At 1 pm on Thursday, August 13, Zide Door—an entheogenic church in Oakland, California, that recognizes cannabis and psilocybin mushrooms as religious sacraments—was raided by Oakland Police Department (OPD) during parishioner visiting hours.
Zide Door wasn’t just any ordinary church: Its exterior was nondescript, with security guards at the front door, leading to a body scanner visitors would pass through before entering the reception area. Newcomers would need to sign up as members of the church—which entailed answering a series of questions, such as whether you smoke or consume entheogenic plants—before receiving a membership card that would allow them access to the rest of the facility. Past the reception was a section of pews, where services were held Sundays at 4:20—before the pandemic hit—and then a dispensary section where visitors could buy an array of psilocybin or cannabis products.
According to Zide Door’s preacher, Dave Hodges, the raid was facilitated by more than 20 Oakland Police Department (OPD) officers and the fire department. At least six cops arrived with handguns, while two others went through the building with massive assault rifles. The security footage shows a member of the fire department using a “jaws-of-life” tool, an industrial scissor-like machine designed to extricate accident victims from vehicles, and a circular saw to break into safes where money and product were kept. The cumulative cost of loss and damages, according to Hodges, is upwards of $200,000.
Hodges describes the way in which OPD executed the raid as haphazard. More specifically, he adds, while a member of the fire department attempted to break open a safe, metal shards and debris hit the firefighter in the face. Afterward, a trail of blood drops is seen on the security footage throughout the church. “He’s fine, considering he cut open the safe with a circular saw after that,” says Hodges. “But it’s alarming that they didn’t clean up the blood and created a biohazard—in the middle of a pandemic, no less.”
Located nearby Lake Merritt off International Boulevard, Hodges says that Zide Door relied upon religious protection, provided under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA)—legislation that prohibits the federal government “from substantially burdening a person’s exercise of religion even if the burden results from a rule of general applicability.” In other words, for example, even though plant medicine like ayahuasca is federally illegal, groups using it for sincere religious purposes may be able to seek protection from RFRA.
“The courts and federal government started offering protections for indigenous groups related to plant medicines, but the government is beginning to accept the fact that such earnest beliefs in medicinal plants as sacramental is not limited to indigenous communities,” says Andy Sick, attorney at the law firm of Sick Legal LLC, whose practice involves entheogenic plants. “Under the letter of the law, all that should matter is the sincerity of the religious belief in the use of the plant as a sacrament. However, as a practical reality, the courts and government are just getting to the point where they can view entheogenic plants as sacramental in a church setting, but they don’t seem to be there yet in the dispensary-style religious model.”
However, RFRA only affords protection in regard to federal action. And in Zide Door’s case, action was taken by local city law enforcement—not the feds.
In 2004, Oakland voters passed Measure Z, making cannabis the lowest priority for law enforcement. Oakland also happens to be one of the several localities around the United States leading the psychedelic reform movement. In June 2019, activist group Decriminalize Nature convinced the city council to pass a resolution to make entheogenic plants and fungi the lowest priority for Oakland law enforcement, while defunding police action targeted at those cultivating, foraging, or giving away these substances.
So, then, why was Zide Door raided?
“The only activities covered under the resolution are grow, gather, gift—not a store front,” explains Carlos Plazola, chair of the board of Decriminalize Nature. Moreover, while the resolution was modeled after Measure Z, it does not actually cover cannabis—since cannabis, already, is encompassed by another set of state and local regulations.
And what’s more, the search warrant for Zide Door didn’t even mention psilocybin mushrooms, but only mentioned cannabis. Plazola suspects that other dispensaries in the area may have tipped off the police to Zide Door because it was operating without a permit. Hodges argues, however, that Zide Door didn’t need a commercial cannabis license because it was a church—not a dispensary. “It’s not possible to get a state permit to do what we do.”
