Federal judge dismisses ayahuasca church’s request for overturn of DEA decision

ORANGE COUNTY, Fla. — An action from a federal judge could pave the way for the Drug Enforcement Administration to finally shut down a local church.


The DEA says that church has been distributing a psychedelic tea illegally for six years.

Investigative Reporter Karla Ray first got the attention of the DEA in 2016, after exposing the Soul Quest Church in Orange County was hosting ayahuasca retreats. Ayahuasca is a tea that contains DMT, a schedule one drug, and the church needs a religious exemption from the DEA to be able to distribute it legally.

After our stories aired, the church applied for that exemption in 2017. In 2021, the DEA denied that request. Soul Quest then challenged that denial in federal court by seeking a declaratory judgment, and a judge just dismissed that challenge.

Despite not having the DEA exemption, Soul Quest has continued to host weekend retreats, including one that’s the subject of a wrongful death lawsuit. It’s been almost four years since 22-year-old Brandon Begley died following a delay in receiving medical care at a weekend retreat.

“I called you still in the hospital,” Begley’s father, John Paul, recalled. “I reached out to you when Brandon was still in the hospital. I knew something was wrong from the get go.”

9 Investigates uncovered a three-hour delay between when the young man started showing signs of distress and when church leaders called for help. His autopsy revealed the cause of death was from drinking too much water, after participating in an Ayahuasca and Kambo ceremony. Begley’s attorney argues the church represents itself as offering those substances legally for religious purposes.

“It all goes back to the fact that Soul Quest has been holding itself out as a legal organization, which, every time that legality gets tested, they’re not winning,” attorney William Chapman said. “They’ve got retreats this weekend, next weekend, I believe two weekends in April, all those people potentially could be subject to arrest.”

Chapman says the federal judge’s dismissal could help in Begley’s family’s case against the church, and perhaps shut the place down.

“This is a fight we feel can be won,” John Paul Begley said. “And give some justice to Brandon.”

Calls to church owner Chris Young have not yet been returned. He and the church have an opportunity to file an appeal to the dismissal.

Click here to download the free WFTV news and weather apps, click here to download the WFTV Now app for your smart TV and click here to stream Channel 9 Eyewitness News live.

Karla Ray

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.