ALBUQUERQUE, N.M., Dec. 8 -- A hallucinogenic tea called hoasca that is used by members of a Brazil-based religious group has become the focus of a legal battle in New Mexico.

Adherents of O Centro Espírita Beneficiente Uniao do Vegetal, or UDV (Portuguese for "union of the plants"), say the herbal brew of two plants is a central sacrament in their religious practice, which is a blend of Christian beliefs and traditions rooted in the Amazon basin.

Jeffrey Bronfman, whose family owns a substantial interest in Seagram Co. Ltd., is president of the church in the United States. He contends federal authorities are unconstitutionally denying UDV members the right to practice their religion. Bronfman and other church members sued on Nov. 21 on behalf of UDV-USA in U.S. District Court in Albuquerque, and this week said they will seek a preliminary injunction.

The U.S. Attorney's Office, through a spokeswoman, declined to comment Thursday on the civil suit or any criminal investigation. First Assistant U.S. Attorney Paula Burnett said the government's answer in the civil suit will be filed by Jan. 21 and she could not offer details beyond that.

U.S. Customs agents seized a barrel of the tea shipped to Bronfman's Santa Fe home a year and a half ago. Statements in a search warrant for Bronfman's home say Customs believes Bronfman and UDV tried to illegally bring a controlled substance into the country. Analysis of the "brown liquid" by a U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration chemist concluded it contained DMT (dimethyltryptamine), "a powerful hallucinogen that may be taken orally in liquid form" and has no commercial uses.

Bronfman's directions to shipping companies say the tea, made from plants known as Mariri and Chacrona, is for use by the religious organization, which has been practicing in the United States for the past 10 years and now has about 8,000 members worldwide.

"The tea imported has no commercial value and will not be sold. It will be used only by members of the social religious organization as a health supplement," the search warrant quotes Bronfman's shipping letter as saying.

No criminal charges have been filed since the May 1999 seizure, although the civil lawsuit says that remains under consideration. Federal officials have refused to return the hoasca. Fearful that it would be destroyed, UDV members--through their lawyers Nancy Hollander and John Boyd--have sought return of the tea and said they can't practice their faith without it. "It would be like asking Catholics to have communion without the Eucharist," Hollander said.

The central argument of the civil suit is a claim under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which says the government must have a "compelling interest" in interfering with religious practices and must do so by the least restrictive means when such an interest exists.

The UDV claims the government can't meet either test in this case, in which adherents' "sacramental use...of hoasca does not create any significant potential for abuse and is substantially harmless."

UDV members draw parallels to federal protection for members of the Native American Church using peyote, which also has hallucinogenic properties. They argue they are being denied their right to equal protection of law and their First Amendment right to freedom of religion.

Besides seeking return of the tea, UDV is seeking a declaration from the judge that hoasca is not a controlled substance under the Controlled Substances Act and that Customs exceeded its authority in making the seizure.

In legal filings this week, the lawyers said they plan to ask Chief U.S. District Judge James A. Parker for a preliminary injunction but want to file more pages than the court normally permits. The U.S. Attorney's Office is opposing the request.

The UDV is not the only hoasca-using religion in Brazil, but it is considered to be the most strongly organized, according to researchers.

According to the civil complaint, 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. Also, anthropological research has show that this tea has been used safely in religious contexts for more than 1,500 years."
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