Altar in the Coachella Valley Church in San Jose, Calif. This church claims to be one of the first federally recognized Rastafarian Cannabis churches in the United States. (Jacqueline Ramseyer, Mercury News)

Bay Area church claims religious exemption from local marijuana laws

Every Sunday afternoon, members pour out through the black double doors of the Coachella Valley Church in San Jose, along with a thick haze of marijuana smoke.

Staff and guests of the church on The Alameda, which has been open since May, said in interviews that cannabis consumption is part of their Rastafari practice, an Abrahamic religion that uses marijuana as a sacrament.

Although it sells marijuana products including edibles and smoking pipes in a small backroom, co-director Donny Lords insists that Coachella is not a pot dispensary as defined by the city of San Jose.

“I think the tie with cannabis immediately puts us in that category-being sketchy, dishonest with our faith,” Lords said in an interview.

Lords may have more than one identity. A Facebook profile picture this newspaper discovered of another Coachella director, Alex Nemkov, looks just like Lords. The Resident also found that same photo on a LinkedIn profile for a person named Sacha Nemcov.

Lords didn’t respond to a followup email and phone call asking about the apparent multiple identities.

According to the Mercury News, Sacha Nemcov helped revive last year’s failed campaign for Measure C, which aimed to allow dispensaries all over the city.

To join Coachella Valley Church, someone must be 18 years or older, present a photo ID and pay a small registration fee that is waived for medical marijuana patients. Once the paperwork is finished, Coachella members can go into the back, buy non-taxed marijuana and smoke inside the chapel, where service is held once a week.

In contrast, the city’s 16 licensed dispensaries only serve people at least 21 years old who have a medical marijuana recommendation from a valid doctor and prohibit on-site consumption.

“The whole point is not to make a public display of (smoking),” Lords said. “We offer the space but it’s not like we expect people to perform rituals here.”

Related: This new cannabis church pushes limits of Denver’s social-use pot law

San Jose’s ordinance prohibits smoking marijuana in public but Lords said Coachella members can do it indoors or even outside so long as they are on church property. He cites as justification the city’s Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000, which covers zoning issues involving churches and prisoners’ religious rights. The act, however, makes no mention of using sacraments such as marijuana.

Church neighbor Dave Henschel described Coachella as a phony operation similar to one that existed there a few years earlier.

“This is a farce, just as the church is a farce,” Henschel wrote in an email. “This dispensary is hiding under a church use in order to sell marijuana, that is all they are concerned about.”

Coachella Valley Church states that its freedom to use and sell marijuana is protected under the Constitution and by multiple federal laws concerning religious freedom. Lords said cannabis is just as much a sacrament to Coachella as wine is to the Catholic church, although most members bring their own marijuana to a service instead of receiving it from the minister.

“We’ll distribute it if somebody forgets to bring it,” he added.

As for selling marijuana, Lords said the money that exchanges hands isn’t a sale but rather a “donation.”

“This is a new thing, so a lot of people don’t know where the gray area is,” Lords said.

City officials did not comment on Coachella Valley Church, which reported receiving a recent visit from code enforcement. But the officials reiterated that “the sale of non-medical cannabis is not currently allowed in San Jose.”

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