In 2016, the ‘First Legal Ayahuasca Church’ Got Shut Down. Was It a Scam—or a New Religion?
A Canadian and a Brit had a vision to serve mind-expanding drugs in America.
When people drink ayahuasca tea, the psychoactive, plant-based Amazonian drink, they have visions. Sometimes, those are visual hallucinations: these ceremonies happen at night because the spirit of the plant is supposed to speak most clearly in the dark.
Sometimes, though, they are inspirations—big ideas about how to change the world. Like many who are “called” to ayahuasca, Trinity de Guzman had a vision of spreading the gospel of the plant. But where for many that might mean proselytizing to their friends, for de Guzman, it took the form of a more specific idea.
In 2015, de Guzman was Skyping with an ayahuasca ceremony leader he admired about setting up a venture together, and the leader mentioned she could see herself living in the Pacific Northwest. “I was sitting a lot with the medicine”—ayahuasca—“at the time, maybe two times a week,” de Guzman says, leading a “small, private ceremony” for himself and a friend. “That’s when the clarity came through.” He would start a church—an ayahuasca church—the first public and legal ayahuasca church in the United States.
That was how Ayahuasca Healings began. Soon, the message had been pushed out, on Facebook, on message boards, all over the internet. Ayahuasca Healings was coming to America, and they promised that their ceremonies would be “100 percent legal.”
At Ayahuasca Healings, anyone seeking an ayahuasca experience could apply to join the church. There was no need to travel to Peru, where ayahuasca tourism is booming, or to worry about prosecution for possessing or consuming ayahuasca’s active ingredient, DMT, a Schedule 1 controlled substance in the U.S. As a religious organization, the founders believed, Ayahuasca Healings had the constitutional right to use ayahuasca in their ritualized ceremonies.
The market for such a place certainly existed. Virtually unknown in America until a decade or so ago, ayahuasca has been embraced by a broad swath of curious adventure-seekers, from Bay Area tech types to the Brooklyn creative class. After de Guzman started pitching Ayahuasca Healings online, towards the end of 2015, news of the group’s upcoming retreats was broadcast everywhere from psychonaut forums and YouTube channels dedicated to psychedelic and spiritual experiences to popular media outlets including Vice, Complex, Medical Daily, and The Daily Beast.
It distinguished itself quickly as the most brazen and ambitious ayahuasca outfit of its kind. Most organizations serving ayahuasca work quietly. Few require as substantial a financial commitment as Ayahuasca Healings was asking—a donation of as much as $1,997 for a four-day retreat that included one ceremony with ayahuasca and another using San Pedro, a cactus that contains mescaline.
It was the group’s claim to legality that attracted the most skepticism, though. The founders of Ayahuasca Healings believed their activities were protected by their relationship with the controversial Oklevueha Native American Church, though neither de Guzman or Marc Shackman, Ayahuasca Healings’ church director and chief medicine man, is from the U.S. As a chapter of Oklevueha, Ayahuasca Healings called itself a Native American Church and assumed that legal exemptions that had been provided to native religious groups in the past made their retreats legal.
They were not. Two religious groups in the United States have won, through legal action, the right to serve ayahuasca, but the Drug Enforcement Agency evaluates petitions for such religious exemptions from drug laws on a case-by-case basis. Ayahuasca Healings did not have an exemption and, after the Drug Enforcement Agency took an interest in their work, quickly shut down operations, leaving church “members” who had signed up for future retreats out thousands of dollars. In online forums, the group has been called a cult and a scam, and its leaders accused of narcissism and delusions of grandeur. Both de Guzman and Shackman say their intentions have always been sincere and that, as soon as they’ve won permission from the DEA to serve ayahuasca, they will be able to make good on everything they’ve promised. “We want to show the DEA that we are committed to bring this to America in a controlled and safe way,” Shackman says.
The DEA is not eager to permit the use of Schedule 1 drugs. The churches that are exempt from laws restricting peyote and ayahuasca fought long, expensive battles for years to win that right. In the past decade, ayahuasca is the only drug for which any religious group have been granted new exemptions; arguments for cannabis as a religious sacrament have not succeeded. Ayahuasca Healings is testing the boundaries of government tolerance for ayahuasca consumption and, in the process, stumbling through knotty questions: For a generation less drawn to traditional churches and temples, what counts as religion? Can spirituality be sold without compromising its integrity? In America, who is allowed access to psychoactive plants is anything but clear.
