Psychedelic CSR: Religious Freedom in the Native American Church

This is the first installment of a weekly occurring Psychedelic Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) blog. The blog hopes to promote conversations for the emerging psychedelic medicine industry to consider. Curious about CSR in this industry? Read our article breaking down this topic!

A Ruling in Favor of Religious Freedom to Use Psilocybin Mushrooms

Earlier this month on Tuesday, Dec. 22, the New Hampshire Supreme Court upended a psilocybin possession conviction that was issued in 2018. Though I don’t believe the possession of any drug constitutes a criminal charge, this conviction was particularly unjust given that the defendant, Jeremy D. Mack, was simply exercising his religious freedom.

Mack was a part of the Oratory of Mystical Sacraments branch of the Oklevueha Native American Church. Joining the church in 2017, Mack practiced a shamanic religion which used psilocybin mushrooms as a religious sacrament. Likewise, Mack was issued a membership card by the church which detailed his right to ingest the mushrooms sacramentally. Mack practiced his faith very seriously, eventually becoming a minister.

Psychedelic enthusiasts and regular readers will recall that psychedelic rituals have long been practiced all around the world and are still practiced today in a religious context. Popular psychedelic sacraments include psilocybin mushrooms, peyote, and ayahuasca (though various psychoactive drugs have been used in more recent religions as well). Moreover, it doesn’t take a legal scholar to recognize that religious freedoms are clearly protected by the U.S. constitution. Indeed, it is both a first amendment right for U.S. citizens and a specifically cited right in the New Hampshire constitution.

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However, as detailed below, the violation of religious freedoms pertaining to sacramental psychedelic usage is hardly a rarity for these religious groups. It is comforting to know the NH Supreme Court has upended Mack’s 2018 conviction, and therefore, ruled in favor of religious freedom to use psilocybin mushrooms. But it is a correction that came two years late, and more importantly, tells a bigger story of how Western law views the rights of shamanic and earth-based religious communities.

As the psychedelic medicine industry continues to grow, we ought to consider advocating for the protections of psychedelic religious practices. Offering our support not only communicates allyship, but allows psychedelic medicine companies to thank the psychedelic forebears who had their religious freedoms challenged by the same western orthodoxy we operate in.

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The History of Undermining Religious Psychedelic Rituals

Although shamanic religions that utilize psychedelic sacraments vary widely all across the globe, the majority of these religions in the U.S. exist within the Native American Church (NAC). Typically, the NAC sacrament of choice is peyote, though exceptions exist, such as the aforementioned Oratory of Mystical Sacraments branch of the Oklevueha Native American Church. Without diving into the drug’s chemistry, peyote is a small cactus with hallucinogenic qualities, which are especially prominent when the cactus buttons are prepared and eaten correctly. 

The history of exact discriminatory efforts against Native Americans’ right to peyote, as opposed to the discrimination against their people in general, is less documented. Readers are encouraged to read about the triumph of the NAC against imperialist forces more broadly. However, a good place to start on the topic of sacramental plants is 1620, when the Spanish Inquisition declared peyote illegal. At the time, the Spanish Inquisition targeted both Native American medicine men and Aztec Herbalists.

Unfortunately, the U.S. government continued this unjust tradition well into the early 20th century. The NAC was first established in 1918 in the state of Oklahoma with the intention of legitimately securing the religious freedom to use peyote ritualistically (which is also known as peyotism). This forced assimilation is an act of discrimination in itself, but for the sake of brevity, we will move on with our narrative.

Peyotism remained controversial as a state-by-state issue for decades. Controversy increased when the groundbreaking 1990 Supreme Court case Oregon v. Smith occurred. Here, NAC member Al Smith and other members worked as drug counselors while practicing their faith outside of work. The case came about after the aforementioned members were fired from their jobs due to their private peyotism practices. They subsequently were denied unemployment benefits due to their peyote usage.

Al Smith sued in federal court, rightfully arguing that this violated his first amendment right. In a 6-3 decision, the Supreme Court upheld the state’s right to infringe on Smith’s first amendment. You read correctly – the court denied his religious freedom, basically arguing that since peyote prohibition applied to everyone, this was not discrimination. To this day, I cannot fathom the basis of that argument – is a right to practice one’s faith not a clearly defined cornerstone of our constitution? Is a history of peyotism throughout millennia and since 1918’s NAC establishment not a strong enough indication that peyote is indeed a central part of this demographic’s heritage?

To be clear, protections towards peyotism and religious freedom have increased since then. But John D. Mack was convicted just two years ago. Clearly, the NAC’s right to utilize these sacred plants is not as concrete and we’d hope. How might the emerging psychedelic medicine industry, which will likely look into peyote or mescaline as the industry evolves, aid in protecting the NAC’s religious freedom?

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Using Our Power to Advocate for Religious Freedom

Perhaps the best way to join the NAC’s continuous fight for religious freedom is to simply donate to existing NAC causes. For example, individuals in the psychedelic medicine space can donate any amount of money online to the Oratory of Mystical Sacraments. Psychedelic medicine companies, as opposed to associated individuals, may be more suited to use not only their money in a socially responsible manner, but their influence. Publicizing your donations to Native American causes or direct donations to the Oklevueha Native American Church humanitarian fund is a great way to start a precedent in the psychedelic medicine scene. 

What’s more up for conversation, however, is how companies might join the fight towards religious freedom themselves. While I don’t claim to have the answers, I recognize that these fights start with a genuine curiosity and willingness to listen. Psychedelic companies (especially ones with prestige) can reach out to the Oklevueha Native American Church and ask how they can help to ensure their religious freedoms will not be challenged again. A legal defense fund, for example, would be a great way to regularly exhibit social responsibility.

Corporate social responsibility (CSR) is what can separate this nascent industry from other “business as usual” industries. The power of these psychedelic compounds are not lost on clinicians, investors, or the public. However, the direction and execution of this new industry may be overlooked. Supporting the psychedelic sacrament traditions of people using these substances long before us is a great start to communicating to the world that we aren’t just here to help with mental health crises (though this is to be celebrated). Instead, more broadly, we can communicate that we are here to help – period.

Ali Shana

Ali Shana

Ali Shana is a Palestinian-American writer and grad student studying clinical mental health counseling. He tends to report on a variety of drug-related topics, such as policy reform, psychopharmacology, and medication-assisted therapies.