Cannabis isn’t legal in the state of Wisconsin just yet, but one Madison-based Rastafarian church has utilized a religion-based loophole that allows them to serve the plant to members who make a small donation. But despite the seemingly fool-proof statute, it appears local officials aren’t going to let this one slide without a fight.
The city has given two men from the Lion of Judah House of Rastafari church an ultimatum—stop providing its members with marijuana or face potential legal repercussions.
Wisconsin City Officials Trying to Stop Church From Distributing Cannabis, Despite Legal Loophole
According to the Wisconsin State Journal, the church’s operators, founder Jesse R. Schworck and Dylan Paul Bangert, have been both smoking and distributing cannabis to their followers, citing the parish’s Rastafarian roots—a religion that allows the use of cannabis for ritualistic use—as grounds for their otherwise illicit use. Per the church’s official website, the church remains “Wisconsin’s first & only lawful Rastafari cannabis sanctuary.”
According to local officials, however, that description could be fleeting.
The State Journal reported that police have come to the establishment several times, confiscating jars of cannabis and corresponding paraphernalia in the process. Police also delivered the building’s landlord, Charajeet Kaur, a formal notice of public nuisance, back on April 10th. Now, things have come to an impasse, with city officials slapping a cease and desist letter to the 10,000-member church, arguing that religious beliefs do not warrant an exemption from both federal and state law.
“You have established a church and are operating this ‘church’ out of 555 W. Mifflin Street,” the letter states. “You believe that because you have established this ‘church’ you are entitled to sell cannabis and marijuana related products, … This letter is to put you on official notice that selling marijuana, cannabis and THC edibles is not legal either in the City of Madison or in the State of Wisconsin. Even if you are a legitimate ‘church’, possessing and selling a Schedule 1 Controlled Substance, which these items are, is not legal under Wisconsin State Statute. You must immediately cease and desist from continuing to possess and sell, or offering to sell, these items.”
In addition to state and federal law, the ordeal also comes down to a matter of semantics.While Schworck maintains that the operation is a tax-exempt, non-for-profit religious organization, city officials argue it’s simply a front to sell marijuana and other THC-laden products. Although the church, technically, receives only donations in exchange for cannabis, law enforcement believes this is simply a technicality to skate around state law.
“They’re just fronting the church so they can sell cannabis, edibles and marijuana,” Assistant City Attorney Jennifer Zilavy said to Channel 3000.
Another issue at hand remains zoning law. The city’s zoning administrator, Matt Tucker, says the building hasn’t been approved as a church, but rather, for retail purposes. Schworck is allegedly also selling clothing in the space, blurring the lines between legitimate congregation and retail establishment.
An Ongoing Battle
No arrests have been made up until this point, and the organization has yet to shut its doors. Zilavy says the city will be judicious and take its time throughout the ordeal.
Schworck, on the other hand, told the State Journal that he will file a federal injunction, due to what he calls “harassment and intimidation” from local officials.
As for now, however, it remains to be seen whether or not the operation will eventually “go up in smoke.”
Figuratively, of course.