America’s First Legal Ayahuasca ‘Church’

For $1,500, you can spend a week drinking hallucinogenic ‘tea’ that, devotees say, leads to enlightenment.

12.07.15 6:00 AM ET

Spiritual tourists in pursuit of revelation through ayahuasca, nature’s most potent hallucinogen, needn’t look further than the state of Washington for their next communion.

“We have successfully established the first public, legal ayahuasca church in the USA,” said Trinity de Guzman, co-founder of Ayahuasca Healings, a retreat in Peru—and now Washington. As of Jan. 1, 2016, you can purchase a retreat for $1500 that includes drinking the self-shattering tea inside a teepee, nestled on “160 pristine, beautiful acres” near the town of Elbe, Washington.

Ayahuasca, aya or yagé for short, is a centuries old concoction consisting of two plants turned into a brew. Researchers studying the inebriants of shamans during the 1970s informally classified aya as an entheogen, which from Greek translates to becoming divine within. “Ayahuasca” translates to the vine of the dead, or soul. Those who drink it often say they confront their fear of death.

Drug connoisseur William Burroughs described the trip as the most powerful derangement of the senses he’s ever experienced, and given all his experiences, this should tell you yagé is not to be taken for kicks. You won’t find it among any cache of concert going drugs. Plus, aya advocates say set and setting (PDF)—proper psychic preparation before dosing and where you are physically when you take it, respectively—is critical in order for the healing experience to take hold.

Dr. Josep Fábregas, a psychiatrist and addiction expert based in Spain, believes ayahuasca can heal a number of mental disturbances, from addiction to sexual trauma.

While the Washington retreat is brand new, people have already been drinking aya on U.S. soil for decades in clandestine circles. The trend has been a quietly growing subculture among U.S. “drinkers,” a nickname for those who partake in drinking the purportedly foul tasting tea. Now that city dwellers are drinking the tea, destinations like Peru and Brazil may no longer necessary for the experience.

“T” teaches yoga in Chicago and participates in regular aya circles throughout the city. Though he does not have any problems with addiction or childhood trauma, he says the tea de-hypnotizes him from the norms of hedonistic, late-capitalism.

“There is a discontent I feel from the society I live in,” he told The Daily Beast. “The western culture of competition, this dominator mindset, isn’t natural. So I use ayahuasca to look for something deeper, to do inner-searching of my fear of death.”

T described one of his hallucinations: “I saw people giving themselves trophies,” he said, “They were clutching the trophies, loving the trophies.”

While Guzman claims his church is the first non-denominational, public one in the states, there are already a few above ground, sectarian churches, such as Santo Daime and União do Vegetal, that have fought lengthy court battles to keep ayahuasca as part of their rituals—much like the peyotists of the Native American Church.

It is through the Native American Church that Ayahuasca Healers can bypass laws prohibiting it in America. While possessing the plants from which ayahuasca is made is perfectly legal, the synthesis of them creates a Schedule I substance called Dimethyltryptamine (DMT). This classification denotes drugs with currently no accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse, making the brew illegal to possess in the states.

If you were to ask drinking circle devotees, they’d tell you the Schedule I classification is dubious, given its potential healing properties are indeed profound.

“I use it when I need to reset or when I’m searching for insight,” Michael Slater, founder of ModernRecovery.org, told The Daily Beast. “Years of drug abuse has affected my cognition, and aya helps me focus and puts things in perspective.” Slater lives in the states and does not belong to any specific church or adhere to any ritual.

Dr. Fábregas has conducted scientific studies investigating the effects of yagé on the body, and has found no negative effects in long-term drinkers. This fact, coupled with testimony from thousands who have communed in healing with the plant, is more reason to doubt the current Schedule I classification.

“It is not the ayahuasca [itself],” said Dr. Fábregas, “but the ritual use of ayahuasca” where the healing lies. Given Fábregas’s emphasis on set and setting, The Daily Beast caught up with several drinkers to get their take on the first above ground retreat on U.S. soil.

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Will it tear yagé from its cultural context, which some argue is central to its powerful healing properties? Will a U.S. retreat devolve into psychedelic spectacle (think Burning Man for tech billionaires)?

Tony Elliot, who has years of experience with aya, said, “Ayahuasca in the correct setting is fantastic.” But the potential for commodification of the spiritual experience is a concern of his.

The 160 acres in Washington, he said, “Is a very expensive retreat priced at $1500 under the guise of ‘donations.’”

The website for Ayahuasca Healings calls for a requested donation of $1497 to $1997 per retreat.

Guzman of Ayahuasca Healings was not available for comment on pricing.

T and his brother R. Eagle told The Daily Beast that a circle in Chicago runs about $250 per night, and they usually last two nights. Retreats in Peru or Brazil are similarly priced but can be more expensive, depending on the accommodations and other services offered.

Given the cost of city circles compared to those abroad, the Washington retreat, which can range from eight to 10 days—with four days of tea drinking—it is not immediately apparent that excessive profiteering is taking place. All meals will be included and you are provided a teepee to sleep in.

But when asked whether the first U.S. retreat will in anyway degrade ayahuasca, R. Eagle said, “Like yoga and cannabis, [yagé] is being commodified. But it’s so powerful that regardless, it may change people for the better, it may wake them up.”

“Entheogens like ayahuasca, iboga, psilocybin, and DMT teach compassion, love, and empathy,” said Slater of Modern Recovery. “It should be everyone’s God-given right to consume these plants without fear of persecution. I commend Ayahuasca Healings and their new venture in Washington,” he said.

But that’s also not without reservations. “My only concern is that this plant will be exploited,” he said. “Aya, when used with caution and respect, can be used with minimal supervision. I’m not sure fancy retreats and shamans are really necessary.”

When asked why ayahuasca is being used more frequently by American urban dwellers, T said that it’s because people here need healing, too.