The U.S. Attorney’s office for the Southern District of Texas has dismissed all charges against a practitioner of traditional Colombian healing who came flew into the U.S. with several vials of a ayahuasca, a potion containing DMT. The announcement described the decision as being “in the interest of justice,” which is prosecutor-speak for “we really don’t want to put this guy away.”
No doubt that was the correct decision. Juan Agreda-Chindoy is apparently a licensed traditional healer in Colombia. The courts have already decided that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act protects the ritual use of ayahuasca – the sacrament of two sizeable denominations recognize by the Brazilian government – when used by the American branches of those denominations, and it would be legally odd (to say no more) to decide that a given material is legal in some ritual uses but not others.
Still, the fact that Agreda-Chindoy could have spent months or years behind bars had the U.S. Attorney’s office decided differently (a jury might well have convicted him on the charge of which he was no doubt facially guilty: trying to import a controlled substance) suggests that the current legal situation is far from satisfactory. Congress has explicitly recognized peyote use in Native American rituals, without changing the classification of peyote and the mescaline it contains as Schedule I drugs, contraband in all other contexts. And RFRA provides that any federal law burdening the exercise of religion must meet a strict necessity test. But leaving the matter to be decided case-by-case means that problems such as this one will recur, and the free exercise of religion involving controlled drugs will be limited to those with the organization and funding to fight through litigation.
The Justice Department needs to think this through carefully and then publish a set of regulations under which religious bodies can apply for formal permission to use otherwise-controlled drugs, on a showing of sincere religious intent and reasonable measures to ensure the safety of participants and to prevent the diversion of ritual material to non-ritual use or sale. Judge Panner’s order in the Santo Daime case sets what seems to be a reasonable set of guidelines.