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Rastafarian church in Downtown Madison distributes cannabis as city tries to stop it
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Rastafarian church in Downtown Madison distributes cannabis as city tries to stop it

From the Fave 5: Reporter Dean Mosiman's memorable stories from 2019 series

Madison officials are seeking to stop two men from distributing marijuana from a storefront Rastafarian church Downtown, but the operators maintain the activity is religion-based and they say they will continue the practice.

Since March, Jesse R. Schworck and Dylan Paul Bangert, Madison natives who live in Stoughton, have been operating the Lion of Judah House of Rastafari church, and openly smoking cannabis and distributing it as a sacrament to church members for donations, from a modest rental space at 555 W. Mifflin St.

The church has been incorporated with the state Department of Financial Institutions and has tax-exempt status with the federal Internal Revenue Service, they said. It’s website describes Lion of Judah as “Wisconsin’s first & only lawful Rastafari cannabis sanctuary,” and offers membership cards with electronic sign-up as well as examples of gifts, cannabis sacrament and religious books.

Schworck and Bangert, who openly display cannabis and drug paraphernalia as well as smoke it on site, also sell vintage clothing, sports equipment and rent roller blades from the space, a former laundromat and corner grocery store.

The use of cannabis, or Kaneh-bosm, is part of religious practice, the soft-spoken Schworck said during interviews at the property.

“These things have been blessed since the beginning,” he said. “We just live life according to life itself. It’s what we know. We talk it and walk it. We are exercising inalienable rights.”

During the interviews, Schwrock and Bangert smoked marijuana cigarettes and several people came to the church — from an older couple offering $200 in donations for a baggie of cannabis Schworck filled from a large jar, to a young man who offered a $3 donation and received a small amount of marijuana, saying, “I appreciate it. I’m a little broke right now.”

On March 26, Madison police visited the establishment and confiscated several jars of marijuana and drug paraphernalia.

Then, on April 10, police sent landlord Charajeet Kaur a formal notice of public nuisance that the property “is being used to facilitate the delivery, distribution or manufacture of a controlled substance,” and that she must take immediate action to abate the activity.

The letter allows Kaur to give Schworck and Bangert a five-day notice to vacate the property.

On April 12, the city attorney’s office followed with a “cease and desist drug nuisance” letter to Schworck and Bangert saying that “there is no question that you are possessing, selling and offering to sell marijuana, THC products, and drug paraphernalia.”

The letter states that the sale of marijuana, cannabis or THC products is not legal in the city or the state, and that, even if Lion of Judah House of Rastafaria is a legitimate church, possessing and selling such controlled substances is illegal. It cites case law to support the city’s position.

On Monday, Kaur met with Madison police Central District Capt. Jason Freedman and Assistant City Attorney Jennifer Zilavy to discuss options and ramifications, Zilavy said.

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If Kaur fails to take action, state law allows the city to seek a court order to declare the property a public nuisance and order the building closed and sold with proceeds retained by alcohol and drug abuse assistance programs and community development organizations.

“It’s her responsibility to abate the nuisance,” Zilavy said Thursday, adding that Kaur informed her that she had retained an attorney to help handle the matter.

Freedman and Kaur could not be reached Thursday.

Zilavy said a police investigation is ongoing.

As of Thursday, the church will be open during the annual Mifflin Street block party on Saturday, but will have security and allow no one who is intoxicated inside, Schworck said.

Ald. Mike Verveer, 4th District, who represents the area, said he believes marijuana should be legalized and is currently working on legislation to ease the city’s laws, but finds it “very unfortunate (Schworck and Bangert) are flouting the law in such an open way.”

Verveer said he has been contacted by neighborhood residents who are curious about the operation, but has also heard concern about a negative impact on leasing at a large apartment building across the street.

“If indeed they are a bonafide church, they have a right to operate within the city zoning code,” he said. “That does not give them the right to openly flout state law. I do support the city attorney’s effort to end the illegal sale of weed there.”

Schworck and Bangert, who claim perhaps 10,000 members from all parts of the state, see it very differently, maintaining that the church is rooted in Rastafarianism, a religious movement that employs the ritualistic use of marijuana. They say they don’t pressure members to become Rastafarian, and that many if not most simply use cannabis to ease mental or physical stress or for meditation. It’s up to members to seek fellowship or learn more, they said.

“We’re not trying to convert people to something,” Schworck said. “If they have an inclination to learn more, we’re willing to share more.”

The church gives a better option for obtaining cannabis than the black market or on the street, Schworck said.

The city isn’t buying. “It seems to me one gets your weed and smokes your weed 24-7 and we’re good,” Zilavy said.

Schworck has a record of minor criminal offenses going back to 2003 in Wisconsin, according to online court records, including misdemeanor convictions for disorderly conduct, bail jumping, possession of marijuana and possession of drug paraphernalia.

Schworck said he is filing for an injunction in federal court requesting a stop to harassing, intimidating and burdening free expression of religion.

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