Shamanic Ceremony Leaders Join Forces to Shape Legal Strategy through the Sacred Plant Alliance
A professional organization of psychedelic churches that have historically been part of different, and sometimes conflicting lineages, hopes to build and share resources and best practices through a new organization.
The Sacred Plant Alliance, created through the collaborative effort of multiple religious and spiritual practitioners, and incubated by the nonprofit Chacruna Institute for Psychedelic Plant Medicines, is a self-regulating body of about a dozen practitioners committed to creating and upholding standards for the ceremonial use of entheogens. In cooperation with Chacruna, the SPA has compiled materials to help advance legal protections for churches using ayahuasca, psilocybin, and other sacramental plant medicines.
The alliance, which formed in 2019, emerged at a time when the restrictions around the use of psychedelics are being relaxed in parts of the country, and clinical trials aiming for FDA approval are underway for psychedelic-assisted therapies using MDMA and psilocybin. But those benefiting from greater access to entheogens for recreational or medicinal purposes approach questions of legality differently than churches that use these substances in group settings as sacraments.
The religious track has thus far had fewer recent successes. The SPA’s decision to band together, as well as its commitment to members’ anonymity, is part of its larger mission and strategy to facilitate collaboration as churches work toward legal recognition of the right to use psychedelic sacraments ceremonially.
Chacruna founder and SPA spokesperson Bia Labate hopes that SPA “can serve as a resource for the larger community” by sharing resources with an eventually widening net. “With time, we plan to publicly share our process, learning, and some consensus-based guidance documents,” she says.
Many organizations in this space believe that the separation of the spiritual and the medical creates a false binary, the wrongheaded product of Western cultural thought. That separation continues to shape policy in this arena.
Legal Precedents For Psychedelic Churches
The psychedelic brew ayahuasca remains illegal in the U.S. because it contains DMT, a Schedule I substance under the Controlled Substances Act. But some legal protections have been offered to organized ayahuasca churches that have sued the Drug Enforcement Administration for the right to use it in a religious context.
Two groups have seen success with this approach, the União do Vegetal and Santo Daime, though they pursued two different legal strategies. The UDV’s case followed a seizure of ayahuasca (or hoasca, as the UDV calls it) in the U.S. The case took eight years to reach the U.S. Supreme Court, where in 2008 justices unanimously rejected in 2008 the government’s attempt to prohibit ayahuasca transport and use by church members. The UDV ultimately settled with the DEA to get an exception from the Controlled Substances Act and negotiated with them on regulations for the group’s ayahuasca use.
After determining that the UDV’s settlement and resulting exception were too intrusive, three Santo Daime churches based in Oregon sued the DEA, seeking protection under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act rather than an exemption to the CSA. The decision in the 2008-9 case, Church of the Holy Light of the Queen v. Mukasey, ruled in favor of the Santo Daime congregations. The Oregon churches now have legal protections to use the sacramental brew and can extend that status to affiliated churches.
“Other churches could follow UDV and enter into a similar agreement that would allow them to import, possess and use ayahuasca,” says attorney Jack Silver, who was part of Santo Daime’s legal team. “The problem we have with that approach is it validates the entire CSA and empowers the DEA. Our argument was that the bonafide use of ayahuasca is exempt from the CSA to the extent that it infringes church member’s rights under the 1st Amendment. The district court agreed. As such we believe the better approach is to sue under RFRA rather than seek an exception from CSA.”
Santo Daime church leader Jonathan Goldman clarifies that “under the law people who are legitimately practicing a religion have precedent and priority – and that’s across the board.” The burden of proof was on the church to prove its legitimacy through three main details: first, that they were part of a religious or spiritual tradition; second, that they cared for the safety and well-being of practitioners; and third, that the ayahuasca (which the church calls “daime”) would not leave their hands – a practice referred to by the DEA as “diversion.”
“We showed all of this perfectly because we had kept records for decades,” says Goldman. “We knew when we started in 1993 that we were going to do this eventually. We had all of the records, and unlike the US government, we didn’t have to lie about anything.”
Ultimately, two rulings were handed down in the Santo Daime case – first, the opinion of law, which upheld the churches’ rights to practice their religion, and second, a decision on how the DEA should regulate the importation of ayahuasca. An appeal by the government on the second decision resulted in its overturning by the Ninth Circuit Court, leaving only the first order.
“Basically the order of the judge is that the government cannot interfere with the manufacture, importation, and use of daime,” explains Goldman. The overturned decision “didn’t mean anything, because we have a relationship that works fine with the DEA. It’s no longer about law enforcement. It’s bureaucratic.” The DEA currently inspects the church’s records regarding importation, storage, and distribution of the ayahuasca to ensure no diversion of daime occurs.
