When you step into Zide Door, the Church of Ambrosia, you’ll quickly realize it’s unlike any traditional church you’ve ever encountered. There is no stained glass or ornate architecture here, but instead, bright blue pew benches adorned with a cannabis leaf garland. Down the aisle, a slightly raised platform decorated with red toadstools. There stands Dave Hodges, the pastor and founder of Zide Door, dressed in the regalia of a Roman Catholic Bishop, but with a twist. His robe and hat are covered in cannabis leaves, with mushrooms delicately embroidered all around. Every Sunday at 4:20 pm, Hodges delivers sermons about the powers of sacred mushrooms and his personal experiences with them, all while smoke fills the room due to the communal joint being passed around by the church’s members.
The Zide Door Church of Entheogenic Plants was founded in January 2019 in the city of Oakland, California, to provide safe access to entheogens for religious purposes. Hodges asserts that the Church of Ambrosia is a legitimate nondenominational, interfaith religious practice that embraces the use of entheogenic plants, primarily cannabis and psychedelic mushrooms, as sacraments.
The church believes in the Doctrine of Religious Evolution, which they refer to as the new “Stoned Ape Theory.” Similar to the Stoned Ape Theory, early humans accidentally came upon psychedelic mushrooms, ate them in high doses, and experienced changes in their minds that led to the development of human communication and consciousness.
To take the theory one step further, the Church of Ambrosia proposes that magic mushrooms also catalyzed the emergence of religion. The early humans who consumed mushrooms created religion due to experiencing otherworldly entities and wanting to convey these complex concepts to one another.
Cannabis also plays a crucial role in this religion, as they claim that using it religiously helps open one’s “inner eye.” This allows users to understand life and what the world is teaching them. Spirits communicate to humans through entheogens like these two substances, so they play a pivotal role in the religious practice.
Across from where Hodges gives sermons is a dispensary that sells untaxed cannabis and seventeen different strains of magic mushrooms, with various psilocybin-based products such as teas, granola, chocolate, and capsules. Each purchase comes with a detailed guide on how to prepare for each trip, how to dose, how to avoid a bad trip, and a reminder that “mushrooms cannot kill you; they can only make you think they can.”
The church has 60,000 members, who donate five dollars every month to cover sacrament and security guard fees.
Hodges tried psychedelic mushrooms for the first time shortly after Oakland decriminalized natural psychedelic substances. He went from the minimum starting dose of two grams and quickly moved up to substantially high doses of 30 grams — all within the span of two months. Hodges claims that these psychedelic experiences allowed him to discover life-changing revelations, leading him to share this knowledge and experiences with others.
“Honestly, when I first started smoking cannabis, I was more of an atheist, and as I smoked it more, I became more of an agnostic, and as I went through life, I became a little bit more spiritual, but it wasn’t until I got to the mushrooms that I actually experienced the consciousness of God. Cannabis can help you understand your life and the things around you. Mushrooms can take you places much further than that,” Hodges said in an interview with the Oaklandside.
Although Zide Door initially only provided cannabis to its patrons, Hodges soon added mushrooms to the menu after discovering their spiritual aspect. Since then, the establishment has grown in both popularity and controversy.
Of course, Hodges’s mushroom church comes with a legal risk. Despite the religious nature of the church, Zide Door was busted by the Oakland Police Department in 2020. After several undercover purchases and even a warning from a cannabis enforcement officer, several dozen police officers and firefighters raided the establishment and broke into the church’s safe, taking around $200,000 worth of sacraments, some cash, and a computer.
According to Oakland Police, the church is considered illegal since it’s an unlicensed dispensary selling untaxed cannabis products and psilocybin mushrooms that are not legal to distribute in the state of California. However, no arrests or legal charges were made.
Hodges refused to let any legal troubles stop him from his church’s mission. Only a day after being raided, Zide Door was reopened to the public.
According to Hodges, the police raid was unwarranted and “completely illegal.” He believes the Oakland Police Department violated the church’s civil rights and religious freedom.
