Lawsuit seeking protected pot use for Kenwood's Oklevueha Native American Church dismissed

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A Sonoma County-related lawsuit that attempted to establish the use of marijuana as a protected sacrament for use in religious ceremonies was tossed out in federal court this week.

The claim that Sonoma County sheriff’s officers destroyed sacramental marijuana plants belonging to a Kenwood church was dismissed after the attorney for the church failed to show up in federal court.

Two members of the Oklevueha Native American Church, which has a branch off Lawndale Road, claimed that sheriff’s deputies violated their civil rights by confiscating approximately 600 marijuana plants used in their religious ceremonies.

But U.S. District Court Judge Vince Chharia on Wednesday dismissed the case after the plaintiff’s attorney did not appear for a court conference, nor respond to defense discovery requests.

The lawsuit resulted from a raid in September at a newly established branch of the church founded by James Warren “Flaming Eagle” Mooney, 72, of Utah.

Mooney is a self-described medicine man descended from Seminol Indians in Florida and his church serves the Oglala Sioux Tribe of Pine Ridge South Dakota, according to the church’s court filings.

The recent federal lawsuit filed in San Francisco claims sheriff’s deputies concluded the church was illegitimate and essentially a bogus front for drug trafficking “based on stereotypes about Native Americans and the lack of knowledge about the religious ceremonies.”

It sought to carve out an exemption for the use of cannabis, similar to legal protections Indian religious practitioners enjoy with the ceremonial use of peyote.

Mooney has engaged in court battles in the past over his possession of large quantities of peyote, with prosecutors claiming he was not a member of a federally recognized tribe. But in a Utah Supreme Court case, charges were dismissed against him when the court ruled that church members, regardless of race, can use the hallucinogenic cactus.

The lawsuit that was dismissed this week argued that some indigenous peoples for centuries have used marijuana in their religious ceremonies.

But all, or nearly all litigants seeking protection for religious use of marijuana have lost, according to legal analysts.

In this case, the Oklevueha Native American Church lawsuit never got far.

Matt Pappas, the Long Beach attorney who represents the church, could not be reached by phone or email Friday.

Courthouse News Service reported that in March the judge warned him that “continued failure to meet the deadlines, prosecute the case, or otherwise fail to live up to the minimum standards of professional responsibility could result in sanctions and/or referral to this court’s standing committee on professional conduct.”

Charnel James, a Marysville attorney who also represented the church, said Friday she was terminated from the lawsuit four weeks ago. “They were supposed to take my name off the case,” she said, adding that she was brought in to deal with “land use issues.”

The handful of members of the branch of the Oklevueha Native American Church in Kenwood ran into trouble in August after county inspectors insisted they cease operations until they complied with zoning, business license and sign ordinances. Then came the raid by sheriff’s deputies a month later.

County Counsel Bruce Goldstein said Friday that the county was represented in the federal case by an outside law firm, whose attorney who could not be immediately reached for comment.

But previously Goldstein noted there is not a federally recognized tribe in Kenwood, nor is there Indian trust land. He said the 600-plus marijuana plants seized from the property appeared more consistent with a drug sale operation than local church sacraments.

You can reach Staff Writer Clark Mason at 521-5214 or

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