Rastafarian Marijuana Farm Shootout Sparks Religious Debate

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. 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.

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 church filed two unsuccessful civil rights lawsuits against the local sheriff for destroying its marijuana farm in 2015.