SANTA FE, N.M. — While litigation has continued for years over a temple planned southeast of Santa Fe by a church group that uses a hallucinogenic tea from the Amazon as a sacrament, there’s been an explosion of international interest in the brew, usually known as hoasca or ayahuasca.
Hoasca has even been described as trendy – adherents include Sting, Oliver Stone, Tori Amos and, yes, Lindsey Lohan, who said it helped her with her addiction issues.
Just browse the web for a moment and you’ll find dozens of articles on the tea in major publications, including The New York Times, the Financial Times (Great Britain’s version of the Wall Street Journal), Men’s Journal, National Geographic, NPR, Newsweek and, just this week, Scientific American, about tests on the use of hoasca to treat depression.
Maybe the topper is a 2014 book called “The Ayahuasca Test Pilots Handbook: The Essential Guide to Ayahuasca Journeying” by Chris Kilham, the “Medicine Hunter” for Fox News.
The Santa Fe UDV Church, or Centro Espírita Beneficente União do Vegetal, and its leader, Seagram’s heir Jeffrey Bronfman, get a mention in some of the reports, which is to be expected given the local church’s successful, long legal fight that resulted in a U.S. Supreme Court ruling to allow importation of the tea.
The drink is made from blending a vine and the leaves of a bush related to the coffee plant.
A couple of recent news stories provide different takes on hoasca.
On March 28, in the second major New York Times story on hoasca in less than a year, the paper reports on efforts in Brazil to treat inmates, including ones convicted of serious crimes like rape and murder, with the tea. The inmates take part in rituals during furloughs in the Amazonian rain forest, with the help of Santo Daime, another religious group that uses hoasca.
The inmates practice meditation, perform massage, learn job skills and grow the plants used to make the tea. Charles Grob, a UCLA professor of psychiatry who has conducted studies on the drink, told the Times it can “produce a transformative experience in a person,” adding there are risks for those already being treated with antipsychotic medications or using drugs like cocaine or meth.
‘Daime’ and murder tragedy
On Feb. 27, The Financial Times published an extensive, interesting piece about the 2010 murder of one of Brazil’s best-known advocates for Santo Daime, beloved newspaper cartoonist Glauco Villas Boas.
Glauco, as he was known, established a Santo Daime church in a tough São Paulo neighborhood, where he took in crack addicts, prostitutes and others on the fringe.
He and his son were shot and killed by a then 24-year-old man who had joined the church seeking help with drug abuse. The national tragedy turned into a debate over use of the tea, also known as daime. Headlines asked if it had caused the crime and questioned its use. A measure to ban daime was filed in the Brazilian Congress, then abandoned.
Writer John Paul Rathbone seems to side with Glauco’s widow, who says, “It wasn’t the tea that caused Glauco’s murder. It was the man.” The killer had long-term mental and drug problems that included wanting to prove that his younger brother was Jesus.
The shooter was sentenced to two years hospitalization and another year of outpatient treatment, and has since been charged with killing another man during an attempted car theft.
Rathbone tried daime himself, at Glauco’s church, with a congregation of 200 that included various strata of Brazilian society of various colors and economic levels. After his first drink kicked in, he writes, he heard the church’s ritual music “as if listening to stereo for the first time.”
And “as if watching an interior film,” he saw some relatives whose health he’d been worried about “bathed in light.” He wondered if this was spiritual energy or just self-suggestion, felt refreshed the next day and was “recharged” for weeks.
The plethora of recent news articles typically describe the hoasca experience as intense and not for anyone looking for a recreational drug experience. Vomiting is a typical side effect.
But there are opportunities to try the tea outside of the formal congregations of South America (the Santa Fe group has generally shunned publicity or exposure beyond its legal battles, other than granting interviews and observation of its ceremony for an NPR reporter in 2013).
The New York Times found a shaman providing a Brooklyn ayahuasca ritual for a group of young seekers who paid $150 each, including a woman seeking solace after her Peruvian husband’s death.
The Times also reported last year that tourists were “flocking” to Brazil and Peru to partake in ayahuasca ceremonies – many at legitimate and properly managed retreats, but also some producing nightmarish results involving poorly made brews, tea made from a more dangerous plant and sexual molestation.
Not to make light of the obviously deep cultural roots of the ritual and beliefs of the ayahuasca religions, but these developments suggest something of a business opportunity. And if there’s anywhere in North America that could compete with Brooklyn for this kind of tourism, we’re probably living in it.