A Republican U.S. senator who’s known as staunchly anti-drug has apparently been helping an Iowa church that wants to incorporate the psychedelic brew ayahuasca into its ceremonies—even if he hasn’t changed his overall views about drug policy.
Specifically, Sen. Chuck Grassley’s (R-IA) office has tried to help the church get answers about requests it filed with the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and Internal Revenue Service (IRS).
The Iowaska Church of Healing has been trying without success to obtain a religious exemption from the Controlled Substances Act (CSA), which designates ayahuasca as illegal, and tax-exempt status from the Internal Revenue Service (IRS). It’s currently litigating against IRS over its denials.
In a court filing in September, the church disclosed that Grassley has been lending a hand as it has fought for the exemptions.
For example, after being denied an IRS tax exemption and submitting an appeal, that request “languished with no response from Defendant until Plaintiff enlisted the assistance of United States Senator Charles Grassley’s office to expedite the appeals process and an appeals conference was held on April 1, 2021,” the filing says. The appeal was then rejected in June 2021.
Separately, in 2019 the Iowaska Church of Healing sent a petition to DEA inquiring about an exemption under CSA related to its ceremonial use of ayahuasca.
“Plaintiff has received no substantive response from the DEA with respect to the application despite repeated requests for a reply, including a follow up inquiry by United States Senator Charles Grassley’s office,” the complaint says.
Grassley’s step to help the constituent shouldn’t necessarily be viewed as an endorsement of the issue at hand, however, a spokesperson told Marijuana Moment.
“Regardless of whether Senator Grassley supports or agrees with a particular request or policy outcome, he believes that Iowans have every right to petition their government, and the government ought to be responsive,” Taylor Foy, communications director for the senator, said. “Sen. Grassley reads his mail and he’s always happy to help facilitate dialog between Iowans and the bureaucracy in Washington.”
IRS declined comment when local outlet KCCI-TV reached out.
The church says it has not incorporated the hallucinogen in its services since 2019 after IRS responded to an information request stating that the activity was considered illegal. It also has never conducted ceremonies at the church’s Iowa address and the sacramental ingredients have never been stored there, Bill Boatwright, an attorney representing Iowaska in the case, told Marijuana Moment.
“The primary purpose of Plaintiff is to operate a spiritual church in one or more fixed locations that conducts regular worship services using the Sacrament of Ayahuasca,” the filing says. “These services also involve prayers, smudging and spiritual music. Plaintiff will also operate various educational and mission groups, and conduct outreach designed to provide relief services to veterans of the United States Armed Services at no or reduced cost.”
Boatwright echoed that Grassley’s involvement in the church’s requests doesn’t necessarily signal that he’s supportive of the use of psychedelics in a religious context.
“Senator Grassley’s office took no position on the merits of the IRS or DEA applications, and only attempted to expedite both agencies’ review of them,” he said. “His office was not provided with either of the applications for review.”
But the senator’s willingness to intervene is notable on its own specifically because of his reputation as one of the Congress’s leading drug warriors for decades.
The former Senate Judiciary Committee chairman seems to have a particular interest in statutory exemptions related to controlled substances, however, even if he’s personally against the use of such drugs.
Last year, for example, a cannabis activist in his home state wrote to Grassley about the DEA’s denial of a request for statutory exemptions for Iowa’s medical cannabis program despite having made an exception for peyote when used in religious ceremonies of the Native American Church.
“Iowa needs an exemption for cannabis just like the one the DEA currently maintains for peyote,” the activist wrote to the senator.
Grassley’s office sent a response shortly thereafter, saying he will “follow-up with the DEA on your point about an exemption for marijuana under 21 C.F.R. § 1307.03 and seek further clarification for you.”
While the senator is an opponent of recreational cannabis legalization, he has also sponsored legislation meant to streamline the application process for researchers who want to study marijuana and to encourage the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to develop cannabis-derived medicines.
The Senate unanimously approved an earlier version of that bill in 2020, but it was not taken up by the House by the end of the session.