Drug Policy Alliance Supports Right of Church to Use Ayahuasca as Sacrament

Press Release October 26, 2005
Media Contact

Daniel Abrahamson at (510) 208-7711 or James May at (916) 444-3751

New York- The Drug Policy Alliance supports a New Mexico church that currently has a case before the U.S. Supreme Court over their right to use a brewed-tea substance as a sacrament. The case pits the federal government against the Brazilian Ayahuasca Church, or Centro Espirita Beneficiente Uniao do Vegetal (UDV). The Supreme Court is scheduled to hear the case on November 1.

“The government is pushing its drug war too far – trampling on fundamental religious liberties; and manufacturing drug-related harm where there is none,” said Abrahamson. “To deprive UDV of its ayahuasca in the name of the war on drugs is like denying Catholics wine at communion to combat drunk driving — it just doesn’t add up.”

“What is more, ayahuasca — unlike alcohol, used by Christians and Jews in various religious ceremonies – is not an addictive, or even pleasant substance to consume. It’s simply not a drug of abuse,” adds Abrahamson.

The federal government banned UDV from using ayahuasca, also known as “hoasca,” because the substance, taken in the form of a brewed tea, is illegal under federal drug laws. In 1999 U.S. customs officials seized a shipment of ayahuasca and subsequently raided a church member’s home.

UDV eventually sued and last year a three-judge 10th Circuit Court of Appeals panel upheld a lower court’s finding: the federal government did not prove that the drug posed a significant danger to its congregants or that use of ayahuasca would lead to non-religious use or abuse.

The Drug Enforcement Administration was forced to register UDV as a legal importer and distributor of ayahuasca since the plant does not grow in the United States. The Bush Administration, however, appealed the case to the Supreme Court.

Pending the Supreme Court’s decision in this case, UDV members are allowed to import and to use ayahuasca for sacramental purposes. The Drug Policy Alliance supports UDV’s right to practice their religious ceremony free of interference from the federal government. Like ritual peyote usage among some North American Indians, ayahuasca has been a component of indigenous South American religious practices since pre-Columbian times. Church members claim origins in ancient Incan Peru. Ceremonial ayahuasca use has also been long documented among Indians in Bolivia. Prohibition of ceremonial usage of ayahuasca would damage one of the central tenets of UDV, and thus severely and unduly impact UDV religious practice.

A young woman holds a sign that says "End the Drug War."

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