🫠 Psychonaut POV

[5-min read] Q&A with Victoria Litman, Psychedelic & Cannabis Tax Lawyer

Welcome to Tricycle Day. We’re the newsletter that’s kinda like religion. We can’t promise your salvation, but we can give you something to believe in. 🙏

Victoria Litman might be the foremost legal expert on entheogenic churches. And she’s already earned that rep at the tender age of 29.

We spoke to Victoria about how she carved out her unique zone of genius in nonprofit tax law, her take on the current and future religious use of psychedelics, and how each of us can effect positive change.


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Victoria Litman Psychonaut POV

Q&A with Victoria Litman, Psychedelic & Cannabis Tax Lawyer

What is your personal relationship to psychedelics? How did you end up narrowing your legal focus to the religious use of psychedelics?

Psychedelics found me during my college years in LA. They naturally came into my life and opened my mind, allowing me to connect in new and profound ways with others, myself, and the world at large. Being in California, I also had the opportunity to observe the emerging cannabis industry first hand. I could actually purchase cannabis legally before I could buy alcohol.

Before that, I grew up deeply involved in an inclusive and progressive Jewish community. When I entered USC for astronautical engineering, I anticipated intellectual exploration, but it didn't meet my expectations. So instead, I embraced a religion minor and left as a religion major. During my final semester, I took classes that aligned perfectly with my interests. I delved into the legal, philosophical, cultural, and scientific aspects of drugs. I seriously found a way to write about drugs in every single class I took.

That's when I realized there was an exciting path ahead for me. Precedents existed in the Supreme Court regarding the religious use of drugs. I envisioned the possibility of becoming a highly qualified expert in drugs and religion and pursued a Master of Divinity in Religion and Law from Union Theological Seminary. Next I got my JD degree, followed by an LLM in Tax. During my LL.M. studies, where I specialized in nonprofit tax law, I conducted independent research on the tax approaches of entheogenic churches.

On a personal level, my Judaism continued to evolve during divinity school. I even married a rabbi from the reform movement, which keeps me actively engaged in a religious community unrelated to psychedelics. My own experience reinforces the profound meaning and fulfillment that comes from being part of a faith-based community. The transformative impact that these groups can have on people’s lives is what drives my passion and dedication in this field today.

Give us a quick primer. How do religious organizations today justify the use of psychedelics in their rites and rituals, and what does the legal system make of their rationale?

Defining the religious use of psychedelics is a key question that I'm actively working to refine. It's important to avoid categorizing practices as sincere or insincere, as religious sincerity is too often associated with Christian values in our legal system. From my academic studies, I've learned that theories of religion are much more inclusive. For example, PhDs have written about football, Oprah, and SoulCycle as religious movements. From a scientific perspective, most experts acknowledge a mystical or divine aspect of psychedelics, indicating an inherent connection to religion. Archaeological evidence also supports the historical use of psychedelics in different religious traditions, including Christianity and Judaism.

Legally, there is a broad range of what could be considered religious use of psychedelics, including dispensary models, psychedelic-using communities, and commercial ceremonies. According to federal law, most of these practices are illegal unless a DEA exemption is granted, which is rare. However, the lack of enforcement against psychedelic churches creates a gray area. Churches are free to practice, but without mechanisms for safe drug supply or oversight of bad actors, they face challenges in ensuring safety. These issues are exacerbated by limited access to insurance and fear of seeking emergency services.

One potential solution I’ve proposed is to tie DEA exempt status with 501(c)(3) status for churches. Presuming all churches to be DEA exempt, as the IRS does for tax exemption, could relieve some stresses while still allowing the DEA to take action if necessary. This proposal requires further development, but I believe governmental interest in ensuring safety, alongside personal freedoms, should guide our approach.

How do you see the legal landscape around psychedelic churches evolving in the coming years?

Right now, there is effectively a policy of non-enforcement towards churches, as the government aims to avoid unfavorable legal precedents. Federal courts, including the Supreme Court, have upheld a religious freedom right to use ayahuasca for specific groups. As laws evolve, the arguments for religious freedom will shift alongside federal and state legality. We’ll have to consider the requirements and burdens on religious practices within new regulated frameworks, balancing them against public health interests.

Tax implications also play a significant role. Medicalized psychedelic therapy, although effective for some, is costly and inaccessible to many. Religious use can serve as an alternative pathway for accessing psychedelics, which aligns with the historical role religious organizations have played in filling gaps left by government and business. That’s one reason why I push local decriminalization campaigns to include a provision around social sharing without remuneration. The communal approach that’s possible in a religious context fosters sustained integration, addressing a critique of the medical model.

Ultimately, regulations and laws will continue to be contentious, as long as tax revenue is at stake. Psychotherapy businesses generate tax revenue, while churches don’t. Defining the boundaries of religious practice poses a huge challenge but also a fun opportunity. It’s part of why I got into this work.

In your opinion, what role should government regulators play in overseeing the use of psychedelics in religious contexts?

When it comes to psychedelic use, I believe the government's role should focus on promoting safety. Some advocates argue that the government should have no role whatsoever. After all, people across the country are cultivating and using mushrooms safely without causing widespread harm. Unlike the opioid or fentanyl epidemics, mushrooms are not causing mass hospitalizations or fatalities. Despite the government's stance on psychedelic churches, the evidence shows that a significant number of people in many states are using psychedelics safely within religious communities.

Nevertheless, I do think certain safeguards are necessary. Individuals should have the freedom to report incidents like sexual violence or financial abuse during religious ceremonies by calling 911. Accreditation bodies and oversight should be in place.

It's worth stating that many of the bigger-picture issues surrounding access to doctors and insurance coverage are indicative of broader flaws in our healthcare system; they aren’t unique to psychedelics or cannabis. Similar critiques apply to how the government regulates drugs and various aspects of our society. Whether or not those systems fundamentally change, we should strive to improve safety measures around psychedelics.

What are some steps our readers can take to help bring about positive change?

I try to approach the psychedelic ecosystem with critical thinking and avoid taking sides. Unfortunately, there is a lot of division, drama, and an "us vs. them" mentality. I used to be that person too, believing that psychedelics could create a utopian world of peace and love. But over time, I realized that psychedelics are not a panacea. There are individuals who misuse psychedelics, remaining unchanged and even using them to harm others. This behavior has historical roots, including instances of the government using drugs to control and oppress people, and just like any critique of drugs, it reflects broader flaws within society.

It's important to move away from binary thinking and recognize the need for nuance and openness. Each person can form their own opinion based on their values and motivations. I am motivated by a desire to expand safe access to substances and knowledge about them for all. This perspective allows me to evaluate different entities, trials, and information through that lens. It's also crucial to be open to changing one's mind as we navigate this new territory. We're all learning in this evolving field of law, industry, and science, which combines ancient practices and wisdom with new knowledge.

Don't be afraid to express your opinions, but also be willing to listen and engage with others. Remember, we always have the power to make an impact by sharing and exchanging our ideas.

Want more from Victoria? Follow her on Twitter and Instagram, or get legal advice for your own tax-exempt nonprofit.

That’s all for today. Before you head off, don’t forget to share, rate, and review Tricycle Day below. Catch ya next time, Cyclists! ✌️

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DISCLAIMER: This newsletter is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as a substitute for professional medical advice. The use, possession, and distribution of psychedelic drugs are illegal in most countries and may result in criminal prosecution.

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