By Don Lattin
Special to The Examiner
About 25 masked members of Pastor Bob’s flock gathered in a light-filled sanctuary tucked behind a small cafe. More tuned in via Zoom, their faces projected in little squares on a large screen.
It was Sunday morning, July 18, and many congregants at churches in San Francisco and across the Bay Area were cautiously attending their first in-person worship service in more than a year.
But there’s something different about this Berkeley fellowship. Its sacraments are not bread and wine. They are psilocybin mushrooms, LSD and ayahuasca tea.
On this Sunday, Pastor Bob held up two potted plants that can be brewed into that bitter mind-altering beverage. “They are guiding us,” he preached, “into something ineffable.”
Church elders had invited me to attend their service for this article. But two days later, after thinking about it some more and talking to their lawyers, Pastor Bob asked that I refrain from using his last name or mentioning the name of their church.
Welcome to the Church that Dare Not Speak Its Name — at least in the pages of The San Francisco Examiner.
Pastor Bob’s flock is part of a burgeoning underground network of shamans, guides and psychotherapists who employ psychedelic drugs and plants as tools for spiritual understanding, psychological healing and personal growth.
Acolytes say that psychedelics have opened them up to classic mystical experiences — to feelings of transcendence, timelessness and oneness with a higher power. They offer the same kind of conversion stories one hears at evangelical churches or Buddhist meditation centers.
Some of these churches and gatherings are cautiously coming out of the closet, emboldened by a state bill that could soon decriminalize the possession and sharing of some of California’s most popular psychedelic drugs and “sacred plant medicines.”
The move to decriminalize
The bill, sponsored by Sen. Scott Weiner, D-San Francisco, has already passed the Senate and faces a tough Assembly vote next month. If signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom, the bill would decriminalize (some) psychedelic drugs on New Year’s Day.
“We need to end the war on drugs, period, but that’s a much bigger project,” Weiner said. “Right now, many people are benefiting from psychedelic drugs, and they are not addictive.”
In a telephone interview, Weiner told me that he first got interested in this issue about a decade ago when the teenage son of a couple he knew kicked a heroin habit at a psychedelic treatment center in Mexico.
That rehab center used ibogaine, a plant-based psychoactive drug, to help the young man see the root causes of his addiction. “He has never used since,” Weiner said.
Since then, the San Francisco lawmaker watched as cities like Denver and Oakland, and then the entire state of Oregon, passed legislation to decriminalize drugs like psilocybin, the active ingredient in magic mushrooms.
Weiner’s bill would decriminalize the possession (but not the sale) of psilocybin, MDMA, ibogaine, mescaline, LSD and DMT, the psychoactive component in ayahuasca.
Amendments to the bill in recent weeks have removed ketamine from the approved list, placed limits on the amount of drugs one can possess, and changed the language from allowing “social sharing” to “facilitated or supported use.”
Unlike the other drugs on the decriminalization list, ketamine can already be legally used with a doctor’s prescription. The changes around the “sharing” language were meant to show that the intent of the law is to allow therapeutic, guided or spiritual use of psychedelics.
This decriminalization campaign comes as a growing number of nonprofit groups and pharmaceutical companies are sponsoring government-approved clinical trials that could soon result in the federal reclassification of psilocybin and MDMA, popularly known as “Molly” or “Ecstasy.” That would allow certified therapists to routinely and legally use those substances to treat patients suffering from depression, substance abuse and post traumatic stress disorder.
The cognitive freedom argument
As some work to medicalize and others lobby to legalize psychedelics, a third movement argues that constitutional guarantees for the freedom of religion already allow Americans to alter their consciousness by any means necessary.
So far, the federal government and the courts have only gone along with this cognitive freedom argument in very limited cases. Members of the Native American Church can openly use peyote in their religious rituals. And U.S. branches of two Brazilian religious movements have been allowed to legally drink ayahuasca tea in their weekly ceremonies.
But other independent ayahuasca churches have been denied permission by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, which along with other federal agencies continues to routinely seize shipments of sacramental tea coming in from Mexico and South America.
