Police officers who thought they were shutting down a marijuana dispensary last week in Costa Mesa were in fact raiding a Native American church that uses cannabis and other controlled substances in its spiritual ceremonies, according to a lawyer representing the organization's founders.
Attorney Matthew Pappas said the Oklevueha Native American Church was in the process of opening a branch in Costa Mesa when police stormed the Harbor Boulevard location.
Costa Mesa has banned marijuana sellers in the city, but Pappas contends that Oklevueha's more than 200 chapters across the country are shielded by federal religious freedom laws.
"These are churches, not marijuana dispensaries," said Pappas, who compared parishioners' use of cannabis, peyote and natural herbs to sacramental wine.
But Costa Mesa police officials said this week that they saw nothing during their raid to support the idea that the strip-mall storefront they searched was a church.
"There was no indication that it was acting as anything other than a marijuana dispensary," Costa Mesa police Sgt. Pat Wessel said.
Local authorities recently have been on the lookout for dispensaries, based on residents' complaints that some are still operating in Costa Mesa despite a 2005 city ban.
After surveillance, city officials said, police determined that a dispensary named Releaf Wellness was operating out of a unit in the 2000 block of Harbor Boulevard.
Around 3:30 p.m. Jan. 27, police and code enforcement officers served a search warrant, Wessel said.
Inside, officers said they found two large safes containing various marijuana products and $6,000 cash, according to city spokesman Tony Dodero.
Police believe the location had been a dispensary long enough to become well-established. Even while officers were inside, several customers came to the door, Dodero said.
During the raid, police said, five people were arrested on suspicion of distributing marijuana. Pappas said none of them was affiliated with the church.
According to Dodero, police found paperwork showing the arrestees were employees at the dispensary.
It's unclear whether the Orange County district attorney's office will file charges against those arrested. Prosecutors sent the case of at least one of the suspects back to police for further investigation.
It's not clear when the location came under the auspices of Oklevueha. Police said they learned of the church's existence after the raid.
Pappas chalked up the raid to a misunderstanding. The church often establishes branches where dispensaries or other marijuana-related businesses had been located to benefit from understanding landlords, Pappas said. That transition is underway at the Harbor Boulevard site, he said, but he was unable to provide an exact date for the shift.
Pappas said Oklevueha has been misconstrued and persecuted across the country since its 1997 founding in Utah.
The church doesn't require members to have Native American heritage, he said, and doesn't allow controlled substances to be distributed outside the congregation.
In November, Pappas filed a lawsuit on behalf of the church in U.S. District Court in Northern California alleging that sheriff's deputies in Sonoma County stormed a church location and destroyed sacramental cannabis plants, violating members' religious rights.
Despite the raid in Costa Mesa, Pappas said the church plans to remain in the city.
"We're not taking offense at it," Pappas said. "It's a misunderstanding. So let's move forward and work positively. There will be a branch in Costa Mesa."