Psychedelic Drugs As A Religious Right: New Lawsuit Relaunches The Debate

The Zide Door Church of entheogenic plants in Oakland, California, is suing the city and its security department over a police raid that allegedly constituted a violation of religious and constitutional freedom.

In California, recreational marijuana has been state-wide legal to consume and sell with a license since 2016. In Oakland, commissioners voted for the decriminalization of a list of hallucinogenic products including psilocybin mushrooms in 2019. The difference is, these substances’ sale is currently still illegal.

What Happened

The East-Oakland establishment works since 2019 as the worship center for Church of Ambrosia members, an “interfaith religious organization that supports the use and safe access” of certain natural therapeutics, most notably cannabis and psychedelic mushrooms.

Until the COVID-19 outbreak, the church offered on-site services on Sundays at 4:20. Founder Dave Hodges stated that it now has a total 60,000 members and that 200 of them come in for the substances daily. 

Their sacramental use is considered by the church as a way to connect with “a higher consciousness, their own eternal souls, spiritual beings and God.” 

So, before joining, members must complete an online questionnaire regarding personal implications in law enforcement and religious cannabis and psilocybin consumption. 

Once admitted, a $5 optional monthly membership fee allows them to receive both psychedelics in return for a donation, which Hodges affirms does not make the church into a seller. 

In August 2020, local police stormed the church building with a search warrant stating that the city had received a complaint over the Zide Door’s alleged operations as an unlicensed cannabis dispensary, and then confirmed it through an undercover agent who said he exchanged cash for cannabis while acting as a member. 

In that raid, the Oakland police impounded almost $200,000 in cannabis, magic mushrooms and cash. While no arrests or charges were made, Hodges was issued a fine and a warning. 

News reports said the items seized were not returned. Two years later, the church is filing a lawsuit.

“This is not just an excuse to sell drugs,” Hodges told the Chronicle. “This is what we truly believe is the origin of all religion and really what religion should be.” And that is the church’s position in the current lawsuit: that local officers violated federal law and the church’s First Amendment right to the free exercise of religion.

Footage from the 2020 raid shows Oakland police streaming into the church, some with guns drawn, as well as firefighters taking heavy machinery to locked safes. A computer, documents, cannabis products, mushrooms and cash were seized.

The dean of the University of California’s Berkeley School of Law Erwin Chemerinsky believes the church may have a hard time defending itself as exempt from state drug laws. “Assuming that the California law applies to everyone and does not have discretion to grant exceptions, then there is not a basis for challenging it based on religion.”

On the other hand, Jesse Choper, a law expert at the same institution told the Chronicle that the religion argument might just work. 

Neither the Police Department nor the city attorney Barbara Parker have publicly commented on the lawsuit so far.

Photo by Elia Pellegrini on Unsplash

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Posted In: CannabisNewsPsychedelicsLegalMarketscity attorney Barbara ParkerDave HodgesErwin ChemerinskyOakland Police
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