A decades-long legal debate continues to evolve as questions over religious use of psychedelics have made it back into the American court system.
An Oakland-based church filed a lawsuit against the city and police department earlier this month, seeking damages and a permanent injunction in the wake of a 2020 raid on its facilities. For the Zide Door Church, it’s an attempt to remedy its standing as a religious organization and remain free from further police action.
For the wider psychedelic community, it’s just the latest test in how far the law will go to protect natural substances being used for religious purposes.
The legal troubles of the Zide Door Church began In August of 2020 when the Oakland Police Department raided the facility following complaints that the church was operating as an unlicensed dispensary. At the time, VICE reported that police confiscated nearly $200,000 worth of mushrooms and cannabis. Police also took “some cash” as part of a raid that saw officers use a saw to cut into the church’s safe.
Almost exactly two years later, Zide Door is now taking legal action to beat the statute of limitations and stake its formal claim as a religious institution.
“We’re really hoping in any way possible to hold the Oakland police department accountable for what they did,” said the church’s founder Dave Hodges in an interview with VICE.
In the formal complaint, Zide Door Church is listed alongside the Church of Ambrosia as plaintiffs, and seeks action specifically against the city of Oakland, the police department and the officer who was sent to the facility in an undercover role, which led to the raid in August of 2020. The complaint contends that sacramental use of entheogenic plants are “central and essential” to the religion, and that the targeting of the church for use of entheogenic plants “discriminate against the Ambrosia religion.”
Now, the stage is set to test how legal precedent in the United States reflects on this case.
Currently, the case law revolves around a 2005 case where an American branch of an Amazonian church was deemed by the Supreme Court to have the legal right to use hallucinogenic tea as part of religious ceremonies and services. In that case, the Supreme Court ruled that “the First Amendment’s Free Exercise Clause does not require judges to engage in a case-by-case assessment of the religious burdens imposed by facially constitutional laws.”
In that case, the church, known as the UDV, filed the suit “for declaratory and injunctive relief” and challenged whether the government had standing to stop the import of hoasca, a substance that was barred under the Controlled Substances Act. The Supreme Court ruled that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 superseded the Controlled Substance Act, and ruled in favor of UDV’s constitutional right to use hallucinogenic tea as part of their religious ceremonies.
At the heart of the legal challenge was the question of whether or not the Controlled Substances Act was the “least restrictive means of advancing three compelling governmental interests.” Those interests were protecting church members, preventing the diversion of the substance and adhering to the 1971 United Nations Convention of Psychotropic Substances. While the first two legal matters come down to the specifics of the case, the third compelling interest is the one that could have a larger effect on the use of psychedelics for religious purposes.
The landmark 2005 Supreme Court case also took on the question of whether or not natural hallucinogenic materials were covered under the Convention. Although a lower court ruled that the tea made from DMT fell outside of the treaty, the Supreme Court stepped in and did not agree with that assessment, and cited a portion of the Convention that would classify the psychoactive tea as “any solution or mixture, in whatever physical state, containing one or more psychotropic substances.”
For the non-lawyers, that means that the current precedent in the United States is that any solution or mixture that contains a Schedule I substance is subject to the Controlled Substances Act.
Should the lawsuit gain any momentum, that precedent could be altered or enhanced by Zide Door’s claims that the city of Oakland and the police infringed upon their First and Fourteenth Amendment rights. Because of those assertions, the church is seeking a judgment “declaring that the Plaintiffs’ use of entheogenic plants” cannot be considered in any applications for permits, and claims equal treatment under the law.