Brewing A Controversy

A New Mexico-Based Case Over Whether A Religion Can Legally Use A Hallucinogenic Tea Has Made Its Way To The Supreme Court

Singeli Agnew
7 min read
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It all began in 1999, when federal narcotics agents stormed Jeffrey Bronfman's Santa Fe church, confiscating 30 gallons of a psychoactive Brazilian tea he planned to use in religious ceremonies. Now this week, after five years of litigation, the debate over the sacramental brew has reached the nation's highest court.

Few North Americans have heard of ayahuasca, a hallucinogenic tea made from two Brazilian jungle plants. Even fewer know about O Centro Espirita Beneficiente Uniao Do Vegetal, UDV, a religion also born in the Brazilian Amazon.

Despite the religion's obscurity, this Tuesday the Supreme Court heard oral arguments for the UDV case, which pits religious freedom against national drug control policies.

The tea is controversial because it contains a naturally occurring hallucinogen, dimethyltryptamine, or DMT, a Schedule I Controlled Substance according to U.S. law, in the same category as LSD.

But the UDV church, which is legally recognized in the U.S., says ayahuasca is vital to their religion, and lower courts have agreed. After winning the original civil lawsuit against the federal government in the Federal District Court in Albuquerque in 2002, and two consecutive appeals at the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver, Colo., the UDV church is still unable to practice freely.

“They've had a really rough time for years,” said Nancy Hollander, Bronfman's lawyer and an Albuquerque resident, in a phone interview with the Alibi last week from Washington, D.C., where she was preparing for oral arguments in the case. “It's like the government forbidding Catholics to have their sacrament for communion.”

The Supreme Court must now decide whether the religious freedom of the church trumps the government's ability to ban the use of what it considers an illegal drug, a decision that could take months.

Taking Sacrament

The UDV religion is still relatively young, as it was founded in Brazil in 1961. Bronfman, an ecological activist and Santa Fe resident, began practicing the religion during visits to the Amazon rainforest. He then studied to become a mestre, or clergy of the UDV faith, and founded the first branch in the United States in 1993. There are only about 140 practitioners in the U.S., and a third of those reside in Santa Fe.

Ayahuasca, or hoasca, as it's called in Portuguese, is central to UDV ceremonies, which often last all night and can encompass several rounds of the psychoactive brew.

The church blends Christian theology with traditional Amazonian beliefs. Practitioners say hoasca is used to access spiritual revelations and sacred experiences; according to UDV doctrine, it is the key ingredient to communion with God. Currently, members must pay to attend the religious ceremony where the tea is offered. Though still discreet—with only 10,000 members—UDV is widely accepted in Brazil, where hoasca is legal.

As a mestre, Bronfman holds twice-monthly Saturday services. Congregants recite prayers in Portuguese, drink the tea together as a sacrament and join in ritual singing.

After the federal seizure in 1999, Bronfman (who also happens to be a third-generation heir to the Seagram's Whiskey family fortune) filed suit against the federal government on behalf of the U.S. branch of the church, seeking religious immunity from the federal law banning the importation or use of the DMT-containing hoasca tea. Bronfman argued that enforcement of the Controlled Substances Act, in this case, would violate the Religious Freedom Restoration Act and the First Amendment.

But the federal government refused to let go of the case, and after both the Federal District Court in Albuquerque and the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver decided in favor of Bronfman, the government filed an appeal to be heard before the Supreme Court.

Holy Loophole

The federal government's argument is based on their view that letting the lower court decision stand could create a loophole in U.S. drug policy that would invite abuse. Federal lawyers have argued that then anyone could come forward and claim religious motivations for using drugs, such as Rastafarians, who could make a case for exempting marijuana on the grounds of religious freedom. And religious use of marijuana, a drug with wide recreational use, would be much harder to enforce.

The federal case rests on three governmental obligations: protecting health and safety, preventing diversion to unauthorized usage, and compliance with the Controlled Substances Act.

Still, according to UDV literature, after seven years of investigation of ritual hoasca use in Brazil (1985-1992), the Federal Narcotics counsel there stated, “The followers of the sects appear to be calm and happy people. The ritual use of the tea does not appear to be disruptive or to have adverse effects upon the social interactions of the sects' followers. To the contrary, it appears to orient them towards seeking social contentment in an orderly and productive way.”

Nor have lower U.S. courts been convinced there is a health danger from drinking the tea. And, according to Hollander, the ritualized religious use of the tea doesn't even cause hallucinations. Additionally, it seems as though due to other characteristics of the tea, the likelihood of hoasca becoming a common street drug is slim.

“It's not very pleasant to take—people throw up, it tastes bad,” said Hollander. “Typically, these kinds of substances are not abused in great quantities—they're not addicting.”

Bearth Erowid, who manages an organization devoted to information about psychoactive plants, agrees. “It seems fairly easy to carve out a religious exemption policy without causing chaos in the rest of the drug-control world,” he said at a conference devoted to sacred use of drugs in San Jose, Calif., on Oct. 22.

“I don't see why the ayahuasca people couldn't offer their vomitous brew to people, without changing a lot [of laws]. There are a lot of things you can take if you just want to trip. But the people who take hoasca are interested in the connection with something bigger, older, wiser; a connection with a traditional continuum. But I guess [the government] is afraid this would open the floodgates,” Erowid said.

Perhaps most illustrative of the potential implications of the Court's decision is the impressive list of amicus curiae, or supportive parties, in the legal case, including the National Association of Evangelicals, the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church and the Conference of Catholic Bishops. All have made statements emphasizing the importance of protecting religious freedom.

Religious Precedent

According to Hollander, a 1993 court decision protecting peyote use by the Native American Church sets a precedent that weakens the government's case. UDV has argued that this precedent shows the federal government could easily accommodate UDV's similar religious practice without undermining national drug laws. UDV has drawn on the similarities between the religions, as both were organized before the current controlled substances laws were on the books.

Another of UDV's strengths in fighting this case, said Hollander, is that UDV is very highly structured, a characteristic that makes it easy to prove its legitimacy. “They have a body of teachings, rules and routines, and the service is always exactly the same,” she said.

Regardless of whatever ruling the Court will make, Bronfman and other members of the church have far from enjoyed the media attention pressured upon them as a result of the case. “This is a very discrete religion,” said Hollander. “[Its members] don't want insincere people.” In other words, it's not an outlet for drug adventurers.

Other South American religions, such as the Santo Daime, also consider hoasca a central sacrament. Santo Daime has so far managed to stay out of the spotlight, and underground importation and use of hoasca continues in some areas of the country.

The Supreme Court could take months to issue its ruling on the matter. Until then, Bronfman and his congregants will be forced to practice their religious ceremonies without their tea.

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