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The Zide Door Church of Entheogenic Plants in Oakland, California, was the most prominent “magic mushroom club” in the United States, if not the country’s only brick-and-mortar venue for purchasing psilocybin.
But that all ended last week when Oakland police raided the “church.” Officers made no arrests but seized $200,000 in cash, cannabis, and several strains of psychedelic mushrooms, according to Dave Hodges, one of its founders.
Initially a “cannabis church,” Zide Door added mushrooms to its offerings last summer after the Oakland City Council approved a resolution declaring that arresting adults “involved” with certain psychedelic plants was among the “lowest priority” for local law enforcement. The council didn’t remove any state drug laws from the books; it can’t. But it told law enforcement to turn the other cheek to possession and use. Cultivation and sales are another story. The council promised to get to that next.
In the meantime, police paid several visits to the church. They made undercover buys in plainclothes and later returned in uniform with vows to shut the operation down. The last time was on April 21, when Officer John Romero gave Hodges clear instruction to close or risk consequences.
The church had shut down its cannabis smoking lounge following the statewide shelter-in-place order during COVID-19 but continued the exchange of mushrooms for cash throughout the spring and summer. So on August 13, Romero and about a dozen other officers returned to the church, located on the ground floor of a nondescript two-story building on a block in East Oakland.
They marched in, seized the church’s stash, and called in firefighters to bust open the church’s safes, according to photos and videos of the raid Hodges posted to his Instagram page. In one video, a firefighter appears to lose control of a tool that jerks out of his hands while he’s cutting into a safe and flies into the face of another, as unmasked cops watch.
“I guess there’s nothing else going on in Oakland,” said Hodges, who was also the church’s minister. “I’m not 100% sure what the trigger for this was, but whatever it was, it’s pretty clear this was an intimidation technique.
To hear police tell the story, Hodges knew exactly what he was doing: selling weed without a California state sales license and going well beyond what the council allowed by selling mushrooms. And he had every opportunity to pack it in before the cops came knocking.
In his search warrant, however, Romero made no mention of mushrooms, the church’s main draw. Instead, he referred to the church as an “illegal Marijuana dispensary activity.”
“The council said mushrooms should not be our priority, and they’re not,” said Oakland Police Captain Randell Wingate, who supervises the unit that conducted the raid. “You can use mushrooms, you can grow your own mushrooms — but selling mushrooms is still not legal.”
Strictly speaking, a “mushroom club” absolutely violates state law. But even before the city council’s resolution regarding mushrooms, drug sales in Oakland were generally tolerated. The city hosts several underground “seshes,” pop-up open-air drug markets where just about anything is available — until someone makes a fuss.
In Zide Door’s case, police found out because people complained about marijuana smoke, according to Wingate. “The county health department brought it to our attention, because it was impacting the health of people around there,” he said. Street cops also reported that people exiting the mushroom church were getting robbed, and that there were shootings on and around the block.
Hodges, however, disputes the complaints about smoke and insists that if the block was violent, it was that way well before the church opened. “None of the shootings had anything to do with us,” he said. “They lied to a judge when they said we’re an illegal dispensary, when clearly we’re a church. And now they’re lying even more.”
The raid also underscores the erratic nature of drug-policy reform in the United States. City, state, and federal law often conflict. Conduct that one authority says is OK is busted by another. Left in the middle are nonviolent drug users, wondering exactly what they’re allowed to do, and opportunistic activists, who can exploit the grey area.
So far, only two other cities have passed measures attempting to ease mushroom bans: Denver, which was the first, and Santa Cruz, California, a university and surfer town about two hours south of Oakland. This fall, voters in Oregon could be the first to legalize mushrooms outright at the state level.
The change in mindset follows growing scientific evidence suggesting that mushrooms can treat mental health issues. Still, they’re nowhere near as popular as cannabis. And it took many years and many raids before legal marijuana stores started paying cops’ salaries with taxes and law-abiding adults started carrying vape pens to work.
“The oldest religion on the planet”
As a functional “mushroom club,” Zide Door was following the model established by the many underground weed clubs that proliferated in Oakland in the 2000s and early 2010s. The organization served as a reliable avenue for access, a problem that follows any decriminalization.
