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Madison Rasta church busted: Police raid shuts down Mifflin Street marijuana dispensary

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A Madison police officer cleans up a pile of shattered glass Wednesday in front of Lion of Judah House of Rastafari. 

Operations at Wisconsin’s first marijuana dispensary came to an abrupt end Wednesday when police swarmed the Lion of Judah House of Rastafari and arrested the two founders.

“I woke up when I heard the smash,” said a woman staying next door, who said the raid happened shortly before 9 a.m.

She said maybe 30 officers were at the scene of the former laundromat at 555 W. Mifflin St., which has drawn media attention and those seeking cannabis products since March. One of the church’s founders, Jesse Schworck, 39, said Tuesday the church dispensed marijuana and edible products laced with THC to members, which numbered about 20,000. In return, those receiving marijuana products offered a “donation.”

At about 10 a.m., police were stepping over a glistening mound of shattered glass to enter the premises, past a storefront window decorated with a green neon “Cannabis” sign and picture of Bob Marley. On the other side of the building, torn yellow fiberglass insulation hung from another shattered door.

In a brief incident report, Madison police said the raid was conducted by the Dane County Narcotics Task Force, with assistance from Madison police. It listed the time of the raid at 8:54 a.m. on Wednesday.

Police said they arrested Schworck and Dylan Bangert, 23, the other church founder. Schworck was tentatively charged with three counts of delivering marijuana and one count of maintaining a drug dwelling. Police charged Bangert with maintaining a drug dwelling and being party to the crime of delivering marijuana. 

Federal lawsuit pending

Schworck and Bangert, both Madison natives, opened the Rastafarian church in March, and on March 26 police paid a visit and confiscated the marijuana products that were at the building at the time. On April 12 the city sent the men a “cease and desist” notice, two days after sending the landlord, Charajeet Kaur, a warning declaring the premises a public nuisance.

The two men filed a federal lawsuit against the city and the Police Department on April 18, which Schworck had said offered the church protection from police actions.

“They know that they can’t come here,” he said in a Tuesday interview. “That’s why they don’t come here.”

Wisconsin is one of only 16 states where marijuana remains illegal. Ten states have fully legalized the drug, and 34 have laws allowing its use in varying degrees for medical purposes. 

After Wednesday's raid, it was still unclear why the operation was allowed to continue for more than two months after the initial police contact.

During the interview, Schworck said the marijuana products came mostly from people growing it in the service of the church, and other products came from a variety of sources.

“I think people barter with us, just kind of barter,” he said. “Different members basically, our members have it.”

Some of the products, like oils and edible products, were produced by church members.

“We have the capacity to do all that,” he said, “so we try to just have different people in different capacities depending on their church, their service. They do different things, they have different talents.”

Last week, city officials were mum on why two men were allowed to distribute marijuana openly.

“Unfortunately I cannot comment on what is certainly an unusual situation,” said Central District Police Capt. Jason Freedman in an email.

The city attorney, who sent the men a cease and desist notice on April 12, was equally circumspect.

“I’m not able to comment due to the ongoing investigation,” said City Attorney Michael May in an email. “The city has not determined whether it will pursue any action against the landlord. The DA’s office would make any charging decisions.”

District Attorney Ismael Ozanne said police hadn’t referred any charges to his office.

Religious freedom claims

Schworck incorporated the church on April 14, 2018, according to Wisconsin Department of Financial Institutions records. He said he also filed religious exemption paperwork with the IRS, but no records for the Lion of Judah House of Rastafari exist on the IRS database for tax exempt organizations.

Schworck’s and Bangert’s lawsuit claims that police confiscation of marijuana and the city’s demands to shut down the operation infringe on their religious rights. Schworck said he filed the legal documents himself, after taking advice from attorneys with whom he is acquainted.

Briefs in the case are due by June 24; hearing dates have not been set.

In the complaint, the men contend that their religion revolves around the sacramental use of cannabis, and therefore depriving them of cannabis is tantamount to banning them from practicing their religion. That, they argue, violates the First Amendment, which states, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

The complaint also alleges that the city has violated the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which prohibits the government “from substantially burdening a person’s exercise of religion even if the burden results from a rule of general applicability.” To impose such a burden, the law states, the government must prove it furthers a compelling governmental interest, and is the least restrictive means of furthering that compelling interest.”

The church also claims protections under the state Constitution, which states, “The right of every person to worship Almighty God according to the dictates of conscience shall never be infringed,” and prohibits government preference of any religion over another.

The church claims that a legal exemption that allows the Native American Church to use peyote, which is regarded as a holy sacrament, demonstrates such a governmental preference.

And, the complaint states, the city’s actions also threaten the financial viability of the church.

“Given the fellowship between the members of the church and the heads of the church, the amount of available cannabis sacrament in the church is directly related to the amount of donations given to the church,” the complaint says.

UW political science professor Howard Schweber said the church’s arguments are off-base.

He noted that the Supreme Court ruled that the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act was unconstitutional when applied to states, so it doesn’t protect the church against state law.

Further, he said, there’s nothing in the First Amendment that requires the government to exempt churches from a general ban, such as the prohibition of marijuana.

The state Constitution, he said, could provide a basis for exempting a church from the marijuana ban, but as yet there is no legal precedent.

And he said that just because marijuana is being legalized by a growing number of states doesn’t mean Wisconsin has to be more lenient that it has been in the past.

“This is the kind of question that is left to each state to determine under its police powers,” he said.

Lastly, he said, the state or the city government “are perfectly free to decide not to enforce the law or to provide an accommodation for Rasta House,” he said.

While the city isn’t talking, its cease-and-desist letter and “public nuisance” warning, as well as the confiscation of the church’s marijuana, indicate that it had no intention of letting the church off the hook.

Social media statements attracted negative attention

While the church was doing a robust business exchanging pot for donations — Schworck said people were coming at a rate of 200 to 300 a day — it’s raised the ire of some folks who bristle at what they regard as the church’s sexist, racist and anti-LGBT views reflected in posts that have appeared on the church’s Facebook page and have since been taken down.

In one meme, late wildlife personality Steve Irwin dangles a suggestive photo of a black woman with the text: “Here we have a wild hoodrat. Once a hoodrat reaches sexual maturity, she will begin a mating dance known as ‘twerking’ to find a mate to supply her with food and shelter.”

In another, stick figures depicting a man and a woman holding hands appears over the words “Straight Pride.”

Other posts have taken aim at transgender people and feminism.

One activist, Dana Pellebon, a black woman and member of the LGBT community, posted a video of herself confronting men at the church for appropriating Rastafarianism to sell weed. The confrontation ended with Pellebon being shoved out of the building by a black man who was on the premises.

Schworck said that while the church preached procreation, it didn’t turn away people based on gender, sexual orientation or race.

“We’ve got gay people come here all the time,” he said, “and they just love to be here and talk about how this is the best place they’ve ever been and the only place they feel safe and not judged.”

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Steven Elbow joined The Capital Times in 1999 and has covered law enforcement in addition to city, county and state government. He has also worked for the Portage Daily Register and has written for the Isthmus weekly newspaper in Madison.