War on Drugs

When Is Drinking Ayahuasca a Religious Experience?

It should not matter whether would-be ayahuasca drinkers sincerely believe in shamanism or simply believe they will derive mental health benefits from the experience.

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Inside the vast apparatus of the federal Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), there's a bureaucrat who is tasked with investigating the tenets of psychedelic churches. That improbable job figures in the legal troubles encountered by Arizona's Vine of Light Church.

That group used to sponsor monthly meetings at which paying guests drank ayahuasca, a powerful psychoactive brew that originated in South America. Those gatherings ended in May 2019, when a federal drug task force raided the Phoenix home of Clay Villanueva, the church's pastor.

The task force says it seized dozens of pounds of ayahuasca, along with psilocybin mushrooms and marijuana. But Villanueva was not arrested until 18 months later, under a Maricopa County warrant that neither he nor his attorney knew existed. He now stands accused of running an illegal drug enterprise.

The raid happened 12 days after a group Villanueva co-founded, the North American Association of Visionary Churches (NAAVC), sued the DEA under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA). As interpreted by the Supreme Court, that 1993 law allows qualified religious groups to import and possess ayahuasca, which contains dimethyltryptamine, a Schedule I controlled substance. But the groups have to petition the DEA for an exemption from the Controlled Substances Act, which requires proving that their ayahuasca use is part of a sincere religious practice, not just a weekend retreat for psychedelic tourists.

The NAAVC argues that the DEA is retaliating against groups that file RFRA petitions. It also says the permit process is illegal under a 2006 Supreme Court ruling that said RFRA requires the government to examine religious freedom claims and, absent a compelling government interest, grant exceptions for the use of otherwise illegal drugs.

If you wanted to highlight the absurdity of the drug war, it would be hard to find a better example than charging federal narcs with parsing the religious beliefs of groups like the Vine of Light Church. It should not matter whether would-be ayahuasca drinkers sincerely believe in shamanism or simply believe they will derive mental health benefits from the experience. Vine of Light attendees included combat veterans and domestic violence victims for whom the ritual brought tangible relief from post-traumatic stress disorder.

The raid and Villaneuva's arrest "wrecked a lot of things and hurt a lot of people," a former congregant told the Phoenix New Times. "Clay was really doing something good for the world." Can the same be said of the government busybodies who are determined to make sure that ayahuasca users are bound by dogma?