Police in Oakland raided America’s only psychedelic church promoting the use of magic mushrooms a few weeks ago. While many people assume that the issue is cut and dry, given that the Zide Door Church of Entheogenic Plants had a massive amount of marijuana and psychocybin mushrooms stored in their safe, the law is actually a little more complicated because these types of substances are legal for religious ceremonies. So who is right in this case? Ultimately the decision may have be settled in the courts.
Drug Use in Religious Ceremonies
Because some Native American tribes use psychedelic plants such as peyote in their religious ceremonies, congress passed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act in 1993. This bill allows for the use of plants and other herbs that have psychedelic effects for religious purposes. While the law was originally crafted to protect Native American religious practices, the Supreme Court ruled that other groups, such as the Union of Plants Uniao Do Vegetal (UDV) could also use controlled substances for their worship services. These groups have used substances such as ayahuasca as a way to get closer to God.
Dave Hodges, founder and preacher of the church, told Vice that the raid violates this law because he says his church has the same right to use entheogenic plants for worship.
Selling Drugs Under the Guise of a Church?
Of course, few things are ever simple when it comes to the law. While the Religious Freedom Restoration Act gives churches the right to use otherwise illegal substances, police say the Zide Door Church was just a front for selling drugs. In fact, many witnesses testify to the fact that the church sold both marijuana and mushrooms. While marijuana is legal to use in California, it is still illegal to sell without a valid distribution license and the church was also selling edibles that were far stronger than legally allowed under the state law. In fact, although the police didn’t arrest anyone during their raid, they did seize over $200,000 in cash, plush massive stores of cannabis and mushrooms.
That being said, these facts don’t automatically negate Hodges’ defense that the substances were being sold for religious purposes. Just as ‘shrooms or ayahuasca are taken in large quantities for worship purposes, the same can be true when it comes to cannabis use, so the strength of the substance doesn’t necessarily mean it’s not for religious purposes.
As for the sales part, that is where things get very complicated and come down to small details. Cannabis and magic mushrooms can be expensive, so it wouldn’t be unreasonable for the Hodges to ask members to cover the expenses related to their use of the substances. If the church asked for “donations” to cover the expenses of these substances, it would make his case stronger. If Hodges was selling the drugs for a profit, it would weaken his case substantially.
Similarly, how members used the substances would make a big difference in the case. If they used them within the church to go on a guided psychedelic trip, it would be a lot easier to defend their use for purposes of worship. If the members were supposed to use them at home alone, then the church should, in theory, at least have provided some kind of instructions to guide the trip rather than just telling followers to get high at home.
Was the Church Being Targeted?
In most cities, it would hardly be a shock for a church promoting the use of psychedelic drugs to get raided by the police. But things are a little more complicated in Oakland, where the city decriminalized the use of magic mushrooms and told police enforcement of laws related to psychedelic drugs should be their “lowest law enforcement priority.”
Again, if Oakland was a peaceful city with little other crime, it would make sense for police to work on their stated lowest priority, but with so many other concerns in the city, it does make sense for Hodges to claim the raid was actually an “intimidation technique.” Ultimately, it will be interesting to see if the Alameda County District Attorney decides to file charges at all, and if so, what the courts say regarding this matter.
The next question in the matter is, if the Alameda DA doesn’t file charges, will the Zide Door Church be able to get its property, at least the cash portion back from the police? Under the state’s civil asset forfeiture laws, if someone has not been proven guilty, the government must return their property -but most people need a lawyer to represent them and force the police to return the property. The drugs will not be returned as they are against the law and will probably go bad before the entire matter is settled, but $200,000 is certainly worth the effort.
Complex legal defenses like those being used by preacher Hodges are another example of just how important it is to work with a top criminal defense attorney. If you have been charged with any crime, please call Peter M. Liss at (760) 643-4050 to schedule a free initial consultation.
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