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.”

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