Phoenix Church sues DEA for religious ayahuasca seizures

The Church of the Eagle and the Condor, a religious congregation in Phoenix, takes its name from a prophecy originating in the Andes of Peru that predicts a cultural unification of the Americas.

In fulfillment of this prophecy, they say, members of the Church drink ayahuasca, a hallucinogenic concoction from South America. The drug, which has a long history of religious use, causes intense visions and hallucinations when ingested.

In the past two years, however, shipments of Church of the Eagle and Condor ayahuasca have been seized by the United States Department of Homeland Security, which says the drug is contraband. The small community has been threatened with federal prosecution.

This month, the church began a legal battle over these seizures, aiming to become one of the relatively few ayahuasca churches in the entire country to receive legal recognition from the U.S. government.

On June 9, attorneys for the Church of the Eagle and the Condor filed a lawsuit in federal court against the Drug Enforcement Administration and the US Customs and Border Protection, and parent company DHS over the seizures and warnings by federal agents of potential escalation. These actions constituted a “significant burden on” [the church’s] exercising their religious beliefs,” church lawyers argued. The government has not yet responded to these claims in legal pleadings.

The Phoenix place of worship is now the newest of a number of Arizona ayahuasca churches that have fought for legal status over the past two years. A Phoenix church filed a similar lawsuit just over a year ago. It claims that the US government, in its efforts to crack down on drugs entering the country, is circumventing long-standing religious freedoms.

One of these, the Vine of Light Church, also located in Phoenix, was the subject of a… Phoenix New Times story from last fall, which delved into a drug raid on that church by a federal task force, and the church’s lawsuit against the DEA that followed. Another church, in Tucson, is still fighting for legal recognition by the US government after confiscating its own ayahuasca.

The Church of the Eagle and the Condor was established in part “to help protect our sacred right to use ayahuasca,” said physician and church founder Joe Tafur in a podcast last year. Tafur, from Phoenix, is Colombian-American and works in naturopathic medicine. He calls himself an “ayahuascero” after spending seven years studying the traditional use of the brew in the jungles of Peru.

Tafur declined to comment on this story and said he is asking questions of his lawyers now that the lawsuit has been filed. But he is an outspoken advocate of religious freedom for ayahuasca congregations, according to numerous YouTube videos and material on the church’s website.

click to enlarge Joe Tafur, founding member of the Church of the Eagle and the Condor, shares his experience with ayahuasca in 2015. - YOUTUBE

Joe Tafur, founding member of the Church of the Eagle and the Condor, shares his experience with ayahuasca in 2015.

YouTube

The legal status of Ayahuasca in the US is complex. That’s because the brew is made from several plants native to the Amazon basin, which, when simmered together, activate the hallucinogen N,N-dimethyltryptamine, or DMT. Under the Controlled Substances Act, DMT is illegal. But other US-based congregations — most notably New Mexico-based União do Vegetal and Oregon’s Santo Daime Churches — have won legal battles arguing that their religious use of ayahuasca is protected by the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

However, these successful lawsuits have not protected other ayahuasca churches from seizures or prosecution. As New times Reported last year, Clay Villanueva – the late Vine of Light Church leader – was mugged and jailed in 2021 for his possession of ayahuasca (though he also faced other drug charges, for selling weed and for possessing psilocybin mushrooms). ).

The Church of the Eagle and the Condor seized its own ayahuasca by the Dutch DPA in September 2020. The Church had ordered a shipment from Peru and it was confiscated while in transit in Los Angeles. At that time, the church had been in operation for about two years, holding virtual lectures, ayahuasca ceremonies, and other gatherings at several locations in the Phoenix area, including a community center in Mesa that rents it out. It does not have any physical location.

The 2020 seizure — and an accompanying warning that fines or criminal charges could come — had a “horrifying effect on members of the Church who engage in their religious practices,” said Gilbert Carrasco, one of the attorneys working with the Church of the Eagle and the Condor on his property. It amounted to a violation of the RFRA, he said, which forbids the government to tax a religious practice.

Carrasco, along with co-counsel Jack Silver, has previously worked on high-profile ayahuasca cases, including the historic Oregon Santo Daime case, which began in 2008. In that case, a small Oregon branch of Brazil’s Santo Daime Church was , who uses ritual ayahuasca, had a shipment confiscated. The religious leader was arrested. The church sued the federal government and won its case, which was upheld by the ninth series of appeals.

