Russell Hausfeld contributed to the reporting of this story.

This is Part 3 of Psymposia’s investigation into the Church of Psilomethoxin. Click the links for Part 2 and Part 1.

Following more than a year of claims about the presence of psilomethoxin in the Church of Psilomethoxin’s (CoP) sacramental mushrooms — and recent revelations that these claims appear to be false  — the Church has offered a new take on its sacrament. It now states, “Our claims to the existence of Psilomethoxin, at this time, are solely based on faith, bolstered by our and our members’ own direct experiences with the Sacrament.”

One immediate question raised by this assertion is what, exactly, the “Anesthesiologist MD” Church member (discussed in Part 1 and promoted on CoP’s website) who injected Church sacrament “into numerous persons” understood themselves to be doing, and how likely it is to qualify as malpractice (whether faith-based or otherwise). Psychedelic chemist David Nichols told Psymposia, “Most Iikely the material injected into humans is a crude mushroom extract containing psilocybin and psilocin. Subjective experiences or faith by the church members is not acceptable as an analysis method.”

But this isn’t the only issue of “faith” (or safety) with regards to CoP. The Church’s response to the Williamson and Sherwood preprint states that “As a group of religious practitioners, the Church is entitled to rely on faith in believing that its sacrament contains Psilomethoxin. Other established religious organizations make claims their sacrament contains or represents certain things which it can not prove scientifically.”

Notably, CoP fails to specify the other religious organizations to which it is referring, or which sacraments it is likening to the mushrooms it cultivates and ships to its members. Perhaps the biggest question is how many of those sacraments contain Schedule 1 substances, unbeknownst to the people receiving them.

In addition to the health, safety, and ethical issues of giving people substances without their knowledge and informed consent, it is a federal crime for Church members to purchase (and the Church to sell) psilocybin- and psilocin-containing mushrooms, as well as to receive these scheduled drugs through the mail. 

In other words, CoP appears to be exposing its members to legal risk without their knowledge or ability to consent to that risk. The Church has repeatedly asserted that its sacrament is psilomethoxin — not psilocybin or psilocin. Therefore, CoP members arrested for receiving psilocybin-containing mushrooms could have a harder time claiming religious protections, as their sacramental mushrooms would be devoid of sacrament.

In its response to Williamson and Sherwood (the chemists who wrote the preprint debunking CoP’s sacramant, and who work for the Usona Institute), the Church states, “USONA chose to zero in on our Church for no apparent reason. The fact remains that faith is a perfectly normal, accepted, and fundamental part of most, if not all, religions.”

Alternatively, it could be that the reason that Williamson and Sherwood “zeroed in” on the Church was because it was making extraordinary claims about a novel psychedelic compound — one that has been a subject of interest for drug nerds ranging from anonymous forum lurkers to respected chemists like Alexander Shulgin and Marc Julia for decades. 

CoP goes on to state, “It is clearly established precedent in this country that individuals are completely free and protected in their right to believe in things they cannot prove and courts in this country are strictly forbidden from entertaining such an inquiry.”

While individuals are free to believe in things they cannot prove, they should still be able to make fully-informed decisions about what they choose to put into their bodies. As it stands, Williamson and Sherwood’s results indicate that CoP has been misleading its members and selling psilocybin-containing mushrooms under false pretenses, based solely on its own leadership’s faith — and despite every analysis to-date (including those run by CoP) failing to identify any psilomethoxin in analyzed samples.

In light of the fact that multiple Church co-founders are lawyers (who have repeatedly made unfounded statements on the record), this line of reasoning raises questions as to the soundness of the legal advice they’ve been offering to their entheogenic church clientele. In his bio, Church co-founder Ian Benouis claims that together, he and fellow co-founder Greg Lake have created “over sixty entheogenic churches around the US.” It may be prudent for those religious organizations to get a second opinion.

The question remains: does Church leadership really believe that, if a Church member were to be arrested and prosecuted, a jury would find them not guilty of manufacture, possession, and distribution of Schedule I controlled substances (psilocybin and psilocin) simply because their faith led them to believe their mushrooms contained only psilomethoxin — despite all analytical evidence to the contrary? Would prosecutors accept the argument that there was no international drug smuggling from Canada or Mexico (where the Church claims to conduct the alleged psilomethoxin biosynthesis) into the US, because Church members believed that their mushrooms only contained psilomethoxin? Would any claims of belief in psilomethoxin stand up in court in light of CoP’s acknowledgement that it was unable to identify any psilomethoxin in the mushrooms it was growing and distributing?

Perhaps more importantly, does CoP believe this faith confers protection to its membership? 

In the case of entheogenic churches who adequately inform their members of the drugs they will be receiving and ingesting, prospective members have the opportunity to weigh the various risks for themselves. For example, they can consider whether or not they wish to take the risk of assuming their use of criminalized substances will be protected by a religious freedom defense. In the case of CoP, the Church has led its members to believe that there are no scheduled substances in Church sacrament. In doing so, CoP has removed an important component of informed consent.

The claims that the Church has made carry both significant physical and legal risks, and Church members have every right to be informed about these risks. But claims of faith, alongside the various misleading public statements made by the Church and its founders, raise questions as to their standing with regards to the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA). 

RFRA is a US federal law that was passed in the wake of the Supreme Court Case, Employment Division v. Smith, dealing with Native American peyote use and “ensures that interests in religious freedom are protected.” RFRA establishes that the “Government shall not substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion” unless doing so is the least restrictive means of furthering “a compelling governmental interest.”

