DEA denies Orange County church’s request to use drug for religious purposes

ORANGE COUNTY, Fla. — The Drug Enforcement Administration has officially denied a Central Florida church’s petition for a religious exemption, which would have allowed them to continue providing a Schedule I drug for religious purposes, legally.

9 Investigates has been looking into the Soul Quest Church for five years, and exposed a death at a retreat there in 2018. Despite the denial from the DEA, the church appears to still be hosting retreats.

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The attorney for the family of the man who died during the 2018 retreat believes this determination is one step closer to the place closing down, and to seeking justice in a separate lawsuit over the man’s death.

In weekend retreats, the Soul Quest Church distributes ayahuasca and other substances to paying customers. Ayahuasca contains DMT, a Schedule I drug.

READ: Owner of east Orange County church seeks federal exemption to legally dispense controlled substance

“Seeing the DEA’s denial certainly brought some validity to the table, it’s what we’ve been feeling all along,” JP Begley said. “There’s a feeling of justice being prevailed here.”

Begley’s son, Brandon, died following a retreat in 2018, after failing to get medical care in time following a seizure.

READ: ‘Completely devastating’: Family of man who died after hallucinogenic tea ceremony at Orange County church files lawsuit

Church owner Christopher Young told investigators Begley became violently sick after participating in an ayahuasca cleanse as well as a “kambo” ceremony, which involved being injected with poisonous secretions of Amazon tree frogs.

Young said his reaction was beyond the typical “purge” associated with ayahuasca.

Channel 9 uncovered that there was a three-hour delay between when church leaders noticed Begley was in distress and when they called for help.

READ: 9 Investigates hallucinogenic drug used in local church

It was our coverage that led the DEA to first order Young to close down the church, but that’s something he has never done as he works through the federal court to try to legitimize the retreats.

The DEA’s determination even cites the Begley death, and another delayed 911 call after someone at a September 2020 retreat started showing distress, as reasons for the denial.

READ: No charges after death investigation at ayahuasca church

9 Investigates also learned a man from Canada — who suffered the same condition Begley did before death but survived — has also filed a lawsuit against the church.

None of these lawsuits have been enough to stop the retreats, but attorney William Chapman believes they could lead to that.

“We think it could be a very important component in the allegations we’ve brought forward,” Chapman said.

READ: 9 Investigates: Local church offering ‘legal’ ayahuasca

9 Investigates left a voicemail for Young’s attorney.

A federal judge is expected to issue a ruling on the DEA’s decision soon, which could lead to Soul Quest losing the ability to provide ayahuasca.

Karla Ray, WFTV.com

Karla Ray anchors Eyewitness News This Morning on Saturday and Sundays, and is an investigative reporter for the 9 Investigates unit.