If you visited Facebook or any of the many alternative media websites that reported it last month, you’ve probably seen stories stating that taking ayahuasca in a legal “church” setting is now possible here in the United States. For many it was cause to celebrate, as the reputation of the Amazonian plant medicine’s ability to help with the epidemic of mental and physical illnesses that Americans struggle with is growing exponentially.
Even larger mainstream news outlets picked up the story, with the Daily Beast calling it the “First Legal Ayahuasca Church” and Vice’s MUNCHIES food channel interviewing the founder of Ayahuasca Healings, Trinity de Guzman, in an article entitled “America is Getting its First Legal Ayahuasca Church.”
But is it true? Is it legal? Is it even a church? What exactly is going on here?
Concerns about the organization arose quickly after the news went viral. Questions about the legality of Ayahuasca Healings claims were first raised on December 4, 2015, in a blog post on the website of anthropologist Bia Labate, who has written 12 books on psychoactive substances, drug policy, and shamanism.
“The claims of the ‘Ayahuasca Healing Retreats’ as being ‘completely legal’ in the United States are false…[Ayahuasca’s] unauthorized importation and distribution is considered a felony criminal act punishable by imprisonment,” the post states.
Within weeks, Labate’s website published three more posts related to the legality of de Guzman’s Ayahuasca Healings, including a strongly-worded warning entitled, “Don’t Believe the Hype about the ‘Legal Ayahuasca USA Church’ going around Facebook — it’s not legal, it’s dangerous, and here’s why.”
These blog posts raise concerns about not just about the legal status of the church, which asks for a minimum suggested donation of $1,497 to $1,997 for a Friday to Monday retreat in Washington State, but also about the commercial nature of these retreats, which is a growing phenomenon in the world of ayahuasca tourism. Amongst the plant healing community, there’s widespread concern that the ayahuasca liquid gold rush is attracting unscrupulous charlatans, who are motivated by money rather than a higher cause, and who may put ceremony participants in unsafe situations.
The Legality And Legitimacy Of Ayahuasca Churches
To find out more about the legitimacy of Ayahuasca Healings, Reset contacted Rick Doblin, founder and executive director of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), a non-profit organization that educates and advocates for the safe and therapeutic use of psychedelics and marijuana.
“As you know, its totally a sham,” was the first thing Doblin said.
“They do a disservice to the Santo Daime and UDV churches, which have obtained legal permission for their use of ayahuasca within their specific and limited religious ceremonies, and to the Native American Church, which has obtained legal permission for their use of peyote in their limited religious ceremonies,” he continues.
Santo Daime and the UDV (União do Vegetal) are both Brazilian churches that utilize ayahuasca as a sacrament, and both have won court cases to establish their specific right to do so — within the state of Oregon and within the United States as a whole respectively. The Native American Church was granted a concession in the Controlled Substance act of 1971 that allows for “the non drug use of peyote in a bonafide religious ceremony.”
But Ayahuasca Healings takes things a step further, claiming “100% legal rights to use the sacred sacraments of Ayahuasca, Peyote, San Pedro — any plant that grows from the earth — inside of America, according to the laws of the land,” according to their website.
On the same page, they claim that their legal status is guaranteed by their affiliation with the Oklevueha Native American Church (ONAC), run by James “Flaming Eagle” Mooney.
“There is no higher elder in the Native American Church than James ‘Flaming Eagle’ Mooney,” the website claims. “He is the highest order of authority in the bloodline of the Native Americans that exist in America today.”
However, further research on James Mooney and the ONAC reveals that things are not quite so clear cut.
According to a recent article written by Native American writer and tribal judge Ruth Hopkins, which was published on the Indian Country Today Media Network website, Mooney is a “pretendian” who is not actually enrolled in a federally recognized Native American tribe at all, and ONAC is not really a legitimate member of the Native American Church either.
“When non-Natives steal ceremonies from us, it creates a spiritual harm,” Hopkins writes. “These sacred rites have real power, and that’s not to be taken lightly.”
In fact, a coalition of several branches of the Native American Church actually filed a court brief denouncing a chapter of the ONAC run by Michael Mooney (Jame’s son) in 2014:
“This brief explains that the Amici NAC organizations do not recognize the Oklevueha Church of Hawaii, Inc., as a chapter, nor do they recognize Mr. Mooney as a member of a legitimate chapter of the Native American Church,” the document states.
