Courts Inch Us A Step Closer to Legal Religious Entheogens

Jason Pitzl-Waters —  March 19, 2009 — 50 Comments

Many religions through the ages have used certain substances to acquire altered states of awareness/consciousness. When used responsibly and under certain controlled circumstances, various entheogenic substances are purported to allow communion with divine beings, travel to different planes of awareness, and the removal of certain ego traits that hinder the building of a tribal group-mind experience. While many tribal/indigenous groups around the world still engage is such practices, the use of such substances for religious purposes long fell out of favor in European-descended nations for a variety of religious, economic, and social reasons. Flash forward to the 1960s, and thanks to “psychedelic” pioneers like Timothy Leary the recreational use of entheogens and related hallucinogenics experienced a huge boom, prompting strict government control over their usage. These controls did contain exemptions for “magical and religious rites”, but only for pre-approved “small” and “clearly determined” groups.

With America’s war on (some) drugs still raging (not to mention a long history of villianizing drug-use), religious groups that want to obtain an exemption for the use of certain entheogens during rituals have faced an uphill battle. In 2006 the Supreme Court ruled that members of O Centro Espirita Beneficiente Uniao do Vegetal could legally import the herbs and plants needed to create the entheogenic brew ayahuasca for their rites. Now the syncretic practitioners of Santo Daime, who prepare a similar ayahuasca blend (what they call “Daime tea”) have won a court challenge in Oregon’s federal distric court to allow the importation of ingrediants necessary to make the brew. As commenter and expert witness Mark Kleiman points out, under the seemingly more tolerant Obama administration, this could lead to lower hurdles for religious groups to seek legal exemptions to use controlled substances during their rites.

“Now the new leadership at DoJ faces a question. The government can appeal the Oregon ruling and continue to fight the New Mexico case, and do the same with every religious body that comes forward to ask permission to used a controlled-substance sacrament. As a practical matter, that would mean that only well-financed churches had any chance of winning recognition; these are expensive cases, albeit the churches can recover their attorneys’ fees at the end of they win. Or the Attorney General could tell the DEA Administrator to draft, and publish in the Federal Register, a set of procedures and criteria to deal with such cases in the future. (The Supreme Court ruling makes it clear that RFRA provides ample statutory authority for issuing such regulations.) It’s an interesting test of Eric Holder’s skill, and I’ll be interested to see how he handles it.”

Kleiman seem particularly hopeful because Holder recently ordered the DEA to stop unwarranted raids on California’s medical marijuana dispensaries. Making many wonder if the slow decriminalization process for medical and recreational marijuana now under way in individual states will soon have approval (or at least non-interference) from the executive branch.

What does this all mean for modern Pagans? It means that we may soon see a time where individual Pagan faiths and traditions, if they so chose, could apply for an exemption to use a controlled substance (most likely an entheogen) during religious or magical rites. This will no doubt cause some amount of controversy if/when it emerges. While many Pagans have used controlled substances both recreationally and in a ritual context, many Pagan spokespersons since the early days have strived to present modern Pagans as law-abiding folk who absolutely reject illegal means to achieve altered states of consciousness. So expect this to be a big issue within our larger movement as laws become more permissive towards the religious use of controlled substances.

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Jason Pitzl-Waters

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  • AmericanTrikstr

    Well I'm pretty hard-core libertarian when it comes to substance use, so I approve. :)

    The one major controversy that I can see brewing from this is people questioning whether or not a group wants an exemption for actual religious practice or just so they can use a drug for recreational purposes without having to worry about the law. It is somewhat of a legit concern since I can see people making up a religion for this very reason.

    Though, personally, I could care less why a person may decide to partake in a substance. If they aren't hurting anyone else, let'm go nuts. And if they do hurt someone charge them for the actual offending action, not the fact that they used a substance that plenty of others are able to do without doing something stupid.

    Yeah, I'm a little bitter but I hate it when people cite a single situation, such as someone who hit a pedestrian with a car because he was stoned and wasn't paying attention, as a justifiable reason to ban it. As if the mentioned example is somehow comparable to my own smoking habit, which pretty much amounts to me smoking a joint and playing Street Fighter.

