Weed Watch

Brazilian Church Wins Hallucinogenic Tea Battle

On Feb. 21, the U.S. Supreme Court cleared the way for the small New Mexico-based sect of the Brazilian O Centro Espírita Beneficente União do Vegetal church to continue its sacramental use of the hallucinogenic ayahuasca tea. In a unanimous ruling, written by Chief Justice John G. Roberts, the court concludes that the government's interest in enforcing the Controlled Substances Act is not sufficient to infringe on the UDV's religious freedom.

In 1998, federal narcos raided the UDV's Santa Fe church and seized 30 gallons of the sacramental ayahuasca tea – brewed from two plants found in the Amazonian basin – claiming the church's possession and use of the brew was a violation of the CSA because it contains diemethyltryptamine, or DMT, which is a prohibited Schedule I narcotic. The head of the UDV's U.S. branch, Seagram's whiskey heir Jeffrey Bronfman, cried foul and filed suit in federal court seeking an injunction that would leash the narcos and restore the church's right to use the tea. He argued that the UDV's ayahuasca use is protected under the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act, enacted by Congress, in part, to exempt Native American religious use of peyote from the CSA ban. Under RFRA, the government is barred from "substantially burdening" a sincere religious exercise, unless the feds can demonstrate that the burden is the least restrictive means of advancing a compelling government interest. In this case, the government argued that its compelling interest is keeping intact the drug prohibitions defined by the CSA. But, given that peyote use by thousands of Native Americans hasn't undermined the CSA, the UDV argued that eliminating an essential component of their religious practice in order to enforce the ban on ayahuasca was an overwhelming burden, and thus a clear violation of RFRA.

The federal district and appeal courts agreed with Bronfman, granting a preliminary injunction against the government, and prompting the feds to take their fight to the Supremes. Arguing before the court on Nov. 1, the feds claimed, in part, that the CSA is a "closed" regulatory system without exception and that providing an exemption for UDV would undermine its authority and could open the floodgates to countless others claiming religious exemptions for narcotic use. But Roberts points out that the plain language of the CSA provides for exemptions (and a system for rescheduling individual drugs). The fact that DMT falls within the CSA's most restrictive schedule does not "provide a categorical answer that relieves the government of the obligation to shoulder its burden under RFRA," he wrote. "And in fact an exception [for peyote] has been made to the Schedule I ban for religious use," he continued. "If such use is permitted … for hundreds of thousands of Native Americans practicing their faith, it is difficult to see how [the CSA] alone can preclude any consideration of a similar exception for the 130 or so American members of the UDV who want to practice theirs."

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