By Ken StoneWas it an unlicensed marijuana shop that San Diego police raided Feb. 1 in the Midway District or a church with cannabis as a sacrament? According to a $1.1 million claim filed Wednesday — a precursor to a possible lawsuit — the police targeted a “nature minded” religious organization.
It calls itself Sacred Source Sanctuary.
“The police are not raiding other churches that regularly provide wine to their members without state permits to do so,” said Alanna Reeves, president of an El Toro-based church association with 15 Southern California locations.
“Nor do they raid churches that take 10 percent of members’ annual income promising eternal life. Cannabis has been used as a religious entheogen and healing sacrament for thousands of years – far longer than wine has been used.”
San Diego police didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment, but Gerry Braun, a spokesman for City Attorney Mara Elliott, noted that the city’s Risk Management Department has a deadline to accept or reject a claim.
“If it is rejected, the claimant then can file a lawsuit,” he said. “[The City Attorney’s] Office does not become involved until it becomes a lawsuit.”
The city’s site says claims are usually processed within 45 days of receipt by the office, and would be investigated.
In a press release ahead of a Thursday press conference, Reeves, president of the Association of Sacramental Ministries, said the church had a business license “despite a San Diego Police Department press release stating it did not.”
Marla James — a spokeswoman for Sacred Source who says cannabis helps relieve the pain associated with amputation of her left leg amid a flesh-eating-bacteria episode in 1999 — told Times of San Diego that the Lomita church affiliate she attends is good at keeping her spirits up.
“One side effect of cannabis is: It makes me laugh,” she said in a phone interview Wednesday. “When you’re sick, you forget to laugh.”
James said a “couple hundred” people belong to the San Diego church, which calls itself nondenominational and likens itself to the Quakers.
“Not into fighting,” she said. “We have cannabis available for the [church] members. If they can’t afford it, we give it to them.”
But she said Sacred Source needs donations to exist — “We take donations for different products,” including a cannabis tincture used in ceremonies.
Besides taking all the group’s marijuana, she said, police did a lot of damage to the suite of offices — including what she called a sanctuary — at 3434 Midway Drive.
“They were very, very rough” in handcuffing the four or five people they arrested, James said. “We’re not into resisting.” Police also took down several security cameras at the site, she said.
A 56-year-old legally blind Huntington Beach resident who uses a wheelchair, James said she was roughed up by Santa Ana police in another raid.
In a statement, San Diego attorney Mike Cindrich, representing Sacred Source, said: “A church is not a marijuana dispensary. Sacred Source church members have cannabis as their central sacrament, as many religious entities do around the world.”
James, the church spokeswoman, said her group has several lawyers ready to file suit if the claim is denied, including “a couple in San Diego and one in Orange County.”
The two-page claim says police violated Article 1, Section 4 of the state Constitution (“Free exercise and enjoyment of religion without discrimination or preference are guaranteed.”) as well as the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act.
The sacramental use of cannabis is “central to church beliefs,” says the claim, signed by Reeves.
A San Diego Union-Tribune report on the raid said the narcotics unit served a search warrant at Sacred Source Sanctuary at 8 a.m. on Feb. 1.
“They seized seven pounds of marijuana, $1,200 in cash and a .45 caliber handgun,” the U-T said. “Five employees were cited on charges of marijuana for sale and operating a business without a permit.”
The Sacred Source raid wasn’t the first for the church association.
In mid-November, Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputies shut down a marijuana dispensary that called itself The Citadel Church of La Puente.
Deputy Juanita Navarro-Suarez of the Sheriff’s Information Bureau told a local CBS station that “authorities discovered the ‘church’ was a dispensary selling marijuana, concentrated cannabis such as marijuana wax, various marijuana packaging and edibles such as chocolate bars.”
Another news story quoted an online profile: “We the assemblage Citadel Church of La Puente believe in God, and thus we aim to make room for people of all backgrounds requiring adherence to any religious belief. Join us as we rejoice, confess, receive forgiveness and serve.”
On its own Facebook page, Sacred Source doesn’t mention the raid, but said on Feb. 8: “We’re still undergoing some maintenance issues and haven’t been able to reopen yet — we’ll keep you all posted. We’re working hard to sort this out ASAP. We miss you guys!!”
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