    • Bjorn Odinsson

      Lol too true Trikstr, it is very hypocritical for the government to sanction alcohol and tobacco, but not marijauna or psychotropics. More people are hurt, maimed or killed by alcohol in a year than by MJ. Have you ever heard of a domestic abuse situation arising from cannabis? I haven't. As for the health concerns, there are far fewer with marijuana than with cigarettes.

  • http://the-wonderful-wizard-of-uus.blogspot.com Robin Edgar

    Believe it or not I have seen that pompous ASS* Richard Dawkins use drugs responsibly.

    In fact he ever so responsibly used ayahuasca of all things!

    No joke. . .

    * Atheist Supremacist Spokesperson

    • http://the-wonderful-wizard-of-uus.blogspot.com Robin Edgar

      That's what I figured Jason, as my comment indicates. :-)

      I have had at least two or three comments magically vanish after having every appearance of being successfully posted to your blog.

  • Aron R.

    Well said, LiviaIndica!

    • http://the-wonderful-wizard-of-uus.blogspot.com Robin Edgar

      Where are the Rastafarians when you really need them? 😉

  • AmericanTrikstr

    Friend of mine has ADHD. Smokes for the same reason your friend does; only way to keep himself focused. He tried the legal route, some form of pills, but hated the way he felt using them. He felt more like himself when he was a little stoned compared to using the pills.

  • Bjorn Odinsson

    Lol probably. . .I can see it now . . . *deep inhale* "why we fightin? ah f*ck it let's get som ice cream!"

  • http://robin-edgar-for-king-of-the-uu-world.blogspot.com Robin Edgar

    I guess I will have to rewrite it then but right now I am going out to catch some more sun while I still can.

    • http://the-wonderful-wizard-of-uus.blogspot.com Robin Edgar

      Believe it or not I have seen that pompous ASS* Richard Dawkins use drugs responsibly.

      In fact he ever so responsibly used ayahuasca of all things!

      No joke. . .

      * Atheist Supremacist Spokesperson

  • Robin Emeraldfox

    Just sharing my opinion. That's what comments are for after all…

    • http://www.thegreenwolf.com Lupa

      I think one of the big issues will be who's a "real enough" pagan. It's one thing to be part of an organized group that applies for legal use of entheogens, but what about the numerous solitaries and otherwise unaffiliated folks? Will people join pagan groups just to get access to the entheogens?

      That being said, I see this as very good news. Maybe with legalization and regulation we can funnel more money towards education, particularly that involving knowledge of responsible use of various substances, so people know better what they're getting into, whether for recreational or spiritual reasons.

      • Robin Emeraldfox

        I gotta say, I'm one of those Pagans that isn't entirely supportive of the use of drugs of any kind of reach altered states. I've just never seen anyone use drugs responsibly (or for any other purpose than to "have fun") and until I do, I'll remain a skeptic.

        • WesternLight

          I feel the same way sometimes. Most Pagans I know are users, and they look down on me for not using. My coven is the exception…they respect my preferences, though they do not agree, and they will use around me (which SUCKS…there's nothing worse than watching people you care about devolve into near brainlessness). Believe me, you can reach altered states without substance abuse, and without the brain damage!

          • Tracie the Red

            Well, it's been my experience that if a person is a non-drug user and is against drug use, other Pagans tend to treat one like one is somehow less enlightened than those who do use drugs.

      • AmericanTrikstr

        That's because responsible drug users don't advertise it to the rest of the populace. Why? Because it's no one else's concern.

        Not every pot smoker wears hemp necklaces, sandals, and clothing depicting pot leaves. Likewise not everyone that smokes pot does so 24/7.

        The question isn't so much whether or not your approve (I personally couldn't care less whether you do or not) but if it's justified to make them illegal.

        • http://erynn999.livejournal.com Erynn

          Perhaps you've never seen anyone doing so because it's risky to admit publicly that one does such things. Not only do we have to face the "justice" system in whatever country we're working in, we also have to deal with people who are prejudiced against any use of mind altering substances that aren't alcohol. Most people who are doing the work aren't going to talk to others about it if they aren't also doing similar work. Nobody wants to end up in prison.