Over in Berkeley, Pastor Bob and the elders of his psychedelic church argue that they should not have to convince the DEA that they are a legitimate religion.
“I am confident that our practice is legally supported in the United States, but demonstrating that to the DEA and the courts could be costly, time-consuming and a real distraction from what we are trying to do,” he said.
Pastor Bob’s church is one of about a dozen psychedelic communities that have banded together in an alliance which hopes to self-regulate ceremonial use of “entheogens,” a term referring to compounds that allow one to connect with a divine power.
No psychedelic substances were passed out at the Sunday service I attended. Those who want to partake are required to join the church and go through a period of education, preparation and initiation before they can attend supervised sessions with the “sacrament carriers.”
“These are not demonic, addictive drugs,” Bob told me. “They are healing sacraments.”
According to the church’s website, the psychedelic rituals are a way for members “to directly experience truth about one’s self and about existential being.”
A retired physician and member of the Berkeley church, who requested anonymity for personal privacy reasons, told me he was “a poster boy for external success, but deep down I felt very lonely and disconnected.”
“Through entheogens I’ve had divine experiences. I lost my fear of dying,” he said in an interview before the Sunday service.“Most of the time, I’ve been in the paradigm of the ego — planning the future, worrying about the past. Entheogens brought me to the paradigm of this moment. Right now. Our true selves dwell in the now. Not in the ego.”
The Berkeley fellowship is a “multi-sacrament church,” meaning that its offerings include ayahuasca, mushrooms, LSD and changa, a smokable short-acting mixture that contains DMT, the active ingredient in ayahuasca tea.
“It can be very deep,” Bob told the Sunday gathering. “We sit in a circle out in the redwoods.”
The psychedelic renaissance
Pastor Bob’s flock is just one of many spiritual groups emerging in the so-called “psychedelic renaissance.”
Across the Bay, Christopher “Doc” Kelley and Erik Davis lead the Psychedelic Sangha of San Francisco.
It describes itself on its website as a home for “spiritual misfits, freaks, seekers, psychonauts, weirdos, rebels, outsiders, nonconformists, counterculturists, and anyone who elects to exercise their cognitive liberty.”
“We don’t provide psychedelic substances to people,” Kelley told me. “We provide a safe space for people to explore psychedelics and integrate the experience.”
Those spaces might include a gathering in Golden Gate Park or a visit to an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in downtown San Francisco. Members of the sangha (a word normally used to describe a Buddhist congregation) dose themselves, but “psychedelic rangers” are present to help anyone who has a bad trip.
“We believe in the therapeutic benefits of recreational use,” Kelley said. “We’ve moved beyond the shaman paradigm. We empower individuals to make smart decisions.”
Davis told me he has mixed feelings about the medicalization of psychedelics and the “rise of expertise and professionalism.” His goal is to “keep psychedelics weird.”
“There’s so much hype and emphasis on integration,” he said. “People are pushing hard to find meaning. I like the lighter touch. I invite people to go into the mystery of these states, but mystery doesn’t sell as well as a program or a plan.”
Davis, a popular speaker on the psychedelic circuit, is the author of several books, including “High Weirdness: Drugs, Esoterica, and Visionary Experience in the Seventies.”
I ran into Doc Kelley and Erik Davis at a recent book signing in Mill Valley for Kile Ortigo’s new book, “Beyond the Narrow Life: A Guide for Psychedelic Integration and Existential Exploration.”
Ortigo, a licensed clinical psychologist who lives in Daly City and has an office in Palo Alto, is a certified psychedelic integration therapist, having graduated from a popular training program run by the California Institute of Integral Studies in San Francisco.
The legally murky state of psychedelic psychotherapy and entheogenic religion was summed up in the four-word answer Ortigo gave when an audience member at his book talk asked him about his own psychedelic experiences.
“I plead the Fifth,” he replied, noting that there was a reporter present and explaining that he could lose his license by talking about his own use or encouraging others to take illegal substances.
But he could publish a 430-page book on the subject.
Will the decriminalization of psychedelics in California make all this less convoluted?
Maybe, or maybe not.
