Pandora’s Brew: The New Ayahuasca Part 2

Part 2: The New Ayahuasca Churches

Yesterday I sat in on a webinar sponsored by ICEERS (the International Center for Ethnobotanical Education, Research and Service) and organized by anthropologist Bia Labate. Entitled “Myths and Realities about the Legality of Ayahuasca in the USA,” the webinar featured three experts on the subject. The first was Jeffrey Bronfman, a leader of the União do Vegetal church in the US whose shipment of ayahuasca (the UDV calls it hoasca) was seized in 1999, leading to a protracted court battle and, eventually, a supreme court decision in favor of the church’s right to use the tea as their sacrament. The second was Rob Heffernan, member of the Santo Daime church (which also uses ayahuasca as a sacrament) and chair of its legal committee. The third was J. Hamilton Hudson, a recent graduate of the Tulane law school who has been following legal developments surrounding ayahuasca-using groups who are affiliated with neither of the aforementioned churches.

The webinar—and the series of which it is a part—are a response to the apparent confusion regarding the legal status of ayahuasca in the United States. This confusion, and some of the factors contributing to it, came to light over the past year and a half with the rise and fall of a group called Ayahuasca Healings, the self-proclaimed “first public legal ayahuasca church in the United States.” Also known as Ayahuasca USA and Ayahuasca Healings Native American Church (AHNAC), AH is one of a number of groups who use ayahuasca in a neo-shamanic setting and, more importantly, who claim that they have the legal right to do so. Unfortunately for AH, they don’t, and a friendly letter from the DEA (U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency) was enough to finally convince them of that fact—at least for now.

AH is one of a number of groups under the aegis of a shady organization called the Oklevueha Native American Church (ONAC), which promises its branches and branch members legal protection from controlled substances laws. ONAC rests its claims on the idea that, if such substances are used in a religious context by members of a church congregation, then that use is protected by laws such as the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, passed by congress to protect the use of peyote (which contains mescaline, a controlled substance) in the context of the Native American Church. ONAC’s claims, however, are false; thus, the churches under ONAC, which claim to serve ayahuasca legally, are acting in contradiction of the law and endangering the people they purport to serve.

In a series of blog posts this month, I’ll look at this whole story in quite a bit of depth, from the fundamental issue of why ayahuasca is (for most users) still illegal in the United States, to the rise and fall of Ayahuasca Healings and the ongoing developments in that story. I’ll also pull back for a look at the bigger picture of ONAC, its founder and the controversies therein, and the various other groups serving ayahuasca and other sacraments under ONAC’s aegis. Finally, I’ll discuss why all this activity is a kick in the teeth to the Native American Church and to the indigenous people of North America more broadly. Anthropologically speaking, one of the keys to the issue is the incongruity between attitudes toward religion and spirituality, race and ethnicity in the Amazon and in the United States—and how the superposition of an ethnomedical practice from the Amazon onto the religious structures of North America is like trying to put a square peg in a round hole.

Next time I post I’ll get started with a little more explanation of what goes into ayahuasca that makes it the concern of the DEA, and why some people in the U.S. can drink it legally while others can’t. Stay tuned.

The Ayahuasca Healings website continues to promise legal ayahuasca retreats within the U.S., even after their founders have left the country and the organization has fallen into disarray, pending an answer from the DEA regarding their petition for exemption from laws governing the use of controlled substances. This image was clipped from on March 5, 2017.

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