As psychedelics efforts advance, ‘shrooms could land Denver rabbi in prison
Initiative allowing ‘healing centers’ for psilocybin, DMT could be on Colorado ballot this fall
Dried psilocybin mushrooms. (Getty Images)
Rabbi Ben Gorelick is facing a felony drug charge, but he’s not too worried. For one, Gorelick’s Kabbalistic Jewish community, the Sacred Tribe, is located in Denver, where voters moved in 2019 to make the possession and use of psilocybin mushrooms law enforcement’s lowest priority.
For another, Gorelick argues that his organization’s use of the psychedelic ‘shrooms during religious ceremony is constitutionally protected — and he’s optimistic the charge will be dismissed.
“One of the choices that we made at the very beginning of Sacred Tribe was that what we’re doing is absolutely legal in this country … We don’t need to be scared of the legal system,” Gorelick said. “I don’t have anything to hide, I don’t have anything to fear. I don’t have anything to worry about in that sense.”
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But while the First Amendment protects the free exercise of religion, state and local laws on psilocybin haven’t been tested in this way before. And if Gorelick is convicted, he would face eight to 32 years in prison.
The national backdrop further obscures the Sacred Tribe’s future. Gorelick’s case is playing out as several states and cities consider shifting their approach to substances like “magic mushrooms,” ibogaine, mescaline, and dimethyltryptamine, or DMT.
That includes Colorado.
Gorelick’s next court date is scheduled for Sept. 1 — almost seven months after he turned himself in to the Denver Police Department, and just over two months before Colorado voters will probably get to weigh in on whether criminal penalties for using and possessing plant-based psychedelic substances should be removed from state law.
The groups behind two separate statewide ballot initiatives — one that submitted signatures now under review by the secretary of state, and another that’s still collecting signatures — would take different approaches to easing access to drugs that remain illegal under federal law but which are showing promising applications for conditions such as depression, PTSD and end-of-life anxiety.
Neither explicitly address the religious use of psychedelics, which is a problem for Gorelick.
“In many ways, I don’t have a strong opinion on how psychedelics are placed in the secular world,” Gorelick said. “What I’m concerned about, what I want to make sure, is that there is still religious access to these thousands-of-years-old traditions.”
The Sacred Tribe was founded in the spirit of Kabbalah, a form of Jewish mysticism that emerged in the 12th century. Some Jewish scholars and community leaders believe psychedelics such as DMT — a powerful drug found in a variety of animal and plant species, including the acacia tree — have played a role in Judaism since ancient times.
Gorelick says he’s part of the latest resurgence of this form of Kabbalah, which also appeared in the 1960s with the use of breathwork and psychedelics during religious ceremonies. The Controlled Substances Act of 1970 banned the use of many psychedelic drugs, forcing their use largely underground.
While Gorelick views mushrooms as a sacrament that facilitates deeper connection with God, self and others, the Sacred Tribe isn’t all about psychedelic use. Gorelick interviews potential new members to make sure they’re willing to be spiritually introspective and regularly interact with other members. The organization also cultivates its own mushrooms — in fact, it requested a fire inspection at its grow facility, which led to the arrests of Gorelick and another member — and screens members for health conditions that could impact their experience.
When interviewing new members, Gorelick seeks to answer the question, “Why us?”
“There are massively easier access points for mushrooms in this world,” Gorelick said. “Psychedelics are actually not hard to get a hold of, and also, there are a number of other religious communities out there. If you’re looking for traditional Judaism, there are five synagogues in a 10-block radius.”
Most people who are drawn to Sacred Tribe grew up with a strong religious background but at some point drifted away from that, feeling challenged by the structure and dogma of organized religion, Gorelick said. “They’re looking to have a spiritual exploration where they don’t have to trade conformity for belonging — conformity for community,” he explained.
Not everyone consumes the sacrament every ceremony, Gorelick said. Taking mushrooms about once a quarter, he noted, gives most people enough time to properly integrate the experience into their daily lives.
Gorelick isn’t sure whether or how the Sacred Tribe would fit in to the framework proposed by a ballot initiative in Colorado. Initiative 58, known as the Natural Medicines Health Act, would direct the state to set up licensing programs for “healing centers” where people could access drugs like mushrooms, DMT and mescaline with the help of a trained facilitator.
