Friday, August 27, 2010
By Scott Sandlin
Journal Staff Writer
A Santa Fe congregation that uses a hallucinogenic brew of South American plants as a sacrament thought its battle with the government was over in early 2006.
It had won a unanimous ruling from the U.S. Supreme Court that year that said federal drug regulators hadn’t met their burden under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act in trying to restrict importation and use of the tea.
But it wasn’t until last week that the case actually ended.
Senior U.S. District Judge James A. Parker summoned the Albuquerque attorneys for the Brazil-based church, O Centro Espirita Beneficente Uniao do Vegetal, or UDV, to his courtroom. U.S. Department of Justice attorneys participated by phone from Washington, D.C., for a hearing in the 10-year-old civil lawsuit.
Parker offered his gratitude to the lawyers for their hard work on the case, and to Chief U.S. Magistrate Judge Richard Puglisi for helping them reach the 21-page settlement and agreement to dismiss the case.
UDV members were able to use hoasca again after a stay was lifted in 2004. The agreement codifies procedures for importing, registering, record keeping, inspection, storage and security of the tea. It also includes payment of the plaintiffs’ attorney fees, although the amount is redacted from the agreement.
Parker observed at the hearing that the case originated when Janet Reno was the attorney general, and proceeded through five other U.S. attorneys general over the years.
“This case really said people in a small church who practice a really unknown religion have the same rights as anyone else,” said Nancy Hollander, who represented the church and argued it’s case before the Supreme Court.
It began in 1999 when the Drug Enforcement Administration seized a shipment of tea to Jeffrey Bronfman, a Santa Fe resident and president of the church’s North America branch. Bronfman had previously imported 14 hoasca shipments from Brazil, without incident, before the seizure occurred.
Bronfman, through his attorneys, asked for the sacramental tea to be returned.
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Government lawyers argued the Controlled Substances Act barred its importation. They said they were concerned about the possibility of the hoasca being diverted to illegal uses. They argued health and safety concerns for the religious users, as well as international treaty rights. They also contended the Religious Freedom Restoration Act
didn’t apply to other acts.
The Justice Department attorney who signed off on the agreement wasn’t available for comment.
“If you go back to the very beginning,” Hollander recalled, “we put on a daylong program for (federal prosecutors) in my office. We brought experts. Jeffrey talked to them. I think we convinced them it was a religion, but we couldn’t get them to make a definitive decision (about returning the tea). They said ‘Don’t do it again.’ And that wasn’t
an answer. So we sued.”
The civil lawsuit demanded return of the hoasca. Parker granted a preliminaryinjunction after hearing two weeks of evidence in Santa Fe. Hollander’s partner, John Boyd, said not all judges would have approached the case with an open mind, but Parker did.
The result, Hollander said, was that the UDV won “again and again” at every court where the case was presented. “We won everywhere,” she said. “And we won because we were right.”