Hoasca and the UDV Church
By Sean Fairorth
Deep in the Amazon, where roads dissolve into endless rainforest, is a world unfamiliar to Western society. The indigenous tribes of the Amazon rainforest, far removed from the reach of modern scientific thought, have for centuries experimented with the resources available in the jungle. To the surprise of the scientific community, the shamans of the Amazon have developed expertise in medicines created from indigenous plants.
In the book “The Cosmic Serpent,” anthropologist Jeremy Narby, living with the Ashaninca people of Peru, questions how the tribe had learned the medicinal properties hidden in plants. The Ashaninca man calmly responded, “One learns these things by drinking ayahuasca.”
Hoasca, or ayahuasca, is a tea used by South American Indians for religious ceremonies and healing sessions. For centuries, Amazonian shamans have cherished hoasca for inducing profound spiritual visions, which they say reveal complex plant remedies. During the hoasca ceremony, shamans distribute cups of the tea and toé, cigarettes made from hallucinogenic datura plants.
The hoasca mixture is crafted by boiling two plants. The first, chacruna, contains dimethyltryptamine, or DMT, a hallucinogenic substance that is also emitted by the brain. DMT, a Schedule 1 controlled substance in the U.S., must either be injected intravenously or inhaled in smoke for the drug’s effects to work. When ingested orally, DMT is dissolved by the stomach enzyme monoamine oxidase and does not cause hallucinations. However, the second plant used in hoasca, the ayahuasca vine, reacts with the DMT to induce hallucinations even though it was taken orally.
Although hoasca contains only two main ingredients, the recipe is a sophisticated biological marvel. Richard Even Schultes, a leading ethnobotanist of the 20th century, commented on the complexity of the hoasca tea.
“One wonders how peoples in primitive societies, with no knowledge of chemistry or physiology, ever hit upon a solution to the activation of an alkaloid by a monoamine oxidase inhibtor,” Schultes said.
As hoasca enters the body it can cause violent vomiting and occasional diarrhea. The plant brew acts as a purge and has been shown to free the body of intestinal parasites. For indigenous people, hoasca is critical to their existence not only for its religious significance, but also because it serves as an effective remedy for numerous health problems. Therefore, hoasca’s most profound element rests in its medicinal value. Use of the tea has been documented to cure cocaine addiction, colorectal cancer and depression.
In a March 2006 National Geographic Adventure article, “Peru: Hell and Back,” journalist Kira Salak documents her journey to Peru to drink ayahuasca. During the ayahuasca ceremony, Salak suffered severe vomiting and frightening hallucinations and had an encounter with God. Following her experience, she reported remission of her lifelong depression, saying, “After all that therapy, only one thing worked on my depression — an ayahuasca ‘cleansing’ with Amazonian shamans.”
Professor Susan Swensen, a biology teacher at Ithaca College, discussed ayahuasca’s relevance both culturally and medicinally. “Indigenous cultures use ayahuasca not as a drug, but rather as a medicinal remedy based upon generations of tradition,” she stated. “Ayahuasca translates to ‘vine of the soul’ and is an opening of the mind to new possibilities.”
Governments throughout the world, however, have cracked down on hoasca because it contains DMT, but their hoasca has shown a misunderstanding of the tea’s cultural and religious significance. The church of União do Vegetal, or UDV, which believes spiritual awakening is achieved by drinking hoasca, has been affected by direct government action in both Brazil and the United States.
In Brazil, more than 10,000 people in over 100 cities participate in the UDV. The UDV mixes indigenous and Amazonian spiritual practices with Christian theology. Founded in the Brazilian jungles in 1961, the religion’s central tenet is the belief that hoasca has a sacramental value.
Dr. Charles Grob, a psychiatry professor at UCLA, was given unprecedented access to study members of the UDV in Brazil. “The use of hoasca is vitally important to their religion,” he said. “Without hoasca, the UDV does not exist.”
Despite hoasca’s importance to the UDV, in 1985 the Brazilian government made the plants used for hoasca production illegal. The UDV brought legal action against the Brazilian government, which was forced to re-evaluate the traditional view of hoasca as a harmful drug. After seven years, the Brazilian government relented, formally legalizing hoasca in 1992. CONFEN, the Brazilian federal drug council, even concluded that hoasca-using UDV members enjoyed healthier, more productive lives than the average citizen.
