Is DMT a controlled substance?

Yes, DMT is a controlled substance in the US under the federal Controlled Substance Act (1971), making it illegal to manufacture, distribute, buy, or possess DMT. However, DMT can be researched for medical use in approved studies, DMT-containing brews have been authorized for religious use by some churches with origins in South America, and one state and a handful of cities have decriminalized it alongside other psychedelics.

Under United States federal law, DMT is a schedule I controlled substance, making it illegal to manufacture, distribute, buy, or possess. 

However, some religious groups have been granted exemptions from the Controlled Substances Act to import and consume DMT-containing ayahuasca for sacramental reasons. Researchers can also apply to the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to study and conduct trials with DMT.

Additionally, in recent years some US jurisdictions have passed or are considering legislation decriminalizing DMT and other psychedelics. Decriminalization is different than legalization: DMT remains illegal across the country. But these cities and states have opted to remove or deprioritize criminal penalties for DMT and other psychedelics, usually for personal and non-commercial use and in small quantities.

In 2019, the California city of Oakland became the first jurisdiction in the US to decriminalize a range of psychedelics, including DMT and ayahuasca.[1] Since then, other cities have followed suit, including:

  • Santa Cruz, California

  • Denver, Colorado

  • Cambridge, Massachusetts

  • Somerville, Massachusetts

  • Ann Arbor, Michigan

  • Seattle, Washington

  • Washington DC

In 2020, voters in Oregon approved measures to eliminate criminal penalties for all illegal drugs, including DMT and similar psychedelics. Oregonians can be fined for possession of DMT or ayahuasca for non-religious purposes but not arrested or jailed.[2]

California, Colorado, Maine, and Vermont are now also moving to decriminalize DMT, while Missouri is considering legalizing it for therapeutic use.[3]

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What is a schedule I substance?

Schedule I substances are drugs thought to have a high chance of being abused or causing addiction and have no FDA-approved medicinal use in the US. 

The scheduling system was created by the Controlled Substances Act in 1971, sorting drugs into Schedules I through V. Schedule I drugs include heroin, cannabis, ecstasy, and most psychedelics.

Some people assume that substances are scheduled based on their potential for harm to the individual and society and are baffled to hear that cannabis and psychedelics are schedule I while opioid painkillers and cocaine are schedule II.

This confusion reflects how much our attitudes to some drugs have changed in the 50 years since the Controlled Substances Act was enacted. In the backlash against the hippie movement of the 1960s, people believed psychedelics and hallucinogens were eroding the very fabric of society and classified as highly dangerous. Although research now suggests that psychedelics have a low potential for addiction and may even be a powerful treatment for it and other mental health conditions, their scheduling remains unchanged. There is a push from scientists to downgrade these drugs to schedule III, which would enable more research into their therapeutic use.[4]

Scheduling also accounts for a drug’s recognized, mainstream medicinal value as much as its potential for abuse. Despite their addictive potential, opioid painkillers and cocaine have long accepted medical use—for pain relief and as an aesthetic, respectively—therefore are schedule II. The medical uses of cannabis and especially psychedelics have been less well documented and in many cases are still being explored. 

Additionally, while criminal laws and punishments do reflect the scheduling system, they also take other things into account, particularly in the hands of open-minded prosecutors. Cannabis and psychedelics being schedule I also haven’t prevented some jurisdictions from decriminalizing them.

When was DMT made a schedule I substance?

DMT was made a schedule I substance when the Controlled Substances Act came into effect in 1971.

Internationally, DMT is a Schedule I controlled substance under the United Nations' 1971 Convention on Psychotropic Substances. Therefore, use is supposed to be restricted to scientific research and medicine, and trade closed monitored. There is no country in the world where DMT itself is legal. 

However, organic materials containing DMT and the ayahuasca brew aren’t regulated under the Convention on Psychotropic Drugs. They're legal in some countries, primarily in South America where the most-DMT containing plants grow and indigenous peoples have long histories of using them for religious purposes. 

Legality covers a wide range of possibilities: in some places ayahuasca is specifically legal (for example, Peru), while in others there’s simply no legislation specifically barring it (for example in Argentina).

Ayahuasca can be considered at least partly legal or at least not specifically illegal, in:

  • Argentina

  • Bolivia

  • Brazil

  • Columbia

  • Ecuador

  • Mexico

  • Peru: 

  • Portugal: as part of its general decriminalization of the possession and personal use of all drugs in 2001. Transportation and cultivation remain criminal offenses.[5]

For more information about the often ambiguous legal status of ayahuasca around the world, see the Ayahuasca Defense Fund’s country by country map.

While DMT currently has no approved medicinal use in the US, researchers and drug developers are permitted to study it, subject to the approval of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Schedule I drugs are the most difficult to gain authorization to research however, clinical trials have been approved and are ongoing in the US.

Worldwide, DMT is being investigated for its therapeutic potential for conditions ranging from treatment-resistant depression to Parkinson’s disease to vision loss to addiction, with promising results.[6] 

Outside of authorized trials, DMT therapy is illegal in the US and conducted only in underground clinics.

Can DMT be used in a religious context?

DMT-containing plants and brews have an important sacramental role in the religions of some indigenous peoples from the Amazon Basin. US legislation and courts have enumerated exemptions to the Controlled Substances Act for the religious use of otherwise prohibited psychedelic drugs, including DMT and 5-MeO DMT

In 2006, the Supreme Court unanimously ruled that under the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act, the federal government had to permit the Brazil-based União do Vegetal (UDV) church to import and consume DMT-containing tea for sacramental use. A few years later, three US-based Santo Daime churches were also granted approval to use ayahuasca. 

Following the UDV case, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) issued interim guidelines requiring religious groups to apply for exemptions to the Controlled Substances Act and to demonstrate they hold sincere religious beliefs.[7]