Mind-altering tea drinkers brew planning row
Santa Fe, New Mexico - Two Amazonian plants used to make a psychedelic tea and a scion of the family which once ran one of the world's largest distillers are stirring up a storm in rural New Mexico.
Environmental activist Jeffrey Bronfman, whose family once owned the Seagram Company Ltd of Canada, has spent a decade battling for the right to drink the foul-tasting tea known as hoasca, brewed from two plants which contain mind-altering substances.
The tea is used in services held every other Saturday at the Santa Fe chapter of the religious group known as O Centro Espirita Beneficiente Uniao do Vegetal - Portuguese for Central Beneficial Spirit United in the Plants.
The group claims it opens their minds and brings them closer to God. After discovering the church in Brazil, Bronfman founded the New Mexico chapter in a yurt in Arroyo Hondo, a kilometre from Santa Fe in 1992.
Now he plans to donate 2,5 acres of his land to build 11 000 square feet of new structures, including a caretaker's house, a temple for up to 100 worshippers, a greenhouse for growing the plants and a kitchen to prepare tea.
The religion was founded in Brazil in 1961 and now claims 14,000 members, including 55 in Santa Fe. Services involve drinking the sacramental tea, made from two plants with the hallucinogen NN dimethyltryptamine or DMT.
But at recent community meetings, residents voiced strong opposition to the expansion plans fearing it would increase traffic in their sleepy neighbourhood and worrying about the effects of the tea on imbibers.
Jerry Levin, who lives near the proposed construction, said residents chose the area because they can own several acres of land, keep horses and maintain their privacy.
Building a temple would mean more traffic and could open the door to more non-residential development, he said.
"This is not well thought out. It just isn't," he said. "It's like a pimple on the earth here and it's festering."
Another neighbour, Jacque Dawson, was worried about whether the tea would affect drivers, and if there would need to be increased security to protect it.
While Evelyn Bemuse, also of Arroyo Hondo, said she was not as concerned about the religion or its tea as with group's long legal battle. "It scares us when you mention the fight all the way to the Supreme Court," she said.
"It feels like it threatens us because... we're just individuals in a neighborhood who are really unhappy about a project and looking at, 'Is this some huge fight we're taking on?'"
On May 21, 1999, federal agents raided Bronfman's office in Santa Fe and confiscated 30 gallons of the tea shipped from Brazil, but made no arrests.
A year later, Bronfman and other members of Uniao do Vegetal or UDV filed a complaint in an Albuquerque court, charging the seizure violated their constitutional rights.
District judge James Parker upheld the group's right to use hoasca, but the previous administration of then president George Bush appealed to the Supreme Court.
In 2006, the high court unanimously upheld Parker in what was the first case on religious freedom for Chief Justice John Roberts, a Bush appointee.
Bronfman has declined comment on the federal case, saying there are unresolved issues. But he sat silently at the neighbourhood meeting last month as other members of his group defended the temple plan.
"Some of the opposition, I feel, has been fuelled by some people in Arroyo Hondo who found out about this and stoked the fires, saying we're a cult, we do drugs, we're dangerous drivers," said the group's vice president, Tai Bixby, a real-estate developer.
The group's lawyer Nancy Hollander told AFP the tea was not hallucinogenic.
"I don't know what you'd really call it. I think it's accurate to say mind altering and it's a sacrament but it does not cause hallucinations. It doesn't cause you to see pink elephants," she said.
In a recent letter to some 300 area homeowners, Bixby described Uniao do Vegetal as a "Christian Spiritist religion (that) exists for the purpose of helping the human being with his or her development in the moral, ethical and spiritual sense."
He said repeated studies have shown no harm from using hoasca and that dozens of everyday plants contain hallucinogenic substances, adding the effects usually wear off after four hours.
The group's website (udvusa.com) says hoasca allows "the possibility of spiritual union with the Light and Divine Consciousness, which is God."
A few people spoke in favor of the temple at the recent meetings, which were organised by a professional facilitator at Bronfman's expense.
"As far as the danger of hoasca, for crying out loud," said Roberto Gallegos of nearby Seton Village. "There's so many people in this room that have big parties where a lot of alcohol is consumed, so I think that's really a phony argument."
The temple plans are expected to go before Santa Fe County land-use panels later this year.
The yurt was recently taken down and services have been held elsewhere, but group officials declined to say where. They said the only permanent structure devoted to the group in the United States is near Norwood, Colorado. - AFP
September 13 2009 at 11:13AM
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