High court ruling steeped in religion

The Supreme Court’s decision to let a group use a hallucinogenic tea in ceremonies has been called a milestone.

Angela Gray

Religion, tradition and controversy – all in a cup of tea.

On Feb. 21 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled unanimously to allow a congregation in New Mexico to use hallucinogenic tea as part of a four-hour, twice-a-month ritual in which members believe they connect with God.

The tea is known to various peoples in South America as “ayahuasca,” which means “vine to the gods.”

It contains illegal drug dimethyltryptamine, also known as DMT, and is considered sacred to members of O Centro Espirita Beneficiente Uniao do Vegetal, which has a blend of Christian beliefs and South American traditions.

Dennis McKenna, senior lecturer and research associate for the University’s Center for Spirituality and Healing, wrote in an e-mail that the ruling was an important milestone in the history of religious freedom.

But McKenna, who is one of the nation’s leading experts in botanical medicine, said he was “a little puzzled as to why it has received so little attention in the mainstream media.”

Mark Blumenthal, founder of the American Journal of Botanicals, said this Supreme Court ruling is important because it is the first time in 30 years a U.S. court has upheld the right of a religious group to use various traditional plants as a sacrament, “especially a plant that has a psychoactive activity.”

The Bush administration had argued that the drug in the tea, known recreationally as “deemsters,” not only violates a federal narcotics law but also a treaty in which the United States promised to block the importation of DMT.

Joe Halvorson, a journalism student and an officer for Science, Religion and the Search for Human Nature, said the use of ayahuasca results in a chemically induced spiritual experience.

“It is similar to those described in virtually every religious tradition in history,” Halvorson said.

Paul Jungwirth, 23, of Minneapolis said he hopes society is moving toward an evolution in human consciousness.

He said a lot of people are opposed to using the drug because it goes against the “dominator model of the society we live in.”

“People don’t hear reasonable discussions going on about the potential benefits of hallucinogenic drug use, and that’s a shame,” Halvorson said.

He said the court ruling is a similar situation to when Americans began using psychedelics in the 1960s for experimental purposes.

“Psychedelic substances were outlawed and demonized through propaganda and the taboos which surrounded it that are still present today,” Halvorson said.

Some people disagree with the court ruling, Blumenthal said, because they oppose any unconventional substance that changes the normal waking state of consciousness.

“If you want to look at it honestly, coffee changes the waking state of consciousness and yet is allowed and reinforced,” he said.

“It’s the same thing with alcohol, every culture has one or two plants or plant materials or kinds of rituals designed to change the normal state of consciousness.”

“Those against (the tea use) have limited understanding.”

The issues surrounding the case revolve around a different type of understanding, said Halvorson.

“Consciousness and the religious experience are the greatest mysteries of mankind,” he said.

“A better understanding of those phenomena could help unify the human race by showing us how we are all essentially the same,” he said.

Blumenthal said ayahuasca is not being used in a recreational manner.

“People are not drinking the tea and then going off to a rock concert or having all night raves,” he said.

He supports the court ruling, Blumenthal said, because he supports the Bill of Rights and freedom of religion.

“I have studied the use of ayahuasca,” he said, “and respect the native cultures around the world that use it.”

Blumenthal said he did not think the court ruling would open doors for future cases where people would try to slip in recreational drug use through the “freedom of religion loophole.”

Halvorson said he hopes that one day people will accept different religious practices no matter how unconventional.

“Who knows, maybe in the very distant future, us ‘civilized’ Westerners will have the courage to grasp hold of that vine to the gods and see what we’ve been missing out on over the past couple thousand years,” Halvorson said.