New report makes recommendations to the DEA on religious exemptions for psychedelics

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The GOA report was notable for the data it provided regarding the DEA and psilocybin.

The U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) told the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) that it needs to do a better job with religious exemption requests it gets for controlled substances like psychedelics. The 70-page report was published last week and made four recommendations to the DEA – mostly revolving around timelines for the requests. However, the report was also notable for all the data it provided about the DEA and these requests.


The report focused on psilocybin, which is the most requested drug to be used as a sacrament for some religions. The GAO reviewed enforcement data from the DEA during fiscal years 2018 through 2023. The report pointed out that psilocybin cases represented the smallest amount of attention from the DEA with regard to investigations and seizures during this period and these cases were only 1% of all the DEA cases investigated and closed.

During this six-year study time frame, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) reported the seizure of 49 different drug types—representing a total of 371,088 drug seizures. Psilocybin accounted for 8,349 drug seizures—representing about 2% of the total seizures reported by CBP.  LSD accounted for 13,489 drug seizures—representing 4% of the total seizures reported by CBP during the same period. Most of the drug seizures during this study period by the CPB were for cannabis.

During fiscal years 2018 through September 18, 2023, CBP’s seizure data show that the number and weight of its drug seizures involving psilocybin generally increased—accounting for about a 400% increase in the number of psilocybin seizures and over a 1,000% increase in the weight (in pounds) of the seizures. Over these six years, CBP’s Chicago Field Office location accounted for about 37% (3,081), which is the CBP field office with the largest number of seizures related to psilocybin.

Long Timeline

The report stated, “Over an 8-year period—from fiscal year 2016 through January 2024—DEA reported that 24 petitioners requested a religious exemption for various controlled substances. As of January 2024, DEA reported that none of these petitions had been granted an exemption and of the 6 for psilocybin, three were withdrawn and three were pending a DEA determination. The three pending religious exemption petitions related to psilocybin ranged from about 8 months to over 3 years from the date of receipt. DEA’s information also showed instances where finalized actions regarding exemption petitions related to other controlled substances have been pending a determination for an extensive period—one almost 5 years and one almost 8 years.”

The report identified the state and local initiatives to decriminalize and deprioritize the adult use of psilocybin. The GOA also reviewed various studies underway for using psilocybin as a treatment for mental illness.

The report pointed out the conflict between the Controlled Substances Act and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act causing the DEA  to create a guidance document in 2009 that would establish a procedure for seeking religious exemptions from the Controlled Substances Act from DEA. The document was updated in 2020. The DEA approaches each religious exemption request with a case-by-case analysis that includes interviews and on-site visits.

The DEA said that the processing time varies by case for a variety of reasons. This can be insufficient information to determine whether the religious beliefs are sincerely held, unsafe practices, previous criminal convictions, and the ability to control the diversion of the drug.


The GOA report said that the stakeholders it interviewed found the process to be difficult to navigate and guidance wasn’t clear. They also complained about the DEA’s communication. One of the petitioners mentioned in the GOA report was the Soul Quest Church, which Green Market Report recently wrote that a member died during a psychedelic retreat. In that situation, the courts found the church and its founder liable for the death of a young man for not providing medical care and for administering the drugs in an unsafe manner.

The stakeholders also told the GOA that it believed the DEA had no interest in granting any waivers.


The report made four recommendations to the DEA as follows:

The DEA Administrator should more clearly communicate the types of information that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act petitioners should provide to allow the DEA to evaluate petitions for religious sincerity. The DEA Administrator should more clearly communicate the standards and relevant factors to the Religious Freedom Restoration Act petitioners in deciding religious sincerity. The DEA Administrator should establish timeframes for the DEA to make determinations on completed religious exemption petitions to provide the Religious Freedom Restoration Act petitioners with the DEA’s final determinations. The DEA Administrator should provide the Religious Freedom Restoration Act petitioners with information for petitioners to be able to receive updates on the agency’s progress related to exemption reviews.


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