November 1, 2005

Supreme Court Considers Hallucinogenic Tea

By James Vicini

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Several U.S. Supreme Court members appeared supportive on Tuesday of allowing New Mexican followers of a small Brazilian-based religion to legally use hallucinogenic tea as a sacrament, a case that pits drug laws against those protecting religious freedoms.

During arguments about sacramental hoasca tea, several justices said the federal government already has made an exception by allowing peyote use by Native American churches.

"You can make an exception without the sky falling," Justice Antonin Scalia told the government's attorney.

Repeating that the sky had not fallen, Justice John Paul Stevens asked whether government's interest might be "not all that compelling" because of the small numbers who use the tea.

Referring to peyote and hoasca tea, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg asked, "If the government accommodates one, why not the other?" She expressed concern about whether the government could give preference to one religion over another one.

Members of the religion called O Centro Espirita Beneficiente Uniao do Vegetal believe the tea is sacred and that using it connects them to God. The tea is made from two plants that grow in the Amazon.

Founded in Brazil in 1961, the religion practices a blend of Christian theology and indigenous South American beliefs. It has about 8,000 members in Brazil and about 130 followers in a branch in New Mexico.

Deputy Solicitor General Edwin Kneedler urged the justices to overturn a U.S. appeals court ruling that held the government could not prohibit sacramental use of the tea because of the 1993 religious freedom law.

The tea contains dimethyltryptamine, or DMT, a controlled substance banned under U.S. drug laws. He said the appeals court ruling carved out an exception under the federal Controlled Substances Act.

Chief Justice John Roberts described the government's position as "totally categorical" and said that if members of the religion used only "one drop of the hallucinogen" its position would still be the same.

Nancy Hollander, an attorney from New Mexico representing U.S. followers of the religion, argued that the church and its members only sought to practice their religion, a right guaranteed by Congress under the religious freedom law.

She said such religious liberties cannot be burdened by the government and asked the court to affirm an injunction allowing the importation and use of the tea in religious ceremonies.

Several justices pressed her about the 1971 U.N. Convention on Psychotropic Substances, a treaty signed by the United States that bars importation of the drug in the tea.

"Tea is a solution. It includes DMT. Isn't that the end of the issue?" Justice David Souter asked.

The justices are expected to issue a decision by the middle of next year.