The DEA v. Religion c. Psychedelics


A group of defendants recently sued the federal government for protecting their rights to use psychedelic ayahuasca in their religious ceremonies. But things weren’t going their way.

The case involved the seizure of ayahuasca and the arrest of members of the North American Association of Visionary Churches (NAAVC), a Californian nonprofit interfaith association of visionary churches; and Arizona Yage Assembly (AYA), another California nonprofit church.

Opposing them according to their initial complaint filed on May 5, 2020 were defendants William Barr on behalf of the Department of Justice (DOJ); Uttam Dhillon on behalf of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA); Chad F. Wolf on behalf of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS); Mark A. Morgan on behalf of Customs and Border Protection; and Thomas Prevoznik, Deputy Assistant Administrator of the DEA’s Diversion Control Department.

And… the United States of America.

According to court documents (case 3:20-cv-03098-WHO), here is what happened: On April 22, 2020, NAAVC and AYA were notified that their joint property, a container of ayahuasca ordered for the use of NAAVC and AYA, had been seized by DHS during the customs process. Three other deliveries of ayahuasca were reportedly seized by DHS between April and December 2020.

It was an outrageous act, AYA’s attorney said in the complaint, because church organizers and members believe the experience of communion through ayahuasca is “the reception of divine love and wisdom by the congregation”.

The attorneys said the administration of sacramental ayahuasca to worshipers is protected as a free exercise, but is “burdened by Controlled Substances Act (CSA) prohibitions and DEA denial. to provide leadership services to visionary churches; and that the DEA is required to issue an exemption certificate to the AYA, grant it a DEA number, and “provide it with all necessary regulatory services to permit the importation and distribution of ayahuasca to its congregation.”

But the DEA, as usual, is a badass. It has a policy of denying regulatory services to visionary churches and denying all religious exemptions requested from the CSA until and unless compelled to do so by court order – which happened separately with two churches Brazilians using ayahuasca, according to the complaint.

The DEA does not seem interested in working with churches for the specific needs of religious ceremonies. It contains advice for such a thing, but there are legal pitfalls for organizations that follow that advice, AYA/NAAVC lawyers say.

DEA reports to watchdog agencies show no staffing expenditures for employees to review the needs of churches and religious people seeking CSA exemptions on religious grounds. The DEA does not have individuals solely responsible for evaluating CSA exemption requests on religious grounds, the complaint noted.

Advocates for NAAVC and AYA tried to use the First Amendment and American history, citing that “the diversity of religions has provided fertile ground for an attitude of tolerance which, aided by the effort of advocates of principles within the religious and legal communities, has matured into the commitment to the universal religious freedom that the nation now embraces,” adding that “religious expression, like secular expression, enjoys the highest level of protection constitutional”.

When DHS seized their ayahuasca shipments, the parties “suffered the seizure of sacramental ayahuasca intended to be shared with congregations in the free exercise of their right to practice visionary communion in sacred ceremony,” says the complaint. “The dangers of seizures of the sacrament, invasion of church services, and arrest of church leaders and worshipers are clear and present dangers to the visionary church community,” according to the complaint as it stands. described in court documents.

What really happened, they explained, was the classic DEA over-enforcement against churches qualifying for the exemption. After all, ayahuasca is an herbal preparation that is not listed as a drug of abuse in the DEA 2020 resource guide “Drugs of Abuse.”

The church’s complaint reminded both parties that the courts have recognized that ayahuasca is almost exclusively consumed in religious ceremonies. “Visionary churches whose sacrament is ayahuasca use a sacrament which in itself affirms their claim to religious sincerity. The very activity of drinking ayahuasca confirms their religious intent, as it is a demanding visionary experience that offers rewards commensurate with sincerity.

Additionally, as church attorneys have pointed out, the DEA had a peyote regulatory system that was designed exclusively for the benefit of the Native American Church (NAC). The DEA established the peyote regulatory system under statutory authority. Why not ayahuasca?

The DEA’s regulatory regime covers the distribution of peyote from its single point of origin in Texas, where DEA-registered “peyoteros” collect the sacred cactus and can legally deliver it to any Native American who presents a “certificate of Indian blood”.

Neither the Native American Church nor its branch churches register with the DEA, and the latest DEA registrant to handle a peyote button in the supply chain is the DEA-licensed peyotero. NAC and its followers are not subject to DEA registration or any other regulatory requirements.

So is the DEA saying: Peyote is good, ayahuasca is bad?

Conclusion: Without ayahuasca, AYA has no religious practice to share, and AYA worshipers are unable to practice their religion, the complaint states. The CSA effectively coerces the AYA and NAAVC to act contrary to their religious beliefs through the threat of criminal sanctions. The complaint added that the potential for prosecution under the CSA “puts considerable pressure on AYA, its founder, and the congregation to alter their behavior and violate their beliefs, forcing them to choose between abandoning religious principle or risking criminal prosecution.” .

  1. This looks like a reasonable case from the perspective of AYA and NAAVC.

But later, as an amended complaint reached the District Court for the Northern District of California and then moved to the District of Arizona, Senior District Judge Roslyn Silver dismissed most of the complaints filed against the forces of the United States. federal and local orders by religious organizations. who use ayahuasca in their ceremonies, concluding among other things that the plaintiffs suffered no legal prejudice necessary for their claim under the Administrative Procedure Act (APA). the PAA outlines rule-making procedures, addresses other agency actions such as issuing policy statements, licenses, and permits, and provides standards for judicial review if a person has been harmed or injured by a agency action.

In addition, the DEA orientation problem has become a kind of deciding factor. Silver Judge found that the DEA guidelines do not require the churches to do anything, or prevent them from doing anything, and therefore did not cause actual or imminent harm. This is not what AYA/NAAVC attorneys thought in their original lawsuit filing. “The DEA’s use of the guidelines as a ruse to present the appearance of a legitimate path for visionary churches to obtain regulatory services was an act of conscious indifference that caused a compensable infringement of plaintiffs’ civil rights. .”

DEA Says Churches Lost Their Case Due To Churches’ Procedural Error; churches say the DEA circumvents its role in regulating and managing the use of ayahuasca in religious ceremonies, and appears to be clinging to barriers preventing any church in the United States from legally using ayahuasca.

This case helps illustrate, once again, that reforms are needed at the DEA to manage psychedelics, as they work through clinical trials, gain regulatory assistance from the FDA, and continue to be a part of certain indigenous religious ceremonies dating back hundreds if not thousands of years.

It can take some time. In fact, right now the DEA is blocking access to psilocybin for terminal cancer patients, and advocates are plan protests on May 9 at the DEA headquarters in Washington, DC, citing the Right to Try Act which allows terminally ill patients to seek drug treatments.

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