According to Oakland officials, the police raided Zide Door because they saw it as a cause for an uptick in shootings in the area. But Hodges sees it differently: Across the street from Zide Door is an illegal gambling hall, where shootings have gone down. In fact, he says he didn’t even know the gambling hall was there until OPD asked him for outdoor surveillance footage that might have captured those shootings.
Indeed, the Zide Door raid has taken place amidst a tenuous moment for Oakland in regard to local crime. Legal cannabis retailers have been “under siege” of violent robberies—including the murder of a 33-year-old woman during an attempted robbery at an alleged legal dispensary—as recently as July 17, 2020. Since the riots in early June, dispensaries have experienced a massive spike in vandalism, in addition to robberies.
John Romero, the officer who requested and served the search warrant to Zide Door, is the only OPD officer on the legal cannabis unit, according to news reports and city administrator documents. Given the climate, Romero’s job, Hodges suggests, “is to figure out who did these crimes and to figure out a way to stop them from happening again; his job is definitely not to harass a church.”
DoubleBlind reached out to John Romero for comment and will update the story if he gets back to us.
While Hodges says he is not sure who tipped off the cops, he says that Romero told him on the day of the raid that he went into the church as an undercover informant. In order to become a member of the church, one must hand-over valid ID and answer a set of questions, which specifically ask if “you work for law enforcement or any government agency” and if “you accept entheogenic plants (including cannabis and mushrooms) as part of your religion.” One must fill in the “correct” answers to these questions in order to become a member (i.e. “no” to the government employee question, and “yes” to the entheogenic religion question).
Although Hodges says he can’t find Romero’s membership, which would detail his answers to those questions, the preacher says the entire raid is based upon what he believes to be a false pretense that Zide Door is an illegal operation: “As a church, what we do is protected under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which keeps the federal government from doing anything due to established case law that says entheogenic plants can be used as a part of religion.”
Kim (whose name has been changed to protect her identity) has been a member of the church since last fall. She says the church not only provided access to a medicine that’s saved her life, but it also gave church members an experience to be incredibly grateful for. “The church provided safe access to organic medicine, a community, and education,” she says, recalling how kind and knowledgeable those who worked there were. “It gave Oakland a place to heal with medicine that was clean and safe to put into your body.”
She says her favorite medicine the Zide Door offered were the microdose capsules with Niacin in them. “They came with two in a pack and didn’t make me tired the way just eating pure mushroom powder sometimes can.”
“The church provided safe access to organic medicine, a community, and education. It gave Oakland a place to heal with medicine that was clean and safe to put into your body.”
In the past few months, Kim says she’s observed a mushroom drought throughout California, and particularly in NorCal: “There’s a tremendous demand for this medicine, which has contributed to a mushroom drought for the last four to five months, and it’s causing prices to go up.” While prices at Zide Door also rose due to the drought, it at least offered a place to access decently priced, vetted medicine.
“It’s the only place I know that’s offering a variety of micro dose medicinal capsules that contain other nootropic mushrooms like lion’s mane added in—that’s next level,” she says. “If I was seeking a more transformational therapeutic journey, I would pick up one of the higher dose chocolates and if I wanted to make my own tea or something else, I could get raw material (just the mushrooms).” While many people are interested in mushrooms as medicine, she adds, it’s not a “one size fits all” approach. “It really is a journey finding what you need and what works for you, so I was always happy to refer people to Zide Door.”
It’s unclear what the future holds for Zide Door. As of now, however, no charges have been made against Hodges or any members of the church. No one was arrested or went to jail, either, at the time of the raid. “We will get through this,” says Hodges. “The Oakland Police Department is violating our religious freedom, so it’s going to be a round of some bullshit. But we will see what happens.”
Mary Carreon is an award winning journalist from southern California and the associate editor at MERRY JANE. When she’s not working, you can find her doing yoga to Ravi Shankar or figuring out how to get to the nearest beach. Follow her on social media @maryyystardust.