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Religious Organizations Face Barriers in DEA’s Flawed Exemption Process, GAO Reveals
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Religious Organizations Face Barriers in DEA’s Flawed Exemption Process, GAO Reveals

Seraiah Alexander
Seraiah Alexander
June 11, 2024
2 min

A recent U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) report has revealed deep flaws in the Drug Enforcement Administration’s (DEA) process for handling religious exemption petitions for psychedelics, prompting calls for reform. The report criticizes the agency for its lack of clear guidelines and prolonged delays, which have left religious groups without timely resolutions.

Under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), individuals and religious organizations have the right to petition the DEA for exceptions to use controlled substances during ceremonies. Yet, the GAO’s findings indicate that this process is far from straightforward.

Key criticisms

The 74-page report highlighted significant delays in petition processing. Some petitions took eight months to over three years to resolve, and one petition has been pending for almost eight years. 

From fiscal year 2016 to January 2024, the DEA received 24 petitions for religious exemptions for various controlled substances. However, these petitions have yet to be granted, with three still pending and three withdrawn.

The GAO report also condemns the DEA for not providing transparent guidelines for the information petitioners must provide to demonstrate their religious practices’ sincerity. Additionally, the DEA was found not to provide clear timeframes for determining completed petitions nor offer a way for petitioners to track the status of their application or receive updates on the review process. This lack of transparency has created multiple barriers, making it incredibly difficult for religious organizations to submit their claims.

Recommendations from the GAO

In response to these issues, the GAO has issued multiple recommendations to the DEA:

1. Clarity of information requirements

To help petitioners submit more complete and accurate applications, the DEA should provide more detailed guidance on the specific information needed to substantiate their claims.

2. Defined evaluation standards and criteria

To provide petitioners with a clearer understanding of the evaluation process and application criteria, the DEA should establish and communicate the specific standards and relevant factors it considers.

3. Set timeframe for decision making

To manage petitioner expectations and reduce prolonged waiting periods, the DEA should implement clear timelines for making decisions on petitions.

4. Improved transparency for process updates

To provide greater transparency, the DEA should create a system that allows petitioners to receive regular updates on the status of their petitions. 

What’s next?

In the past, religious groups like the Santo Daime and União do Vegetal have successfully used the RFRA to obtain court-ordered exemptions for the use of ayahuasca in their ceremonies. However, the current system has made it increasingly difficult for many religious groups to fight for their rights. Take the Church of the Eagle and the Condor (CEC), which just recently won a legal settlement to import and use ayahuasca after facing multiple drug seizures and threats of federal prosecution.  

Still, despite their legal victory, the CEC and other organizations still face ongoing challenges regarding the complex regulatory environment of psychedelics. For example, Soul Quest Church filed a lawsuit against the DEA after three years of awaiting a response. This notion was denied, however, as the DEA claimed the organization lacked “religious sincerity.”

The intersection between religious freedom and drug regulation is a difficult line to navigate. On one end, individuals should have access to rights under the RFRA, yet on the other hand, the DEA needs to strictly enforce the CSA, and their primary focus remains on managing the use of Schedule I drugs to prevent misuse and protect public health. The GAO’s guidelines could potentially help balance the approach so that these substances can be used in spiritual contexts while ensuring the controlled use of psychedelics.


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legislation
Seraiah Alexander

Seraiah Alexander

Content Editor

Table Of Contents

1
Key criticisms
2
Recommendations from the GAO
3
What’s next?

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