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The Underground ‘Churches’ That Claim Psychedelics Are Their Religion

They’re employing the Religious Freedom Restoration Act to defend their use of psychedelics. How far do they have to go to prove their trippy religions are real?

It’s a gray November day when Diana Peppers (a pseudonym) walks into what looks like a normal church in Northern California. There are pews and a pulpit, but rather than praying, she’s there to cop some shrooms. She steps through a metal detector, presents her ID and signs papers declaring her allegiance to the religion of entheogenic plants. She approaches a counter where congregants exchange “donations” for weed, shrooms, microdosing supplies and literature on how to have a good trip. Then, she leaves with her score (and a free psilocybin chocolate, compliments of the generous denomination). 

The minister usually sermonizes about his experiences with psychedelics on Sundays, but Peppers hasn’t attended yet. She might soon, though. She heard about the church from a friend, and she says there’s a “warmth” about it that your average shroom dealer can’t necessarily compete with. “It’s a community space that facilitates hallucinogenic religious experiences,” she explains. “Everyone’s incredibly sweet.”

“Churches” like this are testing the holy waters of religious freedoms in the U.S. Last year, police stormed into the Bay Area’s Zide Door Church of Entheogenic Plants and seized $200,000 in cash, marijuana and psychedelic mushrooms. The congregation is now seeking protection under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) so they can legally bestow their members with drugs. (While Oakland is one of few cities that have decriminalized shrooms, police accused the church of acting as an illegal dispensary.)

Zide Door certainly has a long road ahead of them, though. Only two churches have ever been granted religious exemptions from the Controlled Substances Act (CSA) under RFRA: União do Vegetal, a Christian Spiritist religion, and Santo Daime, an amalgam of Catholic, Amazonian and African religious beliefs. Both use ayahuasca. The Native American Church was also authorized to use peyote under the American Indian Religious Freedom Act. While the church Peppers frequents for shrooms is also pursuing protection under RFRA, they’re currently operating illegally.

But it’s not as if these churches just exist to dole out drugs. In the hours-long Santo Daime rituals, participants begin and end each session with Christian prayers. The ayahuasca is consumed in intervals, often accompanied by moments of singing and dancing, which are coupled with seated, silent meditations. Meanwhile, the use of ayahuasca by União do Vegetal can be likened to the Catholic communion. They believe members can fully perceive their god only by drinking it, and during their rituals, church leaders provide instructions through chanting. 

For all intents and purposes, these are spiritual practices that go far beyond recreational enjoyment. Still, there are reasons why so few churches have managed to successfully argue for their religious use of psychedelics. As Allison Hoots, counsel to the Plant Medicine Law Group, tells me, RFRA requires courts to use a “strict scrutiny test,” which “asks whether the government is substantially burdening sincerely held religious beliefs.”

“This is prohibited unless the government can demonstrate that there are compelling government interests being furthered by least restrictive means,” Hoots explains. “The two compelling interests that the government raises in these RFRA cases are the protection of the health and safety of participants and the prevention of diversion.” (Diversion essentially means recreational use.)

Thus, in order to receive protection under RFRA, a church must go to great lengths to prove they’re “sincere.” In a 1996 case, which involved a man who claimed “his religion commands him to use, possess, grow and distribute marijuana for the good of mankind and the planet earth,” ultimate ideas, metaphysical beliefs, a moral or ethical system, comprehensiveness of beliefs and “accoutrements of religion” — such as prophets, sacred texts, ceremonies, holidays, fasting, clothes, etc. — were all considered to be signifiers of a sincere religion. The man’s “religion” didn’t have all those, so he didn’t win. 

Beyond proving that they’re genuine, a congregation must also demonstrate that their use of psychedelics is sincere — and therefore, that CSA is “substantially burdening” their religious practices. In fact, Hoots says Santo Daime operated in secret after being threatened by criminal prosecution, which ended up serving as evidence of their earnest use of ayahuasca.

All sorts of problems can arise along the way, though. In April, the DEA denied the Soul Quest Ayahuasca Church of Mother Earth, which offers ceremonial ayahuasca retreats to its members, the right to perform ayahuasca ceremonies legally — they claimed its beliefs aligned more with a “wellness center” than a church. (In 2009, the DEA released something of a licensing process for these kinds of religious exemptions, but many law professionals argue that they’re underqualified to make these decisions or define what makes a religion legitimate.) As the Church of the Eagle and the Condor, which revolves around coming together with Mother Nature, claims on a GoFundMe, the DEA has seized ayahuasca from dozens of churches and has provided unclear guidance on how to pursue religious legalization. The amazingly-named Iowaska Church of Healing was also recently denied its tax-exempt status by the IRS because their use of ayahuasca is “illegal.”

Once a church proves their sincerity, it also has to put the government’s compelling interests at ease. União do Vegetal and Santo Daime, for instance, were able to show that they employ medical screenings to ensure that only physically and emotionally healthy members of the congregation participate in their ayahuasca rituals. “In the government’s mind, the reason why these substances are controlled is because they’re dangerous,” Hoots says. So, it’s important to show them you’re reducing that risk.

These churches also displayed that they’re able to prevent diversion (remember, that stands for recreational use) by safely and securely storing their ayahuasca. That means keeping it in a locked safe, only allowing access to certain religious leaders and maintaining extensive records of how much is used, when and by how many congregants.

As you can probably tell by now, creating a religion for the sole purpose of legally using psychedelics isn’t easy. It also crosses into potentially problematic territory. While Hoots holds that psychedelics should be legalized, she also argues that “hiding behind the concept of being a religious entity could take away from those who have sincere religious practices.” She continues, “It’s important to preserve the integrity of religious exercise.”

For example, Hoots points to ayahuasca tourism in South America, which has resulted in the depletion of natural psychedelics and the appropriation of indigenous traditions. For similar reasons, Native American groups have been imploring that we halt efforts to decriminalize peyote. Furthermore, if a legal precedent is set while a non-legitimate religion is pursuing protection under RFRA, that could end up preventing a genuine religion from receiving protections down the line. Hoots also believes that the religious use of psychedelics by a trained shaman or guide of some kind is “potentially safer” and has “a greater likelihood of being a positive experience.”

Regardless, Hoots suspects that as the psychedelic boom continues, more and more churches will bring forward similar cases. “I don’t know if the government’s prepared for the number of cases that will be filed under RFRA,” she says. 

As for Diana and her church, she says, “I’m currently microdosing, and I feel very in touch with god.”