Before Trinity de Guzman found ayahuasca, he had immersed himself the world of business and online marketing, where the gurus were people like Harv Eker, whose teachings are about connecting mind and money. De Guzman first started learning about DMT in 2011, while he was working with a life coaching company in San Diego; a mentor there introduced him to the drug, and he tried smoking it. “That opened so much up within me,” he says. “Once that happened, it was like the seeds were planted for experiencing ayahuasca.” He had to share this with the world. In May 2015, while living in Mexico, he had the ayahuasca-inspired vision that he was “meant to bring it to the United States.”
Shackman and de Guzman had met a couple of years earlier, through, of course, ayahuasca. They had both been spending a lot of time in Peru, in the Urubamba Valley, which has become a center of the drug’s tourism. Shackman had grown up in a town in the west of England, where he never felt he fit in, he says, and as soon as he was able, he started traveling, to Africa, Asia, and central and South America. “I always put my self-exploration first,” he says. At first he worked as a scuba instructor, but as he began to learn “about the universe and spirit and the spirit world, who I was in the human way and who I was in an inhuman way, in terms of my soul and spirit,” he spent more of his time on meditation, yoga, and spiritual retreats. “It took over my life,” he says.
Where de Guzman is slight and trim, with shining white teeth and a controlled, practiced way of speaking, Shackman is tall, his face often surrounded by a frizz of light hair, and expansive in conversation. When they started working together on Ayahuasca Healings, they divided the responsibilities, with de Guzman focused on attracting people to their group, drawing on the marketing skills he’d honed earlier, and Shackman starting on-the-ground work, beginning with the search for a retreat site. The land he found, 160 acres in Elbe, Washington, south of Seattle, had almost everything they were looking for. Water running through the land. Isolation, to a point—there were no neighbors but there was an international airport within a two hour drive. The snowy peak of Mt. Rainer was off in the distance.
Shackman had never lived in the continental United States—he had spent time, on and off, in Hawaii and passed through California—but this was his first time in the Pacific Northwest. He was open to living anywhere, though, in pursuit of the vision he and Trinity now shared: They could bring the positive influence of the plant to harried, modern-day life. America needed ayahuasca.
Also, there were more practical reasons to set up their organization in the United States. “We knew we were here to target people who were not able to go to Peru,” says de Guzman. “There are a lot of people who are called to this medicine, but can’t take the time off work to go for a week.” He also believed that there was a provision in American law which would cover the activities the group was planning—which, in his words, “gives Americans or anyone in the United States the constitutional right to practice their religion, whatever they deem that to be,” even if that religion includes the consumption of otherwise illegal substances.
Despite their outward confidence, the Ayahuasca Healings founders did realize that the law they were depending on, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, did not offer blanket protection for spiritually inflected drug use. They could not just show up in America and start distributing ayahuasca as a religious sacrament. (If the law were that broad, there would, presumably, already be groups serving the growing demand.) De Guzman was aware that two groups, União do Vegetal and Santo Daime, were allowed to serve ayahuasca legally, though. The question was exactly how they did it.
União do Vegetal, or UDV, began in the early 1960s, after José Gabriel da Costa, known as Mestre Gabriel, drank ayahuasca tea while working on a rubber tapping crew in Brazil. He tried the tea in 1959 and started distributing it to others shortly after; within a couple of years, he had formed this new religious order, rooted in Christianity and awe of the spiritual awareness ayahuasca tea enables.
In the early 1990s, Jeffrey Bronfman, an environmentalist whose wealthy family once owned the Seagram Company, first encountered ayahuasca when he traveled to Brazil, to consider a request from a spiritual organization “looking to preserve an area of land in the Amazon, because of the numbers of plants central to their religious practice,” he later said. Inspired by what he saw, he trained as a UDV mestre, a clerical role carrying the charge to distribute Mestre Gabriel’s teachings, and began holding ceremonies in Santa Fe, New Mexico. In 1999, the U.S. Customs Service seized a shipment of ayahuasca sent to the UDV Santa Fe office, and Bronfman served as the lead plaintiff in the decade-long legal battle that ultimately won UDV the right to serve ayahuasca tea as part of its religious rituals.
