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Magic mushrooms are for sale in SF, and the city government has no idea what to do

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By Lester Black

Magic mushroom churches are setting up shop in San Francisco, giving residents the ability to buy illegal hallucinogenic drugs at storefront locations — and for now, at least, the city’s politicians and agencies don’t appear to know how to respond.

At least two churches selling magic mushrooms seem to have opened in the city this year: Zide Door, an Oakland organization, expanded into San Francisco with a SoMa location in April; there’s also The Living Church, a Lower Nob Hill storefront that started marketing magic mushroom sales on Instagram in June.

The church openings come after a Haight Street storefront was raided in December of last year on suspicion of selling magic mushrooms. The store’s owner was charged with three felonies related to the alleged sales, leading to condemnation from Supervisor Dean Preston, whose district includes Haight-Ashbury. Preston questioned why the San Francisco Police Department “chose to use extensive resources on a drug bust for substances the city considers to be of lowest priority.” The felony case is still pending, according to Deputy Public Defender Lilah Wolf, who is representing the store owner.

“[The case] has not yet been resolved because the state continues to pursue charges against him for the alleged sale of a natural substance that is widely available, losing its stigma, and moving toward legalization,” Wolf said in a text message to SFGATE.

Psilocybin mushrooms, which are commonly called magic mushrooms, are powerful drugs that can distort a person’s senses and give them strong hallucinations if they consume a large enough dose. Both California law and federal law consider psilocybin an illegal substance.

Psilocybin is also still illegal in San Francisco, although reform efforts have advanced in recent years, including a 2022 resolution passed by the Board of Supervisors that supports the use of hallucinogenic drugs like psilocybin and asks law enforcement to not prioritize punishing people who use psilocybin mushrooms. (The resolution is not legally binding.) At the state level, California Sen. Scott Wiener, a Democrat from San Francisco, has proposed reform efforts. This year, he proposed a law that would effectively legalize the use, possession and cultivation of magic mushrooms.

For the time being, Zide Door’s and The Living Church’s best justification might be centered on a religious exemption carve-out. Federal law does give certain religious groups the right to use illegal drugs for spiritual reasons, according to Graham Pechenik, a San Francisco-based attorney who specializes in cannabis and psychedelic law. Pechenik said three churches across the country have won the right to use ceremonial psychedelics — though he was careful to caution that’s hardly an all-encompassing outcome for everyone.

“Merely claiming to be a church and having customers ‘join’ the church is unlikely to provide a shield against prosecution, and even providing church services under a defined set of beliefs may be insufficient to win in court,” Pechenik said in an email.

The Living Church, one of San Francisco's newest psilocybin churches, is on Post Street in Lower Nob Hill.

Dave Hodges, the founder of Zide Door, told SFGATE that his organization is not relying on the Board of Supervisors’ 2022 resolution for legal protection and is instead relying on the federal government’s First Amendment right to freedom of religion. “There are other court cases and laws that support that even more, but without getting into any more technical detail, it’s the First Amendment [that protects us]. This is our access to God and our souls,” Hodges said.

Hodges said his church, which has nearly 92,000 members, is accepting new members only at its original location in Oakland. He previously told SFGATE that he was willing to go to jail to protect his right to practice his religion. Last week, Hodges told SFGATE that he expects the police department to eventually try to shut his San Francisco church down, at which point he would file a lawsuit against the city for violating the group’s constitutional rights.

The Living Church, meanwhile, has yet to invoke the First Amendment or a freedom of religion defense, though the location’s name speaks for itself. The Living Church openly advertises its mushroom menu, which includes a range of psilocybin mushrooms with names like Medusa and Penis Envy, as well as mushroom-infused chocolates, gummies and capsules. The menu includes prices for each product but is also careful to ask, “Please choose a thank you gift at your level of support,” and refers to purchases as donations. A representative from the church declined to speak to SFGATE on the record.

Hodges said he was willing to go to jail over the opening of his new magic mushroom church in San Francisco.

Both mushroom churches have brought unprecedented access to purchasing hallucinogenic drugs in the city, but cracking down on these physical locations is unlikely to stop the flow of psilocybin; hundreds of mushroom delivery services are operating on social media platforms like Instagram and Telegram, offering same-day shipping across the Bay Area. So far, there’s no evidence that SFPD has responded to either church. SFPD and Mayor London Breed’s office did not respond to an SFGATE request for comment.

Oddly enough, it's the city’s building inspectors who have visited at least one of the churches, where they searched for evidence of magic mushrooms. The San Francisco Department of Building Inspections opened an investigation into Zide Door on June 5 for allegedly having an “unpermitted mushroom dispensary.” Dan Sider, the chief of staff for San Francisco Planning, said the investigation was initiated after a member of the public filed a complaint through the city’s 311 service.

However, when inspectors visited the location at 1121 Howard St., they didn’t find any evidence of mushroom sales, according to Sider.

“Our work here was related to a potential unauthorized change of use from that which was authorized. Regardless, our inspection of the premises didn’t reveal any mushroom-related activities, and even then, no City license is available for ‘mushroom dispensaries,’” Sider said in an email to SFGATE.

Sider added that the department does not usually deal with mushroom-related inspections. “It’s worth noting that the Planning Department isn’t the City’s lead for mushroom enforcement — we’re not mycology or psilocybin experts,” Sider said in an email.

For now, Hodges’ biggest risks appear to be code violations related to his location in a historic building. The city’s complaint tracking system shows that the building inspection at Zide Door “revealed life safety issues and possible work without permits,” and the city issued a code violation to the organization. Hodges said the violation was related to an improperly installed door on the building’s second floor.