But Hodges, 38, insists his organization isn’t a mushroom “dispensary” but rather a “church.” The setup as a religious entity is an attempt at the “religious defense” argument that’s been used with mixed success to skirt state and federal drug laws. (Under Chief Justice John Roberts, the U.S. Supreme Court has given permission for some religions to disobey drug laws when the drug they use is a “sacrament” under the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act; it doesn’t always work.)
Zide Door had some of the trappings of a “normal” church, including pews and a pulpit. On Sundays, Hodges would don a golden stole, robes, and a mitre featuring five-pronged pot leaves, and give sermons. As he preached, his flock could swap cash for “tokens” that they could then exchange for cannabis flower and edibles, including forbidden treats like super-strength edibles with more than the 100 milligrams of THC permitted under state law.
As per the church’s membership rules, anyone could join, provided they signed a statement affirming they weren’t law enforcement, and any cash payment was compensation for the church’s resources and labor.
While running the church, Hodges began dabbling in “God doses,” trips fueled by 20 or 30 grams of mushrooms in one sitting. (For the uninitiated, a tenth of a gram is a microdose. An eighth, or 3.5 grams, all to yourself is enough to unravel most anyone’s reality for a day.)
“As far as I’m concerned, mushrooms are the oldest religion on the planet,” Hodges said. “When you do those really high doses, you get what can only be described as a spiritual vision. In addition, you meet entities that teach you things.”
“I am more than willing to sit in front of a jury and say all that.”
Aside from law enforcement’s beef with the “church,” the operation also did not sit well with Decriminalize Nature Oakland, the advocacy group that convinced the city council to pass its entheogenic plants resolution. The group favors a “grow-gather-share” model, in which small circles of people grow shrooms at home and share them with friends. But sales under the veneer of a religion, however valid the divine experiences might be?
“That’s a stretch, and I think Dave knows it,” said Carlos Plazola, a 51-year-old former city council staffer and one of Decriminalize Nature’s co-founders. “He’s a very smart guy.” Plazola, who started experimenting with mushrooms after reading Michael Pollan’s book “How to Change Your Mind” in late 2018, notably did not join the church. In fact, he believes it may hinder future legalization efforts.
To many others, Hodges is not a sympathetic figure but a cynical opportunist. Before California voters legalized recreational cannabis in 2016, Hodges ran a medical cannabis collective in San Jose, but strict city zoning rules — and declining to pay taxes — got him shut down. He opened the church, which operated like medical collectives, after the Bureau of Cannabis Control, the state’s weed regulatory agency, banned them.
But with killings on the rise in the city — there were five fatal shootings during one five-day stretch in August before the raid — Hodges can’t fathom why Oakland police would choose to raid a mushroom club. It’s also making local elected officials ask some questions.
One theory is that the raid was yet another example of Oakland police thumbing its nose at the city’s progressive lawmakers, whether the lawmakers are pro-mushroom, pro-immigrant, or pro-police reform.
“As far as I’m concerned, mushrooms are the oldest religion on the planet.”
Rebecca Kaplan, a civil rights attorney and the current city council president, told VICE News she’s asked the city attorney what guidance it’s giving the police department on enforcement. She emphasized that the city council meant what it said: Oakland police should focus on anything else before nonviolent drug activity draws their attention.
“There are better things they could be doing with their time,” Kaplan said.“There’s a problem of illegal gun dealing, for example. They could focus on that. That would be making our community safer, as opposed to this, which does not make our community safer.”
If police still insist that mushroom sales necessitate drug raids, the council’s advice may need to be clarified, or the council may need to pass another law. Either way, Zide Door likely won’t be the last mushroom club in Oakland, or in the U.S. And it likely won’t be the last to be raided, a strategy that could backfire.
“Certainly I think it could have a chilling effect, but it doesn’t have to,” Kaplan said. “Sometimes these types of things have the opposite effect. They can have a galvanizing effect. They can encourage people to step up and work more for the change we need. It could be a call for stronger action.”
Disclaimer: Chris Roberts joined the Zide Door Church of Entheogenic Plants in March 2020 in an attempt to write about its offerings. He made one purchase. It went well.
Cover: Screenshots of videos taken by Dave Hodges, one of the co-founders of the Zide Door Church of Entheogenic Plants in Oakland, California, that show police raiding the premises on August, 13, 2020.