Mooney’s ONAC did win a legal victory in 2004 however, which gave the church’s members, who are mostly non-native, the right to consume peyote in Utah. But the ruling centered on the argument that it violated the equal protection clause of the constitution and is discriminatory to allow Indians but not non-natives to consume peyote in church and has nothing to do with ayahuasca or marijuana, which their members also claim the right to use freely and wherever they want, not just in the state of Utah.
ONAC members have actually been arrested recently for trying to assert those rights. A female member of the church was indicted in 2014 for felony cultivation of marijuana in Oregon, which means she could face a $300,000 fine and 10 years in prison, while another ONAC member was busted by a Northern California tribe for growing a commercial marijuana crop on their sacred ceremonial grounds.
Of more concern here is Ayahuasca Healings’ claim that they have the right use ayahuasca as an affiliate of church of ONAC, especially since the legal precedent they operate under is limited to peyote and the state of Utah. So is there really any basis to their claims at all?
Michael Morris is the leader of a branch of the Santo Daime church in Peru, and was part of the successful lawsuit brought against the federal government that allowed ayahuasca to be legally consumed by Daime members in Oregon. We contacted him to find out more about the legal issues raised by Ayahuasca Healings.
“The exemption from prosecution [that Santo Daime has in Oregon] is based on individual cases involving specific churches and granted as such [explicitly by the courts], it is not generally or globally applied in any manner,” Morris tells Reset. “Otherwise every Santo Daime Church in the U.S. would now be legal, and they are not.”
“The considerable splash of news about ‘The First Legal Ayahuasca Church’ in the U. S. was the result of a well-structured PR campaign,” Morris continues. “The claims of everything from being ‘first’ to being ‘legal’ to being ‘safe’ are complete fiction.”
The Complications Of Ayahuasca Commercialism
“Let’s also address the ‘safety’ of individuals from a spiritual perspective rather than legal, because that is my greatest concern,” says Morris. He goes on to explain the dangers that could be involved with commercial ayahuasca operations pretending to be church or native groups.
“This medicine is carried forward into society by way of traditions that protect both the integrity of ceremonies, the people who lead them, and the people who participate in them,” says Morris.
“Shipibo, Shuar, Kofan, Yaminawá, Kaxinawá, Santo Daime, and UDV are all tightly held traditions that protect their ways and prescribe the specific ‘container’ within which the medicine is applied… AH is not, nor are they affiliated with, any legitimate tradition other than the business relationship they have with the questionable NAC chapter of ONAC.”
In fact, the only tradition we could find while looking up de Guzman was a history of internet-based marketing operations. Just a couple years ago he was hawking outsourcing tips online designed to empower you to “travel the world for years while your remote team does all the work.”
In a 2014 interview about his “lifestyle” and “business plan,” de Guzman explains how he pays people a dollar an hour in third world countries to do his work for him while he travels the world skiing and surfing.
This may explain why de Guzman has no qualms about asking potential participants for a large minimum “donation” for a 4-day weekend retreat, and framing it as part of the spiritual healing process.
“If $1000 is a lot to you right now, then that discomfort of making that donation is already the start of your healing,” He writes on the Ayahuasca Healings website.
He then goes on to justify the substantial minimum “donation” request by suggesting the 4-day retreat is worth much more:
“I’ve even invested as much as $5,000 for a 4-day retreat, and it’s one of the greatest things I’ve ever done.”
Does this kind of marketing speak sound familiar?
“In short, what I see is a very strategic use of language and marketing criteria to position this organization for profit,” Morris cautions. “For me, as a Daimista, this is not only mal-aligned, it is deceptive.”
But for de Guzman, money making marketing strategies and spirituality seem to be one and the same. According to his Couchsurfing page — which also lists among his favorite books Think and Grow Rich, Secrets of a Millionaire Mind, and Rich Dad, Poor Dad — he claims to have “Mastered the Art of Manifestation, and can now, literally, turn any thought I want, into a physical reality.”
