Today’s guest post was composed by students in an undergraduate course I just finished teaching on American religious minorities. The students’ assignment was to provide historical perspective on a controversy involving one of the religious minorities we discussed, with the aim of generating greater empathy among readers (i.e., greater understanding if not necessarily agreement) for the minority group’s position. If you have constructive feedback to offer the students, please comment on this post.
By Max Bress, Caroline Metzger, Lusumino Nyamayedenga, Brian Smith, Casey Taylor
Religious controversies surround us in everyday life. We hear about them on the evening news, in the newspaper, and learn about them in class. A recent religious controversy we found interesting was the conflict between the Uniao do Vegetal (UDV) church and the United States government and its citizens. The conflict sprouted from the UDV’s use of ayahuasca tea. The following gives background on the UDV, the pros and cons of ayahuasca tea, the public perception and the court case involving the UDV.
The Brazilian church of Uniao do Vegetal (UDV) was founded by Jose Gabriel da Costa in 1961 after he consumed ayahuasca, a hallucinogenic tea brewed from mariri and chacrona leaves found in the Amazon River. Once he consumed the tea, he had a vision in which “spiritual revelations and sense of personal mission… came together in a coherent belief system.” After this profound vision, he began to gather followers under the name of Mestre Gabriel and the church of Uniao do Vegetal. Uniao do Vegetal, which translates to ‘the union of the plants’ and refers to the ayahuasca tea Mestre Gabriel consumed during his time in the Amazon. Gabriel’s teachings blended Christianity and indigenous Brazilian beliefs while including ritual drinking of the ayahuasca tea. In 1969, the first UDV temple was built in Porto Velho, Brazil and was declared headquarters of the UDV. In 1971, Mestre Gabriel died and left his teachings to his family. His wife would later become a Mestre of the UDV. When Mastre Gabriel’s family took over the role of leading the church, they renamed it Centro Espirita Beneficente Uniao do Vegetal (United Beneficent Spiritual Central of the Vegetable) and moved its headquarters to Brazilia, Brazil. In 1987, Brazil legalized the use of the ayahuasca tea, opening the doors for the UDV to recruit more followers.
According to Jeffrey Toobin of the New Yorker Magazine, the UDV was introduced to the United States by Jeffrey Bronfman who founded the Santa Fe, New Mexico branch. Bronfman, an ecologist, traveled to the Brazilian rainforest where he was introduced to the UDV and tasted the ayahuasca tea. The tea inspired him to become a Mestre of the UDV and led to the founding of the U.S. congregation. During services the congregation drinks the tea together as part of their ritual, somewhat comparable to the Catholic tradition of taking communion. In 1999, federal agents raided the New Mexico branch of the UDV and confiscated their ayahuasca tea. As a result, Bronfman sued the federal government for the violation of religious freedom. The United States Supreme Court ruled in favor of the UDV and they are now allowed to use the ayahuasca tea. The UDV’s membership is estimated to be between 8,000 and 10,000 worldwide and between 100 and 200 in the United States. The UDV have branches in Brazil, Spain, and the United States.
According to Anthony Hennman, the UDV church members use the Ayahuasca tea every 1st and 3rd Sunday of the month, as well as various other days and perform a certain ritual. During these rituals, the leader or the Mestre distributes the tea and guides the people through their painful, yet meaningful, journey while under the influence of the tea. While sharing the tea, certain chants called Chamadas are recited providing instruction as well as teachings of Mestre Gabriel. The UDV church believes that in order to truly perceive god, one must ingest this tea. Also, according to Hennman, the followers believe that by using the tea they can find self-knowledge, and often times share their visions and experiences during their rituals with one another.
While there are many potentially negative effects associated with DMT and ayahuasca usage, there are also many potential benefits for users. Although there have been few studies conducted to examine the impact of the psychoactive substance, users often report positive and even life-changing results and revelations from the drug. One of the few legitimate studies of DMT was conducted by Rick Strassman MD at the University of New Mexico in the early 1990’s. The studies were then turned into a documentary entitled ‘The Spirit Molecule’, highlighting test subjects experiences while under the influence. Mitch Schultz, director of the documentary, describes the DMT journey as a way for users to look into themselves and discover their true identity. Schultz says, “ DMT can give you something inside you that can really open up the layers of your ego. And pulling back those layers of the ego, you start to get a sense of that perfect awareness of your being, and to me that is more real than real if you will. More real than this hallucination that we’re living in on a daily basis.”
In addition to self-examination, users of ayahuasca often report how beautiful the experience is. In the Strassman study, the volunteers seemed to continually reiterate how stunning their journey was. Schultz believes that there were benefits for all of the users saying, “Even the frightening experiences for them were in some way beautiful and even more so after they returned and were able to take some sort of lesson from that.”
A 2012 study of ayahuasca usage in two Brazilian churches found that users measured significantly lower than the controls for depression, anxiety, hostility, paranoid ideation, and phobias. The ayahuasca users also scored significantly lower than controls for measures of worry, shyness, and fatigability and weakness. Finally, users scored significantly higher than controls on measures of self-transcendence and spiritual orientation, including sacredness of life, subjective well-being, and mission in life (Beyer). For these reasons, Amazonian shamans have come to describe ayahuasca as the ‘window to the soul’ (Salak).
The psychedelic effects of ayahuasca include visual and auditory stimulation, the mixing of sensory modalities, and psychological introspection. It has come to be known as the spirit molecule because users often claim to have otherworldly experiences and encounters with supernatural entities. Usage of the tea is often viewed as a way of physical and spiritual renewal. It is known for its purgative properties, first causing its ingestor to vomit prior to its psychoactive effects. After the physical cleansing, the spiritual journey is a source of renewal for many people who see visions or discover a revelation resulting in transformation of self or ideals. For the UDV, ayahuasca promotes a spiritual evolution based on the search for self-knowledge and mental concentration.
