Higher Calling: Officials and neighbors skeptical of Redondo Beach’s ‘cannabis church’
by David Mendez
As the video begins, a camera pans over a couple dozen people packed into a small white room before focusing on a young woman standing before them. She’s flanked by a man in sunglasses. It’s a hot mid-August afternoon, and she’s barely audible over at least three fans as she reads from a piece of paper.
“We provide spiritual protection and continued spiritual guidance for all of our churches,” she says. “Cannabis is central to our religious beliefs. We believe in this sacred plant’s ability to heal us, unite us, and elevate us toward our higher selves.”
“Minister Joe,” the man in sunglasses (real name Jose Luna), is thanked for the provisions he freely distributes among the church members.
As the video streamed on Seaside Church of Alternative Healing’s Facebook page cuts out, Luna begins passing out joints, a smokeable form of the “blessed sacrament.”
Seaside denotes itself as a place of healing, where its many “ministers” help members meditate and “rest in their divine light” through the use of cannabis.
Seaside is the first of its kind in Redondo, but it’s one of a growing number of cannabis-related operations in a legal grey area throughout the state. Though recreational cannabis became legal in California on Jan. 1 this year, the City of Redondo Beach joined a number of cities throughout California in banning cannabis businesses.
“We feel that municipalities are attacking cannabis because it’s cannabis,” said Gloria Palma, also known as “Goddess Gloria,” a spiritual leader who leads Seaside’s parent organization, the Association of Sacramental Religions.
Seaside’s leaders say that the bans shouldn’t be a problem – according to articles of incorporation filed with the Secretary of State, Seaside is registered as a “nonprofit religious corporation,” not a pot shop.
But Seaside is listed as a dispensary on WeedMaps, a directory of cannabis businesses that, at any given time, shows dozens of delivery-based businesses in the South Bay and beyond, alongside a few “private” dispensaries.
Its members have to do little to commit themselves to the tenets of the church, other than signing their names to an oath and providing a photo ID. In exchange for donations, they receive cannabis products, including buds, oils, vaping fluids and edibles from Seaside’s “sacrament room” – and at certain donation levels and “happy hours,” members are given discounts.
Skeptics think that the church is, at best, looking to wait out Redondo’s existing commercial cannabis ban while the city builds its regulations. At worst, the church is seen as a rogue actor, taking advantage of religious freedom laws to sell cannabis tax-free. Seaside’s neighbors also worry that an unsavory element is attracted to the area around the shop and their homes.
But Seaside’s leadership argues that they promote healing by uncovering one’s “higher being.”
Cannabis, Luna says, “is the truth.”
Three years ago, Luna’s diabetes had ravaged him. He couldn’t sleep, his kidneys and vision were failing, and he had a toe amputated, limiting his ability to walk.
He had been trying to treat the disease with western medicine, but for him, one pill brought side-effects that could only be cured by another. At one point, Luna has prescribed 11 different blood pressure medications.
“It fixes one thing, but it hurts another,” Luna said. “Imagine people who don’t know English or elderly people who can’t speak up for themselves.”
It was a conversation with his doctor, he said, that made him look to alternative medicines.
Cannabis helped him sleep, and from there, he said that his health began to turn around. His doctors began to take notice. Though he wouldn’t tell them what he was taking – he simply said it was “medicine” – he felt the sleep and stress relief brought to him by cannabis was the key to his recovery. His diabetes, he said, is no longer an issue.
“I stand by it 100 percent. If someone had told me a long time ago, I would’ve been like ‘that’s for people trying to get high.’ But now, it’s medicine…and it heals,” Luna said.
The idea for opening a cannabis-focused church, Luna said, came to him last Halloween, as he walked with his kids trick-or-treating, and wondered how he can help people use cannabis while fighting its stigmas.
“So I thought, you know what? I want to start a church…I want to start my own religion, because I’ve seen how the Mormons started, and they were looked at like, what the hell are you doing? Now look at them,” Luna said. “I want to come at people with open faith…try to get them to understand it’s not a drug, or something to be cool with. It’s something to help you, cure stuff, help you think better, and just be a better person.”
When asked why he decided against opening a dispensary, Luna grimaced. Dispensaries perpetuate his biggest criticism of cannabis culture: that it’s a “fashion” – glamorized and derided as something rappers, hippies and burnouts use only to get high.
Luna is reticent to talk the nuts and bolts of how Seaside began, including where funding for the church came from. He didn’t hear about the idea of a church anywhere, in particular, he “just did it.” Luna is also reticent to talk about sourcing the cannabis, saying that it’s both grown by the church and sourced from farmers “donate most of it” to the church at a “really good price.”
Seaside Church of Alternative Healing opened in early spring, according to Instagram posts touting a “grand opening” on March 16, six days before its paperwork was filed with the Secretary of State, listing Jose Luna as owner, CEO, and CFO, with Jay B. Anderson (a former employee, Luna said,) as Secretary.
Also in March, Redondo Beach police and city inspectors surprised Seaside in a “raid,” issuing a citation for dispensing cannabis and safety code violations. No cannabis was seized, however.
(Representatives for the Redondo Beach City Attorney’s Office and Police Department declined to comment for this story, as the case is ongoing.)
After that, Luna called Matthew Pappas. Pappas is a man of many hats: he’s an attorney specializing in cannabis law; a principal for the Association of Sacramental Ministries, a Judeo-Christian church that uses cannabis as its sacrament; and an owner of “Ministry Making and Maintenance; Corporate Compliance Consultants, Inc.” Ministry Making “builds dreams for others” by helping them build their religious corporation, according to its website.
From there, Pappas took Luna and Seaside Church under his wing. Seaside became a member of ASM’s non-denominational, spiritually-based sister organization, the Association of Sacramental Religions, and Pappas attempted to smooth the road between Redondo and Seaside.
