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Supreme Court Unanimously Upholds Use of Psychedelic Tea (Ayahuasca) (2/21/06)
In an 8-0 ruling led by the conservative new Chief Justice Roberts, the US Supreme Court has struck down government efforts to prevent the religious group O Centro Espirita Beneficiente Uniao do Vegetal (UDV) from importing and using ayahuasca ('huasca'), a hallucinogenic tea containing N,N-dimethyltryptamine (DMT, a Schedule 1 drug.)
The use of ayahuasca for shamanic practices and healing rituals dates back thousands of years in South America. The UDV church was founded in Brazil, combining Christian teachings with the shamanic traditions of the rain forest's native peoples. There are about 130 members in the US (although the church has a far larger presence in Brazil.)
The group came under fire when customs intercepted a shipment of the sacramental tea (apparently 14 previous shipments of the drug-laced liquid had gone unnoticed.) Faced with the loss of their central religious sacrament and threats of arrest, the Church sued the US government, claiming that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (a law passed in 1993 primarily to protect the rights of peyote using Native American tribes) exempted them from the Controlled Substances Act (which outlaws DMT.) The government countered that there was a compelling interest (as required by the RFR Act) to stop the use of ayahuasca to 1. Protect the health of Church members; 2. Prevent diversion of the tea to the black market; and 3. To uphold international (UN) drug control treaties. The court ruled that the government had failed to make a convincing argument on any of these grounds, upholding the decision of a lower court that the Church had the right to practice their religion by using ayahuasca.
While certainly a triumph for the UDV, this ruling may also pave the way for other religious groups who use psychoactive drugs as part of their practices (such as the Rastafarians, who use marijuana, albeit in a less ritualized manner than the UDV uses ayahuasca.)
• Full Supreme Court ruling (.pdf)