Court Allows for Use of Hallucinogenic Tea

Court Allows for Use of Hallucinogenic Tea
Tuesday, February 21, 2006; 2:18 PM

William Branigin
Washington Post Staff writer

The Supreme Court decided unanimously today that the government cannot prohibit a small religious sect in New Mexico from using a hallucinogenic tea as part of its rites, ruling against the Bush administration in a case that pitted religious freedom against the nation’s drug control laws.

The ruling upheld findings by lower courts that the government failed to demonstrate a compelling interest in barring the Brazil-based sect, O Centro Espirita Beneficente Uniao do Vegetal, known as UDV, from using hoasca, a sacramental tea that contains a banned hallucinogen.

The opinion in the case was written by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. The court’s newest justice, Samuel A. Alito Jr., did not participate in the decision, since he took his seat on the bench after the case was argued.

Roberts noted in his opinion that the government conceded that UDV’s use of the sacramental tea was “a sincere exercise of religion.” The government nevertheless had sought to prohibit it on grounds that the Controlled Substances Act bars all use of the tea’s hallucinogen, dimethyltryptamine, or DMT.

UDV sued to block enforcement of the ban, relying on the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993, which prohibits the federal government from substantially burdening a person’s free exercise of religion unless the action furthers “a compelling governmental interest” and is “the least restrictive means” of doing so.

The Bush administration argued that the religious freedom act was not violated because the ban on the sacramental tea was the least restrictive way to advance three compelling federal interests: protecting the health of UDV members, preventing diversion of the hallucinogen to recreational users and complying with the 1971 U.N. Convention on Psychotropic Substances.

Lower courts rejected all three arguments, ruling that contradictory evidence on health risks and diversion presented by both parties was virtually balanced and that the U.N. convention did not cover hoasca. In upholding the lower court rulings, the Supreme Court disagreed that hoasca is not covered by the U.N. convention, but it said the government submitted no evidence on the international consequences of granting the sect an exemption.

“Before this court, the government’s central submission is that it has a compelling interest in the uniform application of the Controlled Substances Act, such that no exception to the ban on use of the hallucinogen can be made to accommodate the sect’s sincere religious practice,” Roberts wrote in his opinion. “We conclude that the government has not carried the burden expressly placed on it by Congress in the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.”

Part of the religious freedom act was declared unconstitutional by the high court in 1997, but the provisions at issue in the UDV case remained in effect.

In his opinion, Roberts wrote that everything the government says about the DMT in hoasca also applies to the mescaline in peyote, which Native Americans have been allowed to use in religious ceremonies for the past 35 years.

“If such use is permitted . . . for hundreds of thousands of Native Americans practicing their faith, it is difficult to see how those same findings alone can preclude any consideration of a similar exception for the 130 or so American members of the UDV who want to practice theirs,” Roberts wrote.

The sect, which originated in the Amazon rainforest of Brazil, receives communion by drinking hoasca (pronounced “wass-ca”), a tea made from two plants unique to the Amazon region. One, a shrub, has leaves containing DMT, and the other, a vine, has alkaloids that enhance the effect of the hallucinogen. In summarizing the case, Roberts described UDV as a “Christian Spiritist sect” with a small American branch.

The case began in 1999 when U.S. Customs inspectors seized a shipment to the American UDV containing three drums of hoasca and threatened the sect with prosecution. In the resulting court case, the government argued that DMT can cause psychotic reactions, cardiac irregularities and adverse drug interactions. The sect cited studies showing that its sacramental use of hoasca was safe.

Countering the government’s arguments on diversion, UDV pointed to the relatively small amounts of hoasca it was importing and said the tea had not been diverted to outsiders in the past.

On its Web site, the sect describes itself as “a nonprofit religious society whose objective is to contribute to human development.” It says it is discreet “but not secretive” and “does not advertise to recruit members.” Those seeking membership are interviewed about their “motives and personal state,” then given a “comfortable examination period.”

The hoasca tea is consumed at four-hour ceremonies twice a month. The sect calls this tea “vegetal” and uses it “in its religious sessions for the effect of mental concentration,” the Web site says.