“This wasn’t about whether we were doing something wrong,” Hodges said to The Oaklandside. “It was about how the police can take money from something that they think is wrong.”
In 2022, Hodges responded to the raid by filing a lawsuit against the city of Oakland and its police department for infringing First and Fourteenth Amendment rights.
One of Hodges’s arguments against the raid is Resolution 87731, passed by the Oakland City Council in June 2019. The legislation decriminalized entheogenic plants and fungi by restricting city funds and resources from assisting law enforcement to impose criminal penalties on adults found using or possessing the substances.
As stated by the resolution, “the use of Entheogenic Plants have been shown to be beneficial to the health and well-being of individuals and communities in addressing these afflictions via scientific and clinical studies and within continuing traditional practices, which can catalyze profound experiences of personal and spiritual growth.”
But despite the decriminalization and deprioritization of enforcing penalties, Oakland law enforcement said the church was operating as an illegal dispensary, and they had received anonymous complaints about the business, prompting their investigation.
Beyond city laws, Hodges believes officers went against a federal law that protects religious organizations that use entheogens against legal persecution.
“We operate under a federal law, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. That’s what allows ayahuasca and peyote churches that provide plants as part of their religion,” said Hodges. “We’re not different from that; that’s what we do. In addition to that, the part of our agreement with members when you join is that you own everything that is part of the church. When you’re a member, you are an owner. And under that scenario, how do we sell you anything that you already own?”
The 1993 Religious Freedom and Restoration Act protects the free exercise of religion so that the government cannot restrict a religious group’s sincere beliefs. Entheogens like mushrooms have been used in spiritual and religious practices for centuries, and many religious groups see these substances as sacramental. As a result, if a religious group can prove that the use of entheogens is a genuine part of their religious practice, then they have legal protections against any laws and regulations that would otherwise prohibit their use. So far, only a few churches in the U.S. have been fully protected by the act, including some ayahuasca churches that focus on a combination of indigenous Brazillian beliefs with Christian teachings. Additionally, the Native American Church, otherwise known as Peyotism, is allowed to use peyote, a hallucinogen, under the American Indian Religious Freedom Act.
Hodges has recently dismissed the lawsuit after the city informed him that he was eligible to submit an application to the Bureau of Planning for a conditional use permit. He believes that the city’s offer was to avoid further legal battles. However, as long as Zide Door can continue operating, Hodges has no intention of pursuing any other legal action.
From the start of his organization, Hodges knew he would have trouble with law enforcement. He told SFGate that, unlike mushroom dealers who “just want to make some money,” he would exhaust all of his financial resources and even face jail time just to advocate for his religion and its right to use psilocybin mushrooms.
Despite the challenges the church has faced so far, Hodges opened another location in San Francisco in April this year. In the future, he looks forward to having a big enough space to host larger groups of members, where they can stay for hours, passing around cannabis as a communication ritual and discussing any thoughts and ideas that come to mind in informal Q&A sessions.
Zide Door is not the first or only church in America to claim religious exemption for distributing psychedelic substances that are otherwise considered Schedule I substances. Since the early 1990s, entheogenic sects and psychedelic religions have made their way all across the country despite the illegal status of the sacraments they use.
Some argue that these types of churches exist as a loophole for recreational drug use and a slippery slope for the misuse of controlled substances. Others recognize them as valid expressions of religious freedom and a significant means to explore an altered state of consciousness for spiritual development. In a nation founded on the principle of religious freedom, the legal challenges and ongoing debates concerning these religious exemptions pose complex dilemmas concerning the delicate balance between protecting religious rights and enforcing drug laws. Shifts in the legal landscape and changes in public opinion will play a major role in the future of these religious groups and set precedents for how we navigate the intersection of these complicated matters.
Until then, Zide Door and other entheogenic churches will continue to operate and advocate for the rights of their members to use these substances as a part of their religious practices, undeterred by law enforcement’s attempts to close them down.