Bronfman and the UDV argued, all the way up to the Supreme Court, that the government did not have a good enough reason to interfere with their religious practice. The Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) holds that the government should not “substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion”—if the person has demonstrated that their actions are sincere and part of their religion, they can get out of laws that apply to everyone else. (The 2014 Hobby Lobby case that exempted the business from certain requirements of the Affordable Care Act invoked this same law, for example.)
Thinking about this standard—what is religion? what makes its exercise sincere?—can get heady quickly, but over the years U.S. courts have come up with some relatively straightforward ways to answer these questions. Not all beliefs are religious, for instance. If they’re better characterized as philosophical or secular, RFRA doesn’t protect them. Courts have also come up with “indicia” of a religion—a religion takes on “ultimate questions having to do with deep and imponderable matters,” offers a comprehensive moral or ethical belief system, and has some set of ceremonies, rituals, clergy, writings, holidays, prescribed clothing, and other signs usually associated with traditional religion.
The question of sincerity is perhaps even harder to assess, but if a set of beliefs is gathered together, ad hoc, to justify a lifestyle choice, that’s one strike against sincerity. Commercial motives are another.
In UDV’s case, the government lawyers conceded that the church was, essentially, a real religion, but argued that the danger to members’ health and the possibility they’d distribute ayahuasca outside of a religious context outweighed the church’s right to use the tea. The Supreme Court sided with the UDV, setting a precedent for applying the RFRA to the use of controlled substances.
Even before the UDV decision, RFRA was tied up in the sacramental use of plants considered dangerous under the law. In the 1980s, two members of the Native American Church were fired from their jobs for using peyote, as part of a religious ritual. In that case, the Supreme Court ultimately held, in 1990, that the religious context did not outweigh the violation of the law against consuming peyote—it seems that freedom of religion expression only went so far. Religious groups of all kinds saw that decision as a danger, and by 1993, Congress passed RFRA to reaffirm and extend protections for the free exercise of religion.
UDV was the first religious group to successfully win an exemption for the Controlled Substances Act under the principles of the RFRA, and after the court issued its opinion, in 2006, the DEA faced an influx of petitions from groups trying for their own exemptions. In 2008, the DEA issued its first rejection in the wake of the UDV decision: the Church of Reality, “a religion based on believing in everything that is real” that considered marijuana a sacrament, had not met the legal standard for sincere religious exercise.
According to the DEA, since 2006, “at least two exemptions have been granted in the course of litigation”—the UDV exemption and one for Santo Daime, another church that draws on Christianity and ayahuasca rituals, that was founded, like UDV, by a Brazilian working in the rubber tapping industry.
Part of the court’s reasoning in the UDV case was that there was relatively little risk of the group distributing ayahuasca to non-believers. A decade ago, there was less demand for it, and up until a few years ago, ayahuasca was usually assumed to have no potential popular appeal. (It makes many people vomit violently, for one.) Even as more Americans have been “called” to ayahuasca, as they put it, the court’s reasoning has held out. UDV remains a small and its ceremonies somewhat secret; Santo Daime ceremonies are seen as more easily accessible to outsiders looking to experience ayahuasca, but many people are put off by the group’s strong connection to Christianity.
“We were more of all an overall package,” says Shackman, of Ayahuasca Healings’ pitch, a modern approach to ayahuasca, with less dogma. “There was a lot more freedom.”
After Ayahuasca Healings announced its intentions online in 2015, applicants came pouring in. Clients were looking for vision quests, a cure for depression, shamanic training, resolutions to setbacks in life; some had done ayahuasca before, and some knew very little about it. The fact that the retreats would be held in Washington State was a selling point for some people; the idea of attending a legal retreat appealed, too. And although it might seem like ayahuasca ceremonies are everywhere these days—the New Yorker recently quoted one expert who estimated that there were 100 ceremonies being conducted each night in Manhattan—one retreat participant said her other attempts to find an ayahuasca ceremony to attend were either rebuffed or ignored.
