Tea for 130

Religious rituals and the drug war


For 35 years, the federal government has allowed Native Americans to use peyote in their religious rituals, despite the fact that the drug is otherwise banned. Yet it balked at letting American members of Centro Espirita Beneficiente Uniao do Vegetal (UDV), a Brazil-based religious group, use ayahuasca, a psychedelic tea made from Amazonian plants.

The inconsistency between these policies was highlighted by a February decision in which the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously upheld an injunction protecting UDV from federal harassment. The Court concluded that UDV deserved a preliminary injunction because it was likely to win a lawsuit it filed under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act after federal agents took away its tea.

Congress passed the act in response to the Supreme Court's 1990 decision to stop scrutinizing "neutral laws of general applicability" that prevent people from practicing their religions. The act restores judicial review of such laws, requiring the government to justify their application to a particular religious practice by showing that it is the least restrictive means of serving a compelling interest.

Since the case that provoked the law involved Oregon's position on the ceremonial use of peyote, UDV's ceremonial use of ayahuasca seemed like just the sort of religious practice Congress had in mind. The longstanding federal exemption for peyote rituals, which applies to hundreds of thousands of people, made it even harder for the government to justify refusing an exemption for UDV, which has only 130 or so American members.

Yet the supposedly faith-friendly Bush administration argued that the whole structure of drug prohibition would crumble if the feds could not seize the tiny group's sacrament. "The Government's argument," wrote Chief Justice John Roberts, "echoes the classic rejoinder of bureaucrats throughout history: If I make an exception for you, I'll have to make one for everybody, so no exceptions."