In 2019, the Oakland City Council passed a measure that directs its police department to stop arresting people for using plant-based psychedelics like ayahuasca and magic mushrooms.
That did not prevent the cops from raiding an unlicensed cannabis church that had recently added magic mushrooms to its offerings last summer. That group, which had started calling itself the Zide Door Church of Entheogenic Plants, was back in business in 24 hours and continues to distribute its fungal sacrament to card-carrying members.
‘Mushrooms are the origin of religion’
Last week, on the Friday after I attended Sunday services at the Church That Dare Not Speak Its Name, I met with the spiritual leader of Zide Door, the very high priest Dave Hodges.
From the outside, Zide Door looks more like a fortress than a church. It occupies the lower floor of an aging building on lower 10th Avenue, between International Boulevard and a homeless shanty town nestled along the Oakland BART tracks.
Steel plates cover the inside of the windows. Members of the church pass by an armed security guard and through an airport-style metal detector. All visitors, including this reporter, are required to join the fellowship in order to get past the reception desk and into the chapel.
It was there that I was greeted by Hodges, who was running a bit late and walked in holding two giant clear plastic bags stuffed full of magic mushrooms.
“There is no doubt in my mind that mushrooms are the origin of religion,” said Hodges, who grew up in San Jose, where he started his first cannabis club in 2009. “At high doses, you leave your body and have spiritual visions and encounters with entities with lessons to teach you.”
Hodges, 39, is a true believer in the “stoned ape” theory of religious evolution, an idea popularized by the late Terence McKenna, a self-styled ethnobotanist and mystic.
“Mushrooms help you connect with the part of yourself that exists outside of space and time,” he said in an interview. “Some call that soul. Some call that spirit.”
Next to the small room where we spoke, rows of church pews that haven’t been filled since the COVID shutdown were roped off with marijuana-leaf bunting. It’s been well over a year since the high priest has given any sermons from the altar, which consists of a pulpit surrounded by knee-high statues of the red-and-white-capped amanita muscaria mushroom.
Most of Hodge’s flock, which saw a huge membership increase following media accounts of last year’s police raid, prefer the popular psilcybe cubensis. They can be obtained through the exchange of tokens, which are available to members who contribute to the good works of their church.
Zide Door initiates are given a pamphlet with helpful tips on how to safely partake of the sacrament — whether they are microdosing to increase productivity or gobbling down mind-blowing doses to melt into divine oneness with all and everything.
The first sentence offers some good advice. “Magic mushrooms are not for everyone.” The safety guide ends with this warning:
“Remember: MUSHROOMS CANNOT KILL YOU! They can only make you think they can. Everything will be OK.”
It’s been nearly a year since the Oakland cops seized $5,000 in cash and nearly $200,000 worth of cannabis and psychedelic mushrooms from Zide Door, but the authorities have yet to file any criminal charges. According to Hodges, the city is now trying to shut him down by pressuring his landlord and declaring his church to be a public nuisance.
But the high priest says that his lawyers are ready to fight for their constitutional right to commune with the mushroom gods.
Hodges is not the only entheogenic entrepreneur who has been drawn to Oakland since the city council’s 2019 vote to “decriminalize nature.”
Between the passage of the Oakland law and the COVID shutdown, psychedelic insiders noticed a steady stream of sketchy shamans rolling into town offering weekend workshops.
“They were doing as much medicine as they could in three days without preparation and integration, and then just leaving people high and dry,” said Danielle Negrin, executive director of the Psychedelic Society of San Francisco. “I met someone who was on psychiatric drugs and was only off for one day and took ayahuasca and had a really challenging experience.”
At the same time, Negrin stressed that “there are a lot of underground people who are stationed here and doing amazing work.”
“Yes, it’s great that there is statewide decriminalization on the horizon, but there needs to be a huge educational campaign that goes with it — how to find a guide and how to work safely with these medicines.”
Don Lattin is the author of seven books, including “The Harvard Psychedelic Club and Changing Our Minds—Psychedelic Sacraments and the New Psychotherapy.” Learn more at donlattin.com.