Marijuana plants seized from church on Lawndale Road
Sheriff’s deputies entered the Lawndale Road property of a branch of the Native American Church on the morning of Sept. 14 and hauled off 662 marijuana plants. The seizure prompted church representatives to cry foul, maintaining that the plants are used in their religious practices and are legally protected.
Matthew Pappas, an attorney for the Oklevueha Native American Church (ONAC) of the Valley of the Moon, said he would be filing a lawsuit in federal court in San Francisco soon, seeking, in part, to recover the value of what was seized.
Pappas said ONAC and its branches are protected by federal and state laws, and ONAC members have the legal right to practice their religion and conduct associated rituals and ceremonies. Pappas, a civil rights attorney based in Southern California, said the sheriff’s deputies violated ONAC members’ constitutional rights by confiscating the marijuana plants, which are used in sacraments and as medicine.
While the raid was occurring on Sept. 14, Pappas said he told deputies via phone and letter about the church’s legal protections, but that they went ahead and seized the plants and made an arrest anyway.
As of press time, information about the raid from the sheriff’s office has been limited, in part due to the fact that an investigation is ongoing. Sergeant Cecile Focha, the department’s media relations officer, said deputies served a search warrant at 1142 Lawndale Road at 7:40 a.m. on Sept. 14, and arrested 38-year-old Saul Arriola Garcia for marijuana cultivation and possession of marijuana for sale. Focha said 662 marijuana plants were removed. As of press time, according to the Sonoma County Superior Court’s computer system, Garcia, who is listed as president of the ONAC Valley of the Moon branch, had not been officially charged by the District Attorney’s office.
In August, a sign was put up in the driveway of 1142 Lawndale Road indicating the presence of ONAC of the Valley of the Moon. Erecting the sign, according to an ONAC press release, was meant to indicate that, “these places are church property or sacred ceremonial sites. As such, the grounds and facilities are under different legal requirements than apply to plants grown for medical research or to supply state authorized medical marijuana dispensaries.”
ONAC has over 200 branches across the country and is open to all races. Members do not have to be of Native American heritage. Many branches of ONAC use plants like peyote, San Pedro, Ayahuasca, and cannabis in their sacred sacraments.
The ONAC Valley of the Moon Branch presently has less than 10 members.
The branch has also come under scrutiny from another Sonoma County governmental agency, the Permit and Resource Management Department (PRMD). On Sept. 1, PRMD’s code enforcement division sent a letter stating that a use permit was required for a religious place of worship. The .86 acre parcel is zoned Diverse Agriculture (DA), and a church is not a listed allowable use on DA properties.
Code enforcement staff have determined that the church’s sign is illegal, and that there is a structure on the property that does not have a permit.
Scott Bates, chief executive officer of ONAC Valley of the Moon, has said they will file for a use permit and make their sign legal.
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