          • http://the-wonderful-wizard-of-uus.blogspot.com Robin Edgar

            Believe it or not I have seen that pompous ASS* Richard Dawkins use drugs responsibly.

            In fact he ever so responsibly used ayahuasca of all things!

            No joke. . .

            * Atheist Supremacist Spokesperson

          • Tracie the Red

            RE: "we also have to deal with people who are prejudiced against any use of mind altering substances that aren't alcohol."

            Well, I'm one of them. Just because one is a Pagan does not mean one has to be a stoner. Just because one is a Pagan does not mean one smokes pot at all.

            Whence cometh this stereotype, that Pagans are, by definition, drug users?

            There are some of us out here who don't use them, don't want to use them, really hate being the only sober person in the room when going to rites (usually private ones at people's homes, not the big public ones) and would really like to find some other non-drug using Pagans to talk to and hang out with.

          • Baruch

            "There are some of us out here who […] really hate being the only sober person in the room when going to rites […] and would really like to find some other non-drug using Pagans to talk to and hang out with."

            Then do what my wife and I did when circumstances forced us to make a break with the coven in which we'd been initiated: Start your own drug-free coven in your own living room. Draw to yourself the kind of Pagans you want to Circle with. We started out with three. We've now reached the capacity of the living room, and that's with me getting the day's exercise by moving a lot of stuff out of the room before the ritual and then moving it all back in afterward.

            Baruch Dreamstalker

          • Baruch

            (Continued; caught by the length limit)

            "Whence cometh this stereotype, that Pagans are, by definition, drug users?"

            I'm not aware of any such stereotype. As recently as the mid-1980s, Margot Adler's festival survey found *lots* of flat-out anti-drug sentiment. Things have probably changed since then but it started out from a quite different base. I know heavy-hitter Pagans, I know teetotaling Pagans, and I know exactly *one* Pagan who uses before Circle, to attend to his ADD.

            Baruch Dreamstalker

          • Bjorn Odinsson

            I completely respect the "sober pagans" although they can be downer at times 😉

            Part of my Heathen practice is consuming meads and wines as a sacrament, but I recognize that other Heathens prefer to use juice instead, which is perfectly acceptable as well. I think what is good about this possibility of legalization is that the stigma can be removed. Drugs and alcohol aren't bad in and of themselves, it is the user's intentions. I believe that consuming certain substances merely for recreation is a waste of the oracular spirit contained within (such as mushrooms, peyote, ayahuasca [although who would want to use ayahuasca for fun?? Unless you like pooping and vomitting all over yourself lol])

            I think it very un-Pagan to reject an amoral action or practice out of hand, simply because our Christian biased government and society says we should.

        • http://apaganheart.blogspot.com embreis

          Perhaps you would be less sick of it if you would actually read the posts and understand the subject under discussion. I don't see that either Donald or I said that you had to use drugs or even approve of using drugs to be a Pagan. I don't myself use them. What I find deplorable is the tendency of some Pagans to support the continued use of state violence to oppress people who do choose to use drugs. Or to have sex in unapproved ways, for that matter.
          The point of the "condition of Episcopalians" line is to suggest that some of us have become too interested in being respectable and joining the oligarchy. It is an allusion to Walter Pater's statement that "All art aspires to the condition of music," meaning to be pure form divorced from content. Perhaps it would be less confusing if I said "to the condition of yuppies."

          • Tracie the Red

            There's more:

            But any time someone makes comments like this:

            "The reason there is so little support is because so many Pagans aspire to the condition of Episcopalians."

            …that is not that far away from saying "You're not REALLY Pagan if you don't do this – you must REALLY be a Christian!"

            I've been told I must not be a free spirit because I don't indulge in a LOT of things.

            I wasn't aware that my Paganism was dependent on my sexual life (who I did and did not sleep with) – my use or non-use of intoxicants – who I do and do not vote for – whether or not I am a vegetarian – etc.