In 1993, Grob launched the Hoasca Project, the most important study of hoasca to date. Traveling to Brazil, Grob analyzed the physical and psychological effects of hoasca, discovering that hoasca-using UDV members had undergone complete remission of addictions, anxiety disorders and depression. The Hoasca Project showed scientifically that the tea enhances the body’s capability to absorb serotonin, a mood-regulating chemical. Thus hoasca doubles as a hallucinogen and an anti-depressant.
DMT in the context of the UDV has obvious differences from DMT the street drug. A structured organization, the UDV screens members prior to hoasca ceremonies for medical and psychological problems. After the screening and selection process, UDV members are given hoasca and participate in a ceremony, a major part of which is receiving positive reinforcement from fellow church members who are not on hoasca. Therefore, the setting and circumstances under which UDV members drink hoasca is as important as their DMT-induced visions.
“People who take hallucinogens experience the feelings of being in a hyper-suggestive state,” Dr. Grob said. “In this case, hoasca allows people to be more receptive to messages presented during their religious ceremonies.”
Similar to Brazil’s prosecution of hoasca, the U.S. government has attempted to outlaw the tea in a series of legal battles. On May 21, 1999, U.S. Customs officials raided the UDV’s American headquarters in Santa Fe, seizing gallons of hoasca. Even with ample information available to confirm hoasca’s benefits, the U.S. government perceived the UDV case as black and white. The government’s opposition to hoasca rested upon the fact that the tea contains a Schedule 1 controlled substance, DMT, which is restricted by law. Their religion threatened, the UDV filed a federal lawsuit against the Drug Enforcement Administration, the U.S. Customs Service, and the Department of Justice under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993.
On August 12, 2002 — three years removed from the original search and seizure—Chief Judge James Parker reached a verdict in a district court on the legality of hoasca. Speaking before the court, Parker said, “In this case, the Court has concluded that the Government has failed to carry its heavy burden of showing a compelling government interest in protecting the health of UDV members using hoasca, or in preventing the diversion of hoasca to illicit use.” The decision was a resounding victory for the UDV.
In spite of Parker’s ruling and two subsequent decisions upholding it, the U.S. government persisted and appealed the case all the way to the Supreme Court. The case, Gonzales v. UDV, achieved wide press coverage and brought the spotlight directly onto the UDV and their use of hoasca. The U.S. Supreme Court concluded on February 21, 2006 that hoasca was a valid aspect of the UDV faith and must be protected under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. Nearly seven years after U.S. Customs officials had raided UDV headquarters, the case regarding the sacred tea had been settled. Hoasca was now legal for members of the UDV religion.
Although it was reasonable for the government to challenge the UDV’s use of DMT, the question still remains: why was such an aggressive set of tactics utilized? The primary concern expressed by the U.S. government was that hoasca would expand to the general public who would abuse it for the simple DMT high. Hoasca, however, is based on a combination of tropical leaves and jungle vines and is extremely difficult to make, requiring proficient knowledge in plant biology.
In order to understand the importance of hoasca to the UDV, it is essential that the plant tea be viewed not as a hallucinogenic drug. Rather, Amazonian shamans believe that hoasca acts as a door to tremendous amounts of knowledge, including how to transform plants into proven medicines. Not surprisingly, Western medicine has not openly embraced the concept of drinking hallucinogens to learn medicinal techniques.
Ultimately, the importance of hoasca to the UDV rests in the deep spiritual experiences members of the faith report. While on hoasca, UDV members – in a form of self-examination – claim to speak to plant spirits, who convey the mysteries of life. Could hoasca’s life-altering powers come from its connection to the spiritual realm rather than from hallucinations?
Swensen does not dismiss the possibility. “If you’re a spiritual person and believe the plants in ayahuasca, or hoasca, have spirits themselves, you are going to believe that ayahuasca has a deeper purpose than just as a drug.”
Sean Fairorth is a freshman journalism major who did not drink any tea, or Kool-Aid offered to him. Email him at sfairor1[at]ithaca.edu.