A Legal Ayahuasca Church Thrives in Southern California
This article is part of the Lucid News “God on Psychedelics” project, reported and written by veteran religion journalist Don Lattin. To read the complete series, visit the home page.
Before starting her own church, Vicki Kraft sat in several different psychedelic circles, including some affiliated with the Santo Daime, a Brazilian-based new religious movement known for its sacramental use of ayahuasca, a mind-altering tea brewed from two Amazonian plants.
Some of these ceremonial leaders, she recalls, were doing great work. But there were sharp disputes over whether to seek legal status or establish a formal network of ayahuasca churches in the U.S. There were also allegations of sexual misbehavior.
“One group I was with were followers of a man who was a perpetrator,” Kraft said. “I couldn’t be part of that…I prefer to be part of a group with a strong structure, that does this work openly, with the lights on, and is more communally based.”
Today, Kraft is the spiritual leader of the Flower of the Divine Mother, an ayahuasca church in Southern California that is a branch of an Oregon church that split off from the main Santo Daime movement in the U.S. That Ashland-based congregation, the Church of the Holy Light of the Queen, gives Kraft’s congregation clear legal protection. That’s because her Oregon mother church, following a decade-long legal fight, won the right to openly operate under the provisions of the U.S. Religious Freedom Restoration Act.
Ayahuasca with DEA Approval
In 2014, five years after the Oregon church won its case, Kraft’s Southern California congregation formally applied to the Drug Enforcement Administration to legally operate under the provisions of that same federal law.
“We went to the DEA website and filled out an application,” she said. “Within six months, it was approved. They asked me a lot of funky questions. A local DEA agent came to my house and said, ‘Okay, where are you going to store this (ayahuasca)?’ I said, ‘I’m going to put it in this refrigerator,’ and they said, ‘Okay. Get a lock for it.’ ”
Kraft then applied for an importer’s license so she and other members of her church could travel to Brazil and return with ayahuasca tea. It only took two weeks. “They were very cooperative. I’ve had several audits by DEA agents who come in with an adversarial tone. I have to remind them that we are not a pharmacy. They don’t really know what we’re doing because they’re not used to auditing churches. They are used to auditing pharmacies.”
(Other emerging psychedelic churches have not had such an easy time dealing with the DEA.)
For ten years, Vicki Kraft’s church has met twice a month in a big downstairs room in her home in Redondo Beach.
Psychedelics and Faith
Kraft was born in the San Fernando Valley in 1952 and grew up in a Jewish family. Like many in her Baby Boom generation, Vicki got interested in meditation as a teenager. She went to college in San Jose, where she started experimenting with psychedelics and having deep mystical experiences.
“Of my college crowd,” she told me, “I’m the only one who stuck with psychedelics. I am a religious person. I believe in God. Not that many people talk about God. I wouldn’t say I was identified with the Jewish religion per se. Santo Daime is very Christian-based, and to this day, I still struggle with that. It’s not about Jesus Christ. It’s about Christ consciousness…What attracted me most was that I could have my own experience with the divine. That, to me, was what I was seeking — to see the other side of the veil.”
Like many mainstream churches, the Flower of the Divine Mother struggled to keep the flock together during the COVID pandemic. “In the beginning, we had people saying ‘COVID’s not real. I won’t wear a mask.’ We lost some people who were anti-vaxxers. It’s sad. Before COVID we had 40-45 people. We were turning people away. Our last work (ayahuasca ceremony) was fifteen people. Not everyone is ready to come back.”
It’s unclear what the future will bring for Kraft’s congregation and the larger ayahuasca movement. She’s saddened and a bit bemused by all the infighting among the larger Santo Daime groups in the United States.
“They drink gallons and gallons and gallons of Daime (ayahuasca) and they still haven’t figured out how to love their brothers and sisters. It’s in every hymn we sing. ‘We should be one. We should be together.’ I’m a bit of an outcast. The Daime structure in Brazil is more hierarchical. I don’t resonate with that. My group is the Flower of the Divine Mother. It’s all about the divine feminine.”
Bia Labate, a Brazilian anthropologist who has studied the Santo Daime movement, noted that this emerging religion is just one of many institutions that have faced allegations of sexual misconduct by spiritual leaders and cover-ups by church authorities — in both psychedelic communities and mainstream institutions like the Roman Catholic Church and the Southern Baptist Convention.
“Unfortunately, the systemic cover up of sexual abuse is not only a Brazilian trend or something practiced by patriarchal Christian religions in the Global South, it is also found in progressive religious and academic circles in the United States, right in the core of the so-called psychedelic renaissance,” said Labate, executive director of the San Francisco-based Chacruna Institute.
Aligning with Other Psychedelic Churches
Officially, Kraft is the madrinha of her flock and Jonathan Goldman of Ashland the padrinho of his larger network. (For more about Goldman’s story, see the previous installment of this “God on Psychedelics” series.)
Kraft downplays her spiritual status. “I’m not a shaman. I just lead the works.” She’s never tried to make a living off ayahuasca. She’s always had a day job, working as a licensed marriage and family therapist. “We’re non-profit. Nobody is making money off this. We all have jobs and our own source of income. We just need to make ends meet. People donate what they can.”
In recent years, Kraft has watched the commodification of psychedelics turn into something of an elitist pastime — with people charging hundreds or thousands of dollars to participate in a ceremony. “That’s exploiting the medicine,” she said, “and exploiting the movement.”