Drug Policy

Santo Daime Followers Can Have Their Tea and Drink It Too

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On Wednesday a federal judge in Oregon ruled that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) allows followers of the Brazil-based Santo Daime sect to consume ayahuasca, a psychedelic tea containing the ordinarily illegal drug dimethyltryptamine (DMT), as part of their rituals. Guided by the Supreme Court's unanimous 2006 ruling in "a very similar case" involving Uniao do Vegetal, another Brazilian religious group that also consumes ayahuasca, U.S. District Court Judge Owen Panner concluded that RFRA "requires that plaintiffs be allowed to import and drink Daime tea for their religious ceremonies, subject to reasonable restrictions." The church already had convinced the Oregon Board of Pharmacy to exempt it from state DMT restrictions.

As I noted in my 2007 Reason article about the fallout from the Uniao do Vegetal decision, it was hard to see why Santo Daime practitioners would not qualify for protection under RFRA, since the relevant facts are almost exactly the same in the two cases: Both groups are small, they use the same sacrament in carefully controlled conditions, the sacrament is central to their religious practices, there is strong evidence that it enhances the lives of people who use it, there is practically no evidence that it causes serious problems, and there is little interest in it as a recreational drug. But you never know. Uniao do Vegetal's ayahuasca rituals seemed, if anything, less threatening to the current drug control regime than the peyote ceremonies of the Native American Church, which involve many more people yet have long been tolerated by the federal government. UDV still faced unrelenting resistance from the supposedly pro-religious Bush administration, which fought the church all the way to the Supreme Court and was rebuked by the courts at every step.

Panner's ruling is available here (PDF).