We are academic researchers from various disciplines who have studied ayahuasca and its ritual use in Brazil and elsewhere. We write to express our concern with the debate over permits for the proposed UDV temple in Arroyo Hondo, and to provide some context that we think may be helpful in carrying this debate forward.
Two kinds of argument against the temple have surfaced: one kind deals with the impacts of traffic, water use, and sanitation at the temple on the quality of life in Arroyo Hondo; these are outside our areas of expertise. We wish to address the other kind of argument, which is based on concerns related to UDV use of hoasca, more broadly known as ayahuasca. Critics of the project raise worries of intoxicated drivers, of teenagers breaking into the facility and stealing hoasca, and even of DMT seeping into the groundwater and poisoning the children of Arroyo Hondo. They equate hoasca with pure DMT, which it contains in very small amounts, and they assert that DMT must be addictive and dangerous because it is classed with heroin in Schedule I, which reflects the federal government’s position that such substances have a high potential for abuse, a lack of accepted safety, and no recognized medical use.
Readers of this paper may recall the legal saga of the UDV, which began in 1999 and went all the way to the US Supreme Court, where the UDV won a unanimous decision in 2006. The cornerstone of the government’s failed argument in that case was precisely the contention of the Arroyo Hondo temple critics: ayahuasca contains DMT; DMT is classified as dangerous; therefore, UDV use of ayahuasca must not be permitted. But scientific studies, decades of real-world experience in Brazil, and 19 years of UDV practice in the Santa Fe area confirm that the fears conjured by panicked rhetoric are not justified by reality.
Biomedical research conducted by international research teams, such as the “Hoasca Project” headed by Dr. Charles Grob of UCLA, have not demonstrated any harms, toxicity, or pathology resulting from UDV ayahuasca use; to the contrary, the research to date suggests that ayahuasca may have antidepressant effects. DMT, furthermore, is a neurochemical that is naturally produced by the human body and by many plants, such as reed canary grass, which grows wild in New Mexico. DMT’s light concentration in hoasca and the fact that it breaks down quickly upon exposure to air and light mean that risks of groundwater contamination from DMT are nil. Moreover, because the UDV views hoasca as sacred, great care is taken in securing it from improper use. In nearly two decades in Santa Fe County, there has been no evidence of diversion of hoasca from its intended purpose—neither before, nor after a 2010 agreement with the Department of Justice that codified hoasca handling procedures.
The UDV congregation in Santa Fe is part of an international organization based in Brazil, and which is one of several Brazilian religions that use ayahuasca. The UDV was founded by an Amazonian rubber tapper fifty years ago this July, and spread to the rest of Brazil and overseas in the ensuing decades. Today, there are about fourteen thousand UDV members in Brazil, North America, and Europe. As with the proposed Arroyo Hondo facility, Brazilian UDV temples are often located in rural areas or on the outskirts of town, partly because of the value UDV cosmology affords to silent contemplation in nature.
In our fieldwork we have witnessed firsthand the care with which the UDV approaches ayahuasca drinking. Unlike intoxicated patrons leaving a closing bar, UDV members are alert and focused following ceremonies. A period of socialization at the end allows more time for the effects of the ayahuasca to attenuate, and it also gives the leadership a chance to evaluate the state of individuals and ascertain that they can drive home safely. Given that thousands of people on three continents drink ayahuasca in the UDV an average of two times per month, we consider it significant that we have no knowledge of problems related to the operation of motor vehicles following ceremonies.
In Brazil, religious use of ayahuasca has been the subject of years of study by government commissions, beginning in the early 1980s. In a 1986 report, the judge appointed to oversee investigation into the ayahuasca religions, including the UDV, wrote that “The moral and ethical standards of behavior observed in the various groups are in every respect similar to those found, and recommended, in our society, and are sometimes even quite rigid.” In light of such findings, in 2010 the Brazilian government announced the definitive legality of ritual use of the drink. Moreover, the traditional and religious use of ayahuasca has been officially declared cultural heritage of the Amazonian state of Acre, and is presently under consideration by Brazil’s Culture Ministry for inclusion in the national registry as well, along with samba music and the Círio de Nazaré, a popular Catholic procession. In recognition of its charitable service work, furthermore, the UDV has been designated as an organization of “public utility” in Brazil since 1999.
The UDV fought for a decade with the federal government to win the right to practice freely. Now the group wants to build a permanent facility on its own land in a rural part of the county. We urge the Commissioners to consider the request based on objective data about the proposed project’s impacts, including the UDV’s track record of responsible and beneficent activity. Fear-mongering and guilt by association should not get in the way of a clear-eyed analysis of the facts
Matthew Meyer, PhD candidate, University of Virginia; Associate Researcher, NEIP
Beatriz Caiuby Labate, PhD; Associate Researcher, Institute of Medical Psychology, Heidelberg University, Germany; Associate Researcher, NEIP
Brian Anderson, MD candidate, Stanford University; Associate Researcher, NEIP
Luis Fernando Tófoli, MD, PhD; Associate Professor, Federal University of Ceará, Brazil
Kenneth Tupper, PhD, University of British Columbia