Supreme Court Rules Unanimously in Favor of Church

Press Release February 20, 2006
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Tony Newman at (646) 335-5384

Washington, DC – The Supreme Court ruled unanimously that members of a New Mexico church may use the hallucinogenic tea Ayahuasca. Members of Brazilian Ayahuasca Church, or Centro Espirita Beneficiente Uniao do Vegetal (UDV) use the substance as a sacramental right.

The Drug Policy Alliance applauds the court for protecting religious freedom while simultaneously curtailing the war on drugs.

In the decision, Chief Justice John Roberts wrote that the federal government should have been barred from confiscating the tea from UDV. He also wrote that UDV uses ayahuasca as a part of a “sincere religious practice.”

“The Supreme Court’s sad track record of carving out a ‘drug exception to the Bill Of Rights’ has narrowed freedoms for all Americans. Thank God the Court has at last decided that there are exceptions to that exception,” said Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance.

“The government’s attempt to deprive church members ayahuasca in the name of the war on drugs is like denying Catholics wine at communion to combat drunk driving,” said Nadelmann.
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.

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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