Police Raid Native American Church In Costa Mesa Over Marijuana

OC raids go beyond marijuana dispensaries
OC raids go beyond marijuana dispensaries
Illustration: Luke McGarry / Design: Dustin Ames

With California on the knife edge of legalization, Orange County has become known as the land of brutal dispensary raids and corrupt cops. But last week's raid on the Oklevueha Native American Church (ONAC) in Costa Mesa strayed from the typical cannabis facility invasion. ONAC isn't a medical facility— it's a place to engage in indigenous Native American spiritual ceremonies, which can include the use of sacred plants, such as cannabis, ayahuasca, peyote and psilocybin. 

The Costa Mesa Police Department raided the Harbor Blvd. church at 3:30 pm on Wednesday, January 27, arresting five people, who were released later that evening. Police around the country have been invading ONAC church branches since December, leading to a federal lawsuit filed by ONAC attorney Matthew Pappas, who argues that the "Federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act overrides the Controlled Substances Act." In other words, Pappas argues, the use of sacred plants ins't illegal if carried out for spiritual purposes under the care of an ONAC medicine man.

Although Costa Mesa PD public information officers wouldn't comment on the raid, a police officer at the station confirmed it took place. Matthew Pappas, an attorney for those arrested, declined a request to interview his clients. 

According to Marijuana activist and ONAC church member, Marla James, it's possible that OC marijuana dispensary politics are at play. "Santa Ana [allows] dispensaries to tattle on competitors in surrounding areas," she said. "This facility happens to be close to some of the dispensaries in Santa Ana," she said. "[It's possible] they want them out of business."

James also pointed out another valid difference between the two facilities— and another reason surrounding MMJ storefronts would potentially want ONAC shut down— is the fact that, unlike dispensaries, churches don't have to pay taxes. " [ONAC] does better business because they don't have to pay the sales tax for the city," James said.  "[The plants are] not medicine, they're considered sacraments," James said. "It's much a different thing to get arrested for doing something that's a part of your religion."

As a result of not having to pay the regular taxes, ONAC can offer goods and services at lower prices than surrounding competitors. It's this specific reason that leads James to believe that it was one of the dispensaries that threw ONAC under the bus. OC’s relationship with pot has become a spectacle of sorts. While Santa Ana has allowed up to 20 dispensaries to apply for legal permits, raids in that city and others throughout Orange County continue. The ONAC raid marks the first time a Native American church has been caught up in the action. "It's the wild west," James said. "This is the only Costa Mesa shop they’ve gone after." 

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