Federal Judge Allows Lawsuit About Religious Use of Hallucinogenic Tea to Move Forward

Parties exchanged legal barbs over religious freedom and the Controlled Substances Act.

A U.S. federal judge ruled that a lawsuit by an Arizona religious group seeking legal approval to use a hallucinogenic tea in its rituals can proceed.

The Arizona Yage Assembly claims the federal government seized four shipments of ayahuasca tea, which contains dimethyltryptamine (DMT), from Peru. DMT is classified as a Schedule I controlled substance under U.S. law, making it generally illegal to manufacture, distribute, or possess.

According to Law360, the group, which was founded in 2020, asserts that its religious use of ayahuasca should not be seen as a violation of the Controlled Substances Act.

However, the federal government moved for dismissal, arguing that AYA failed to state a claim under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. This law prohibits the government from substantially burdening a person’s exercise of religion, even if the burden results from a universally applied rule.

U.S. District Judge Roslyn O. Silver ruled AYA’s claim – that it either has to abandon its religious principles or risk criminal prosecution – was sufficient to proceed under the RFRA.

Silver also dismissed the government’s challenge to AYA’s legal standing to sue. The government argued the group had not shown a specific threat of prosecution or past federal prosecutions for violations of the Controlled Substances Act related to ayahuasca use.

Silver rejected this claim, citing AYA’s reports of four separate seizures of ayahuasca shipments by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and a warning letter from Assistant U.S. Attorney Kevin Hancock. In his letter, Hancock stated any future imports of Schedule I controlled substances like ayahuasca would be seized and forfeited unless a permit for lawful importation had been issued.

According to Silver, these allegations sufficiently show that the Controlled Substances Act has been and will continue to be enforced against the group.

Silver also denied the government’s request for a stay to allow AYA to seek an exemption from the Act, a move the Ninth Circuit has previously rejected in regards to the RFRA.

Adam Jackson

Adam Jackson writes about the cannabis industry for the Green Market Report. He previously covered the Missouri Statehouse for the Columbia Missourian and has written for the Missouri Independent. He most recently covered retail, restaurants and other consumer companies for Bloomberg Business News. You can find him on Twitter at @adam_sjackson and email him at adam.jackson@crain.com.

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