The case, Gonzales v. 0 Centro Espirita Beneficiente Uniao Do Vegetal, [hereinafter 0 Centro] provides the disturbing result that any person who is, or becomes, a member of a particular church is permitted to use an otherwise illegal hallucinogenic drug, hoasca, because of his or her religious affiliation. The drug hoasca contains DMT, which, under the Controlled Substances Act, is a Schedule One drug. This means that the drug is not approved for any medicinal use and falls into the same category as drugs such as cocaine, marijuana, and methamphetamines. Further, the classification of this drug is not merely arbitrary as there are scientific studies that show that it causes serious adverse effects, including the inability to focus and perceptual distortions including hallucinations.
Overall, the Supreme Court's departure from existing free exercise precedent in 0 Centro is inappropriate, may lead to the evisceration of the Controlled Substances Act, and certainly will lead to inconsistent results in similar claims. Under the applicable legal standard, the "compelling interest test" that is required under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), and at one time was the Supreme Court's established precedent, the Court has never granted a religious group the right to use otherwise illegal drugs for religious purposes. Further, the Court did not fully consider the overall impact of the precedent created by this decision on the enforcement of the Controlled Substances Act, which would not be substantially harmed by a single exemption, but would be greatly harmed by many exemptions. Finally, the Supreme Court ensured that there would be inconsistent results in future RFRA claims related to drug use by leaving the district courts to determine how harmful an illegal drug must be before a claimant is not permitted to use it.
Section III.A analyzes the compelling interest test as it is applied in the free exercise context prior to 1990 and points out how 0 Centro is inconsistent with this precedent. Then, section III.B explores the destructive influence of the Court's failure to weigh the future impact of the exemption on the Controlled Substances Act caused by the Supreme Court's failure to adequately consider the effect of this case on precedent. Finally, section III.C explains why it is imprudent for the Supreme Court to allow federal district courts to determine RFRA free exercise claims for drug usage without further guidance than is provided in 0 Centro.
Anneliese M. Wright,
Dude, Which Religion Do I Have to Join to Get Some Drugs? How the Supreme Court Got it Wrong in Gonzales v. O Centro Espirita Beneficiente Uniao Do Vegetal, 546 U.S. 418 (2006),
86 Neb. L. Rev.
Available at: https://digitalcommons.unl.edu/nlr/vol86/iss4/6