It has been more than two decades since federal agents in Oregon seized their psychedelic sacrament and arrested the spiritual leader of the Church of the Holy Light of the Queen. “They had no clue as to what they were getting into,” recalls Jonathan Goldman. “They didn’t know what ayahuasca was. They thought they were coming into a drug den and were going to find people shooting up.”
Oregon has come a long way since that raid in the spring of 1999. Today, all eyes are on the Pacific Northwest as that state is poised to become the first in the nation to regulate the production and completely legalize the use of psilocybin — albeit in a limited way.
For nearly two years, the Oregon Psilocybin Advisory Board has been working out the details on how to implement Measure 109. That ballot initiative, passed in November 2020 with fifty-six percent of the vote, will make supervised psilocybin mushroom trips legal, starting on January 1, 2023. A separate ballot measure passed in that same election, Measure 110, has already made the possession of small amounts of all previously illicit drugs — including heroin and cocaine — punishable by what amounts to a parking ticket with a $100 fine. And even that fine is waived if the arrested person agrees to a health screening from a recovery hotline.
Together, the saga of the Ashland-based Church of the Holy Light of the Queen and the deliberations of the Oregon Psilocybin Advisory Board illustrate two ways that psychedelics are gaining mainstream acceptance.
One route is through the ballot box and the city-by-city, state-by-state reform of repressive drug laws. The other is a religious freedom battle waged through the courts, which is how Church of the Holy Light of the Queen became one of the first spiritual communities in the nation (other than the peyote-based Native American Church) to legally and openly engage in entheogenic communion.
Goldman’s small congregation — a northern outpost of Santo Daime, a South American religious movement — first made headlines in May 1999. That was when U.S. Customs agents seized a shipment of ayahuasca tea sent from Brazil, where the church is based. “They took me to jail. They invaded my house,” Goldman said in an interview. “They took my children out of class and threatened to take my kids away. But they didn’t pursue my prosecution.”
Santo Daime is a new religious movement founded in the Amazon in the 1930s by Raimundo Irineu Serra, who was born in Brazil to parents of African descent and died in 1971. The grandson of slaves, he is known by his followers as Master Irineu. His church grew out of a series of ayahuasca-inspired visions the founding prophet had during eight days of jungle solitude.
Church teachings — a mix of folk Catholicism, African animism, spiritualism and South American shamanism — are transmitted through hymns sung during ayahuasca ceremonies. Irineu was raised in the Roman Catholic Church, so perhaps it’s not surprising that one of his earliest visions was of the Virgin Mary, whom he called “the Queen of the Forest.” Here’s how the church’s website sums up its theology today: “We praise God, Jesus Christ, saints, angels and spiritual beings of many cultures, especially Christian, Indigenous and African ones.”
Goldman grew up in a Jewish family in Detroit. Like other Jewish psychonauts, he has struggled to reconcile his religious heritage with the Christian, syncretic or perennial philosophy trappings in much of today’s psychedelic movement. He recalls in an essay about how his first Santo Daime experience in a remote Brazilian valley forced him to confront “Jewish PTSD.”
“I found myself in a strong altered state in the presence of this big cross in the middle of an altar table. I started to have thoughts about the pogroms my Russian ancestors had gone through, and it was like, ‘Holy shit! Here I am in this totally bizarre place and they’re going to kill me.’ ” Then he looked a bit closer and saw that the cross was sitting on the base of a six-pointed star. He told himself, ‘the star I can deal with. I’m going to ignore the cross so I don’t run out of here screaming.’ ”
It has taken years of prayer and meditation, much of it in the “true Light” of the ayahuasca experience, but he has learned to “resolve this conflict inside me between the cross and the star because I don’t want to live in fear. I resolved the ancient war between siblings inside of me.”
Looking back, Goldman now sees his first Daime experience as a difficult but necessary way to confront “all of one’s fears, opinions and misconceptions about oneself and reality — transforming them into spiritual knowledge.”
Goldman’s Church of the Holy Light of the Queen is one of hundreds of ayahuasca churches and spiritual groups that have established themselves in North America over the last thirty years. Some are aligned with different branches of the Santo Daime movement. Others are organized under the stricter governance of another Brazilian sect, the Uniao do Vegetal, “Union of the Plants” or UDV. Still others are independent or loosely aligned with a purported Latin American lineage.
In 1999, the same year that federal agents arrested Goldman, thirty gallons of ayahuasca tea was seized in a raid at the UDV church offices in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Both churches filed lawsuits against the government action and eventually won the right to operate legally under the provisions of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, a federal law that grew out of government harassment of the Native American Church, which uses peyote in its spiritual ceremonies.
Those court victories have led to the misconception that anyone has the right to legally use ayahuasca or other sacred plant medicine in religious rituals in the United States. They do not — unless they prove in court that they are a legitimate religion in the eyes of the government — and federal agents have continued to seize shipments of the tea and arrest self-proclaimed ayahuasca shamans who openly advertise their psychedelic services.
“It is not legal to use ayahuasca in the United States,” Goldman said. “It is legal for us to use Daime (ayahuasca) because we and the UDV could prove, for real, that we are an extension, a branch, of a religion. There are three things you have to have if you go to court. You have to be taking care of people. You have to be taking care of the sacrament. And have to have a spiritual lineage.”
In 2007, Goldman and the members of his church split off from the main Santo Daime network in the U.S. in a schism Goldman now describes as “difficult but friendly.” The following year, his Ashland church successfully sued the federal government, arguing that their use of psychoactive tea was protected by their religious rights under the Constitution.
Goldman said his Ashland church has about 45 regular dues-paying members. Before the COVID pandemic, its ceremonies would attract between forty and sixty people, and perhaps double that if a Santo Daime leader was visiting the church from Brazil.
Like many seasoned veterans, Goldman has mixed feelings about the explosion of entheogenic exploration in today’s psychedelic renaissance. On the one hand, he believes that “it’s not the government’s business to regulate what people do with their bodies.” On the other hand, “there are people who go to Peru for three weeks, come back with ayahuasca (and start leading ceremonies) with no idea what they are doing.”
“This is a delicate thing we are doing — dropping the veils of consciousness,” he said. “The veils are there for a reason, and dropping them is a serious, serious, serious thing to do. I’ve handed thousands of cups of Daime to people. When I hand them that cup, it’s the most sacred, serious and blessed thing I can ever do.”
Goldman calls for self-regulation as a way to promote ethics, accountability, safety and legal aid for emerging psychedelic churches. One model he favors is a network of a dozen congregations organized by the Chacruna Institute of Psychedelic Plant Medicine, formally incorporated in the summer of 2021 as the Sacred Plant Alliance. Most of its member churches are still operating underground, or just started to come out in the open.
This is article 1 in the series God on Psychedelics. To read the complete series, visit the series home page.