            I'm getting really sick to death of this unconscious mental attitude that "you're only a REAL Pagan if you use drugs, sleep with everything that moves, eat only plant foods, vote Democrat, etc"

            Absolutely sick of it.

      • Baruch

        Robin, I used to feel the way you do about use of drugs in group ritual. I had used cannabis when I was a Solitary to reach altered states, but I figured that in a Circle you needed everyone to be in their right mind for the ritual to work.

        I then found out that one of my coveners was almost always under the inflluence of cannabis during ritual. He suffers from attention deficit disorder, and it's only when he's using that he has some control over his attention. I later found out from a New Yorker article that doctors in California are using cannabis to treat ADD.

        One lives and one learns.

        Baruch Dreamstalker

        • http://emersonavenger.blogspot.com/2009/03/uu-folks-if-youre-going-to-insult-robin.html Robin Edgar

          Don't read *too* much into my waggish comments Baruch. In fact it is not clear to me what exactly you feel that I feel about use of drugs in group ritual. Indeed I wasn't really dealing with group ritual in either of my (hopefully) humorous comments. My comment about Rastafarians was simply suggesting that, because Rastafarians consider smoking marijuana to be a religious sacrament, they *might* be able to use similar legal arguments to effectively "Legalize It" for themselves; thus *possibly* opening the door to broader legalization of marijuana use.

          I do not partake myself. I have been a non-smoker all of my life. I have of course taken a few puffs here and there in the past, mainly to be sociable with my pot smoking friends, and it is almost impossible to walk down the street in Montreal without catching a whiff or two these days, indeed I caught more than a few whiffs of marijuana smoke and other forms of smoke last Sunday afternoon during an annual Montreal group ritual that could be described as a Rite of Spring, but, to the best of my recollection, I haven't properly inhaled smoke from a marijuana in a couple of decades.

          The only drugs that I partake of these days are caffeine and alcohol, both in moderation as a rule, although I do make exceptions every now and then. Who needs entheogenic substances to get in touch with "the gods" when you're psychotic? :-)

        • http://the-wonderful-wizard-of-uus.blogspot.com Robin Edgar

          Baruch I posted a detailed response to your comment but it seems to have disappeared. Presumably it is none-the-less in the email inboxes of those people who subscribe to comments. I would appreciate it if someone could email it back to me at –

          robinedgar59@yahoo.ca so

          that I can repost it verbatim because I forgot to archive it.

          For the record this is not the first time that comments I have successfully posted here have mysteriously disappeared later, even though I can think of no reason for Jason to delete them. Normally he would notify me if he did so. Have others had similar experiences with this new comment forum?

          • Jason Pitzl-Waters

            Robin, I haven't deleted your comments. It must be a glitch in the system. If I wanted to delete one of your comments you'd know about it.

          • Baruch

            Robin, I didn't see any response from you in my email. I generally see comments before they're deleted on the GetReligion list (and some of them are corkers!) but that's a different software. I'm sorry to have missed it.

            Baruch Dreamstalker

          • http://erynn999.livejournal.com Erynn

            It's about time that the US government got out of the religion business. I've been arguing for the sensible spiritual use of entheogens for years now. I've always said that our bodies have not evolved all that much since the time when entheogen use was an everyday occurrence for shamans and other indigenous religious specialists, so those who argue "we don't need them anymore" are just trying to appease the government and not arguing from any genuine biological basis.

            I fully agree with the idea that anyone who doesn't want to use entheogens in a religious context should not have to. But those of us who do such things should not be kept from using them in ritual or turned into criminals because we have made an informed choice. And really, I'm with AT in thinking that if someone isn't hurting anyone by their use of entheogens, we should just leave them alone. Laws regarding entheogens should be the same as laws regarding alcohol.

            Pete McCormack, a Canadian blogger, has been talking about the political, economic, and social consequences of the war on (some) drugs for years now at http://petemccormack.com/blog/ — he's well worth a read.

        • Tracie the Red

          To continue:

          The definition of "Pagan" does not hinge on whether or not one uses drugs – and last I checked, there was NO PAGAN POPE who defined orthodoxy and orthopraxis for all Pagans.

          We became Pagans to get away from that kind of thing.