Phoenix Church Sues DEA Over Seizures of Religious Ayahuasca

The Church of the Eagle and the Condor, a religious congregation in Phoenix, gets its name from a prophecy originating in the Andes of Peru, which foretells a cultural unification of the North and South Americas.

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

Over the last two years, however, shipments of the Church of the Eagle and the Condor’s ayahuasca have been seized by the U.S. 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 nationwide that have won legal recognition by 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 U.S. Customs and Border Protection, and its parent agency DHS over the confiscations and warnings by federal agents about possible escalation. These actions amounted to a “substantial burden on [the church’s] exercise of their religious beliefs,” attorneys for the church argued. The government has yet to respond to these claims in legal pleadings.

The Phoenix place of worship is now the newest of a number of ayahuasca churches in Arizona that have, in the last two years, launched fights for legal status. One church in Phoenix filed a similar lawsuit just over one year ago. It claims that the U.S. government, in its efforts to crack down on drugs coming into the country, is bypassing longstanding religious freedoms.

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

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

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

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

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

YouTube

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

These successful court cases, however, have not protected other ayahuasca churches from seizures or prosecution. As New Times reported last year, Clay Villanueva — the late leader of the Vine of Light Church — was raided and jailed in 2021 for his possession of ayahuasca (though he faced other drug charges as well, for selling pot and for possessing psilocybin mushrooms).

The Church of the Eagle and the Condor had its own ayahuasca seized by CBP in September 2020. The church had ordered a shipment from Peru, and it was confiscated in transit, in Los Angeles. By that point, the church had been operating for around two years, holding virtual talks, ayahuasca ceremonies, and other gatherings at different locations in the Phoenix area, including a community center in Mesa it rents out. It does not have a single brick-and-mortar location.

The 2020 seizure — and an accompanying warning that fines or criminal charges could be on their way — had a “chilling effect on the members of the church engaging in their religious practices,” said Gilbert Carrasco, one of the attorneys working with the Church of the Eagle and the Condor on its case. It amounted to a violation of the RFRA, he said, which prohibits the government from burdening a religious practice.

Carrasco, along with co-counsel Jack Silver, has worked on high-profile ayahuasca cases before, including the landmark Santo Daime case in Oregon, which began in 2008. In that case, a small Oregon branch of the Brazilian Santo Daime church, which ritually uses ayahuasca, had a shipment seized. Its religious leader was arrested. The church sued the federal government and won its case, which was upheld by the ninth circuit of appeals.

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

As it turns out, the seizure of the Church of the Eagle and the Condor’s ayahuasca in 2020 was part of a rash of ayahuasca shipment seizures that year — which included the Vine of Light Church in Phoenix and the Arizona Yagé Assembly, a church based in Tucson.

Tafur, in a video from May 2021, described “many, many reports” of seizures from that time period. Both of the other Arizona churches have confirmed in court documents that they experienced seizures then. Charles Carreon, the attorney for Villanueva and the AYA, said he believed the uptick in seizures was due to the implementation of a new means of drug testing by CBP that occurred nationwide.

According to the Church of the Eagle and the Condor’s lawsuit, the U.S. government has, for two years, ignored most of the congregation’s Freedom of Information Act requests about the ayahuasca seizures. Calls from New Times to the Department of Homeland Security’s media line went unanswered.

“The CBP,” the church’s complaint alleges, “has engaged in a pattern and practice of seizing and destroying countless other shipments of sacramental ayahuasca that have come into the United States since 2020.”

In addition to legal recognition, the church wants to understand more about the process for seizures, Carrasco said. “When the church had its ayahuasca seized, [CBP] didn’t tell them they were going to do that. They didn’t explain why. They didn’t give them any opportunity to contest the seizure. And they destroyed the sacrament in a sacrilegious manner,” said Carrasco.

The stakes for the church are high. In fall 2021, Maricopa County prosecutors charged Villanueva, leader of the Vine of Light Church, for his possession and use of ayahuasca. That, despite the fact that he was using 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 jail took a toll on his health. Months prior, he had been diagnosed with lymphoma, and was self-treating with holistic medicine. The jail time worsened his condition. Once Villanueva was released, with an ankle monitor and a parole officer, he never restarted ceremonies.

“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 away.

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

The county 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 gone now.

Still, if the Church of the Eagle and the Condor is any proof, religious use of ayahuasca has not subsided in Phoenix.

“Despite the threats … the Church and its members continue to import, possess, and use their sacrament, and have no plans to stop doing so,” the church’s attorneys wrote in the lawsuit.

A key element of the church’s fight 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. While Villanueva clearly was conducting religious ceremonies — and was viewed as a spiritual leader — there were indications, based on text messages obtained by Maricopa County deputies, that he also was selling ayahuasca to other practitioners.

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

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

For the church, the legal road ahead is likely long. The AYA in Tucson, which filed a lawsuit jointly with Villanueva and his church in 2021, has been waiting for a resolution on the case for more than a year. Although Villanueva and the Vine of Light are no longer part of the case, it seems the AYA may be inching closer to a successful ending. Just last week, the DEA agreed to start talks about a settlement.

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

For now — despite their legal woes — Arizona’s ayahuasca churches don’t seem deterred.



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