While they worked with volunteers to prepare for the retreat—waterproofing tent poles, erecting tipis, cleaning and repainting the few buildings on the property, buying enough supplies that one Walmart clerk asked if they were preppers—Shackman and de Guzman were also shoring up the legal structures of their new organization. They applied for and were granted nonprofit status (the IRS lists a public charity named “Ayausca Healings” registered under Shackman’s name in Elbe, Washington); they sent a letter to the local prosecutor introducing the church and outlining its activities. Most importantly, they made an arrangement with the Oklevueha Native American Church that they believed would grant their group legal cover.
Perhaps the first crack in their confidence about the legality of their plan was when they aligned themselves with ONAC. Originally, they had formed a relationship with the New Haven Native American Church, which will perform a “spiritual adoption” of people who believe in the religious power of ayahuasca. After Ayahuasca Healings started getting attention online, James Mooney, ONAC’s founder, wrote a post about the group on Facebook, saying that Ayahuasca Healings was not completely protected from the law. He could fix that. They got in touch.
Even as reporters spread the word about the “first legal ayahuasca church” in the country, people interested in ayahuasca or other psychoactive drugs, as well as people on guard for cult-like groups, started voicing skepticism about the new church, in particular its claim to legality. What de Guzman and Shackman treated as a unique vision, others saw as a common reaction to ayahuasca—many people who participate in ayahuasca ceremonies feel strongly that “everyone needs to experience this” and that it’s their calling to help save the world. Plenty of people in the ayahuasca community supported the idea of bringing ayahuasca to the U.S. but they weren’t sure these two audacious men, with their questionable claims to legality, were going to do that job carefully and safely. If they did not—if the authorities used this as an excuse to crack down on ayahuasca, if someone died at this high profile retreat—it could not only break the current, relatively tolerant environment, but cut short the growing mainstream interest in ayahuasca as a safe and therapeutic drug.
Mooney has his own band of skeptics and legal battles. “Most of the Native American Churches hate my guts,” he says. The reason: Oklevueha says it can protect the use of plant-based “sacraments” by people who don’t belong to federally registered tribes. It also counts many plants as sacraments. In other words, membership is open to anyone, and ONAC will sanction the use of cannabis, san pedro, kava and other plants in ceremonies held by its affiliates.
The government has not always agreed with Mooney’s claims to the right to use controlled substances. Fifteen years ago, government authorities seized packages of peyote from Mooney’s church and charged him with a number of drug felonies; the federal charges were dropped after the UDV’s Supreme Court victory.
Recently, though, Oklevueha affiliates have not met with success in court. Last year, a Michigan judge rejected an ONAC member’s claim to religious exemption after he was caught growing marijuana. Earlier this year, ONAC opened a case against the government for seizing a shipment of cannabis headed to a member in Oregon. This past April, the Ninth Circuit upheld a lower court decision to deny the Oklevueha Native American Church of Hawai’i, run by Mooney’s son, an exemption from federal laws restricting the use of cannabis.
In this last case, a consortium of Native American Churches filed an amicus brief, which informed the court that “NAC organizations do not recognize Oklevueha as a chapter” or “recognize, condone, or allow the religious use of marijuana, or any other substance other than peyote, in any of its religious services.” Earlier this year, in February, the Native American Church of South Dakota released a statement disassociating itself from Mooney. The National Council of Native American Churches released its own statement:
“There is a growing trend in the United States, of organizations adopting the name ‘Native American Church’ as a means of trying to obtain the protection of federal law which was established by the government to recognize and protect the legitimate indigenous religions that have prospered on the North American continent since long before European settlers arrived…”
“Some of these illegitimate organizations, comprised of non-Native people, are now claiming that marijuana, ayahuasca and other substances are part of Native American Church theology and practice. Nothing could be further from the truth…We reject the attempts to grasp onto our indigenous ways and deceive the public by claiming them as their own for their own personal enjoyment or for profit.”
