U.S. Supreme Court Case
Ayahuasca (EYE-ah-WAS-ka) or hoasca (Was-ka) is a psychoactive brew that contains the naturally-occurring compound, dimethyltryptamine (DMT). The brew iscustomarily prepared by combining bark scraped from the stem of Banisteriopsi caapi vine with leaves from the Psychotria viridis bush. These ingredients are boiled for several hours into a thick, brown liquid.
Psychotria viridis leaves and stems
Ayahuasca is used as a ceremonial sacrament by several South American religious groups. The U.S. Government challenged the religious use of hoasca after a Federal District Court granted a small Christian spiritualist church in New Mexico (UDV) the right to continue using their “tea.” A series of legal maneuvers landed the case in the U.S. Supreme Court [Alberto R. Gonzales v. O Centro Espirita Beneficiente Uniao Do Vegetal, No. 04-1084] which heard oral arguments on November 1, 2005. One issue raised by the case is the potential health risk of hoasca. A group of us filed an Amicus Brief with the Supreme Court in support of the church dealing exclusively with the health issues. A PDF file of that brief is available here: Amicus Brief. We strickly limited ourselves to the material in a Joint Appendix to which the parties had agreed. Thus we could not add medical and scientific research references that exist outside the Joint Appendix. …But there was plenty of excellent material in the Appendix that ran more than 1000 pages!
On February 21, 2006, the Supreme Court issued a unanimous opinion, written by Chief Justice Roberts, that read, in part: “it is true, of course, the Schedule I substances such as DMT are exceptionally dangerous. See, e.g., Touby v. United States, 500 U.S. 160, 162 (1991). Nevertheless, there is no indication that Congress, in classifying DMT, considered the harms posed by the particular use at issue here–the circumscribed, sacramental use of hoasca by the UDV.” [546 U.S. 418 (2006).
There were other critical legal issues in this case, including the Government’s burden to show a compelling interest in prohibiting DMT use under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. The Supreme Court’s ruling applies to the Government’s burden at the stage of a preliminary injunction, so it is possible the the issue of health risks from sacramental use of DMT will surface again in a trial on the merits.
The photo to the right shows members of the UDV church preparing the sacramental
brew in Brazil. The photo is credited to Leonide D. Principe, and appears in a chapter
by Dennis J. McKenna, Ayahuasca: An Ethnopharmacologic History, in R. Metzner
(Editor) (pp. 187-213). Ayahuasca: Human Consciousness and the Spirits of
Nature. New York, NY: Thunder’s Mouth Press, 1999.
I attempted to summarize the primary physiological and psychological risks from ayahuasca in an article that appeared in 2007 (vol. 102, pp. 24-24) in the journal Addiction. A PDF of the article can be retrieved here. Ayahuasca toxicity.