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Decriminalize Nature Promotes New Oakland Initiative While Condemning Fellow Activists

Decriminalize Nature Promotes New Oakland Initiative While Condemning Fellow Activists

While celebrating the passage of a new measure to decriminalize psychedelic plants and fungi in Ann Arbor, Michigan, the national leadership of Decriminalize Nature has published a series of statements this week defending its political strategies and denouncing fellow activists, including David Bronner, the CEO of Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soaps. 

The statements, which include the publication of 85 pages of private correspondence, reveal ongoing conflicts in the decriminalization movement that could impact the passage of Oregon ballot Measure 109, which supports psilocybin therapy, as well as Decriminalize Nature initiatives such as the new Oakland Community Healing Initiative (OCHI).

Just over a year after the Oakland City Council unanimously passed a resolution decriminalizing “natural entheogens,” activists in the Bay Area and around the U.S. are grappling with new questions about the goals and tactics of the decriminalization movement, who speaks for users of traditional plant medicines, and how best to provide legal protections for those communities. Controlling the narrative of decriminalization has become part of the story. 

The Oakland resolution decriminalizing entheogenic plants and fungi was brought to the City Council by Decriminalize Nature in June 2019, which then spread the movement across the U.S. 

On September 21, Ann Arbor, Michigan became the third city after Oakland and Santa Cruz, California to pass a decriminalization measure through the City Council, following the Decriminalize Nature playbook. Denver passed a ballot initiative to decriminalize psilocybin mushrooms a month ahead of Oakland, in May 2019. 

Decriminalize Nature plans to present the Oakland Community Healing Initiative (OCHI) to the Oakland City Council for a vote before the November election. While the OCHI offers an ambitious plan to institutionalize and normalize healing with plant medicines, it arrives at a time of deepening rifts among activists once united around decriminalization campaigns. 

A September 20 blog post on the Decriminalize Nature (DN) website by Carlos Plazola, the chairman of the board of the organization, has drawn attention to these discussions. Originally titled, “Who Owns Peyote…or Ayahuasca, or Iboga, or Mushrooms, or Huachuma, or Plants or Fungi?” the title was later changed to “IPCI, Decriminalize Nature and Peyote Dialogues.” 

In the blog post, Plazola provides his perspective on what he refers to as “dialogues” that have taken place around the inclusion of peyote in decriminalization resolutions over the last several months. 

Plazola says these discussions were underway when a joint statement was issued by the National Council of Native American Churches (NCNAC) and the Indigenous Peyote Conservation Initiative (IPCI) in March criticizing Decriminalize Nature for including peyote without first reaching out to indigenous communities. 

As Lucid News reported in July, the joint statement argues that inclusion of peyote in decriminalization resolutions could increase demand, stress fragile ecosystems where the cactus is wild harvested, and “compromise the decades long work on the part of Native American peyote spiritual leaders and allies.” 

In response to this statement, the local branch of Decriminalize Nature in Santa Cruz, which passed a local resolution similar to Oakland’s in January, released an official apology for including peyote in its list of decriminalized entheogens.

In an article in the Los Angeles Times published in March soon after the joint statement, Plazola said DN agreed to remove language supporting the decriminalization of peyote from its website and would encourage other local DN groups to remove it from future resolutions. 

However, in April, DN published a statement on their website suggesting that they still favored including peyote in decriminalization efforts. “Decriminalization will allow for legal propagation outside of the traditional sites where peyotl grows wild and is harvested,” reads the text. 

In May, the Wixárika por la Defensa de Wirikuta (Wix​á​rika Regional Council For the Defense of Wirikuta) published a statement of unity with the IPCI and the NCNAC. Lucid News covered the statement which was republished with an English translation on the IPCI website in August. 

In his blog post this week, Plazola argued that other activists have not sufficiently acknowledged efforts made by Decriminalize Nature to remove peyote from decriminalization resolutions. He says inclusion of the word peyote in a decriminalization resolution approved in January by the city council in Santa Cruz was the result of a clerical error. 

The original version of Plazola’s post included a lengthy explanation for why Decriminalize Nature declined to issue a public apology to the IPCI and the NCNAC for the use of the word peyote in DN resolutions. The current version of the post notes only that an apology was demanded by those organizations. 

When asked whether he recognized the legitimacy of the IPCI and NCNAC as representing indigenous communities that use plant medicine, Plazola replied to Lucid News that he recognized that the groups were both 501(c)(3) organizations and “that they have two leaders that have indigenous backgrounds.” 

But Plazola added, “I don’t know to what extent they represent a large indigenous constituency because I am not very familiar with the organizations.” He concluded by saying, “I have never understood their motive for asking for an apology.” 

To further explain his position, Plazola stated that the 2019 Oakland resolution was sponsored, written, and carried by Councilmember Noel Gallo who has Yaqui ancestry, that members of the Wixarika tribal group were involved in drafting and supporting the measure, and that he himself has indigenous ancestry in both regions that use peyote.

In support of the points in his blog post, Plazola attached a PDF containing 85 pages of private email conversations with fellow activists. The file includes two private emails to DN from Ken Jordan, editorial director of Lucid News. 

“We’re hopeful that by posting the 80+ pages of communications showing the extent to which we’ve worked hard to honor their request to inform our groups to remove Peyote, we can begin to move forward toward the greater good of healing our relationships and pushing for sustainability of our plant and fungi allies,” writes Plazola. 

When asked how releasing 85 pages of private communications would help “heal relationships,” and if it was not a breach of trust, Plazola responded, “The breach of trust is that Dawn Davis and Miriam Volat lied about our actions. They’ve been lying about it since January. They said that we did not try to remove peyote from the resolution and that we have been insensitive to their requests. We decided it was time to publish everything they’ve been untruthful about.”

Volat, who is Co Director at the RiverStyx Foundation, was not immediately available to comment for this story. Dawn Davis, an Indigenous researcher and a member of the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes, did not reply to a request for comment. 

On September 24, Decriminalize Nature posted a screenshot on their Facebook Page of more private correspondence to a Decriminalize Nature board member from Bronner.

In the caption for the image, the author, presumably Plazola, charges that Bronner is “resorting to divide and conquer tactics to control the Decriminalize Nature movement” and alleges that he is “seeking to control the movement through contributions of funds to local groups” and to “smear myself and Larry.” 

Bronner’s private message about DN refers to “a trail of burned bridges and allies” and “an unnecessary brawl with IPCI that should have been de-escalated long ago.” Bronner did not immediately reply to a request for comment. 

This dispute escalated later the same day when the Portland, Oregon branch of Decriminalize Nature officially endorsed a no vote on Oregon Measure 109, which would authorize the Oregon Health Authority (OHA) to create a program to permit licensed providers to administer psilocybin 0therapy. DN Portland says it would “no longer support the capitalist, colonialist initiatives being pushed by David Bronner and his company.” 

The Portland DN branch cited the same reason for opposing Measure 110, which would make personal non-commercial possession of a controlled substance punishable by a maximum fine of $100 and establish a drug addiction treatment and recovery program funded in part by the state’s marijuana tax revenue and state prison savings.

Longtime Oakland activist Allan Steiner posted on Instagram that, in his view, encouraging voters to vote no on Measures 109 and 110 in hopes that a DN sponsored Portland City Council initiative will pass instead, was not a good idea. “The city council will take one look at the failed ballot initiative and their reaction is not going to be ‘hmmm. Must be a reaction to the psychedelic elites,’” wrote Allan. “If the ballot measure fails, the council vote will fail. Council won’t want to appear as though they’re usurping the will of the voters. Anybody saying differently hasn’t spent time in local politics.” 

Police Raid Sparks Possible Religious Rights Claim

In addition to disputes about political strategies embraced by Decriminalize Nature, questions about the scope of the 2019 Oakland decriminalization resolution surfaced in August when images began circulating on social media of a firefighter in a shower of sparks sawing open a safe while officers from the Oakland Police Department (OPD) stood by. 

An Instagram caption from an image of the sawed open safe reads: “Thank you OPD… They took all our mushrooms and the church’s money. Everything we do is the lowest priority for law enforcement in the city of Oakland. So apparently there was no crime this morning when the OPD decided to make us the priority.

The images were taken by Dave Hodges, the minister of Zide Door, a self-proclaimed church of entheogenic plants and fungi in East Oakland that was raided by Oakland Police on August 13th. The Oakland decriminalization resolution directs the Oakland Police Department to place the possession of entheogenic plants and fungi on the federal list of Schedule 1 substances among their lowest priorities. 

Despite this provision, Hodges says Zide Door was targeted for its use of psilocybin mushrooms. Hodges told Lucid News that police confiscated $200,000 worth of cannabis and psilocybin mushrooms and about $4000 in cash found inside the safe. 

As confusion about the raid spread online, people expressed outrage at what seemed like police harassment. Aren’t psychedelic mushrooms decriminalized in Oakland?, many observers asked. Don’t the police in Oakland have better things to do? 

Hodges explained that Zide Door provides cannabis and psilocybin mushrooms to visitors who sign a form declaring themselves members of the church and pay membership dues. Hodges holds services and wears a cannabis pope outfit made from golden fabric embroidered with marijuana leaves with headgear and cloak which he considers his official religious garments. 