Present Legal Challenges
After a seizure of ayahuasca last year by U.S. Customs and Border Patrol, the congregation of The Church of the Eagle and the Condor (CEC), a group that uses the brew as a sacrament, launched a fundraising campaign in collaboration with Chacruna to support the Ayahuasca Religious Freedom Initiative, which intends “to investigate and resolve disputes concerning the federal government’s approach to ayahuasca importation, establish processes to seek return of seized sacrament, and set new precedent for ayahuasca religions under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.”
The Initiative has met just over half of its $100,000 goal, and funds will be used to “investigate and resolve disputes concerning the federal government’s approach to ayahuasca importation, establish processes to seek return of seized sacrament, and set new precedent for ayahuasca religions under RFRA.”
The legal and fundraising strategies pursued by the CEC fit with SPA’s larger mission. But while the Church of the Eagle and the Condor is working publicly with Chacruna through the fundraiser, Chacruna will not be part of any actual litigation the CEC pursues and will not comment on the CEC’s membership in the SPA.
Chacruna and the SPA are working to build a legal library for its members and other organizations. Labate notes that, “The protocols we are developing will hopefully help groups in defense, litigation, or negotiation. Chacruna, of course, has a wealth of articles and resources in this regard.” The organization is also in the process of assembling a legal kit “to help religious groups organize themselves and adhere to best practices,” she says. “Chacruna also provides consultation to individuals and groups who directly contact us about these issues.”
Membership and Anonymity
Members of the SPA chose not to comment for this story and only Labate would go on the record in response to our questions, which she answered with guidance from SPA members. She says that several practical reasons exist for the anonymity shrouding SPA participation. Current members are electing to remain anonymous due to “the sensitive legal matters we are dealing with,” says Labate.
According to attorneys, releasing members’ names could also compromise any future potential communication between the SPA and the DEA. The DEA “will not confer with SPA if any of the members are litigating – they’re not allowed to,” explains Martha Hartney, one of the attorneys for the CEC.
SPA’s decision to keep its membership anonymous is protected by the First Amendment and is “paramount,” according to attorney Silver. “Although requested, we never gave the DEA a membership list,” he says of the Santo Daime case. However, “if a case goes to trial the organization has to provide some member witnesses for purposes of standing and to discuss how the organization and its members meet the requirements of RFRA, i.e. genuine religious belief and practices that include the use of the sacrament in ceremony.”
Santo Daime church leader Goldman notes that in the case of his church, “We went public for sure. There were people in the daime world who didn’t want to do that, so it took us a while. They didn’t want the government to know. But the government knew already – we’re really good at praying and not very good at hiding.”
The SPA has also currently paused admitting new members, though it expects to resume this year after clarifying membership protocols. “We have a number of subcommittees that deal with core issues and concerns involved with protecting religious rights and community well-being: Membership, Health and Safety, Government Relations, and Ethical Accountability,” says Labate. “The membership criteria that we are refining involve questions pertinent to all these areas. They include: nature of the practices, religious/spiritual worldviews, connection to lineages, health and safety protocols, organizational and financial structure, ethical standards, among others.” Current member organizations will sponsor new organizations hoping to join.
Hartney adds that the question of membership is a strategic decision. “If SPA is going to have any credibility at all, they have to be very careful about who is in their membership,” she says. “So I think credibility is more the issue than anything else. The people I know who are part of SPA are some of the best of the best – they have good processes, good procedures, and good training in place. They’re thorough and careful and understand the differences between Indigenous teachings and pathways and the modern psychological understanding of healing, and they know how to put those together. The members want to have a chance to form and articulate what work they’re going to do before they get out there.”
One requirement for organizations seeking membership is that they be “sincere churches,” as Labate puts it. “Something that is important to us, [is] to know that we can really support organizations seeking to protect their religious freedom … that they are clear and consistent in their spiritual beliefs, and that they are transparent about their organizational operations,” explains Labate. “There are many communities out there engaged in very sincere practice, but who may not have access to the best information on risk reduction and how to run an accountable organization. We think we can help sincere churches that want to improve their protocols and are honest about where they have room for improvement.”
The Question of Lineage
The SPA includes churches that use a range of substances, including marijuana and mushrooms. But unlike groups using ayahuasca and peyote, getting exceptions for these substances may be more of a challenge. “The sacrament needs to be one that does not have a current history of abuse or known harmful risks,” says Silver. “The Supreme Court has already denied RFRA protections for churches using LSD and those using cannabis, including the Rastafarians, which the Supreme Court recognized as a genuine religion.”
