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DOJ Says Recent Ayahuasca Church Settlement Is Irrelevant for Other Groups Seeking Exemption

The Department of Justice will have no mercy on other ayahuasca churches seeking religious exemption from the Controlled Substances Act.

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In an ongoing lawsuit over the legal status of an Iowa-based church that wants to incorporate ayahuasca into its ceremonies, the Department of Justice (DOJ) is downplaying the significance of a recent deal hammered out between the federal government and a separate Arizona church (the Church of the Eagle and the Condor) that also uses the psychedelic brew as part of its practice.

In a filing with the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals last week, the Iowaska Church of Healing—which is seeking both tax-exempt status and an exemption to allow it to use ayahuasca ceremonially—said “there are no differences” between the two organizations “that could plausibly be material under the Controlled Substances Act (CSA) and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA).”

“Both churches seek to engage in ayahuasca tea ceremonies,” Iowaska’s letter to the court says. “The Government has not questioned the sincerity of either church’s religious exercise.”

READ: Church of the Eagle and the Condor Can Now Drink Ayahuasca Legally in the US

The government’s recent agreement with the Arizona-based Church of the Eagle and the Condor (CEC) permits the church “to practice its ayahuasca sacrament, and to engage in related activities including importation and manufacture, on a permanent basis, subject to various anti-diversion, documentation, health and safety, inspection and security requirements,” Iowaska pointed out in its letter.

“The CEC settlement must be presumed to represent the Government’s view of the public policy enshrined in the CSA and RFRA in this context,” the organization told the court, saying it would be “irrational” to penalize Iowaska while allowing CEC—which Iowaska claims never applied for an exemption—to proceed.

In a one-page reply letter filed with the court last Friday, however, a DOJ’s tax division lawyer called the government’s settlement with the Arizona church “irrelevant.”

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That church’s lawsuit, wrote DOJ attorney Kathleen Lyon, “does not involve a request for tax-exempt status…and is therefore irrelevant to the resolution of this case in any event.”

Lyon also asserted that Iowaska’s letter to the court was filed inappropriately “and should be disregarded in its entirety.”

“The document is not new authority,” she wrote of the federal settlement with CEC, adding that Iowaska’s submission of its letter to the court “is not a procedure for supplementing the record on appeal.”

The exchange was first reported this week by Law360.

The Iowaska Church of Healing first sent its petition to the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) asking for an exemption around ayahuasca use in 2019. A separate request for a tax exemption with the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) initially received no response from the agency, according to court filings.

The church found an unusual ally in anti-drug U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA), who court filings say was instrumental in expediting the regulatory appeals process back in 2021. A Grassley spokesperson told Marijuana Moment the following year that the senator’s help shouldn’t necessarily be viewed as an endorsement of the church’s point of view on psychedelics, however.

The church says it has not incorporated the hallucinogen in its services since 2019 after IRS responded to an information request stating that the activity was considered illegal. It also has never conducted ceremonies at the church’s Iowa address and the sacramental ingredients have never been stored there, Bill Boatwright, an attorney representing Iowaska in the case, told Marijuana Moment in 2022.

As for the Arizona church, CEC sued the government in 2022 in response to Department of Homeland Security (DHS) seizures of shipments of ayahuasca intended for ceremonial use as well as the government’s threats that the group and its members could face federal prosecution.

The settlement document shared by CEC last month establishes that the group can now import, process and use ayahuasca, though DEA reserves the right to take spot samples of the imports “for the purpose of confirming that the consignment is in fact ayahuasca which contains no controlled substance other than DMT.”

The group’s general counsel called the agreement “a watershed moment in the United States.”

“The resolution of this case represents the government’s recognition of this community’s right to exercise their religious beliefs without interference,” Martha Hartney said in a CEC release about the settlement. “Indigenous ways are returning to a place of honor, respect, and care in American culture–a culture made more beautiful because of Indigenous ritual, art, and cosmology in which all of creation is family.”

READ: What Happens When Psychedelic Evangelism Goes Too Far?

While some U.S. jurisdictions have recently loosened psychedelics laws, none has included provisions around importing psychedelic substances internationally.

Separately, DEA argued last month in a U.S. appeals court case that the federal Right to Try Act—intended give patients with terminal conditions the opportunity to try investigational medications that have not been approved for general use—“does not provide anyone with a right to dispense or receive controlled substances.” The agency’s claim came in a new brief in a lawsuit filed by a Washington State doctor seeking to use psilocybin to treat cancer patients in end-of-life care legally.

Meanwhile, earlier this year DEA called for the production of even more DMT—along with psilocybin and THC—for research purposes than it had initially proposed for 2024, raising quotas for those drugs while maintaining already high production goals for marijuana and psychedelics.

DEA has touted its Schedule I drug production quotas as evidence that is supports rigorous research into the substances, but it’s faced criticism from advocates and scientists over actions that are viewed as antithetical to promoting studies.

For example, DEA in December announced that it would take another shot at banning two psychedelics after abandoning its original scheduling proposal in 2022, teeing up a fight with researchers and advocates who say the compounds hold therapeutic potential and who more recently argued that the agency’s administrative approach to the proposed scheduling is unconstitutional.

*This story originally appeared on Marijuana Moment

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DoubleBlind is a trusted resource for news, evidence-based education, and reporting on psychedelics. We work with leading medical professionals, scientific researchers, journalists, mycologists, indigenous stewards, and cultural pioneers. Read about our editorial policy and fact-checking process here.

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DoubleBlind Magazine does not encourage or condone any illegal activities, including but not limited to the use of illegal substances. We do not provide mental health, clinical, or medical services. We are not a substitute for medical, psychological, or psychiatric diagnosis, treatment, or advice. If you are in a crisis or if you or any other person may be in danger or experiencing a mental health emergency, immediately call 911 or your local emergency resources. If you are considering suicide, please call 988 to connect with the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.

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