Hodges says he was not surprised by the raid but rather who was leading it. “We knew it could happen at some point, but we weren’t expecting pure OPD,” said Hodges, adding that a visit by county or state police seemed more likely.

While the Oakland resolution does not cover sales of entheogens, accounts of Zide Door advertising mushrooms for sale have circulated for months. According to a report by Vice News, police made several undercover buys at the church and returned in uniform to tell Hodges to close. 

Oakland Police Captain Randell Wingate, who supervises the unit that conducted the raid, told Vice News that police were initially drawn to Zide Door because the county health department was concerned about complaints of marijuana smoke at the location and its possible health impact. Wingate said police in the neighborhood also complained that people exiting the church were being robbed and that shootings were taking place on and around the block. Hodges disputes these claims.

According to Vice News, the search warrant for the Zide Door raid reportedly says nothing about psilocybin. Rather, the warrant alleges that Zide Door was operating an illegal marijuana dispensary. To date, no charges in connection to the raid have been filed against Hodges or others associated with Zide Door. Hodges is adamant that the real motivation behind the raid was to confiscate a large quantity of cash in what he referred to as a “smash and grab.” 

Wingate did not say that sales of psychedelic mushrooms prompted the raid, but noted that the Oakland resolution explicitly prohibits this activity. “The council said mushrooms should not be our priority, and they’re not,” Wingate told Vice News. “You can use mushrooms, you can grow your own mushrooms – but selling mushrooms is still not legal.”

According to Hodges, money received by Zide Door are membership dues and donations. He told the website CelebStoner that the Oakland decriminalization measure spurred the organization to offer other entheogenic plants. 

“We started as a cannabis church and then when Oakland passed the measure that set all entheogenic plants to the lowest priority status, it was a sign that we needed to start providing access,” Hodges told CelebStoner, adding that he prefers to consume 15-30 grams of mushrooms at a time. 

According to their website, Zide Door is part of the Church of Ambrosia, “a nondenominational, interfaith religious organization that supports the use and safe access of all Entheogenic Plants, with a focus on Magic Mushrooms.” 

Hodges says the raid by Oakland Police was based on false information on the search warrant that Zide Door is an illegal dispensary and not a church. Zide Door is now trying to raise $150,000 to fund a civil lawsuit in federal court against the Oakland Police Department. 

Organizations that have argued for exemption to drug laws in federal court on religious grounds bring their cases not under the First Amendment, but within the scope of the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), a federal law that grants this exception only if applicants meet extensive criteria. 

A number of people have challenged drug charges against them on religious grounds, but none have succeeded. Since 1993, only three churches have received approval under RFRA to use entheogenic plants as part of their religious practice: the Native American Church, which uses peyote ceremonially, the União do Vegetal (UDV) in New Mexico, and the Santo Daime in Oregon, both Brazilian in origin and which use ayahuasca. The DEA has denied every other petition and no other cases have progressed past the lower courts.

Hodges believes, however, that a potential lawsuit by Zide Door could have a wider impact. He maintains that the Oakland police raid was “the best scenario that could have happened because it’s setting up a court case that could affect things nationwide.”

“If we win, churches like ours will be able to open all over the USA, without the fear of being raided by local law enforcement,” reads the Zide Door GoFundMe site. 

Hodges had a long history of irritating public officials and trying to attract the attention of law enforcement to make a political statement. He opened the first storefront medical cannabis collective in San Jose in 2009, the San Jose Cannabis Buyers Club, and soon after, the All American Cannabis Club. Although cannabis was already legal for medicinal use in California, Hodges flouted tax laws in the city by arguing that, as a collective, the All American Cannabis Club was exempt from sales taxes

Hodges told one news site in 2011 that “the original plan was to be raided in two months.” Instead, the collective prospered and Hodges opened his second business not long after. The All American Cannabis Club was forced to close, however, along with many others, due to a zoning ordinance passed by the city of San Jose in 2014. 

Before and after shutting down the cannabis club, Hodges was engaged in a prolonged tax dispute with the city – “because it was an illegal tax,” as he explained it – that was settled in 2017. According to Hodges, the city sued him for $1.6 million and ended up settling for $10,000. 

Attorney James Anthony, an expert in cannabis law and Chair of Oakland Citizens for Equity & Prosperity, an Oakland cannabis trade organization, is skeptical that failing to pay taxes is a useful tactic for creating cannabis policies. “From what I have read about this case, that is not in any way a rational approach to making new law through impact litigation,” says Anthony. 

