The United States is home to a number of religions, including the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, in which adherents, known as “Pastafarians,” claim a giant bowl of pasta in the sky created the world. There’s also the First Presleyterian Church of Elvis—yes, as in the ‘50s rock star—where church members face in the direction of Las Vegas once a day while praying and, among other obligations, make a pilgrimage to Graceland (Elvis’s Tennessee estate) once in their lives.
While neither church is legally sanctioned in the US—although, the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster is recognized as a legitimate religion in New Zealand—the fact remains: Religions do not require any official approval to exist in the United States. Thanks to the First Amendment’s Free Exercise Clause and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), people in the US have an innate privilege to practice the religion of their choice without government interference.
It’s beautiful in theory. But religious freedom in the US is conditional, particularly when psychedelics are involved. That’s when it becomes a matter for the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). And that’s when things get hairy.
The Controlled Substances Act (CSA), a law signed by Richard Nixon in 1970 which criminalizes drugs from cannabis to LSD, is the DEA’s bible—and the vanguard of the drug war. Most psychedelics are Schedule I drugs, the most highly restricted category on the CSA—meaning they’re defined as having a “high potential for abuse” and “no currently accepted medical use.” This also means there’s a narrow framework by which the DEA considers these substances to have permissible use. It begs the question: Can the DEA see the use of psychedelics or facilitation of these substances outside of a draconic drug war paradigm? The case between Soul Quest Ayahuasca Church of Mother Earth, an ayahuasca church in Florida, and the DEA suggests not.
The Controlled Substances Act (CSA), a law signed by Richard Nixon in 1970 which criminalizes drugs from cannabis to LSD, is the DEA’s bible—and the vanguard of the drug war.
It all started in 2016, when DEA Agent James Graumlich discovered Soul Quest’s offerings online, kicking off a six-year saga that still isn’t resolved. Shortly after Graumlich’s discovery, the DEA invited the church to go through its “RFRA Guidance” process to petition for religious exemption. The one-page petition form requests sensitive information, including addresses, names of church leaders, and details about manufacturing, distribution, exportation, use, and possession of the substances churches use and deem to be sacraments. Soul Quest complied and sent the DEA the requested information by 2017. After three-and-a-half years of radio silence, Soul Quest sued the DEA in 2020, asking the court for a permanent injunction to use ayahuasca sacramentally. Notably, Soul Quest filed in the United States District Court for the Middle District of Florida, where the case was assigned to Judge Wendy Berger, a Trump appointee. Not long after, the DEA requested a stay of proceedings to halt further legal processes and resolve the matter directly with Soul Quest. The church believed all negotiations at that point forward would be geared toward a positive resolution. But instead, in April 2021, the agency issued Soul Quest a denial letter.
Soul Quest amended its claim to include the DEA’s denial. From there, the judge said they didn’t have jurisdiction over the DEA’s denial and dismissed the case. The DEA filed something called a motion to dismiss that claim, which the court granted. Soul Quest filed an appeal against the dismissal, which was argued before a panel of Appellate Court judges in late January of 2023. If the panel rules in favor of Soul Quest, and the DEA doesn’t subsequently appeal the Appellate Court’s decision, it will revive the church’s case in district court and allow them to continue fighting for an injunction to use ayahuasca. It’s unclear at the time of this writing when the Appellate Court will make a decision on the matter, however. (While Soul Quest remains in the throes of a legal battle with the DEA, the church also faces a separate, non-criminal wrongful death case and accusations of negligence, beyond the scope of this story, for issues unrelated to ayahuasca. No criminal charges were brought against them following an investigation.)