I have journeyed to the heart of this forest with the cannabis that will unite me with the Divine one — who is the light and truth of who we really are.” — from the first of “The Nine Epiphanies”

Talk about your high church rituals.

At the Sacred Source Sanctuary in San Diego’s Midway district, believers select a sacrament — in the form of a tincture or loose buds and rolling papers — then enter the sanctum to commune with the divine. Or, as skeptics see it, get stoned.

“We do consider cannabis to be our sacrament,” said Manny Montana, a Sanctuary volunteer. “If you respect the world, the earth will love and respect you back.”

Some earthlings aren’t feeling the love. On Feb. 1, police raided the church, seizing seven pounds of pot, worth an estimated $30,000, $1,200 in cash and a .45-caliber handgun. While sales of recreational marijuana have been legal in California since Jan. 1, those sales must be from dispensaries with a city license — something Sanctuary lacks.

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There, San Diego police cited five people for illegally selling marijuana.

That’s a gross misrepresentation of Sanctuary, said Marla James, the group’s spokeswoman. The sacrament was never sold, she noted, but given to believers who made a donation. Moreover, she argued, her faith is burdened with requirements not asked of other religions.

“When you are Catholic,” she said, “you can give sacramental wine to people under 21 and you don’t need an ABC license.”

This standoff appears headed for the courts, as the city presses charges and the church threatens a $1.1 million lawsuit.

Sound familiar? Religions have long used mind-altering substances as a key to enlightenment, and civil authorities have long challenged these practices in court.

Yet the legal record is mixed and often turns on basic questions:

Is this a true religion?

Or just a stoners’ scam?

“I guess the whole thing turns on the definition of religion,” said Karma Lekshe Tsomo, a professor of theology and religious studies at the University of San Diego. “And people have different ways of defining religion.”

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Himself immortal in my dream, Yang Xi revealed that cannabis nurtured the Shangqing scriptures and is essential to the shujia knowledge of the future.” — from the second of “The Nine Epiphanies.”

The Sanctuary belongs to the Association of Sacramental Ministries, a group formed last fall by Anaheim’s Brent David Fraser. This is a confederation of eight Southern California churches — seven more are in the planning stage — that profess the sacredness of the nature and the healing qualities of one particular natural substance.

“This is about body, mind, spirit,” said Fraser. “It’s not organized as such but we have a code of ethics. The primary goal is to help people.”

This young religion already has a scripture. Written by Matthew Pappas, a lawyer who has defended several Southern California marijuana dispensaries, “The Nine Epiphanies” draws on Eastern mystical traditions. The text recounts a series of dreams in which the subject overcomes illness, anger, suffering and fear by relying on ancient wisdom. And cannabis.

The two are linked, Fraser said, noting that Shintoism, Hinduism and several other religions are associated with cannabis. Some Rastafarians quote the New Testament’s Book of Revelations — “the herb is the healing of the nations” — as a sacred shout-out to ganja. Scholars say Taoism’s Shangqing school taught that cannabis could impart preternatural powers.

“This is nothing we invented,” said David James, Marla James’ husband and a volunteer at the Sanctuary. “It’s been used for thousands of years.”

At the Sacred Source Sanctuary, Manny Montana with the empty jars that once held sacramental marijuana. (Eduardo Contreras/ San Diego Union-Tribune)

In 2006, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of a New Mexico church whose congregation used a Peruvian tea, huasca, to attain trancelike states. The justices unanimously agreed that the UDV — the Uniao do Vegetal, or Union of the Plants — had a First Amendment religious right to incorporate this psychoactive substance into its services.

That case drew on a 1964 precedent. In People vs. Woody, the high court ruled that Navajo members of the Native American Church had the right to use peyote in their religious ceremonies.

“That’s even true in prisons,” said Tsomo. The sacramental use of peyote “has been very meaningful for the rehabilitation of many people, to be able to practice their faith while incarcerated.”

Yet the record is unclear whether there’s a blanket right to freedom of doped religion. In 1994, “Brother Greg” Peck was arrested at a Temecula checkpoint when 43 pounds of marijuana were found in his car. Peck, part a Rastafarian-linked church in Wisconsin, argued that he had a constitutional right to bring weed home to his congregation.

The federal court in San Diego disagreed. Its judgment was affirmed on appeal in 1996.

People from organized religions were persecuting me for my belief in cannabis as sacrament. Demanding their secular members invade temples where believers obtain sacrament and learn the ways of peace, these persecutors relentlessly attacked with words of hatred and violence.” — from the sixth of “The Nine Epiphanies.”

Closed since Feb. 1’s raid, the Sanctuary these days looks empty. Occupying what had been a weight loss clinic, the church has no pulpits, altars, pews, stained glass or other furnishings common to houses of worship. Instead, the rooms held tables and chairs and bookshelves. The Sanctum, where believers partake of sacramental cannabis, resembles an undergraduate’s living room, with low tables, a long couch, throw pillows, outlets to dock an iPad or smart phone.

“For your music,” Montana said.

Members are asked to fill out an application, initialing various clauses including an acknowledgment that the cannabis “is a gift specifically for sacramental rituals, healing or as an entheogen that allows me to become closer to my higher power.”

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The Sanctuary was open only one full month before the raid. In that brief period, Montana said, 1,000 people joined. They came, Marla James said, because they were troubled in body and spirit, seeking peace and healing.

“We believe that cannabis is a healthy herb in every way,” she said. “And it’s also spiritual — it kind of goes together. It’s part of your whole healing.”

Although there were no regularly scheduled services, volunteer ministers sometimes joined believers in prayer or meditation. Others administered acupuncture or led yoga sessions.

The goal is to reunite with nature. “Nature is the oldest religion in the world,” the Sanctuary’s web site says, “even before any other religion itself.”

In Fraser’s view, the non-churchy look and open-ended theology are part of the Sanctuary’s appeal.

“The younger people who come to us, they were fleeing the religions that were inflicted on them,” he said. “They find that this, making a god of your own conception, and the sacrament, is a freeing, wonderful release for them because they had this horrible idea of religion.”

Some religious norms are observed. Sanctuary literature touts its support of worthy causes, giving to anti-human-trafficking groups and sending food, water and clothing to victims of the earthquake that devastated Mexico last September.

And they cite another faith tradition. “We are a lot like Quakers,” Marla James said. “We are not going to fight you, we are not going to argue with you.”

There are, it seems, exceptions to this rule.

On Feb. 21, the church filed a claim with the City of San Diego, demanding $1.1 million in damages stemming from the Feb. 1 raid. The city had six months to respond.

If they deny the claim?

“Then,” James said, “we’ll file a federal lawsuit.”

© 2018 The San Diego Union-Tribune. Visit The San Diego Union-Tribune at www.sandiegouniontribune.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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