Is using cannabis a religious right?Eddy Lepp just spent eight-and-a-half years in federal prison for growing colossal amounts of marijuana — more than 40,000 plants, to be exact, believed to be the largest medical cannabis planting in history, planted within plain sight of anyone driving down Highway 20 in Lake County.
His defense — he was an ordained Rastafarian minister, and the plants were for spiritual and medical reasons — was no use against federal mandatory minimums. Sprung from prison in December, a month after California voters legalized marijuana, and married in June to Heidi, a former film actress and founder of the Sugarleaf Rastafarian Church, Lepp is 65 now and on five-year probation. Smoking pot — no! Bad. Winning a High Times lifetime achievement award and associating with pot growers — sure, why not?Because, you see, the church is different.
The church can grow as much cannabis as it likes. (Or so its interpretation of religious freedom laws leads it to believe.) So this spring, at least one Lepp put in a few more modest plantings — a few hundred plants here, a few thousand plants there — up and down California’s Central Valley.It hasn’t been smooth summer. On Aug. 1, a new worker at one of the church’s property in Yuba County died after engaging sheriff’s deputies in a gun battle. Two deputies were shot — they both survived — and a SWAT team had to be dispatched to roust out the man, who was killed by police. (Heidi and Eddy were the ones who called police, after the man started acting erratically on their property.)A few days later, five people were arrested and an unknown amount of marijuana seized at a Sugarleaf farm in Calaveras County that didn’t have county registration.
And now, as ABC-30 is reporting, Merced County sheriff’s deputies paid a visit to a property associated with Sugarleaf Church last week.It’s not immediately clear how many plants were seized — though it’s clear that there were more than 12, which is the limit in the county, according to the local sheriff — but Heidi Lepp says she’s suing Sheriff Vern Warnke for violating her civil rights, committing a hate crime, and ignoring her religious persuasion.“They’re not respecting my church,” she told the television station. “It’s not fake and I’m not hiding behind anything.”
Religious organizations whose sacraments center around cannabis have had mixed success using religious freedom laws to trump federal drug laws.The founders of The Hawaii Cannabis (THC) served prison time after using marijuana grown on their property during weddings and baptisms. In Indiana, the founder of the First Church of Cannabis filed a lawsuit against local police who took a dislike to the church’s use of cannabis during ceremonies. Organizations associated with tribal religions have had to sue federal drug agents to recover stashes of cannabis and peyote.
So Lepp turning to the courts is the next logical step. For now, though, Sheriff Warnke appears to be holding fast.“The individual filing the lawsuit is a drug dealer and doesn’t like the idea that I don’t care that they’re hiding behind a religious claim,” he told the television station. “If it’s illegal, it’s illegal.
There’s no getting around legality by calling it a religion.”“They’re dealing, they’re playing the sympathy card and saying, ‘Oh nuns can do it, the church can do it,’ it’s lipstick on a pig,” he added. “Call it what you want — it’s still drug dealers.”Meanwhile, other law-enforcement agents have paid visits to the Lepps’ church property in Yolo County.
They appeared to take no plants, though in a Facebook post, Heidi Lepp accused them of swiping her church’s genetics.If the Merced lawsuit travels to the state Supreme Court, it could set precedent other churches may follow. It could also throw a wrench in the state’s plan to license and regulate commercial cannabis activity — that is, if you consider a church’s cannabis planting a for-profit grow. This won’t be the last you’ve heard of the Lepps and their holy appreciation for the magic plant, guaranteed.
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