Religious liberty meets the Controlled Substances Act

The Centro Espirito Beneficiente Unaio do Vegetal (UDV) is a Brazilian church combining Christian beliefs with a practice copied from certain Amazonian Indians: ritual use of a psychoactive sacrament brewed from two Amazonian plants. The church and its sacraments are legal in Brazil. Its small American branch, which has both US and Brazilian nationals as members, sued the federal government, claiming the right to pursue its worship here in the face of the drug laws, after a shipment of the sacramental mixture was seized in 1999.

In November, U.S. District Judge James Parker (a Reagan appointee famous for blasting the government in the Wen Ho Lee case, and currently the Chief Judge of the New Mexico District) gave an interim ruling in the church’s favor, granting a preliminary injunction that would have allowed the church to resume services using its “tea,” which it calls hoasca. (The primary documents in the case up to that point are here.)

[Note: I testified as an expert witness for the church, not on any of the questions about religious liberty but on the narrow question of how likely it would be, should he church prevail in the lawsuit, that some of the “tea” would be diverted to the illicit market. Not likely at all, I said. Under the circumstances, I don’t think I should express any opinion on the merits here, or anywhere outside the courtroom, until the case is over.]

The government promptly appealed, and won a stay of that order from the Tenth Circuit. The appeal itself has now been briefed, and will be argued sometime in March. Below are links to:

The government’s original brief: Government’s appeal brief.rtf

The church’s response: UDV appellee’s brief.pdf

An amicus brief by the Christian Legal Society, the National Association of Evangelicals, and the Presbyterian Church: CLS Amicus Brief1.doc

The government’s reply: finalreplybrief.wpd

If on reading the documents you discover the killer argument, I’ll be happy to pass it along to the church’s lawyers.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: