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Florida Ayahuasca Church Seeks Federal Exemption

Florida Ayahuasca Church Seeks Federal Exemption

In central Florida, not far from Disney World and the Magic Kingdom, there’s another magical kind of kingdom of sorts, promising its visitors a bit of that old Walt Disney adage: “It’s kind of fun to do the impossible.” But you won’t find giant mice and roller coasters at Soul Quest — at least not in the literal sense. Its version of “doing the impossible” is administering ayahuasca to nearly 100 visitors almost every weekend who come to drink the brew at the organization’s Orlando retreat center. 

Soul Quest is a nonprofit organization that has received widespread public attention and support for offering ayahuasca ceremonies, especially to veterans. The retreat center was featured in the critically acclaimed 2017 documentary From Shock to Awe, which was endorsed by psychedelic medicine advocates including Michael Pollan and Tim Ferris. 

But Soul Quest’s efforts to seek attention and be recognized as a church may have implications for the organization and create an uncertain legal precedent. 

Soul Quest is suing the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) to receive a religious exemption from the Controlled Substances Act. The group claims that legal restrictions over their use of ayahuasca in their ceremonies are an abridgment of its First Amendment right to free speech under the U.S. Constitution. It first filed a petition with the DEA for exemption more than three years ago. But the agency never responded. 

An earlier precedent-setting case in 2008 granted exemption for an Oregon Santo Daime church, which uses ayahuasca as a sacrament, under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. In an effort to be recognized as a church and receive an exemption, Soul Quest’s “Founder and Medicine Man” Chris Young says his organization decided to sue. Their petition was filed in a federal court in Orlando, Florida, on May 4, 2020.

“The members of Soul Quest[…]have a fundamental right to practice their religious sacraments within that right being restrained by federal authorities,” Derek Brett, attorney for Soul Quest told Lucid News, asserting that the organization qualifies as a church according to state law. “These same rights are also secured under the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), as well as internal Department of Justice directives designed to vindicate (sic) religious practices.”

Soul Quest has been in operation since 2014. According to Young, the group now has more than 30,000 paying members and has hosted more than 13,000 visitors three weekends a month, every month since it first opened. Three-day retreats start at $700 for basic accommodations with options up over $1000.

Young says the members of Soul Quest “have the right to believe and worship whatever we wish.” He points to the Spaghetti Monster church, which, he claims, “won the right to wear colanders [on their] heads”  

“We didn’t want to be so dogmatic, we didn’t have a lineage,” says Young.  He asserts that the group’s sacrament “comes from a whole line of South American traditions,” and points to the “Ayahuasca Manifesto” as the group’s sacred text. But when asked, Young was not able to name its author. 

According to the organization, it has never been raided by federal authorities or charged with a crime. The organization was investigated in 2018 by the Orange County Sheriff’s Office after leaders at one of its ceremonies waited more than three hours to summon medical assistance for a young man who had a seizure and later died after being transported to the hospital. According to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the investigation was closed later that year and no arrests were made in the case. 

A civil lawsuit has been filed by the parents of the man who died. According to Young, the suit was filed against the organization in mid-April, about a week before Soul Quest filed its federal claim against the DEA. According to Brett, the timing of the lawsuits are coincidental. He would not comment on the civil case.

Young and his team filed a petition with the DEA three years ago in an effort to secure their right to legally administer and use ayahuasca on their property. The brew is classified as a Schedule 1 drug (alongside heroin and LSD) because it contains the psychoactive compound DMT. But around the world, countries like Italy and Costa Rica are easing restrictions on ayahuasca. Research into its potential  benefits for treating mental and emotional illness, as well as addiction to drugs like heroin, have shown promise in clinical settings. 

According to attorney Jack Silver, filing a petition with the DEA for religious exemption “is counter productive to goals most of us have for the religious use of an entheogen.” Silver represented the Church of the Holy Light of the Queen, an Oregon ayahuasca church affiliated with the Brazilian Santo Daime religion. The church won protection under RFRA in 2008 and set a precedent in that case.

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Silver argues that because of the separation of church and state, “neither the DEA nor any agency of the U.S. government has the legal authority to determine if a person has a genuine religious belief or practice.” 

Young and Soul Quest jeopardize their rights and potentially the rights of others like them, according to Silver. “Those that apply for an exemption …may be waiving certain rights guaranteed under the Constitution as well as setting a bad precedent,” he says. “In the Soul Quest approach the plaintiff has to show that the mere existence of the CSA [Controlled Substances Act] poses a substantial burden in and of itself.” And that’s no small task. 

Young says his group is pursuing this legal strategy because they want the recognition and the ability to expand and add more locations around the country. Young opened Soul Quest after having a profound experience with ayahuasca shortly after his partner miscarried. “What the medicine told me was ‘what you think you might have lost you did not,’” he said. “Now I just want to help people.” According to Young, many of the church’s visitors are battling emotional issues, grief, or PTSD. 

Without a response to their request for an exemption to the Controlled Substances Act, Young and Soul Quest say they will continue to offer ayahuasca without the blessing of the federal government. The DEA can ask the federal court to dismiss the case against it. Courts tend to give deference to the agency in interpreting its own regulations, which makes a dismissal more likely.

“The DEA has never given an exemption,” Silver says. “The DEA has discretion on its side and is not bound by any timeline to review or grant exemptions. It will have to respond to the legal filings,” Silver says, but “more than likely, this case will be dismissed.”

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