DEA Exempts Ayahuasca Import, Religious Use for Arizona Church

April 29, 2024

An Arizona-based nonprofit has reached the first federal settlement that will exempt ayahuasca from the United States Controlled Substances Act (CSA), allowing it to import the psychedelic substance and use it for religious purposes. The Church of the Eagle and the Condor (CEC) announced the news on April 22.

Ayahuasca contains dimethyltryptamine, commonly known as DMT, which is banned under the CSA Schedule I. CEC’s settlement—which involves the Department of Justice, Customs and Border Protection, the Department of Homeland Security and the Drug Enforcement Administration—will now permit the organization to import ayahuasca in either paste or liquid form.

After CBP seized and destroyed an ayahuasca shipment in 2020, CEC filed a complaint in an attempt to prevent similar incidents in the future. Negotiations with the federal government began in October 2023.

“We had a pretty airtight case,” Gilbert Paul Carrasco, legal counsel for CEC, told Filter. “I think the writing was on the wall that they should settle the case rather than lose in court.”

According to CEC, this is both the first time a non-Christian church has been granted religious freedom protections for ayahuasca use, and the first time such protections have been won via settlement without the need to go to trial.

“Going in we knew we had the law on our side.”

CEC, founded in 2018, is partially inspired by the Shipibo-Conibo culture of the Ucayali region of Peru, which has cultural and spiritual practices revolving around plant medicine, including ayahuasca.

“The Church’s belief system incorporates time-honored ways of life in the Americas, as decreed by the ancient and widespread prophecy known as the ‘Prophecy of the Eagle and the Condor,’ CEC states on its website. “In fulfillment of the prophecy, all peoples from North and South America weave together their spiritual traditions and beliefs to manifest a future of unity and peace.”

Clinical research is increasingly showing the benefits of psychedelics for addressing mental health conditions and substance use disorder, and many US cities and states have enacted or proposed measures to make psychedelic therapies more accessible. Jurisdictions including San Francisco, Seattle, Detroit and the state of Colorado have decriminalized possession and cultivation of plant-based psychedelics.

Carrasco told Filter that CEC screens all participants to make sure ayahuasca is medically safe for them to consume, and keeps the substance itself securely locked where it’s only accessible to the ceremonial leader. As part of the settlement, CEC agreed to add an alarm system as well as submit to DEA inspection.

“The UDV decision is binding precedent and it can be invoked by other churches—we relied heavily on that case.”

In 1999, federal officials seized an ayahuasca shipment from New Mexico-based religious group Centro Espirita Beneficiente União do Vegetal (UDV), and raided the home of a member. UDV argued in court that its First Amendment rights had been violated, winning at the federal district level in 2002, and at the federal appeals level in 2003 and 2004. The lower court found that the federal government could not prove that UDV was endangering congregants or that ayahuasca diversion posed a risk.

In 2006, the Supreme Court unanimously ruled that under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, UDV’s ayahuasca use constituted a “sincere religious practice.” Therefore, the federal government had no grounds to obstruct it.

In another major case that began with a federal raid in 1999, agents seized ayahuasca sacrament from the home of a spiritual leader of the Santo Daime church in Oregon. In 2009, a federal district judge used the UDV precedent to rule in favor of Santo Daime and issue an injunction prohibiting the federal government from further interference. Carrasco’s work on that case led to CEC hiring him for its own case.

“The UDV decision is binding precedent and it can be invoked by other churches—we relied heavily on that case,” Carrasco said. “Going in we knew we had the law on our side. Then it was just a matter of having the facts on our side.”



Cropped photograph via Wikimedia Commons/Creative Commons 3.0

Alexander Lekhtman

Alexander is Filter's staff writer. He writes about the movement to end the War on Drugs. He grew up in New Jersey and swears it's actually alright. He's also a musician hoping to change the world through the power of ledger lines and legislation. Alexander was previously Filter's editorial fellow.

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