The danger of these kinds of big money marketing schemes applied to spiritual healing has been exemplified in the past by cases such as that of new age author James Ray, a narrator in the movie The Secret. Having established a lucrative career as a motivational speaker, he began charging thousands of dollars for sweat lodge retreats in Arizona. Unfortunately, three people died and a further 18 were hospitalized while participating a doomed sweat lodge session during a 2009 “Spiritual Warrior” retreat. Before entering the sweat lodge, which itself had major design flaws and was unsuitable for such large numbers, the group had been subjected to rigorous physical rituals, and had been recklessly encouraged to forgo food and water for extended periods. Ray was subsequently convicted of three counts of negligent homicide and sentenced to two years in prison.
Sweat lodge ceremonies are usually free of charge. A typical Santo Daime ceremony usually runs between $30 and $40 — just enough to cover the cost of the ayahuasca itself. Single ayahuasca ceremonies usually run no more than $50 in South America, often far less, although that price could double or triple in the United States when the cost of transportation and travel are factored in.
But Ayahuasca Healings charges many times that for an ayahuasca-based retreat with an organization that is not being honest about their legal status.
“Retreat centers that peddle the fiction of legality are not trustworthy, nor are they likely to be fully supportive since they are seemingly more interested in money than in healing,” says Doblin, seconding the emotion that there is ample reason to steer clear of overly commercial ayahuasca retreat operations.
“Psychedelic experiences open people up in a way somewhat similar to brain surgery. It’s important that the context be supportive and trustworthy,” Doblin explains.
Unfortunately, there have been alarming cases of tragedy at for profit ayahuasca retreat centers in Peru over the last couple of years, including a teenager who died and was buried secretly in the night by a shaman and a knife fight that lead to a death right in the middle of a ceremony.
“There is a lot of momentum and public agreement that ayahuasca is a valuable and good thing,” says Morris. “But you have to ask yourself who these people are that you are in ceremony with. How long have they been drinking? Where have they been studying?”
According to de Guzman himself in a blog post (which has since been deleted, but can be found archived here), his first ayahuasca experience was in March of 2013. That means he has less than three years’ experience drinking the medicine, which makes one wonder how much practical time spent preparing, serving, and facilitating ayahuasca ceremonies he has under his belt. Traditionally, those who facilitate and lead ayahuasca ceremonies train for years, even decades, before serving the medicine to others.
To add to the controversy, on Ayahuasca Healings’ website, de Guzman also claims an affiliation with a center in the Peruvian Amazon called The Garden of Peace, where his organization also appears to offer retreats. However, in a December, 2015 post on the Garden of Peace’s Facebook page, a candid statement to the contrary was shared publicly:
“We the owners and operators of El Jardin are in NO WAY involved with the Ayahuasca Church of USA project nor do we have a formal opinion on the project as we simply do not know enough about it to comment,” the post states.
On January 27, 2016 the Garden of Peace posted a press release on their website that further clarifies that, aside from an initial investment, the only ongoing relationship de Guzman has with the center is as a booking agent who earns commission on retreats booked via the Ayahuasca Healings website.
It seems that in almost every direction we looked when researching Ayahuasca Healings, false claims and marketing hype are being used to cover up a very shaky foundation. And, in fact, it seems like the newly minted church is already imploding.
On January 24, 2016, Scott Montgomery, one of the core founding members of Ayahuasca Healings, posted a lengthy video on Youtube that asks the organization to stop its retreats and rethink its organization. He also warns that the “church” is not legal, that there is no real indigenous presence involved in the operation, and that it is overpriced and over commercialized.
“I reached out to the core team and demanded that they stop promoting and advertising that they hold ayahuasca retreats that are legal,” he states.
Several ex members of Ayahuasca Healings and other concerned people have now created a Facebook group, called “Ayahuasca Healings is NOT legal” where more in depth information about Ayahuasca Healings can be found.
So, with the reputation of Ayahuasca Healings already in shreds, what are the wider implications for the future of ayahuasca in the West?
“One sad aspect of all of this is that there is a tremendous need and demand by large numbers of people for the healing that can emerge from ayahuasca, peyote, and other psychedelics,” says Doblin.
“As we work to reintegrate psychedelics into Western culture, we need to proceed as fast as we can, but not faster than is wise,” he continues. “Premature and false claims about legality play on the deep need for these experiences but jeopardize the process of cultural integration which must proceed step by step.”
The bottom line? Beware the age old “sham” that sadly has always coexisted alongside true shamanism. While a day when we can all use nature’s plants freely is surely something we should look forward to, it’s also important to not be fooled by dubious claims of legality and safety that come with hefty price tags and hyperbolic marketing language.