An authentic cultural claim to a religious tradition isn’t necessarily part of the legal criteria for exemption from drug laws. Federal law does now allow the possession of peyote for all members of any federally recognized Indian tribe, but in one case involving the ONAC, the court found that a non-tribal person’s peyote use could be protected by membership in a Native American Church. Like Ayahuasca Healings’ founders, UDV’s Bronfman is a non-native person who spent time in the Amazon and felt inspired to bring back ayahuasca to the United States. But American drug laws are tied to the history of persecution of Native American cultures, and by claiming the rights that tribal members fought for as theirs, outsiders threaten that protection.
But Shackman and de Guzman are unswayed by the National Council’s objections to naming a group like theirs a Native American Church. “We’re not using ayahuasca for our own personal enjoyment or for profit,” says de Guzman. “To believe in Native American theology isn’t about the color of your skin or where you were born. But it’s about the philosophy of what it’s about…To me the Native American Church is all encompassing.”
“What we really are is an indigenous world culture church,” Shackman says. “We fall under Native American church because we’re in America and that’s the indigenous culture in America. “To be Native American—to fully appreciate Native American culture, you don’t have to be Native American. A lot of Native American people have problems with bringing their tradition to white man.” Native American Churches who reject groups like Ayahuasca Healings, he says, are “not in touch with their traditional religion,” which he believes would not see a separation here.
“We do not expect all native peoples to approach us with such a transcendental perspective, and view us all as one spirit. There are always a few haters,” he says. “You can’t make everyone happy.”
In January, Ayahuasca Healings held its first retreat, of six they would conduct. The first day, after the guests arrived on the land and settled into the white tipis, there was a cleansing sweat lodge; the next morning, they participated in a San Pedro ceremony, and in the evening, after dinner, they went back up the mountain on the property for the ayahuasca ceremony. The second full day, they would spend processing their experience, maybe try acroyoga or other workshops, and by the fourth day be grounded enough to take what they’d learned back out into the world.
For some of the retreat-goers and volunteers, this experience was everything they had hoped for; for others, the more time they spent with Ayahuasca Healings, the more uncomfortable they became. Living on the Elbe land could be demanding. The living quarters were basic to begin with, and it was still winter and cold. The ground could be wet, even inside the tents, and as the number of volunteers fluctuated, at times one person was cooking for 20 people.
But their most nagging doubts were about the founders’ self-aggrandizing behavior and resistance to feedback. A couple of volunteers say, for instance, that when confronted with the suggestion of possible problems or dangers, the founders told them that as long as they believed everything would go well, it would. And instead of being focused on volunteers and guests having transformative experiences, they kept the focus on themselves: Look at us. Look at what we’re doing for people.
De Guzman defended their behavior as a necessary part of running the operation. All members of Ayahuasca Healings are equal, he says, although as the founder, “my voice is what brings people to the organization.”“We were under a very specific time crunch, and so, yeah, we are all equals,” he says, “and at the same time if we did things in a way where we would just listen to or implement all the volunteers’ ideas, very little would get done.”
If one of the markers of a traditional religion is that members believe in, trust and follow the guidance of their leader, the Ayahuasca Healings founders seemed to be having only mixed success. The retreat-goers had dramatically different ideas about whether they were participating in a religion. One guest, who had an overwhelmingly positive experience at the retreat, says she “definitely never thought that it was a religion.” Another, who was so uncomfortable with how the retreat was run that he left early, says he had initially been most excited about finally finding “something that fit what I believed.” One person who helped interview and approve applicants said that while “for me it certainly had a spiritual component…I always felt it was understood, though never mentioned, that the primary reason for calling it a religion was for legal purposes.”
Ayahuasca Healings’ blend of spiritualism and online marketing led to confusion over the donations retreat attendees were asked to give, too. Although there was some flexibility in how much retreat-goers gave, the transaction felt enough like buying a vacation package that the church’s new “members” expected a retreat in return.
Any concerns, internal or external, about the way the country’s “first public, legal ayahuasca church” was being run came to head when the DEA took an interest in the group. At the end of February 2016, the agency sent what de Guzman describes as a “very friendly letter” to the group and inviting them to petition for a religious exemption. “We received it and we really started to sit with it,” says de Guzman. They decided to stop holding retreats.
