Legal Status of Ayahuasca and Psilocybin Containing Mushrooms in the United States

This blog post is a summary of the video “The Right to Drink of Ayahuasca in America: Current Status & What’s Next” from Sacred Plants in the Americas II, a virtual psychedelic summit by Chacruna.

The speakers in the video are attorneys Martha Hartney and Sean McAllister. Martha Hartney is based in Colorado Therapies & Research Program, has published and presented on the art and science of death and dying, and is a member of Chacruna’s Council for the Protection of Sacred Plants. Sean McAllister is a member of Chacruna’s Council for the Protection of Sacred Plants, a drug policy reform lawyer, and a legal advisor to various cities and states around decriminalization.

Religious Exemptions

The Religious Freedom Restoration Act protects religious exercises, such as Ayahuasca use, through what is termed “religious exemption.” Therefore, one might assume that you could claim that ayahuasca use or psilocybin use is religious and be protected. But this is not how it works. So, where does that leave the public who is governed by these laws and wants to use plant medicines for religious or spiritual purposes?

Currently, there are only two churches with religious exemption for Ayahuasca – Centro Espírita Beneficente União Do Vegetal (UDV) and Santo Daime Churches. They obtained religious exemption by going to federal court and being granted judicial recognition, rather than petitioning the law. The DEA keeps a tight grip on petitions they deem “sincere,” and can determine a petition insincere in order to “protect public health and safety” and prevent use of a controlled substance for non-religious purposes. From a legal standpoint, religious exemption is based on The Religious Freedom Restoration Act and does not apply to the use of a controlled substance for spiritual purposes. The Meyers Case clarified that The Religious Freedom Restoration Act protects religious exercise, not spiritual exercise. From this legal standpoint, religion is considered to be more communal than spirituality, provides more structure for life and behavior, and contains sacred symbols and patterns. To claim religious exemption, the religious group usually needs to have established religious lineage that follows official ethos providing structure for life and behavior. In comparison, spirituality has a broader definition with less structure than religion and is based more on personal beliefs.

The speakers mentioned that the increase in use of psychedelics within the past ten years may lead the federal government to increase their already tight grip on religious exemptions of ayahuasca use. Steps that can be taken to support ayahuasca access and conservation: support Chacruna, The Indigenous Reciprocity, and The Church of the Eagle and the Condor.

Decriminalization Initiatives

Efforts across the U.S. are increasing to decriminalize psychedelic substances. A number of cities have passed initiatives or resolutions at least partially decriminalizing possession of some psychedelic containing plants. These local efforts do not entail full decriminalization, but are a step in that direction. The details are complex, but Denver was the first city to pass an ordinance that directed law enforcement efforts away from psychedelic mushrooms. Oakland followed Denver’s lead, passing a broad plant-based entheogenic ballot initiative in 2019, decriminalizing personal possession, transportation, cultivation, and non-commercial distribution of all naturally occurring psychoactive substances. Santa Cruz passed a similar entheogenic decriminalization measure, which included possession, cultivation, and storage of all entheogens, making them the 3rd city in the U.S. to decriminalize psychedelics. Washington, DC followed, passing Initiative 81 in 2020, making noncommercial planting, cultivating, purchasing, transporting, distributing, possessing, and/or engaging in practices with entheogenic plants and fungi of lowest priority for law enforcement. The city of Ann Arbor also voted to decriminalize psychedelic plants and fungi, giving them lowest enforcement priority, declaring city resources will not be allocated to assist with state and federal violations in relation to Entheogenic Plant use. Under all the decriminalization initiatives, distribution is still a grey area, even where distribution is decriminalized. In addition, the details of what “decriminalization” means in each city vary, so it’s important to know your local context.

State Level Initiatives in Oregon

Oregon has passed two state level initiatives that relate to decriminalizing psychedelics – Measures 110 and 109, elaborated further here. Although not available until 2023, Measure 109 legalizes psilocybin-assisted therapy while Measure 110 increases addiction recovery treatment services and reclassifies personal non-commercial possession of most controlled substances. Possession of small amounts of substances falling into schedule categories I-V were reclassified as Class E Violations, with the maximum penalty of a $100 fine or a mental health assessment by a therapist. According to Sean McAllister, holding an ayahuasca where ayahuasca is given out to people in exchange for money is still somewhat risky in Oregon without a strong religious defense (e.g., being recognized as one of the two established churches).

