Orange County

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

ORANGE COUNTY, Fla. — The owner of an east Orange County church that 9 Investigates first exposed as hosting illegal hallucinogenic tea ceremonies more than four years ago said by phone that he believes he will get the federal exemption needed to finally give out that controlled substance legally.

Channel 9 investigative reporter Karla Ray learned it comes as the Drug Enforcement Administration and Attorney General William Barr were given 120 days to respond to a federal lawsuit, claiming the government is trying to block church members’ religious freedoms.

Soul Quest Church owner Christopher Young declined a request for an interview.

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

The lack of an exemption hasn’t stopped him from hosting ayahuasca ceremonies almost every weekend for the last several years.

In 2017, Young invited 9 Investigates inside the church to show us what he calls medicine. Ayahuasca is a brew used in weekend retreats by people from all over the world who seek to get closer to their spiritual core. It was in that same year that Young applied for an exemption to the DEA to continue administering Ayahuasca legally. The Amazonian tea produces DMT, a schedule 1 drug, and approval from the DEA is required for religious ceremonies.

Now, a federal lawsuit filed by Young against the Department of Justice seeks a declaration that threats to shut down the church or prosecute its members for the use of ayahuasca is unconstitutional and unlawful. The suit is seeking a permanent injunction allowing the use of the “sacramental” tea in religious ceremonies, without threat of arrest.

READ: 9 Investigates hallucinogenic drug used in local church

Young’s attorneys note in the suit that the church has made “concerted long-term efforts” to secure a religious-based exemption, but that the exemption application filed in 2017 “continues to sit at the assigned office” with no timetable for completion.

The church has been running mostly uninterrupted since opening in 2016, even after the death of 22-year-old Brandon Begley, who was taken unresponsive to the hospital after a retreat there two years ago. His autopsy revealed he had an extreme drop in sodium levels associated with the purge that comes from consuming ayahuasca, followed by drinking too much water. Begley’s family is suing Young and the church in a separate civil case.

READ: No charges after death investigation at ayahuasca church

Karla Ray

Karla Ray,

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