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Religious Freedom Beats Drug Law

In 1999, Jonathan Goldman’s house in Ashland, Oregon, was raided and Goldman jailed briefly for possession of an hallucinogenic tea known as ayahuasca or daime. The tea contains DMT, a Schedule A narcotic, which means that possession and distribution is a felony. Goldman, however, was the padrinho of a branch of the Santo Daime Church called the Holy Light of the Queen. For practitioners of this syncretic Christian church born in the jungles of Brazil, the tea is analogous to wine used during communion. In fact, the tea is even more integral to the religion than communion wine because the experiences provided by the tea are the essence of the religion. Without the tea, there is no religion.

No charges were ever filed against Goldman, but for years his 80-member church had to practice in secret, risking arrest. Then, in 2008, Goldman boldly sued the government under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, the law that was used by Native Americans to legalize peyote ceremonies. In March 2009, Goldman won a unanimous verdict in U.S. District Court. The Drug Enforcement Administration and the Department of Justice can no longer interfere or prosecute church members who abide by some simple rules and safety precautions.

Members of the church do not proselytize, and their brew is not for the faint of spirit. Newcomers must have a sponsor, and a lengthy screening precedes any ceremonial work. The tea tastes vile, and roughly one-third of the people who try it experience nausea or vomiting. Rituals last for several hours — sometimes all night — and the waking dreams can be challenging or frightening. But the tea often provides profound insights into personal problems. The tea is not addictive. In fact, ayahuasca has been found to be very helpful in freeing people from other addictions.

Perhaps most fascinating about Goldman’s case was how thoroughly the government was beaten. Taking into account both sides, our current drug war is estimated to be a $500 billion business worldwide, and yet the DEA and Department of Justice were unable to explain what this battle was about or who they were protecting. The case will likely not be appealed perhaps because a loss in a higher court could significantly shrink their business.

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