Some Considerations on Risk

Everyone needs to make their own judgments about what levels of risk they are willing to take in life and how to protect yourself if you choose to engage in the use of controlled substances. We are not advocating for or against use but want to provide information so that people can use psychedelics safely, should they decide to use them. Here are some things to keep in mind related to legal risk:

  • Joining a church (other than the two with exemptions discussed above) that claims to use psychedelic substances as part of religious practice does not protect you from prosecution relating to possessing or distributing a controlled substance. As a recent example, the Zide Door Church of God, even though it was in a city that has “decriminalized” possession of psychedelic containing plants – Oakland – was raided for distribution of psychedelic containing plants. The church needs to have obtained a religious exemption from the federal government for you to be protected and only two churches have done that. While you may believe you use psychedelics for spiritual reasons, a prosecutor won’t care.
  • Buying an ID card that says you are a member of a church will not protect you from being prosecuted. In addition, churches are not likely to help you if you are arrested for possessing psychedelic substances.
  • Educate yourself on your local laws. For instance, Denver’s decriminalization measure only applies to personal use and possession of psilocybin. It is still considered illegal to distribute psychoactive substances in Denver, and people have been prosecuted by the Federal government for doing so. In the state of Colorado, it is a felony to give controlled substances to others, even without the exchange of money.
  • Distributing psychedelics and other controlled substances in exchange for money is risky, even in cities and states where it is decriminalized – like in Oakland where Zide Door Church of God was raided for distribution. Thus, being part of a religious group and part of distributing psychedelics may put you at greater risk than just possessing psychedelics.

Authors: Angelica Spata, Jason Luoma, True Overlie

Psilocybin Therapy and Mental Health Care in Oregon: What Is Happening and Where Do We Need to Go From Here?

On May 28th, 2021, Portland Psychotherapy hosted a moderated panel discussion with leading advocates, psychedelic therapy researchers, and psychedelic therapist training providers on creating legal, equitable access to psilocybin therapy in Oregon after the passing of Measure-109. Presenters gave an update on the status of the Oregon Psilocybin initiative, particularly as it relates to the training of facilitators, and discussed ways that local therapists can get training in the practice of psilocybin-assisted therapy. Watch the recording below.


Values in Therapy: An Intro to Working with Values from an ACT Perspective

Jenna LeJeune, PhD
January 21, 2022 from 12pm-2:00pm

This workshop will provide a theoretical and conceptual overview of values from a contextual behavioral science perspective. We will cover the “what”, “why”, “when”, and “how” of values within ACT. While we will also provide an overview of various values exercises and measures that can be used with clients, the emphasis in this workshop will be on providing a foundational framework that will help clinicians approach values work from a functional perspective rather than a primarily technique-focused approach. Read More.

Culturally Responsive Therapy: How to Apply Anti-Racist Values in Session

Christy Tadros, LPCC and RaQuel Neal, LCSW
February 4th, 2022 from 1:30pm-4:45pm
and February 5th from 9:00am-12:00pm

This 2 day 6-hour training will help therapists develop their ability to support clients from a different racial background than them, with a particular focus on Black, Indigenous and People of Color. Through a multicultural social justice framework, it will integrate research and clinical experience to teach a therapeutic model for rapport building, assessment, and treatment. This model is not a rigid therapeutic modality, but provides a contextual lens to build a strong, culturally grounded therapeutic relationship. It is a flexible model and can align with many therapeutic modalities, including a contextual behavioral approach to therapy. Read More.

Truffle Hunting: Bringing Values to Life in the Therapy Room

Jenna LeJeune, PhD
February 25, 2022 from 12pm-2:00pm

This brief workshop is designed to help clinicians deepen their values work with clients by shifting the focus from the content of values conversations to the quality of those conversation. By listening for and deepening the qualities of effective values conversations participants will get a taste for how more experiential and relationally-based values work can supercharge therapy. Participants will have opportunities to both observe demonstrations and practice in small groups with the benefit of feedback. Read More.

