Denver drops drug charges against ‘mushroom rabbi’ who promotes religious psychedelic use

Ben Gorelick is the founder of  Sacred Tribe, a multifaith community that integrates psilocybin use and ideas rooted in Jewish tradition.

Denver Skyline at Sunset, Denver, Colorado (photo credit: LARRY JOHNSON/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)
Denver Skyline at Sunset, Denver, Colorado
(photo credit: LARRY JOHNSON/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)

A Denver rabbi who promotes psychedelic use as part of spiritual practice will no longer face prosecution after Coloradans voted last month to legalize psilocybin, the chemical compound found in psychedelic mushrooms.

Denver’s district attorney’s office announced last week that it was dropping charges against Ben Gorelick, the founder of  Sacred Tribe, a multifaith community that integrates psilocybin use and ideas rooted in Jewish tradition. A spokesperson for the office told the Denver Post that the move was “in light of the voters’ decision” to pass Proposition 122, which makes growing and sharing psilocybin and other related substances legal for adults over 21 in Colorado.

Rabbi Zac Kamenetz is one of the organizers of the landmark Jewish Psychedelic Summit. (credit: J. THE JEWISH NEWS OF NORTHERN CALIFORNIA; BACKGROUND COURTESY OF SHEFA/SHANNON LEVIN/JTA)Rabbi Zac Kamenetz is one of the organizers of the landmark Jewish Psychedelic Summit. (credit: J. THE JEWISH NEWS OF NORTHERN CALIFORNIA; BACKGROUND COURTESY OF SHEFA/SHANNON LEVIN/JTA)

Gorelick had been charged in February with possessing a controlled substance with intent to manufacture or distribute it, a felony that carried mandatory prison time, even though Denver voters had already chosen to decriminalize psilocybin’s use.

“It’s been a long year for the community, it’s been a long year for us, and we look forward to getting back to practicing our religion, which is what the whole point of this is,” Gorelick told the Denver Post this week.

The charges had sidelined Sacred Tribe’s central purpose, although the group continued to hold Shabbat dinners and other activities for its roughly 270 members, who do not have to be Jewish. Gorelick, who was ordained in 2019 as a rabbi by the Jewish Spiritual Leaders Institute, an online program, had sought publicity and funding to fight the charges on religious freedom grounds.

He argues that there is a longstanding tradition of psychedelic drug use within Judaism, which even other Jewish advocates of psychedelics as part of spiritual practice dispute. Those advocates told the Guardian last summer that Gorelick, who said he screened community members to make sure they sought psilocybin for religious use, had not been known to their tight-knit community before his arrest.

Jewish psychedelics advocates have become more organized in recent years. Rabbi Zac Kamenetz, who was ordained as by an Orthodox rabbi in Israel, founded a group called Shefa during the pandemic that aims to one day make chemically-assisted mystical encounters into a normative part of Jewish spirituality. Last year, the group held a first-ever Jewish psychedelics conference.

Psychedelics under intense research

Long considered illicit in the United States, psychedelics have been the subject of intensifying research, including about their potential as a therapeutic tool for treating trauma. One of the groups promoting the research, the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies, was founded by a Jewish man who was inspired by a dream about surviving the Nazis to devote his life to promoting psychedelics as a cure for human ills and an insurance policy against another Holocaust.

“I’m one of the very few people who can say they’ve had a legal experience with psychedelics in this country,” Kamenetz said last year. “To be able to speak freely about it without the stigma — because it’s not just people talking about doing illegal things — it’s allowed people to start having a more open conversation about it. When there’s the opportunity to hear from someone who did this in a legal environment, people will listen more.”