A California church that distributes cannabis and psychedelic drugs for sacramental purposes has filed a lawsuit against the City of Oakland and its police department, alleging that a 2020 raid violated federal protections for religious freedom.
The legal action was filed against the city and police by the Zide Door Church. The establishment serves as the Oakland center of worship for the Church of Ambrosia, “a nondenominational, interfaith religious organization that supports the use and safe access” of certain natural psychedelic drugs known as entheogenic plants and fungi, according to the group’s website. A minister wearing a robe emblazoned with cannabis leaves leads the church’s services, where members are permitted to smoke cannabis as a sacrament and pathway to connecting with a higher power.
To join the church, prospective members are required to fill out an online questionnaire asking if the applicant is a member of law enforcement and if they accept cannabis and psilocybin mushrooms as “part of your religion.” Once admitted to the church, members can pay a $5 monthly membership fee that allows them to receive cannabis and psychedelic mushrooms for a donation to the church.
Before the coronavirus pandemic began, the church would hold services on Sundays at 4:20, where founder Dave Hodges would pass out joints. The church opened in early 2019 and now has a total of 60,000 members, according to Hodges. Up to 200 come each day to get cannabis and psilocybin mushrooms.
Cannabis has been legal for adults in California since 2016, and in 2019 Oakland city leaders voted to decriminalize psilocybin mushrooms and other entheogenic plants and fungi, although sales are not permitted.
In August 2020, the Zide Door Church was raided by officers with the Oakland Police Department. Law enforcement officers entered the church and seized approximately $200,000 in cannabis, mushrooms, and cash. Police claimed the establishment was operating as an unlicensed dispensary rather than a legitimate place of worship. No charges were filed in the case, but the cash and drugs seized by police during the raid have not been returned to the church.
An affidavit filed with a search warrant served during the raid states that the city received a complaint that the Zide Door Church was operating as an unlicensed cannabis dispensary in May 2019. Two months later, an undercover police officer visited the church to become a member and subsequently exchanged cash for cannabis. Only days later, the church was raided by police. Hodges was issued a fine and a warning, but no one was taken into custody.
After the raid, critics were skeptical that the church was a legitimate place of worship, alleging that it was instead a front to sell drugs. But Hodges insists that is not the case.
The lawsuit filed against the city and police argues that the raid and seizure violated constitutional guarantees of religious freedom. In the legal action, the church details the “sacramental use” of cannabis, psilocybin and other natural psychedelic drugs as a way to connect with “a higher consciousness, their own eternal souls, spiritual beings and God.” Consuming psilocybin mushrooms is not permitted at the site, however.
“This is not just an excuse to sell drugs,” Hodges told the San Francisco Chronicle. “This is what we truly believe is the origin of all religion and really what religion should be.”
The lawsuit argues that the raid violated the church’s “sincere exercise of religion” in violation of federal law, as well as the church’s right to the free exercise of religion under the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
The Oakland Police Department did not comment on the lawsuit when asked by The Washington Post. City Attorney Barbara Parker told reporters the city had not yet been served with the legal action but declined to comment further.
Jesse Choper, a law expert at the University of California at Berkeley, said that the church’s religious freedom argument might prevail if the lawsuit goes to trial.
“If it’s not a sham business,” he said, “I would say the smokers got a pretty good case.”
But Erwin Chemerinsky, the dean of the University of California’s Berkeley School of Law, said the church is not likely to succeed with its defense that religious freedom exempts it from state drug laws.
“The general rule is that there is no exception to laws for religious beliefs,” he said. “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.”