Values Prototyping: Using Action to Help Clients Explore Their Values

Jenna LeJeune, PhD
March 11, 2022 from 12pm-2:00pm

This workshop will focus on one specific experiential tool called “values prototyping” that helps clients learn more about their values through engaging in intentional valuing. As participants will hopefully already have a solid foundation of some of the core concepts of the values process in ACT, this workshop will dive right in on how to use values prototyping to help clients learn more about what they would choose to value in their life. You will have the chance to practice developing a values prototype in small groups with the benefit of feedback, so that by the end of the workshop you will be able to use this tool in your work with clients. Read More.

An Introduction to Psychedelic-Assisted Psychotherapy for Clinicians

Brian Pilecki, PhD and Jason Luoma
April 1, 2022 from 9am-12:15pm

Psychedelic assisted therapy is emerging as a highly effective form of mental health treatment. This workshop will provide health care professionals an overview of this new clinical area. The basic model of psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy will be explained so that workshop participants will have a better sense of how this treatment works. The workshop will highlight the importance of preparation and integration, as well as how to use a harm reduction approach to provide therapeutic support to clients using psychedelics on their own. The current legal status of psychedelics will be reviewed, including Oregon’s developing a legal psilocybin-assisted therapy program. Diversity issues around lack of access for underserved and non-majority populations will be explored, as well as the prevalence of cultural appropriation and colonialism in modern psychedelic medicine.  Read More.

Acceptance & Commitment Therapy: Growing a Flexible, Process-Based Practice

Robyn D. Walser, PhD
April 2nd & 3rd, 2022 from 8:30am-4:30pm
at Hilton Garden Inn Portland Airport
Done with intention and presence, ACT links us to the very qualities of what it means to be alive and whole, to be a conscious and experiencing being. ACT may be learned and understood at many levels, but may remain challenging to implement in a flexible, consistent, process-based, and effective fashion. Multiple levels of process are present in any therapy, including those processes beyond ACT’s 6 core. Moving beyond simple technique and into a fluid ACT intervention requires attending to intrapersonal, interpersonal, and overarching and ongoing processes in the context of the psychotherapeutic relationship. Engaging in an on-going functional analysis feeds these processes and informs the case conceptualization. Connecting workshop participants to on-going functional analysis and the multiple levels of process found in ACT from a more in-depth, experiential, or heartfelt place will be the focus of this workshop. Didactic presentation, role-play and experiential exercises will be used to convey the material. Read More.

The Invitation to Change Approach: Helping Families Affected by Addiction

Jeff Foote, PhD and Cordelia Kraus, LPC, CADC 1, certified CRAFT clinician
May 13th and 14th, 2022 from 9:00am-5:00pm
at University of Portland, Terrace Room
This two-day in-person workshop will provide skills training for professionals focused on the process of working with clients who have a loved one struggling with substance use issues. The Invitation to Change Approach draws on CRAFT (Community Reinforcement and Family Training), MI (Motivational Interviewing), and ACT (Acceptance and Commitment Therapy) to provide a compassionate and collaborative way of working with the families and concerned significant others of people who struggle with substance use. Read More.

Therapy and Research in Psychedelic Science (TRIPS) Seminar Series

Second Friday of each month from 12:00 PM – 1:00 PM (PT)

TRIPS is an online seminar series that hosts speakers discussing science-informed presentations and discussions about psychedelics to educate healthcare professionals. This series was created to guide healthcare providers and students preparing to be professionals towards the most relevant, pragmatic, and essential information about psychedelic-assisted therapy, changing legal statuses, and harm reduction approaches in order to better serve clients and communities. This seminar series is a fundraiser for our clinical trial of MDMA-assisted psychotherapy for social anxiety disorder that Portland Psychotherapy investigators are preparing for and starting in the Fall of 2021. All proceeds after presenter remuneration will go to fund this clinical trial. Read more.

February 11th, 2022 – Drug-Drug Interactions Between Psychiatric Medications and MDMA or Psilocybin with Aryan Sarparast, MD

May 13th, 2022Implementing Culturally-Attuned & Anti-Racist Psychedelic Therapy: Impact over Intention with Jamilah R. George, M.Div, M.S.