“Mr. Silver and I are helping this church and this congregation in Arizona now,” Carrasco . said New times last week.

It turned out that the 2020 seizure of the Church of the Eagle and Condor’s ayahuasca was part of a wave of seizures of ayahuasca shipments that year — including the Vine of Light Church in Phoenix and the Arizona Yagé Assembly, a church established in Tucson.

Tafur described “many, many reports” of attacks from that period in a May 2021 video. Both other churches in Arizona have confirmed in court documents that they had suffered attacks at the time. Charles Carreon, the lawyer for Villanueva and the AYA, said he believed the rise in attacks was due to the CBP’s implementation of a new way of drug testing that took place nationwide.

According to the Church of the Eagle and Condor lawsuit, the US government has ignored most of the council’s requests about the ayahuasca attacks for two years. Conversations from New times to the Department of Homeland Security’s media line went unanswered.

“CBP,” the church claims, “has engaged in a pattern and practice of confiscating and destroying countless other shipments of sacramental ayahuasca that have entered the United States since 2020.”

In addition to legal recognition, the church wants to learn more about the seizure process, Carrasco said. “When the church confiscated its ayahuasca, [CBP] not told they were going to do that. They didn’t explain why. They gave them no chance to contest the seizure. And they have sacrilegiously destroyed the sacrament,” Carrasco said.

The stakes for the church are high. In the fall of 2021, Maricopa County prosecutors charged Villanueva, leader of the Vine of Light Church, with his possession and use of ayahuasca. That’s despite the fact that he used it for religious ceremonies and was a sitting board member of the North American Association of Visionary Churches, which represents congregations that use ayahuasca in religious rituals.

As a result, Villanueva was jailed for several weeks in August 2021. His time in prison took a toll on his health. Months earlier, he had been diagnosed with lymphoma and treated himself with holistic medications. The prison sentence worsened his condition. Once Villanueva was released, with an ankle monitor and a probation officer, he never began ceremonies again.

“The DEA destroyed that church,” said Scott Stanley, founder of the Tucson ayahuasca church, the Arizona Yagé Assembly. “It affected his entire congregation.” Some of the Vine of Light congregants had flocked to Stanley’s church or others in Arizona, he said. Others had faded.

Villanueva died of cancer on April 1, leaving behind his wife and son, and a community in mourning. This Saturday, Stanley’s church held a memorial service for the pastor. An ayahuasca ceremony was held in his honor.

The province has since dropped all charges against Villanueva’s wife Cecilia, who was named as a co-defendant in the case. But both Villanueva and his church are now gone.

But if the Church of the Eagle and the Condor is any evidence, the religious use of ayahuasca in Phoenix has not diminished.

“Despite the threats…the Church and its members continue to import, own, and use their sacrament, and have no intention of stopping,” the Church’s attorneys wrote in the lawsuit.

An important part of the Church’s battle for approval will be to prove in court that they are, in fact, using ayahuasca as part of a religious practice. In Villanueva’s case, this was more of a gray area. Although Villanueva clearly performed religious ceremonies — and was seen as a spiritual leader — there was evidence, based on text messages obtained by Maricopa County representatives, that he was also selling ayahuasca to other practitioners.

The Church of the Eagle and the Condor, its lawyers say, is scrupulous about drug use and is a devout community. “They keep a very strict inventory of the ayahuasca. Only the board members can access it. And it’s not available to non-denominational members at all,” Carrasco said. The church had a “belief system that merges faith,” one in which ayahuasca was the “profound and primary voice of Mother Nature and Divinity,” lawyers wrote in the lawsuit.

“They are very dedicated and very devout,” said Carrasco.

For the Church, the legal road ahead is probably a long one. The AYA in Tucson, which filed a lawsuit with Villanueva and his church in 2021, has been waiting for a resolution on the case for more than a year. While Villanueva and the Vine of Light are no longer part of the case, it looks like the AYA is getting closer to a successful conclusion. Last week, the DEA agreed to begin settlement talks.

“We’re in this for the long haul,” Stanley said this week. “We are hopeful that we will have an agreement within the next three to six months.”

For now, Arizona ayahuasca churches — despite their legal troubles — don’t seem deterred.

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