Natural Medicine Colorado, the group behind Initiative 58, turned in signatures to the secretary of state’s office on June 27. The secretary of state’s office is reviewing the signatures to make sure they’re valid, and, if so, voters statewide will decide this fall whether to approve the “healing center” framework. If the measure passes, many of the specifics about how to qualify as a healing center or facilitator would be worked out by the state’s Department of Regulatory Agencies with the help of an advisory board.
While Initiative 58 would remove penalties for personal use or possession of plant-based psychedelics, it doesn’t explicitly mention their use by religious groups. Proponents purposely left out peyote, a plant with traditional importance to certain Native American tribes, from the list of substances that would be accessible under the ballot measure.
Kevin Matthews, co-proponent of Initiative 58, described the religious use question as “a federal issue.”
“The work that Rabbi Ben was doing, you know, I think he was providing a safe container for people,” Matthews added. “In our measure, we do talk about under personal use. We talk about spiritual use, which is similar. But in terms of exemptions for religious use for natural medicines, that’s a different conversation than creating a state-regulated model.”
Proponents say their goal in setting up a regulatory framework is to create pathways for people who might not have experience using psychedelics to safely access them.
“We believe that most Coloradans — if they want to be able to access this medicine or use it to heal — that most folks are going to want to, at least at first, use this medicine in supervised settings with trained facilitators and people who just really know how to create a safe container,” Matthews said.
Such a framework would “expand the benefits of these therapies outside of the bubble of people who might be willing to access them outside a regulated system,” added Natural Medicine Colorado spokesperson Taylor West.
Initiative 58 is backed by the New Approach Political Action Committee, a national organization that has spent millions advocating for marijuana legalization measures in the last several election cycles, according to OpenSecrets.org, a nonprofit that tracks campaign finance. The New Approach PAC’s largest contributors have included the van Ameringen Foundation, a private foundation that advocates for LGBTQ issues; Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soaps, a California-based company whose CEO is a vocal supporter of psychedelic decriminalization; and Privateer Holdings, a private equity firm that invests in the cannabis industry.
With the passage of Initiative 58, Colorado could be one of the first states to allow adults 21 and older legal, regulated access to multiple Schedule I psychedelics. Like marijuana, the drugs would remain federally illegal without action by Congress, which probably won’t happen anytime soon. Oregon is on track to become the first state allowing regulated access to magic mushrooms. Voters approved a ballot measure to do that in 2020, and the program is set to roll out next year.
“There’s been a cascade of reform across the country in local municipalities and other state legislatures, and then of course the success in Oregon in 2020, having been the first mover there at the state level, very much inspired the work that we wanted to create here,” Matthews said. “Also, we have the opportunity to really learn some good lessons from Oregon, figure out what’s working there, what’s not working and where we could improve here in Colorado, especially when it comes to implementation.”
Other states are shifting their stance on psychedelics, too. In Connecticut, for example, Gov. Ned LaMont signed legislation in May that sets up a framework for veterans with PTSD, retired first responders and health care workers to access MDMA and psilocybin at mental health treatment centers.
Not all proponents of psychedelic access are on board with the Natural Medicine Health Act. That includes the group behind an alternative measure, Initiative 61, that’s still collecting signatures.
Initiative 61 grew out of concerns that Initiative 58 would lead to a for-profit industry that would end up making it harder for people who’d traditionally used psychedelic drugs to access them, co-proponent Nicole Foerster told Newsline.
“Once you create a market, and a legal, regulated access framework, what you’re doing is allowing a small amount of people with a lot of money to come in and create a system without any respect for the systems that already do exist,” Foerster said. “There was concern that those people who are using those medicines in an unregulated system won’t be able to access the new system because of barriers to entry (and) price.” That might include indigenous groups, whose traditional use of psychedelics dates back centuries, and people who have used the substances alone or in small groups for healing purposes.
We support a 'grow, gather, gift' model, so it means you’re growing your own medicines, you can gift it to other people, but you can’t make a profit off of it.
– Nicole Foerster, Initiative 61 co-proponent
Rather than set up a regulated framework for plant-based psychedelics, Foerster’s group would prefer to remove from state law all criminal penalties for their personal possession and use. Like Initiative 58, Initiative 61 includes psilocybin, psilocyn, DMT, ibogaine and mescaline, and excludes peyote due to concerns about exploitation. Unlike Initiative 58, it does not include a regulatory framework.
Ideally, Foerster said, proponents of Initiative 61 would like to see decriminalization measures move forward slowly at the local level.
