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.

Jason Pitzl-Waters