This did not sit well with the center’s clientele. When those people received the news that their retreats would be postponed indefinitely—effectively canceled—many were livid. On internet forums dedicated to the group, they traded advice on how to get their money back, by contesting the charges through their credit cards or credit unions, unmoved by the argument made by Ayahuasca Healings’ founders, that they had not bought a retreat but made a donation. The money the church received, de Guzman and Shackman say, went to its operation; they could only promise that retreats would resume in the future, or offer a Peruvian retreat as a replacement. During the months Ayahuasca Healings was running retreats, the church did return money to a few people who had to change their plans (de Guzman calls these “gifts of good faith” rather than refunds). Since the group stopped active operations, it has not repaid anyone who sent in their money for a future retreat.
Some people did rebook on the Peru retreat. But for those who had been or become mistrustful of the group, the management of the Peruvian retreats only confirmed their fears. Most alarmingly, on the second outing, Sulastri de Andrade, the owner of the property, had to intervene to help a guest who was sick. The guest was “semi-unconscious,” de Andrade says, suffering from altitude sickness and fatigue, which had been exacerbated by the ayahuasca.
Deaths, though rare, do happen in connection ayahuasca ceremonies; in the past month, a woman died while attending an ayahuasca retreat in Kentucky, held by another group with a tenuous claim to legality. The tea poses a higher risk to people with heart conditions and who are taking antidepressants and some of the reported deaths have been connected to other drugs used during the ceremonies.
De Guzman says the suffering guest was safe, and the situation under control, a scary-seeming but familiar part of ayahuasca work. The group’s safety measures came in the selection of retreat participants—interviewers screened out people with medical counter-indications to taking the drug. A former Ayahuasca Healing interviewer, though, says at least one person initially rejected for their methadone use managed to get another interview and be approved. (After he flagged this, she did not attend the retreat, he believes.)
“No matter what people experience, no matter what it might look like, it’s always as much as they can handle,” says de Guzman. “Mother Ayahuasca will only ever give you what you can handle.”
The leaders of Ayahuasca Healings are still hoping that the DEA will grant them a religious exemption for their work. In late August, the agency requested more information from the group about its religious practices. “We are very confident that the petition will be granted,” say de Guzman. “If it’s not handed to us like this, we will take them to court, and we will win the exemption.”
The future of the group, though, is murky. They gave up their lease on the land on Elbe; the property’s now being run as a mountain resort. They plan to restructure, under a new name, as what Shackman calls a “fresh new start,” and de Guzman will step back from his more public role promoting the group. In their petition to the DEA, which one skeptic obtained through a freedom of information request, their lawyer wrote that the Ayahuasca Healings founders “wish to admit that they were previously mistaken about the current state of the law regarding Ayahuasca.”
ONAC also says that Ayahuasca Healings is “no longer in good standing with us.” “They were treating it like a business. They were advertising and marketing, which is a grievous slap in the face to indigenous medicine people,” says Mooney. “When all these people paid them money to do a ceremony they ran off with the money, just like a corrupt business.” Right now, he says, he is not renewing their ability to work under the ONAC. “They’re really, really nice guys, but it’s like these business people have gone into the religious business and it just doesn’t mix.
Mooney hadn’t communicated this to Ayahuasca Healings directly. “He hasn’t said that to us before,” says de Guzman. But the DEA exemption would be for Ayahuasca Healings, independent of ONAC, he says. “Once we have our DEA exemption, it won’t matter anymore.”
There are other groups going through the same process as Ayahuasca Healings. Another ayahuasca retreat, SoulQuest, recently received a similar letter for the DEA suggesting they stop operations and initiate a petition for a religious exemption. Part of the reason that Ayahuasca Healings attracted so much concern from the larger ayahuasca and psychedelic therapy community is because increasing numbers of people do believe ayahuasca can have positive spiritual and therapeutic effects: like de Guzman and Shackman, they want to find ways to give more people access to ayahuasca. Since the DEA evaluates religious exemption petitions individually, the decision on Ayahuasca Healings’ legality should not keep the next group from winning an exemption. But the more groups with questionable motives that try to use this exemption, the harder it could be for the next group to prove that their use of ayahuasca as a religious sacrament is truly sincere, both in their hearts and under the law.
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