“We support a ‘grow, gather, gift’ model, so it means you’re growing your own medicines, you can gift it to other people, but you can’t make a profit off of it,” said Foerster, who is co-founder of the group Decriminalize Nature Boulder County. “We’re not empowering people with corporate interests at this phase of policy making.”
Initiative 61’s proponents have until Aug. 8 to collect petition signatures. If they don’t make the ballot, Foerster said group members plan to keep raising concerns around Initiative 58.
Still, though, Foerster said voters shouldn’t necessarily feel forced to choose between one ballot measure or the other.
“We’re not making people choose a side,” Foerster said. “We’re just really encouraging people to do the work to educate themselves on these policies and where, you know, they might look progressive and good on the outside, but once you get into the details, there’s a lot of foreseeable issues.”
West, the spokesperson for Initiative 58, pushed back on that contention, noting that Initiative 58 aims to balance access with safety and includes an advisory board to foster community input.
“There are good-faith reasons for people to have different approaches, but to imply that this is a program that’s somehow designed with limitations in mind is not a fair accusation,” West said. “Our intent has always been to hit both of those goals of safety and access in the most productive way possible.”
Whether or not the ballot measures pass, Gorelick’s case will serve as an important test for psilocybin use in Colorado. As an ordained rabbi with a nonprofit organization in good standing, Gorelick believes his actions are constitutionally protected. He’s been vocal about his case, speaking with multiple reporters since the charges were filed. He raised upwards of $4,000 for legal fees through GoFundMe and started a Change.org petition asking Denver District Attorney Beth McCann to drop the charges.
“This case violates a Jewish congregation’s right to free exercise of their faith,” the petition states.
But how Gorelick will make that case in Denver district court remains unclear.
“Colorado isn’t necessarily the best state to bring a Religious Freedom Restoration Act argument,” Courtney Barnes, counsel at Feldman Legal Advisors, told Newsline.
Unlike some other states, Colorado doesn’t have a state-level version of the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act, explained Barnes, a drug policy reform advocate who helped draft Denver’s psilocybin decriminalization measure. The federal act “provides that the federal government may not substantially burden or restrict a person’s exercise of religion, unless it demonstrates that the burden furthers a compelling or extremely important government interest and is the least restrictive means of furthering that compelling government interest,” Barnes said.
But Denver’s ordinance “makes the prosecution of psilocybin non-commercial activity by persons 21 years of age and older the city’s lowest law enforcement priority” and prohibits city funds from being used for such enforcement, Barnes noted. “So, with respect to (Gorelick’s) case, if there was no sales going on, everyone was 21-plus, there is an argument that it should be the city’s lowest law enforcement priority and that the city shouldn’t be using funds to prosecute this.”
In essence, Barnes thinks Denver’s ordinance would potentially be more helpful for a case like Gorelick’s than trying to establish a religious exemption.
“As long as the mushrooms were being cultivated in a back room that wasn’t accessible to the public or wasn’t displayed in public, and he wasn’t selling the psilocybin mushrooms, then he has a good argument that the Denver ordinance would cover his activity, regardless of why he was engaging in that activity,” Barnes said. “The spirituality and religious context is helpful to that, but it’s not necessary for the Denver ordinance to apply.”
The last several months have come with challenges for Gorelick and the Sacred Tribe, as investigators interviewed group members about the organization’s religious use of psilocybin and the felony case moved at a “molasses-slow” pace, by Gorelick’s assessment. The charges have affected Gorelick personally, too, leading to some difficult conversations with his parents — who probably didn’t imagine when he went to rabbi school that he’d end up with a felony drug charge, he reflected.
“They understand the kind of religious, spiritual side of things,” Gorelick said of his parents, who brought him up in “Conservadox” Judaism. “They don’t understand how I wound up (at) the tip of the spear of this larger political conversation.”
Some members have decided to leave the group or chosen not to participate in ceremony until the legal scrutiny is over. The group also lost its “spiritual home” when the landlord decided not to renew its lease, he said.
“We have a number of members who decided this wasn’t within their risk tolerance, and I get that,” Gorelick said, noting the threat of criminal conviction is “very real now, where it used to be kind of hypothetical.”
Others, though, have doubled down on their commitment to the Sacred Tribe, saying, “This is who we are as a community, and we’ll continue to be who we are as a community,” Gorelick said. “So whether it’s dinners or breathwork ceremonies, or whatever … they will continue to show up and be a part of this community, as best we can.”
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