Des Moines church fights IRS over ‘religious’ use of hallucinogenic drug

By: - October 25, 2021 5:22 pm

The official location of the Iowaska Church of Healing on Des Moines’ 27th Street. (Photo by Polk County Assessor’s Office.)

A Des Moines-based church that uses a hallucinogenic drug in religious ceremonies is challenging the Internal Revenue Service’s decision to deny it tax-exempt status.

According to the lawsuit, filed recently in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, the Iowaska Church of Healing was formed in Iowa as a non-profit corporation in September 2018.

Corporate records indicate the church is run by Admir Dado Kantarevic, along with Billy Benskin and Merzuk Ramic, and its official location is Kantarevic’s home, located at 4114 27th St., Des Moines. The lawsuit makes references to the church having 20 members at one point in time.

The church’s teachings are built around the use of ayahuasca, which is brewed from the leaves of the shrubs and vines found in the Amazon. Elements of those plants have powerful hallucinogenic properties, which the church says can be used to awaken “the Third Eye” of its followers.

The Third Eye is described by the church on its website as “an organ that no one speaks about at school or in private” and which is “secretly protected in the geometric center of your skull.”

In court filings, the church says that in January 2019 it filed an application with the IRS seeking tax-exempt status and was denied. With the assistance of U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley’s office, the lawsuit alleges, the appeals process at the IRS was expedited and an appeal conference was held in April of this year.

A final determination letter denying tax-exempt status was issued in June of this year, stating that the church’s use of the “Sacrament of Ayahuasca” in its religious practices was illegal, the lawsuit claims.

In court filings, the church acknowledges that under the federal Controlled Substances Act, an ingredient of ayahuasca called dimethyltryptamine or DMT, is a Schedule I drug and a hallucinogenic alkaloid, and that there is no statutory exemption allowing for its use in religious ceremonies.

According to the church, however, the IRS decision to withhold tax-exempt status “directly contradicts” a past U.S.  Supreme Court ruling and also violates the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993.

The case that was heard by the Supreme Court involves a different church whose members received communion by drinking ayahuasca in the form of a tea brewed from plants found in the Amazon rainforest. After U.S. Customs seized a shipment of ayahuasca that was being shipped to the church, federal authorities threatened criminal prosecution and the church filed a lawsuit for injunctive relief.

The government conceded that while the sacramental use of ayahuasca was an exercise of religion, the sacramental use of the substance was still prohibited by law. The Supreme Court ruled the government’s actions violated the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, and it affirmed a lower court’s preliminary injunction in favor of the church.

According to the lawsuit, the IRS has stated the Des Moines church has been formed for an illegal purpose – the distribution of a controlled substance.

The Iowaska Church of Healing disputes that and says its mission is to help individuals “attain healing of the mind, body and spirit through the sacred Sacrament of Ayahuasca under the guidelines of North and South American indigenous traditions and cultural values.”’

Church leader convicted in high-profile drug case

The lawsuit states that ayahuasca is consumed in the form of a tea during the church’s religious ceremonies and that its services also “involve prayers, smudging and spiritual music.” The basis of its doctrine emanates from the Ayahuasca Manifesto, a document that details the role of ayahuasca in the expansion of consciousness, the church says.

In February 2019, the church filed a request with the Drug Enforcement Administration, seeking a religious exemption from the Controlled Substance Act. To date, the church alleges, the DEA has delivered no “substantive response” to the request, despite repeated follow-up inquiries, including one sent by Grassley’s office.

The IRS has yet to file a response to the lawsuit. Kantarevic says the church has never conducted a ceremony at his home or anywhere else in the state of Iowa.

Court records indicate that in December 2005, Kantarevic, then a personal trainer, was convicted of possession of anabolic steroids and sentenced to one year of probation. He was charged in connection with a federal investigation into the illegal importation of steroids for bodybuilders.

In his written guilty plea, Kantarevic acknowledged having received more than 3,500 grams of anabolic steroids through the mail in Des Moines, from both Thailand and California, with the intent of keeping some of the drug and mailing the rest to others.

As part of his plea, he acknowledged that it was his understanding the drugs came from Milos Sarcev and were to be paid for by Dennis James.

At the time, Sarcev and James were internationally known, competitive bodybuilders. Sarcev was a two-time holder of the title Mr. Yugoslavia, and James was a top competitor in the 2004 Mr. Universe contest.

Both men later pleaded guilty to conspiracy to possess anabolic steroids.

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Clark Kauffman
Clark Kauffman

Deputy Editor Clark Kauffman has worked during the past 30 years as both an investigative reporter and editorial writer at two of Iowa’s largest newspapers, the Des Moines Register and the Quad-City Times. He has won numerous state and national awards for reporting and editorial writing. His 2004 series on prosecutorial misconduct in Iowa was named a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Investigative Reporting. From October 2018 through November 2019, Kauffman was an assistant ombudsman for the Iowa Office of Ombudsman, an agency that investigates citizens’ complaints of wrongdoing within state and local government agencies.