Drug Policy

Psychedelic Tea

Drugs and religious freedom


Never mind the nausea and vomiting. For members of O Centro Espirita Beneficiente Uniao do Vegetal, drinking ayahuasca, a psychedelic tea brewed from two Amazonian plants, involves four hours of recitation, chanting, questions and answers, and religious instruction. That may help explain why the church has only 130 or so followers in the U.S., despite the drug trips at the center of its rituals.

But the federal government does not want to take the chance that Uniao do Vegetal, a synthesis of Christianity and indigenous South American beliefs that originated in Brazil, will do for ayahuasca what Timothy Leary did for LSD. So in 1999, after intercepting a shipment of ayahuasca extract bound for Uniao do Vegetal's U.S. headquarters in Santa Fe, customs agents searched the home of the group's president, seizing 30 gallons of the tea and triggering a lawsuit that may force the government to back off.

The Customs Service and the Drug Enforcement Administration say ayahuasca is illegal because it contains dimethyltryptamine (DMT), which is banned by the Controlled Substances Act. Uniao do Vegetal members argue that their use of ayahuasca is protected by the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which prohibits the government from imposing a "substantial burden" on the free exercise of religion unless it is "the least restrictive means of furthering [a] compelling governmental interest." In November the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit concluded that the feds had failed to meet that test, and it upheld a preliminary injunction barring the government from interfering with the church's rituals.

In December, Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer stayed that injunction pending the government's appeal, but the Court later lifted the stay, allowing the group to resume its ceremonies. Should it ultimately prevail, its use of ayahuasca would enjoy a status similar to that of the Native American Church's peyote rituals. That would be a fitting outcome, since the Religious Freedom Restoration Act was a response to a 1990 Supreme Court decision that said the First Amendment does not require the government to tolerate religious use of peyote.?