Heidi and Charles Edward Lepp sit in their Sacramento, Calif., home Tuesday, Aug. 1, 2017, discussing a shooting at the cannabis farm affiliated with their Rastafarian church in Dobbins, Calif., earlier in the day. Heidi Lepp received a call Tuesday morning that a worker at the Northern California farm was pulling up plants and was armed, prompting her to call the Yuba County Sheriff's Department. (Kathleen Ronayne, The Associated Press)

Shooting at unlicensed Rastafarian marijuana farm highlights religious-use debate

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — The shooting of two California deputies responding to a disturbance at a Rastafarian marijuana farm has drawn attention to religious use of the drug, sparking debate over whether churches should be protected from drug prosecutions.

Religious organizations throughout California have been growing marijuana for ceremonial purposes for years — and have been losing in court for just as long.

Related: California Rastafarian cannabis farm dispute ends with one man dead, 2 deputies shot

That’s because there is no religious exemption to state and federal marijuana bans, and there won’t be any special treatment when California legalizes pot next year.

That’s unlikely to stop Heidi and Charles Lepp, a Sacramento couple affiliated with the church where Tuesday’s shooting occurred.

Heidi Lepp launched her Sugarleaf Rastafarian Church in 2014 while Charles was serving eight years in federal prison after openly growing more than 20,000 pot plants in Lake County for what he considered religious purposes. She said she’s advised nearly 200 farms affiliated with her church not to adhere to state licensing rules.

“As a member of the church you aren’t bound by a lot of the rules other people are,” Charles Lepp said. “You’re not supposed to grow in Yuba County where this incident happened without a county issued permit, (but) as a church you don’t need a permit.”

Officials don’t agree. The religious argument didn’t keep Charles Lepp, an ordained Rastafarian minister, out of jail, and it hasn’t been successfully used by the Oklevueha Native American Church in Sonoma County. The church filed two unsuccessful civil rights lawsuits against the local sheriff for destroying its marijuana farm in 2015.

Yuba County Sheriff’s Department spokeswoman Leslie Carbah said the Rastafarian church doesn’t have the proper county license to grow marijuana on the property at the center of Tuesday’s shooting.

She didn’t say whether sheriff’s investigators are looking into the farm’s operations. The property has been cited for illegally growing marijuana and as of October 2016 owed more than $400,000 in penalties, the Marysville Appeal-Democrat reported.

The licensing dispute didn’t stop Heidi Lepp from calling police Tuesday when a worker on the farm told her a newly arrived church member was armed, agitated and destroying pot plants. Heidi Lepp told the worker to leave and then she called the Sheriff’s Department, which dispatched three deputies.

Two of the deputies chased the suspect up a hill and into a house about 100 yards behind the farm. Another deputy remained outside, guarding the backdoor.

Sheriff Steve Durfor said the two deputies exchanged gunfire with the suspect inside the house and both were shot. The suspect died. His identity hasn’t been released.

The two deputies were in satisfactory condition after each underwent surgery. Both are expected to recover, Durfor said.

Jay Leiderman, a Ventura defense attorney who represents clients charged with marijuana crimes, said many people in Lepp’s position want to argue that marijuana is to them as wine is to Catholics. But Leiderman said “religious use is an extremely hard defense to use in California.”

California authorities said religious organizations will have to obtain a state license when they become available next year like everyone else if they want to legally grow marijuana in California.

There will be no exceptions for religious use, said Alex Traverso, spokesman for the state’s Bureau of Medical Cannabis Regulation.

“There are certainly plenty of other folks who have been doing things one way for quite some time that probably would like to be exempt for other reasons,” he said. “After Jan. 1, it’s really going to be a challenge for everybody to regulate the market and get people who are not in the regulated market into the regulated market.”

But at this point, the Lepps have no plans to come into the legal fold. They insist that religious freedom laws apply to them because marijuana is the sacrament of their religion. Heidi Lepp shares a set of documents with every group that affiliates with her Sugarleaf Rastafarian Church advising them not to consent to property searches or police questioning. She instructs them all to call her before dealing with law enforcement.

“Cannabis is a plant that should be free to everybody,” she said.

Elias reported from San Francisco.