A secretive church in New Mexico known for its hallucinogenic tea-drinking rituals recently gave rare access to a reporter who shed some light on the controversial psychedelic ceremonies for which the church is known.
In a story published on Thursday, NPR journalist John Burnett describes watching a four-hour ceremony in which congregants at the Centro Espirita Beneficent Uniao Do Vegetal (UDV) put on matching green shirts and lined up to be given a hallucinogenic orange-brown brew known as ayahuasca.
The brew, which church leaders bring from Brazil to Sante Fe several times a year, causes some of the congregants to vomit before they settle down on pillows to experience the drug's effects, according to NPR.
Ayahuasca or "huasca tea" is made by boiling two kinds of tropical South American plants, one of which, Psychotria viridis (aka "Chacruna"), contains the psychotropic drug dimethyltryptamine, commonly known as DMT.
Drinking ayahuasca can cause visual and auditory hallucinations. The UDV's website says it creates an "enhanced state of consciousness." Some have have said its high feels like being reborn, NPR notes.
The United States government allows members of the UDV church, which was founded in 1993, to drink ayahuasca, even though DMT is illegal in the U.S. (It's classified in the same category as heroin and cocaine.)
After a 1999 federal seizure of 30 gallons of ayahuasca from the home of the Seagrams Whiskey heir/national UDV Vice President Jeffrey Bronfman, a seven-year legal battle resulted in a U.S. Supreme Court decision in favor of the church. The Supreme Court said the UDV's ayahuasca ceremonies were protected under a 1993 religious freedom law.
The drug's effects on the brain are still being debated, but a University of California study, cited in the 2006 Supreme Court decision, found that people who consumed the drink for years in a church setting had "no injurious effects."
What's more, the research team was "consistently impressed with the very high functional status of the ayahuasca subjects," according to Dr. Charles Grob, the study's lead researcher.
But not everyone has a positive experience with the drug.
A 2012 incident in which 18-year-old U.S. citizen Kyle Nolan died in Peru after going on a 10-day "ayahuasca retreat" raised concerns about the drug's dangers. Although Peruvian police say the shaman who reportedly confessed to burying Nolan said the death was the result of an ayahuasca overdose, the cause of Nolan's death is still unclear, according to the Press Democrat.
The Uniao Do Vegetal religion was started by a Brazilian rubber tapper in 1961 and earned a following in the U.S. in the 1980s, according to the Wall Street Journal. While the religion has 17,000 followers in Brazil, it only has about 270 official members in the States, according to the UDV website.