Psychedelic Tea Brews Unease
Santa Fe Residents Fight Church's Planned Site, Say Drink Endangers Public Safety
SANTA FE, N.M. -- A secretive religious group that fought a long legal battle for the right to drink hallucinogenic tea in pursuit of spiritual growth now plans to build a temple and greenhouse in a wealthy community here -- to the dismay of local residents.
Magali Girardin / pixsil.com A woman in Brazil picks one of the two plants used to make the potent tea.
The church was founded in Brazil in 1961 and remains most popular there, but about 150 people in the U.S., including about 60 in Santa Fe, practice the faith, which goes by the Portuguese name Centro Espírita Beneficente União do Vegetal, or UDV. Members say the church is based on Christian theology but also borrows from other faiths and finds spirituality in nature.
Since the U.S. branch of the religion emerged in the late 1980s, practitioners have imported from Brazil their sacramental tea, known as hoasca, which is brewed from two Amazonian plants and contains the psychedelic compound dimethyltryptamine, or DMT. The U.S. government classifies DMT as a Schedule I controlled substance, the same designation given to heroin and marijuana. But in a unanimous ruling in 2006, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the UDV had the right to use hoasca in its ceremonies.
Now, the Santa Fe branch has drawn up plans to build a greenhouse for growing their own sacred plants, a ceremonial kitchen for brewing the tea and a 7,100-square-foot temple, complete with a children's nursery and foot-thick walls to ensure privacy.
Steven St. John for The Wall Street Journal Longtime resident Leslie Gum, above, shown last week with her mule Snickers, lives down the street from the proposed temple site.
They are seeking a zoning change and county permits to build these facilities on 2½ acres in the Arroyo Hondo neighborhood, a secluded community of horse ranches and million-dollar homes. The grassy lot, which sits at the entrance to the neighborhood, is held in trust by Jeffrey Bronfman, the local leader of the UDV. He also owns a stately private home across the street. Mr. Bronfman is a grandnephew of Samuel Bronfman, the patriarch of the prominent Canadian family that owned Seagram Co. and other assets.
Because the UDV is a bona fide church, it can build a house of worship almost anywhere in the county, as long as it complies with requirements for parking, waste disposal and the like, said Jose Larrañaga, a county case manager. UDV members say the lot they have chosen is sacred to them -- and was consecrated by church elders from Brazil -- because they held services there on and off during their five-year legal battle.
Neighbors, however, say the spot is inappropriate for a church of any kind -- and especially for one that builds its services around a psychedelic brew.
"We don't object to them using their tea. It's legal and that's fine," said Linda Spier, who lives within sight of the proposed temple. "But it's not fine if it endangers the health and welfare of the community."
Steven St. John for The Wall Street Journal The church's proposed temple site in Santa Fe, N.M.
She and other residents worry about traffic -- and tea-impaired drivers -- on the winding, narrow road that leads into their neighborhood. They fear the UDV temple, which is designed with a large gate and three flagpoles out front, would commercialize their rural neighborhood and drive down property values.
And they worry about crime once word gets out that the greenhouse shelters hallucinogenic plants.
"What teenage kid wouldn't be tempted?" said neighbor Jacque Dawson.
UDV members don't speak to the media. Their lawyer, Nancy Hollander, said the tea had never been implicated in a traffic accident in the U.S. As for the greenhouse, she said: "I'm sure they will have appropriate security."
Anyone looking to the greenhouse for an easy high would likely be disappointed, said Richard Glen Boire, an attorney who has written extensively on psychoactive plants and specializes in defending clients accused of using them. Mr. Boire, who has offices in Davis, Calif., and Los Angeles, isn't associated with the UDV.
The two plants used to make hoasca tea aren't potent on their own; they must be brewed together, Mr. Boire said. The resulting tea is quite bitter and often induces intense vomiting and diarrhea. It causes "a significant alteration in consciousness" that can be terrifying, Mr. Boire said.
"The average person," he added, "would find it somewhat nightmarish."
In documents filed with their land-use plan, UDV members say the tea doesn't make them hallucinate but amplifies their concentration, "which facilitates our connection with God."
The county's first hearing on the zoning application is slated for next month. Neighbors have urged the county to reconsider whether a UDV temple really qualifies as a "community service facility," the zoning designation used for churches, because outsiders aren't allowed to participate in or even observe ceremonies. "The whole thing is wrong. It's just wrong," said Jerry Levine, a neighbor.
But Mr. Larranaga, the county's case manager, said the UDV was legally recognized as a legitimate church. The county doesn't require a community-service facility to serve the entire community, he said.
UDV members have suggested that they would consider it religious persecution if their application were denied. A rejection, one wrote in a letter to the county, would be an affront to "my family's forefathers, who came over on the Mayflower and fought in the Revolutionary War for our religious freedom."
Wall Street Journal
Sept 16, 2009