Some SPA members who use ayahuasca could still have trouble even getting to that step. “Any plaintiff has the burden of proof to show that their organization is a valid religious organization, that its members have genuine religious beliefs that include using ayahuasca as a sacrament,” explains Silver. “It also helps if the organization has a lineage and that ayahuasca is the only sacrament they use. Neither of these are absolutely necessary but their absence would complicate a case and make it more difficult to prevail.”
“Proving lineage can be difficult,” adds Goldman. “Most people who are ayahuasqueros have, at best, gone to South America and trained with shamans who themselves are independent. That shamanic world is very fractured; there’s a lot of infighting.”
Labate notes, “It certainly could be easier to establish that you have a sincere religious practice if you are part of a longstanding lineage that uses ayahuasca (or another psychedelic sacramental substance) in another country where it is legal,” she says. “However, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) does not stipulate that sincere religious practice needs to be tied to a particular lineage or faith tradition.”
Proving lineage could still help strengthen a case. “RFRA does require courts to weigh religious liberty against potential risks to public health,” continues Labate. “It may be hard to convince the court of the safety of one’s practice if there is no track record of safety, and if there are no established protocols for preventing adverse health outcomes. So, in that sense, being part of an established lineage that has demonstrated that it can do this work safely may also be of benefit in a legal case.”
The SPA includes churches whose traditions have both Latin American and U.S. roots. “Many SPA groups have significant connections to indigenous and other traditional communities in Latin America that ritually use sacred plants,” Labate notes. “Many travel to Latin America to spend time with these communities, and for many years, they have brought their teachers to the U.S. to share their ceremonies and to teach.”
Others, however, “are more ‘home grown,’” she continues, “and have, for years now, been developing their practices and belief systems without the guidance of any one particular teacher or community of origin.”
No Due Process
The question of sincere religious practice comes up in legal precedent for ayahuasca and other psychedelic churches. Under RFRA, organizations recognized as officially religious in nature should be protected. “Although there have been impressive inroads made with decriminalization and legalization at the state and city level, we are a long way from realizing broad rights to use psychedelic substances across the US,” says Labate. “Now, the federal Controlled Substance Act (CSA) and its corollaries on the state level still make the possession and use of many substances a crime, and yet RFRA can allow for judicial relief for people engaged in sincere religious practice with controlled substances.”
But getting the exemption is the hard part. Hartney doesn’t recommend any church petitioning the DEA for an exemption under RFRA. She points out, rather, that the only churches to receive exemptions for ayahuasca historically – UDV and Santo Daime – have done so by suing the DEA. “There is no process, and there are no timeframes and no recourse” for petitioning the DEA, she explains. “A church could end up in a jurisdictional double bind,” as she notes is happening with Soul Quest.
“They were thinking they’d act in good faith with the government and play ball the way the government says to play ball,” says Hartney of the Soul Quest case. “They ended up having to wait three years and sue anyway, just to get the agency to look at their petition. Then Soul Quest had to endure two stays of proceedings and a proctology exam the likes of which nobody should have to go through. And the government denied them anyway.”
Hartney worries about the precedent set by a case like Soul Quest’s, as well as another active case between the government and the North American Association of Visionary Churches (NAAVC), neither of which are SPA members.. “They could end up making some bad law,” says Hartney. “That’s one thing the CEC has been considering all along – how do we present good facts to a friendly court in such a way as to make good law?
“The window exists, but it’s narrow,” says Hartney of U.S. legal protections. “We have a very unfriendly agency whose goal is to keep as many people out … as possible.” The CEC has not yet made any public decision about whether to file a claim in court.
“The DEA’s tactics are very sophisticated,” adds Hartney. “It’s worked against pro se litigants” (i.e. litigants who represent themselves in court). “It’s hard for trained lawyers to know what they’re doing, but a pro se person acting as their own lawyer does not stand a chance. Pro se litigants, like some cannabis churches who have represented themselves, don’t even know what hit them. We’ve got two lawyers on this and have to confer with others just to make sure we have all the issues covered. For someone trying to do themselves they’re just going to make a mess of it. I don’t recommend it.”
Ultimately, Harney says pro se litigants could even do damage to the legal cases of churches seeking exemptions in the future.
Goldman points out that Soul Quest and organizations like it, which offer retreats with the intent to make a profit, don’t fit the criteria for being a religion. “The law is not for a group with a retreat center charging people $500 a day to drink ayahuasca,” he says. “They’re trying to call themselves a church, but the government has set a precedent of getting decades’ worth of documentation.”