Though DMT is known to have the capability to positively impact users’ lives, public perception largely disapproves because of the psychedelic effects on the user. Those who oppose the use of DMT take this standpoint often because of DMT’s capability to drastically alter self-identity, induce extreme anxiety, realistic hallucinations, and spiritual emergence. The long term side effects of DMT usage are largely unknown. Because of this, as well as the hallucinogenic properties, the federal government classifies DMT as a Schedule I drug. Schedule I drugs are those which have a high probability of abuse, and no known medical use. However, new scientific evidence shows that drugs like psilocybin mushrooms and MDMA, both Schedule I drugs, indeed do have medical use in small doses; people suffering from post traumatic stress disorder are finding relief by using these substances. Once classified as dangerous and without medical justification, certain substances have been erroneously classified and banned from consumption. With recent advances in scientific understanding of substances similar to ayahuasca, it is plausible that scientific evidence will emerge about ayahuasca in the same vain.
The DEA has nicknamed DMT “the businessman’s trip” because of the brevity of the experience. A DMT high typically peaks within a minute of being taken. This peak often drastically changes one’s self-identity while the context of their surroundings such as furniture, plants, animals, and people gain a different meaning. This change in meaning of surroundings can cause a life-altering rearrangement of existential perception, which has been known to cause users to place less value on human beings and place more value on other things. In some cases, users of DMT begin to identify with inanimate objects, leading to existential anxiety. When analyzing the merits and downfalls of DMT, it is also important to recognize where it comes from. Many people question how a substance could be harmful if it is naturally produced by the human body and in nature. It is not a synthetically manufactured substance, whose sole use centers on getting high; it exists in almost all living things as part of their genetic makeup.
While many users of DMT enter a euphoric state, it can be laced with an intense feeling of fear and apprehension. Even experienced users of psychedelic drugs often experience uncomfortability through the intense loss of control caused by DMT use. The feelings of euphoria and fear alternate much more frequently when using DMT versus other psychedelic drugs. Because of its strength, users of DMT often fail to realize that their hallucinations are not real. Many users have described this effect as a “live dream.” As one is convinced that events are real when dreaming, DMT users often perceive hallucinations as actually happening in a different realm where life is more vivid and intriguing. This intense perception elevates the DMT’s risk level beyond other psychedelics as it breaks the bounds of a secure hallucination and takes the user’s mind to a vivid, often spontaneous realm.
Though the general public may be unaware of these specific psychological effects of DMT, those against the use of Hoasca tea are opposed to it primarily because it contains a psychedelic drug. Many are against its use simply because of its drug classification. Some are wary that it could permit drug abuse for members of the Centro Espirita Beneficente Uniao do Vegetal. It is perceived to some as a place welcoming drug usage without genuine religious purpose and that the members are just looking for some kind of high. However, a study labeled the Hoaska Project explored the UDV church and its members, and found some rather interesting and surprising information. The study found that most of the people involved in the church are actually in a higher socioeconomic class than expected. UDV members even include physicians who are well educated about drugs and their effects, yet still are willing to expose themselves to the Ayahuasca.
An interesting aspect of the Supreme Court case against the UDV church centers on the legal boundaries the U.S. government accused the church of crossing. According to the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993, both State and Federal governments may not “…substantially burden religious exercise without compelling justification.” The compelling justification the government offered was counterintuitive in a lot of ways; it seemed as if the government was doing everything within their power and using whatever obscure argument they could legally muster to try and categorically dismiss the UDV’s claim because it involved a controlled substance. Through the RFRA, many other religious groups have argued their cases and legally been permitted to use substances deemed to be Schedule I drugs.
Schedule I drugs are those which the federal government determined to be the most dangerous, and those which carry the most substantial penalties. One of the justifications the US Government invoked to fight the UDV church in court over the use of ayahuasca tea was that by virtue of “description of Schedule I substances…by itself precludes any consideration of individualized exceptions such as that sought by the UDV.” This interpretation was odd because on several occasions the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled in favor of religious groups attempting to gain legal recognition. Mescaline, the active ingredient in Peyote is classified as a Schedule I drug, yet certain Native American groups have been legally allowed to use it ceremoniously for decades. Why now would federal prosecutors say that by virtue of the Schedule I classification, the RFRA is negated, and does not afford the UDV church consideration for ceremonial use of ayahuasca tea? It seems that the position of the federal government is less about there being an actual problem with using certain substances for religious sacrament, but instead about the government doing everything within its power to resist change for fear of how the public will react.
This assertion is validated by the Supreme Court Majority Opinion on the case, authored by Chief Justice John Roberts, which reads “According to the Government, there would be no way to cabin religious exceptions once recognized, and the public will misread such exceptions as signaling that the substance at issue is not harmful after all.” The government is afraid that fully applying the laws they have already passed to protect religious freedoms will confuse the ignorant public, and they will no longer be able to determine for themselves which substances they will put in their body.
The argument is not whether the UDV has the legal right to practice their religion; the highest court in the land has already ruled in their favor. New emerging evidence suggests that schedule I drugs often can be used for medical reasons, and often are not as harmful as they are classified to be. These people aren’t hurting anyone, and are merely practicing their religion freely, and with legal justification. America is the land of free religious practice; these people are no different. The stigmas about DMT often are misconstrued, and rely on fear and misinformation to convince people that it should be outlawed.
This religious controversy has in fact be somewhat solved. The ruling of the Supreme Court allowing the UDV’s use of ayahuasca tea will pave the way for other religions using a substance that is different from what Americans perceive to be the norm. Maybe in the future Americans will be more open to rituals used by religions that are not mainstream.