It remains unclear if the raid against Zide Door was influenced by the Oakland decriminalization resolution, or if it will have any impact on its application. Decriminalize Nature has distanced itself from Hodges. Plazola confirmed in a story reported by Double Blind that, “The only activities covered under the resolution are grow, gather, gift — not a store front.”

“As long as news reporters accurately report the information related to Zide Door, then it will not affect the DN movement,” Plazola told Lucid News. He emphasized that “the search warrant did not include mushrooms.” 

Potential Impacts on Future Regulatory Frameworks

The discussions around the Zide Door raid and the place of peyote in decriminalization policy illustrate the questions that activists and supporters are asking today. What is the appropriate model in the push for expanding safe access to entheogens — therapy, religion, or personal liberty? What is the best political strategy to achieve these goals? 

The discussion around peyote specifically has heightened tensions around the decriminalization movement’s commitment to anti-colonial politics – or decolonization as it’s sometimes called – and complicates questions around identity politics in the movement. It has also sown divisions in Bay Area psychedelic communities that are simmering as DN pushes ahead with the Oakland Community Healing Initiative (OCHI). 

The essential premise of the OCHI is that both providers and consumers of entheogens will register with the city of Oakland and, in turn, the city will promise to defend their activities in court if necessary. This arrangement comes with a set of regulations and standards. 

While the original Oakland decriminalization resolution argues that access to these substances is a human right, the OCHI takes this a step further by formalizing and institutionalizing safety protocols and legal protections. The OCHI proposal is currently in draft stage and was submitted to the Oakland City Council in July. Community members are encouraged to submit comments to Decriminalize Nature Oakland through its website. 

An essential aspect of the initiative is that it aims to increase access specifically for “vulnerable populations,” which includes “the formerly incarcerated, unhoused, victims of violence or domestic violence,” and people who have “experienced trauma due to the War on Drugs, the War on Poverty, exploitation of communities of color, systemic racism, and economic marginalization.” 

See Also

The OCHI initiative supports the use of entheogens to broadly address psychological trauma inflicted by structural inequality in the U.S. In an article in Chacruna, attorney Sean MacAllister, General Counsel to Chacruna and member of the Denver Psilocybin Review Panel, gives a detailed breakdown of the proposal draft from a legal perspective. 

MacAllister notes that while the measure could potentially increase access to entheogens, the various criteria required for government registration, as well as the fact of registration itself, could discourage people from using this framework. 

One of the questions that MacAllister raises is how psychedelic therapy might best serve “vulnerable populations.” This observation points to another area of contention in the decriminalization movement about how to best advocate for these groups. 

“If you want to support people of color and vulnerable communities, you should advocate for the decriminalization of all drugs,” says Bia Labate, the Executive Director of the Chacruna Institute for Psychedelic Plant Medicines. “The drugs with the highest incarceration rates among people of color are not psychedelics. They’re cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine.” 

Labate asserts that DN reiterates a common but harmful notion that drugs are either “good” or “bad.” In other words, those that fall under the category of plant medicine are “good” and those that cause addiction are “bad.” In this framework, plant medicines are special because they have been shown to help heal addiction.

Labate says this logic explains why DN focuses on decriminalizing only “natural entheogens.” She argues that this approach maintains the status quo in which “bad” drugs are criminal offenses to use, manufacture or possess, leading to possible felony convictions, imprisonment, and the long-term effects of incarceration that are part and parcel of the War on Drugs. 

Psychedelic Exceptionalism

Divergent views of Decriminalize Nature’s focus on “natural entheogens” represent an important difference of opinion among decriminalization activists. A growing faction of the psychedelic movement has become critical of what they see as “psychedelic exceptionalism,” the idea that psychedelics are inherently better, safer, and more beneficial for people than other “hard” drugs. This leads people to ask, “Why not work to decriminalize all drugs? Why just psychedelics?” 

Danielle Negrin, Executive Director of the San Francisco Psychedelic Society (SFPS), shares this view, as do other members of the organization. 

“I’m in support of all-drug decriminalization,” says Negrin. “As we were working on the decrim efforts of DN [in 2019], it became more and more clear to us that this was just a first step. That in order to make a full spectrum impact on drug policy, we couldn’t just decriminalize some drugs and not other drugs.”

Negrin adds that moving to decriminalize some substances could stigmatize those who choose other substances to change their consciousness. SFPS doesn’t “stigmatize any drugs and we think that individuals should be able to make the decision about what they do with their own consciousness,” says Negrin. “And there shouldn’t be a stigma based on the substance.”

This perspective echoes another criticism of the OCHI draft proposal: that it fails to take into account the immediate needs of “vulnerable populations” and whether “natural entheogens” are the right kind of intervention. 

