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Oakland church that gives cannabis and psychedelic mushrooms as communion sues over police raid

Summer Lin, Los Angeles Times on

Published in News & Features

An East Oakland church that gives out cannabis and psychedelic plants as sacrament filed a civil rights lawsuit against the city of Oakland and the Oakland Police Department over a 2020 police raid.

The Zide Door Church of Entheogenic Plants, an assembly of the Church of Ambrosia, filed a lawsuit Friday alleging that the city, police department and a police officer violated its 1st and 14th amendment rights, and that the city's land use code prohibits the group from conducting religious ceremonies and sacraments involving psychedelics and cannabis inside its church.

The lawsuit originates from an incident in which Oakland police raided Zide Door Church, at 1216 10th Ave., on Aug. 13, 2020, over allegations that the church was operating as a dispensary.

Officer John Romero said the church was listed as a commercial cannabis dispensary on the open-source website Weedmaps, and Oakland's nuisance abatement office got an anonymous complaint in May 2019 that the church was serving as a dispensary.

The Oakland Police Department said it doesn't comment on pending litigation. Oakland City Atty. Barbara Parker said her office hasn't yet been served with the lawsuit as of Wednesday afternoon.

The church denies that its location was identified on the website and says it doesn't advertise its religious practices, meaning the only ways people could find out are through video presentations of its services or word of mouth, according to the complaint. The church also said that members pay a $5 monthly fee and donate in order to obtain cannabis and mushrooms, which are grown by the church.

The Zide Door Church says Romero applied for church membership under a false name and using an invalid or forged California driver's license, the lawsuit states. Romero allegedly signed a membership agreement acknowledging that the church isn't operating as a dispensary, joined as a monthly member and bought 3.5 grams of cannabis buds, which the church says is intended to be consumed on-site and isn't for personal or individual use.

Romero searched the church, damaging five safes and seizing paperwork, inventory logs, $200,000 worth of cannabis and mushroom products, a computer and cash totaling more than $4,500, according to the complaint.

The church, which preaches against nonreligious alcohol and drug use, was established in Oakland in January 2019. It claims that because of Oakland's Municipal Code that requires a permit from the city for operation of businesses and establishments, and because religious use of entheogenic plants, including cannabis, is not permitted use under Oakland's land use regulations, the church can't legally practice its religious beliefs, according to the lawsuit.

 

The complaint also referenced Resolution 87731, passed by the Oakland City Council on June, 4, 2019, which forbids the city and the Oakland Police Department from using city funds to enforce laws criminalizing use and possession of entheogenic plants.

Church founder Dave Hodges said that before the COVID-19 pandemic, he conducted sermons every week at the Oakland building and would pass out joints to members before the service began. He emphasized that mushrooms are intended to be taken off-site, where members won't have to drive for at least eight hours after consumption. Members aren't given a limit on how much sacrament they can receive.

"This is not just an excuse for selling drugs," Hodges said. "This is a sincere faith and the work that I personally do with mushrooms is with the really high doses. There's no doubt in my mind that mushrooms were the first way our ancient ancestors understood there was more to this existence."

Surveillance video shared with The Times showed about half a dozen officers, some armed with guns, approach the doors of the church. Security guards hired by the church are then shown walking outside with their hands up. Several firefighters then busted into a safe inside the church using what appears to be an electric saw.

"They raided us like we were some kind of crime family they were taking down or a meth house," Hodges said. "They came in guns blazing, which they didn't need to do. They could've accomplished the same thing with two officers without their guns drawn. This was a classic smash-and-grab scenario where they took our sacrament, they took our money and they never filed any charges."

Hodges also referenced the Oakland Cannabis Regulation and Revenue Ordinance, also known as Measure Z, which was passed in 2004 and required the city to establish a system to license, regulate and tax cannabis for adult use. Hodges said since the ordinance was approved, Romero has led a campaign of "smash-and-grabs" on Measure Z clubs, that would result in the business closing for a few weeks before reopening. Around the time the Zide Door Church was raided, Hodges said, at least four clubs had been raided.

The church is asking for a permanent injunction, requiring the city to approve the land use application and exempt religious use of entheogenic plants as part of the application process, the complaint states.

"We would like for the Oakland P.D. to leave us alone and for the city of Oakland to consider us legitimate," Hodges said.

©2022 Los Angeles Times. Visit at latimes.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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