Another complicating factor: Soul Quest leaderships’ own description of ayahuasca “as a natural or integrative medicine or therapy.” According to Goldman, “That’s another tricky thing. Even if you have a nonprofit doing ceremonies as a healing business, and even if you’re doing it well and with integrity, it’s different. What we do is spiritual. It’s practicing our religion. Of course there’s a healing component, but we’re not asking anyone to affirm that.”
Goldman sees the question of retreat versus church structure as a point of contention for future cases. “We’ve had people come to us and want to use our legal status, people who are, say, opening a giant retreat center in California. But we aren’t going to do that just because they’re nice people.”
The DEA’s recent rejection of Soul Quest’s request specifically points to this. In May, their petition was again denied after the DEA concluded that “Soul Quest has not demonstrated the existence of a sincere religious exercise,” according to the DEA’s determination letter.
“The DEA is not really equipped to decide anything regarding sincerity of religious beliefs,” says Derek Brett, attorney for Soul Quest. He points out that the DEA’s determination letter included assumptions about Soul Quest’s practice that no one ever asked about, but which were later used to deny the exemption. “They went into this ready to reject it,” he notes, “and to use the most haphazard analysis possible, ignoring everything submitted from Soul Quest’s exemption application from four years ago.
“Do I actually think any church similar to Soul Quest should be engaging with the DEA?” he asks. “The answer is no. The DEA can’t be relied upon to engage in good faith, and they have no legal authority whatsoever. They had no basis to make any assessment whatsoever about Soul Quest’s religious sincerity.”
Brett also disagrees with Hartney’s critiques of Soul Quest. “She may be conflicted in rendering any opinion with regard to this litigation due to her own conversations with the DEA on behalf of one of her clients,” he notes, referring to CEC. “If she is having conversations with the DEA on behalf of her clients, and if there is a fear anything she says that could be beneficial to Soul Quest will cause the DEA to turn against her client, that’s a huge problem. We are deeply concerned with the false impression that might be created with regard to the viability of Soul Quest’s case, because we believe Soul Quest has a wonderful case.”
“This community of churches should be standing together,” he adds. “Competing interests don’t serve any of us.”
Earlier this week, Soul Quest filed an opposition to dismiss the DEA’s previous motion to dismiss their initial complaint, as well as an amended complaint asserting that the DEA and Department of Justice violated the Administrative Procedures Act in its dismissal of that previous complaint. “You better believe I think Soul Quest is going to triumph,” says Brett. “The government doesn’t generally make it easy. There are countless examples throughout history. What does it take ultimately to make the government actually operate on the level it’s supposed to constitutionally operate? Right now, it’s not operating fairly, constitutionally, or consistently to its own internal guidelines, issued by the Department of Justice in 2017 by Jeff Sessions. We believe the District Court will embrace our argument. We’re confident of that. It’s a noble fight. It’s the only thing you can do.”
Hartney agrees that the initial ruling side-stepped due process. “People’s critiques of Soul Quest are probably valid, and if it were the DEA’s job to rule they probably got their facts right,” she says. “But there was no due process. Soul Quest didn’t put up their own witnesses or get a chance to be heard. That’s the problem for the whole community. If you play ball by DEA’s rules, you end up with all the rules stacked against you.”
The Bigger Picture
Zooming out to the future of psychedelics as both medical and spiritual medicine, Labate says the SPA can assist religious groups in a number of ways. “Basically, we hope that communities that embody the factors that allowed the UDV and Santo Daime to prevail in court will stand a good chance of having their own rights recognized. These factors include, among others, being able to articulate the religious nature of your practices involving the use of sacramental substances, consistently applying good safety measures and measures for preventing the diversion of sacramental substances, and having a well-organized and financially transparent institutional structure.”
Much of those efforts includes significant fundraising. Groups within the SPA have created legal defense funds “so they can meet anticipated legal challenges or take steps towards securing their religious rights when the time seems right,” says Labate.
As the SPA refines its own protocols and adds to its resources, Hartney says it will also continue to raise the reputation and awareness of religious practice using entheogens.
“There is so much more acceptance of psychedelics both as sacrament and medicine this year than has ever been in the past,” says Hartney, “including, and not limited to, Hunter Biden. We do know there are members of Congress who have experienced family members healing through psychedelics. At the bigger picture level, I do hope for some congressional action, especially regarding the religious exemption of ayahuasca. It’s low-hanging fruit and Congress could put that to bed in a hurry.”