The federal system of drug laws in the U.S. is very simple and straightforward with regard to some substances and extremely ambiguous for others. Drugs categorized in Schedule I of the Controlled Substances Act (CSA) are effectively banned for any and all purposes. Organizations may apply to the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) for a religious exception, which would allow the use of certain scheduled substances for specific religious purposes. Ayahuasca, also known as yagé, is a tea made using plants from South America that contain a psychedelic compound. It is gaining popularity in the U.S. In late 2015, an organization claimed to have obtained the legal right to use ayahuasca in religious ceremonies, but the DEA appears to have had other ideas. The organization halted its activities, and the legal status of ayahuasca remains unclear.
The CSA categorizes controlled substances in five schedules, with Schedule I being the most restricted. This includes a psychedelic compound called N,N-dimethyltryptamine, or “DMT.” 21 U.S.C. § 812(c)(I)(c)(6), 21 C.F.R. § 1308.11(d)(19). Ayahuasca is a tea made using leaves from two plants: a vine commonly known as ayahuasca and a shrub known as chacruna. Ayahuasca leaves contain compounds that interact with naturally occurring DMT in chacruna, resulting in a tea that people can drink in order to feel the effects of the DMT. The ayahuasca plant itself is therefore not illegal under the CSA, but the chacruna plant, and any product that includes chacruna leaves, would be considered a Schedule I controlled substance.
The DEA can grant exceptions to its regulations after receipt of a written petition. 21 C.F.R. § 1307.3. The agency’s director has broad discretion to grant or deny such a request. The Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) prohibits the government from “substantially burden[ing] a person’s exercise of religion” without demonstrating the measure is the “least restrictive means” of pursuing a “compelling governmental interest.” 42 U.S.C. § 2000bb-1. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of a church in a RFRA case involving ayahuasca, holding that the federal government’s seizure of the tea did not serve a compelling government interest. Gonzales v. O Centro Espirita Beneficente União do Vegetal, 546 U.S. 418 (2006).