Church that says psychedelic use is a ‘sacrament’ pursues police raid



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At the Zide Door Church of Entheogenic Plants in Oakland, California, the minister wears a dress printed with cannabis leaves. During sermons, members are free to smoke marijuana — received as a “sacrament” — in an effort to connect with a higher power.

In August 2020, church operations were halted when Oakland police officers raided the building and seized approximately $200,000 worth of cannabis, psilocybin mushrooms and cash, claiming the facility was operating. more like an illegal dispensary than a religious institution. No one was arrested or charged, although the seized items were never returned, according to news reports.

Now, Zide Door Church is suing the city of Oakland and its police department, alleging the raid violated its constitutional and religious freedoms.

In California, recreational marijuana is legal and licensed businesses can sell it. In Oakland, elected officials voted unanimously in 2019 to effectively decriminalize certain natural hallucinogens, like mushrooms, although they cannot be sold.

Neither the Oakland Police Department nor the Oakland City Attorney’s Office immediately responded to a Washington Post request for comment Tuesday evening. Barbara Parker, the city attorney, told the San Francisco Chronicle that her office had not yet received a lawsuit and had no further comment.

Zide Door Church opened in early 2019 as a physical worship center for members of the Church of Ambrosia, “a non-denominational, interdenominational religious organization that supports the safe use and access” of certain natural psychedelics, according to its website. In the lawsuit, he described what he calls the “sacramental use” of cannabis, mushrooms and other hallucinogenic substances as a way to connect with “higher consciousness, their own eternal souls, spiritual beings and God”, although the consumption of psychedelic mushrooms is not allowed on site.

Dave Hodges, the church’s founder, told the Chronicle that the church has some 60,000 members.

To become a member, applicants must complete an online questionnaire that asks them if they work in law enforcement and if they accept marijuana and mushrooms as “part of your religion.”

Zide Door is located in East Oakland and has armed security personnel guarding the entrance, Oaklandside reported. Hodges told the outlet that the guards were there because the church was in a “very high crime area.”

The church does not sell drugs, Hodges told the Chronicle. Instead, he charges a monthly membership fee of $5 and then asks for donations in exchange for psychedelics. Up to 200 people visit the church each day to obtain marijuana and mushrooms, Hodges told the Chronicle.

For about a year, the church held on-site services every Sunday at 4:20 p.m., during which Hodges donned his office dress adorned with marijuana leaves and passed out joints, according to the Chronicle. But since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, he has rarely held services.

After the raid, some were skeptical that Hodges was leading a real church and instead suspected it was a front to sell drugs, Vice reported. But Hodges has repeatedly insisted he runs a religious establishment.

“It’s not just an excuse to sell drugs,” he told the Chronicle. “That’s what we really believe to be the origin of all religion and really what religion should be.”

In May 2019, according to a search warrant affidavit, the city received a complaint that the church was operating as an unlicensed cannabis dispensary. In August 2020, an undercover cop showed up at the church, joined, and traded money for weed, according to court records.

A few days later, the police raided the church.

Surveillance video of the raid, posted to Hodges’ Instagram account, shows police streaming into the building, some with their weapons drawn. Footage also shows firefighters carrying heavy machinery into locked safes. Law enforcement seized a computer, documents, cannabis products, mushrooms and cash, according to the lawsuit.

Ultimately, Hodges received a fine and a warning, although the seized items were not returned, the Chronicle and Oaklandside reported.

The lawsuit alleges the raid violated the church’s “honest exercise of religion” in violation of federal law, as well as the church’s First Amendment right to the free exercise of religion.

Erwin Chemerinsky, the dean of the University of California Berkeley School of Law, told the Post in an email that the church may struggle to defend itself as exempt from state drug laws.

“The general rule is that there are no exceptions to laws for religious beliefs,” he wrote. “Assuming that California law applies to everyone and has no discretion to grant exceptions, then there is no reason to challenge it on the basis of religion.”

But Jesse Choper, another legal expert at UC Berkeley, told the Chronicle that the religion argument could work well.

“If it’s not a fictitious company,” he said, “I’d say smokers have a pretty good case.”

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