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Santa Fe Church uses Controversial Psychedelic Tea


A small religious congregation in Santa Fe has been receiving a lot of recent attention after opening up to NPR about their use of psychedelic tea for gaining spirituality.

The official União do Vegetal (translates to “union of the plants”) religion came about in 1961 in the country of Brazil. Since then, it has grown to about 17,000 people. The majority of people in this practice live in Brazil. However, the United States does have a very small population (less than 300 people) who belong to UDV in Colorado, New Mexico, California, Florida, Texas, and Washington. The New Mexico UDV in Santa Fe is by far the largest and most known UDV population in the United States.

According to the Centro Espírita Beneficente União do Vegetal (UDV) in the United States, UDV is a Christian religion that believes in living a moral life that follows the teachings of their founder José Gabriel da Costa (a.k.a. Mestre Gabriel). Their website states, “The doctrine of Mestre Gabriel teaches love for our fellow man and the faithful practice of goodness, in harmony with the teachings of Jesus, to whom Mestre Gabriel demonstrated a firm loyalty through his life’s practice,” (udvsa.org, 2013).

The use of hoasca tea is the central component of practicing UDV religion. Hoasca (also called ayahuasca; translates to “vine of the soul”) is made from two plants indigenous to the Brazilian Amazon – Mariri (Banisteriopsis caapi) and the leaves of Chacrona (Psychotria viridis). These tea ingredients contain DMT, a very powerful hallucinogen that is illegal in the United States.

Despite hoasca’s illegal makeup, the UDV congregations in the U.S. do not view it as a drug and believe it is essential for their practice. Tai Bixby, head pastor of the Santa Fe church, says, “We don’t consider the tea to be a drug at all. The effect of the tea is that it increases a person’s ability to feel and perceive reality.”

Jeffrey Bronfman, national UDV vice president, adds, “People use it to connect with their spirituality. The tea is really an instrument to help us get in touch with our own spiritual nature. It’s not something that takes people into a state of disorientation.”

In 2006, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the UDV congregations are allowed to use hoasca for religious purposes, deeming it a First Amendment right.

Despite the 2006 Supreme Court decision to allow the use of hoasca for the UDV’s religious purposes, the Santa Fe church continued to face legal battles up until late last year. Neighbors fought against the building of a permanent UDV temple and were backed by a neuroscientist, Dr. Robert Eaton, whose concern was that pollutants from the psychedelics will infiltrate the groundwater.

At a 2011 Santa Fe Board of County Commissioners hearing, Dr. Eaton stated, “I’m here to address the neurotoxic hazard of releasing ayahuasca alkaloids into the environment from the UDV septic system.”

A lawyer for opponents of the temple, Karl Sommer, discussed the concern about people driving their cars after the church services.

“They’re going to go home at all hours of the night, and they’re going to wake people up,” Sommer said. “That is what has got people really upset, really nervous.”

It wasn’t until late 2012 that Santa Fe County came to a compromise with the church. The county would allow them to build the temple if the construction plans include a couple of precautionary measures: the construction of a water treatment plant and a wall around the future facility.

The national UDV president, Solar Law (yes, that’s his real name), commented, “Though the neighbors’ lawsuit is still active, the church is pressing ahead for a building permit for its new temple. We’re growing slowly and gradually and working to clarify our position before the authorities to really gain this right that other churches have to have a dignified place to exist within the landscape of this country.”

Unfortunately for those who want to join for the “spiritual high,” the church is not seeking new members. They keep a low profile, and all of the jobs through the church are unpaid volunteer positions. In fact, the recent visit by an NPR writer was the first time the church ever let in an outsider.


Works Cited:
1. Burnett, John. Controversy brews over church’s hallucinogenic tea ritual. NPR. 25 April 2013. Web. 1 May 2013.
2. Centro Espírita Beneficente União do Vegetal (UDV) in the United States. UDVSA. n.d. Web. 1 May 2013.
3. Mirante, Daniel. Ayahuasca: Beyond the Amazon – Risks and Challenges of a Spreading Tradition. Ayahuasca. 2 September 2011. Web. 1 May 2013.



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Filed under: Alcohol and Drugs, Spirituality · Tags: faith, José Gabriel da Costa, Mestre Gabriel, psychedelic tea, religion, UDV, UDV church, UDV temple, União do Vegetal

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