego for $1.2 million in damages they claim are the result of harassment and intimidation by local officials.
Cannabis Churches Square Off Against City Governments Across California
California’s cannabis laws stipulate a few crucial things about cannabis business operations. While legal across the state, local governments can restrict or outright ban cannabis operations within city limits.
Jurupa Valley, California, where the Vault Church incorporated in January, is at an important crossroads, making the tension between the city and the church particularly piqued.
Currently, the city bans all cannabis businesses. But this month, Jurupa Valley voters will decide whether to allow commercial cannabis operations in the city.
The Vault Church of Open Faith belongs to a ministerial organization called The Association of Sacramental Ministries. On behalf of Vault and 15 other cannabis churches, Sacramental Ministries filed the damages claim against the city, reports Mercury News.
The claim comes as Jurupa Valley is trying to settle its own 2017 lawsuit against the church, which it says is simply an illegal dispensary.
“The bottom line is they are selling marijuana illegally,” said City Manager Gary Thompson. “We have proof of that.”
Legitimate Church, Or Illegal Dispensary?
According to court documents, Thompson’s proof is an undercover investigator who purchased cannabis at The Vault on December 28, 2016—just days before The Vault officially incorporated as a church.
“It was a secular dispensary before. That is true. We’re not going to say that it wasn’t,” said Matthew Pappas, the association’s attorney.
The Vault’s argument rests on a story of religious conversion. Namely, the church’s incorporation on January 19.
Brent Fraser, a founder of Sacramental Ministries, says that the Vault Church uses cannabis as a sacrament and in many of its religious practices. “We don’t ever question when they serve wine to minors at Catholic churches,” observed Fraser.
But Catholic churches also don’t sell wine, like The Vault sells cannabis. And at an average of $40 an eighth, too, according to Weedmaps.
“It just seems kind of odd that any religious organization would sell a sacrament when it is administered as part of a religious ceremony,” city manager Thompson said.
And that’s the basic contours of the bitter back and forth between The Vault and Jurupa Valley. The Vault, insisting that it’s a church, a healing center, a spiritual center, on one side. And a city arguing that churches don’t advertise on weed apps on the other.
If you’re wondering, The Vault says it’s trying to get Weedmaps to add a “church” category. Listing on the app was just a way to grow the congregation. “Missionary outreach,” says Pappas.
The Church Is Suing And Still Offering Cannabis
Whether you think churches using cannabis for sacramental and spiritual purposes is a natural cultural outgrowth of legalization or a deception aimed at circumventing local rules, the Vault’s $1.2 million lawsuits could set an important precedent for adjudicating similar cases in the future.
For now, the small fellowship, housed in a converted single-family dwelling in Jurupa Valley will still offer cannabis. Usually, the church offers the sacramental herb to those who attend its services during meditative exercises.