The confluence of substance abuse, mental health disorders, and incarceration – and the disproportionate effect it has on communities of color – is an ongoing problem in California and many other places. Drug-related arrests account for about a third of all arrests in Alameda County, where Oakland is located. Decriminalizing drug use could be one step towards decreasing rates of incarceration. Another is addressing the need for housing. 

“[T]here is no clear indication that these groups or their advocates are asking for this therapy, creating a question of whether this solution is imposed on vulnerable communities or is truly an organic need,” writes MacAllister. “Many advocates of the unhoused say that transitional housing is a first step to advancement, much more so than a psychedelic ceremony.”

Labate also questions if the needs of those who the OCHI claims to serve are represented in the proposal. 

“DN appeals to a certain zeitgeist that is friendly and sympathetic to plant medicine, which explains its success,” says Labate. “However, it’s not clear that urban vulnerable populations in Oakland have asked for this, were invited to join the drafting of the initiative, or have a history of certain plant medicine use.” 

For people who have been incarcerated or involuntarily hospitalized, the OCHI requirement that users of entheogens register with the city raises the specter of attracting law enforcement, which could be a dealbreaker for some participants. On the other hand, the opportunity to take entheogens with a seasoned facilitator could offer a rare opportunity to receive personalized care for people who have been excluded from such services.

MacAllister also raises the question of whether or not the prohibition of entheogen sales by facilitators and participants in the community healing program is too stringent, or even realistic, given the labor and costs that go into cultivation. This question seems especially pertinent in light of the Zide Door raid. 

Reflecting on Progress Made in Decriminalization

However decriminalization moves forward in Oakland, it’s clear that the movement has come a long way since 2019, not just in Oakland, Denver, Santa Cruz, and Ann Arbor, but across the country. 

Negrin sees this as a moment for Bay Area activist communities to take stock of how far they’ve come and think about where they’re headed. She hopes to “replace the War on Drugs with decentralized models of education and community.”

“A big component, when we decriminalized last year, is that we promised [the Oakland] City Council that we would expand all of our education and our support and integration circles, and really build this foundation of support and education,” says Negrin. “We promised the Council that we would go back and report how things are doing, how we’ve expanded our offerings, and that’s what [the SF Psychedelic Society] has been working on.” 

An amendment to the original Oakland decrim measure “directs the City Administrator to come back to Council and present an assessment…” of the impacts and benefits a year after the resolution’s passage. Lucid News reached out to three Oakland City Council members Noel Gallo, Loren Taylor, and Rebecca Kaplan to see if the Council was planning on conducting this review, but none responded. 

As for the future prospects of a religious claim by Zide Door under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), the organization will have to meet criteria borrowed largely from the IRS to determine the religious status of nonprofits. These include “recognized creed and form of worship” and “regular congregations” plus more obscure aspects of what makes a “church,” including “definite and distinct ecclesiastical government,” and “schools for the preparation of its members,” as well as “formal code of doctrine and discipline.” 

Dan Peterson, attorney and founder of the Association of Entheogenic Practitioners, says Hodges will also have to address the question of sincerity, which appears to have been an issue for previous claimants – such as the self-proclaimed Grand Poobah (a.k.a. Bill Levin) of The First Church of Cannabis in Indiana, a title Levin borrowed from a Gilbert and Sullivan musical by way of The Flintstones. As MacAllister explained, from the government’s perspective, you can’t “create a religion to make an excuse for your lifestyle.”

MacAllister notes that in the few cases where exemptions have been granted, it has been for clearly defined religious traditions. Generally speaking, RFRA does not extend to the range of creative spiritual practices found in the U.S. today, which often mix and match diverse traditions into hybrid and individualized practices.

“The basic claim that psilocybin connects you to God and therefore all use is religious is not enough,” said MacAllister. “It’s not called the Spiritual Practice Restoration Act,” he added with a laugh. No matter how ritualistic these practices may feel to followers, if they fail to meet the criteria that have been outlined by legal precedent, they are simply not “religious” in the eyes of the law, says MacAllister. 

“Unfortunately, I think Zide Door will have a really hard time meeting that standard. But they could do it.”

One potential tool in this fight could come from an unlikely source, Jeff Sessions, the conservative former U.S. Attorney General who once referred to the NAACP as an “un-American organization teaching anti-American values.” 

MacAllister notes that Sessions issued a memo in 2017 ordering federal agencies to take the broadest possible interpretation of “religious liberty” when enforcing federal laws. Whether that position will have any influence on exemption from federal drug laws for Zide Door and others remains to be seen.  

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