“I came in and went to the city to explain that they’re a church, and we did some work on the ministry side. From my perspective, it’s important that the churches are operating with what they need to be doing religiously, and in terms of charitable things they’re doing within the community,” Pappas said.
He argues that Seaside is protected by religious freedom laws that protect the use of cannabis – and other controlled substances – for religious exercises.
“The issue here is if members of Seaside Church sincerely believe cannabis is the religious sacrament,” Pappas said.
The government’s job, Pappas said, is not to determine whether cannabis use is appropriately religious, but to protect a person’s right to practice their religion.
“Their attacks are based on a subjective analysis that cannabis is not the sacrament,” Pappas said. His work as a consultant and head of ASM is to ensure that his churches, at least, are sincere in their beliefs. But the same stringency, he said, can’t be applied to individual members as they sign their oaths of sincerity.
“There’s no way to accurately ever determine sincerity. You can use a polygraph test, but you’re not going to polygraph people coming in,” Pappas said. “Beliefs are going to be developing over time. Our goal is to make sure that people who come in and get the sacrament the first time are told to come to our services.”
But as cannabis churches have spread, governments doubting their sincerity have attempted to shut them down. Last month, Omid Delkash, of Costa Mesa’s Church of Peace and Glory, was arrested on four misdemeanor counts of unlawful transportation, sale, and furnishing marijuana.
Similar to Redondo, Costa Mesa has banned both commercial and medical cannabis sale and distribution. Like Seaside, Peace and Glory opened in March, and until recently, had been listed as a dispensary on WeedMaps.
Seaside’s particular listing detailed a lengthy selection of cannabis strains, vape pens and edible gummies, candies and baked goods. Prices are listed on Seaside’s WeedMaps “menu,” as well as a number of specials, including free joints for first-time visitors, a “happy hour” from 4:20 p.m. to 8 p.m. on Sundays, and discounts for exchanges of $50 or $100.
But members of the church are adamant in saying that those exchanges are made on a donation basis.
“Any business or group that solicits donations is going to offer something. How many times have you been solicited for donations at the Red Cross?” said David Matras, ASM’s Chief Financial Officer. “If you donate, they’ll provide you with a gift. It’s an incentive to donate more – the church has expenses to run.”
That, Redondo Beach Councilman John Gran (who represents the area) said, is Seaside’s excuse for working around the city’s ban on cannabis sales.
Gran and his colleagues on Redondo Beach’s City Council unanimously voted to ban commercial cannabis operations within Redondo last October, while directing staff to study a possible ordinance to allow for businesses.
“Getting a dispensary in the city is what we’re starting an approach to do, to figure out what our policy is going to be going forward,” Gran said. “This tactic of becoming a church…they’re trying to do it so they have a leg up on what’s going to be done. We’re looking to make sure we don’t have someone skirting it to get themselves at the head of the line.”
Redondo resident Jonatan Cvetko, founder of cannabis advocacy organization Angeles Emeralds, thinks that cannabis churches are the “prime example of an irresponsible existing operator.”
“The common theme we’ve noted is that these operators are looking for opportunities to stay in the illicit market in order to take advantage of continuing to sell their product tax-free,” Cvetko said in an email. “Despite their claims, these ‘churches’ have serious potential to cause harm in the community…additionally, we see them set up in communities and then sue the local jurisdiction for their ‘religious right’ to stay open.”
ASR CEO and spiritual leader Gloria Palma worked alongside Pappas and Luna to build Seaside’s practice and, until recently, wrote its Sunday services.
“Some of our other churches have legal issues – four pending lawsuits with four different cities,” Palma said. “This is our case law that we’re building. We want the same privileges that the Catholic Church has.”
Palma sees no difference in a church’s provision of sacramental wine to a minor child and the consumption of cannabis. “You can buy their wine by the case,” she said.
For what it’s worth, local Catholic parishes were confused by the very question of someone asking to purchase communion wine, and do not sell it themselves.
“Someone could get [any] good bottle of wine – you could theoretically use a $300 bottle of Chateau Lafite – but the idea is that it’s not enjoyment, but what the wine becomes during mass,” said Father Paul Dotson, of St. Lawrence Martyr Catholic Church. “It’s not as if we go around sampling.”
Many of Seaside’s neighbors aren’t uniformly pleased by the Church’s presence. An employee at a nearby business, who declined to use her name, said that Seaside “brings weirdos and unwanted attention,” adding that she doesn’t feel very safe for its presence.
Residents in nearby townhomes and apartments are also unhappy. One couple pointed out nearby cards and wrappers discarded on the nearby Edison right-of-way greenbelt and complained about loud music coming from the church and its faithful.
“I knew one was going to be on Artesia,” another neighbor sighed.
As far as Luna is concerned, Seaside is still trying to find its way. At a late August Sunday service, he and an armed security guard would usher people into the building to smoke, and urge visitors to turn down their stereos as they drove in.
The front room was packed that day. Eventually, Luna said, Seaside will use a room in the back that was being refurbished. But many visitors didn’t stay for the services; instead, more than 20 or so members walked in and out within five minutes, carrying paper prescription bags, including a few who joined the church that day.
“Is there an event going on?” one asked Luna as he walked through to enter the sacrament room.
“We get this; we get young guys, and we try to educate them,” Luna said.
Seaside, Luna said, will try to expand its influence by holding local brunches or helping the homeless. He posited potentially bringing food to the homeless on downtown LA’s Skid Row, though he shied away from an idea to do the same locally, saying that he thought Redondo “wouldn’t want anyone helping the homeless during the day.”
“I want people to understand that we’re not here for fun, or for bad intentions,” Luna said. “We’re doing it live, every day. Our doors are open; we’re not trying to hide anything.”