This is relevant to CoP, as courts have historically upheld that there is a “compelling governmental interest” in mitigating the “risk” that sacramental drugs could be diverted to non-religious uses. It is unclear how the Church’s approach of selling mail-order mushrooms offers any guardrails to prevent such diversions. Furthermore, there is an open question as to whether the Church’s membership process (filling out an online questionnaire and paying a membership fee) meets the threshold of establishing membership in a bona fide religious organization.

The question of religious bona fides looms large, as at least one of the Church’s co-founders appears to suggest that the Church was created as a means of protecting the founders’ drug of choice. In a livestream interview with Zeus Tipado, co-founder Benjamin Moore said, “We knew immediately once we started working with [the allegedly psilomethoxin-containing mushrooms]…that this was something different and that we needed to protect it from any sort of interference by government or corporate America. So we needed to create some artifice of protection to protect it.”

Moore went on to tell Tipado, “So, we did just that…because that’s what America requires you to do….We churched it up because it is, it is a church. It is a holy spirit in my opinion and it lets us access the divine.”

Psymposia asked Lake what he would say to people who might suggest that the Church is really just a workaround or loophole to sell psilocybin-containing mushrooms within the context of prohibition. Lake responded “Um, well, I tell ’em, you know, look, if people feel that way…they for sure have the right to do that. You know what I mean? We’re a church. We’re a religious organization…you know, and we firmly believe that psilomethoxin is contained in our sacrament.” Lake continued, “No hard feelings here. I want people to try to make the best informed decisions for themselves. And if they don’t believe this or believe it’s a fraud or a workaround. Don’t join. That’s fine…Again, no hard feelings there.”

Moore and Lake’s words indicate that CoP might actually fit into a longstanding US tradition that has existed since the early days of drug prohibition: religious organizations constructed to provide cover from US drug laws.

One such notable organization, the Original Kleptonian Neo-American Church was founded by a disciple of Timothy Leary in the mid-’60s. In addition to claiming LSD as its sacrament, the Neo-American Church incorporated “Puff the Magic Dragon” and “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” as religious hymns. Ultimately, despite some experts identifying the Neo-American Church as having a serious, fully formed theology, the judge overseeing the 1968 court case United States vs. Kuch determined that the Church’s rituals did not merit protection under the First Amendment.

The judge’s statements that he was unable to find “a religious discipline, a ritual, or tenets to guide one’s daily existence;” that “there is a conscious effort to assert in passing the attributes of religion but obviously only for tactical purposes;” and that “it is clear that the desire to use drugs and to enjoy drugs for their own sake, regardless of religious experience, is the coagulant of this organization and the reason for its existence,” sound like he could be addressing present day CoP leadership.

CoP’s words and actions also bring to mind the Oklevueha Native American Church (ONAC) and the allegations of “pretendians” leveled against ONAC and its founder, James “Flaming Eagle” Mooney. ONAC is another religiously structured organization, predicated on providing its members with access to drugs. Perhaps the most notable branch in recent years was Ayahuasca Healings, whose leader falsely claimed to be the first legal ayahuasca church in the US. In reality, it had no legal protection whatsoever. Psymposia has previously reported on Ayahuasca Healings’ founder, as well as the involvement of ONAC members at psychedelic events and their subsequent removal from those events. In numerous online bios, Benouis claims to have “created an Oklevueha Native American Church in 2015.” 

While the Church may be building on these long-standing American traditions of questionable psychedelic religions, it also seems to be taking a decidedly 21st century approach. For example, on April 26 (nearly two weeks after the sacrament had been debunked), CoP co-founder Benjamin Moore tweeted out a video clip of a live podcast from podcaster Tim Pool, featuring a cast of right-wing characters: Alex Jones, Tim Pool, Michael Malice, and Blair White. In the clip — which Malice retweeted to his nearly 620,000 Twitter followers — Malice (appearing made up as an actual clown) and White both endorse the Church and its sacrament, with Malice explicitly stating “It is legal,” and White proclaiming “I’m a proud customer.”

And “customer” may, in fact, be a more accurate descriptor than “believer.” A post on CoP’s Instagram page proclaims, “10% commission on sacrament purchases. Invite your friends and save money,” with a caption that reads: 

“Introducing the ‘Spiritual Equity Credit’ referral program for members of the Church of Psilomethoxin. Members can earn spiritual equity credits by referring new members through their unique referral URL, which can be found in their Referral Program Dashboard in the Member Portal area. The credits can be used to subsidize payment required to obtain the Church’s sacrament offerings, making them more accessible. More info available on website, link in bio 😌”

An Instagram post promoting CoP’s “Spiritual Equity Credit” program

Between CoP’s ongoing misleading statements about the presence of psilomethoxin in its mushrooms, its “referral for drug credit” scheme, and the price it charges its members for its “sacramental supplement,” it’s hard to see the Church as anything other than a pay-to-play (pay-to-pray?) international mushroom growing and selling hub. In addition to claiming to produce its mushrooms in Canada and Mexico, Benouis has publicly confirmed the Church will ship sacrament internationally.

Despite the considerable evidence that CoP has been misleading its members and the general public — and appears to be using false narratives and religious claims to sell Psilocybe cubensis mushrooms at a significant markup — the Church has been quick to assert that it is actually the victim of religious persecution at the hands of “psychedelic capitalism,” namely, the Usona Institute. Part 4 of this series will examine those claims.

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