By Robert Johnson
If there were awards for peak Oakland headlines, “Oakland church that gives cannabis and psychedelic mushrooms as communion sues over police raid” might very well win.
The 2020 police raid on the Zide Door Church of Entheogenic Plants made national headlines for its seeming absurdity, but the stakes in this legal battle are serious. Zide Door and its founder, Dave Hodges, have filed suit against the police and city of Oakland for violating their congregation’s constitutional right to practice religious sacraments in peace. The legal battle over who has the right to consume psychedelics, what constitutes a religion and what decriminalization really means for the burgeoning psychedelic marketplace has only just begun.
Zide Door and The Church of Ambrosia were founded by Dave Hodges, the pastor of Zide Door. Like so many mushroom champions, Hodges has a history as a cannabis activist. He lobbied local and state legislatures for legalization in California, and helped open San Jose’s first medical cannabis collective in 2009. When he founded Zide Door in 2019, it was a cannabis church, but Hodges’s transformational experiences with psilocybin led him to incorporate magic mushrooms into the congregation’s sacraments. “They’ve shown me things that have helped me understand my path further, understand what God is and what I’m here to do on this planet,” he has said. By 2020, the church was said to have more than 20,000 members.
Only church members are able to acquire mushrooms or cannabis from the Church of Ambrosia. To join, you must be at least 21, complete an application affirming that entheogenic plants are part of your religious practice, and pay a membership fee of just $5 a month. In the past, members received access to a menu of psychedelic mushroom strains and cannabis priced far more affordably than dispensary products. The church offers consumption and safety guides on their website. It’s even got 232 Google reviews, with a 4.6 star average.
Police raided Zide Door on August 13, 2020, on the grounds that it was operating as an illegal dispensary. During the 2020 raid, Oakland police took $200,000 worth of cannabis and mushroom products, plus $4,500 in cash. (Formal charges in connection to the raid have never been filed.) Unbowed and unbroken, Hodges opened a new house of worship in San Francisco in 2023, and his congregation has reportedly swelled to 90,000 members. “I never imagined myself being the head of what’s technically one of the largest megachurches in the country,” Hodges said in a 2023 keynote at the psychedelic conference Spirituality and Beyond III.
As he told SFGate, Hodges sees Zide Door as no different from the ayahuasca and peyote churches that are permitted to operate under the Religious Freedom Act—and when Hodges describes psychedelics as the oldest religion on earth, he’s not wrong. Psychedelic substances have been part of human ceremony and ritual since long before the arrival of monotheistic faiths and organized religion.
There are numerous psychedelic churches in America already, in part because our national historic deference to and protection of faith-based enterprises provides some legal cover (as Reuters pointed out, American churches aren’t required to obtain a liquor license to serve wine). But Zide Door differs from other psychedelic-centered religious groups because it provides its members with access to entheogenic plants and fungi, and because Hodges’ faith is not a tongue-in-cheek attempted end run around federal drug laws. “For me, it’s defending access to God,” Hodges told SFGATE.
What Hodges and his congregation see as plant-based worship, the laws of the state of California and the federal government categorize as serious felonies with criminal penalties that can entail decades in prison. Despite the Oakland City Council’s 2019 decriminalization resolution, which declared that “the investigation and arrest of individuals involved with the adult use of entheogenic plants on the federal schedule 1 list [should] be amongst the lowest priority for the city of Oakland,” the sale and consumption of magic mushrooms remains illegal.
The San Francisco Board of Supervisors passed a similar resolution decriminalizing entheogenic substances in 2022, but Hodges’s experience may provide a test case on how much that resolution actually binds law enforcement. (Hodges told SFGATE he won’t be surprised if his new San Francisco facility is raided as well.) Though decriminalization statutes usually urge police to make psychedelics the lowest priority for enforcement measures, they don’t actually change the laws. Indeed, just months after San Francisco’s decriminalization resolution was passed, a shop owner in the Haight was arrested for allegedly selling mushrooms
Hodges posted video to his Instagram of the 2020 raid that shows numerous cops toting what look like semi-automatic weapons as they storm his humble storefront, with a caption demanding “Is this really the best use of resources when we are in the middle of a crime wave in Oakland? How many assaults, carjackings, and murders happened while the police were wasting their time?” The raid’s level of personnel and force came across to many as excessive. Even conservative Conn Carroll at the equally conservative Washington Examiner had to ask: “Why would the city go after a magic mushroom pastor?”
The raid and Hodges’s lawsuit in response to it are litmus tests for whether decriminalization will actually reduce prosecutions of citizens who distribute entheogenic plants and fungi. Decriminalization statutes have passed in American cities from Oakland and San Francisco to Seattle, Detroit and Washington, D.C—but how seriously does law enforcement take these measures? Magic mushroom product vendors and small businesses have already popped up in Canada and on the West Coast, assuming that discreet consumption and sale of psychedelics won’t draw police attention—but we don’t yet know whether district attorneys, sheriffs and police departments agree.
For now, Hodges, his congregants and his church may be a canary in the coal mine of psychedelic decriminalization. The pastor seems resigned to that uncertain future, acknowledging “If you want to do what I do, you have to be prepared to go to federal prison.” But Hodges remains staunch in his mission to spread the mushroom gospel, no matter what happens. “If we can win a federal ruling against a local police department for going after our church, then we can open anywhere in the nation,” Hodges told Leafly. “And we plan to.”
Robert Johnson is a cannabis and hemp industry veteran, psychedelic advocate and founder of premium mushroom product company Mycroboost.
Disclaimer: The views, suggestions, and opinions expressed here are the sole responsibility of the experts. No journalist was involved in the writing and production of this article.