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U.S. Supreme Court Puts Hold on Hallucinogenic Tea in N.M. Church
By Gina Holland
The Associated Press
WASHINGTON ? The Bush administration has won a Supreme Court stay that blocks a New Mexico church from using hallucinogenic tea that the government contends is illegal and potentially dangerous.
The government has been in a long-running legal fight with the Brazil-based O Centro Espirita Beneficiente Uniao do Vegetal over hoasca tea, brewed from plants found in the Amazon River Basin.
The church won a preliminary injunction in a lower court, and the Supreme Court was asked to intervene.
Justice Stephen Breyer, acting on behalf of the full court, granted a temporary stay Wednesday to give both sides time to file more arguments with the court.
"Compliance with the injunction would force the United States to go into violation of an international treaty designed to prevent drug trafficking worldwide, which could have both short- and long-term foreign relations costs and could impair the policing of transnational drug trafficking involving the most dangerous controlled substances," acting Solicitor General Paul Clement wrote in a court filing.
The 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver found that the church probably has a religious-freedom right to use the tea. The Bush administration plans to appeal, but wants the church barred from using the tea in the meantime.
The church's leader had sued after federal agents raided his office in Santa Fe in 1999 and seized 30 gallons of hoasca tea, which contains the controlled substance DMT. No one was arrested in the raid.
Last year, a three-judge panel of the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a lower federal court's ruling granting the church a preliminary injunction, blocking the government from stopping the use of the tea while the church sues the government. The lower court said the use of the tea is likely protected by freedom of religion laws.
The government then asked the full court to consider the appeal, arguing that permitting the tea violates a 1971 treaty on psychotropic drugs.
The church's U.S. operations are based in Santa Fe. About 130 people, many of them Brazilian citizens, are members of the U.S. branch, according to court documents.
The Bush administration already has one drug appeal at the Supreme Court. Justices heard arguments earlier this week in that case, which asks whether the federal government can prosecute patients who smoke marijuana on doctors' orders and in states that have medical marijuana laws.
The case is Ashcroft v. O Centro Espirita Beneficiente Uniao do Vegetal, A-469.
ALBUQUERQUE, New Mexico (AP) -- The U.S. Supreme Court sided Friday with a New Mexico church that wants to use hallucinogenic tea as part of its Christmas services, despite government objections that the tea is illegal and potentially dangerous.
The high court lifted a temporary stay issued last week against using the hoasca tea while it decides whether the Brazil-based O Centro Espirita Beneficiente Uniao do Vegetal is permitted to make it a permanent part of its services.
The legal battle began after federal agents seized 30 gallons of the tea in a 1999 raid on the Santa Fe home of the church's U.S. president, Jeffrey Bronfman.
Bronfman sued the government for the right to use the tea and the church won a preliminary injunction, which was upheld by 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver. The Bush administration then took the case to the Supreme Court.
"They're delighted," attorney Nancy Hollander said of the church members she represented. "They're so thrilled that they can celebrate Christmas for the first time since 1998."
Bronfman and attorneys for the government did not immediately return calls seeking comment.
The church, which has about 140 members in the United States and 8,000 worldwide, said the herbal brew is a central sacrament in its religious practice, which is a blend of Christian beliefs and traditions rooted in the Amazon basin.
Hollander said the tea is drunk in a ritual similar to the Catholic Communion. Church members then sit in a circle and meditate; they believe the tea brings them closer to God.
The tea is brewed from plants found in the Amazon River Basin and contains DMT, which officials say is a controlled substance under an international treaty.
However, Bronfman's complaint contends the tea is "non-addictive, is not harmful to human health and poses none of the risks commonly found with the use of certain controlled substances."
The church had drawn parallels to federal protection for members of the Native American Church using peyote, which also has hallucinogenic properties.