Board of Director for the NAAVC, Clay Villanueva passed away April 1, 2022. On August 23, 2021 he was arrested while boarding a plane in Los Angeles to return to Peru for cancer treatment. Following his arrest and imprisonment, his health steeply declined until death. He will be deeply missed by our community.

His arrest and imprisonment cannot overshadow his life’s work in aiding others in their own life healing journeys. Clay has touched so many lives.

We were grateful to have helped garner Clay’s release on bail in late September of last year. However, the impact on his health was devastating. Prior to his arrest his health was steadily improving. During his time in prison, he had to be hospitalized twice as his internal organs began to shut down. There is still a legal battle ahead. We’re saddened that Clay is no longer with us in fighting the ongoing injustices against your religious community.

NAAVC Attorney Charles Carreon summarizes events of Clay’s arrest as follows: “Two weeks after Mr. Villanueva sued the DEA, Maricopa County, and the State of Arizona for civil rights violations, what did they do? They raided my client’s home at gun point, convened a secret grand jury to issue a grand jury indictment, obtained a secret warrant that doesn’t even bear the name of the issuing judge, imprisoned him unjustly, and imposed excessive bail so he was literally starving and freezing to death inside the Maricopa County Jail. Sadly, the rest of the nation likely saw this as Arizona justice at its finest.”

Clay Villanueva is a minister for a small ayahuasca visionary church in Phoenix, Arizona. He describes his church as a religious center for the spiritual healing of people with addictions, grief, loss, and life challenges of all types including depression and PTSD resulting from war combat, “We’ve been here to help people heal the spirit, so they can heal their minds and bodies as well. Our communion sacrament is ayahuasca. Who can honestly say they have the authority to deny us our right to connect with God?”

The small ayahuasca church, Arizona Yagé Assembly (AYA), and the North American Association of Visionary Churches (NAAVC) are actively suing the Drug Enforcement Agency in Federal District Court in Phoenix. You can help us in our ongoing legal action as Plaintiffs against the DEA. In Spring of 2020, in partnership with NAAVC, AYA sued the DEA in order to bring the DEA into compliance with federal court mandate, federal statute, federal administrative law, and constitutional law. Quite seriously, the DEA had gone rogue and someone needed to call them on it.

Here’s some background. On February 21, 2006, the US Supreme Court issued a unanimous decision affirming the right of O Centro Espírita Beneficente União do Vegetal, to continue their religious practice with the sacramental use of ayahuasca. That decision by the court, including a remand to a lower court, also established a legal frame requiring the DEA to establish an exemption process for visionary churches to practice with ayahuasca.

Since 2006, as part of that court mandate, the DEA has issued exactly zero exemptions. Exemption applications themselves have been sparse — not that surprising, since by applying, churches are required by the regulatory agency to agree under penalty of perjury to the stipulation that they not engage in their religious practice until the DEA has determined that they are, in fact, a sincere and federally approved religious entity. The court never granted the DEA this authority. No one has. For those of you who follow things like the US Constitution, the First Amendment grants the following: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof . . . ” For this and a raft of other reasons the DEA lacks the authority to openly defy the federal court for going on 15 years now. So we sued.

To complicate matters for themselves, following our written petitions to the DEA, and the filing of our lawsuit in Federal District Court in the Spring of 2020, the DEA initiated a raid on the home of Clay Villanueva, one of the NAAVC’s board of directors. AYA makes a clear case in our suit that the raid was in retaliation for the temerity by the NAAVC and its board to demand that the DEA adhere to the law.

More pointedly, what the DEA had engaged in was intimidation of a religious community, in addition to witness tampering in an ongoing federal court case. Perhaps the DEA didn’t like our petition campaign, drawing public attention to their rogue shenanigans. That petition, sent to the DEA well in advance of our lawsuit and the raid on Clay Villanueva’s home gained over 1500 signatures. Perhaps it looked to the DEA like visionary churches had become emboldened, and they wanted to send a message. Perhaps they reasoned that successfully ignoring one church at a time with a fraudulent exemption process was one thing, but dealing with a mass religious movement was quite another.

Perhaps the DEA didn’t reason at all. Both DEA action and inaction may simply be evidenced by an agency culture enmeshed in conscious indifference, all too willing to engage in stonewalling and intimidation, while refusing to respond to all written avenues of communication . . . until directed to respond under federal court action. That’s where we are today, federal court. Our case is currently being heard in United States District Court for the District of Arizona in Phoenix. Our judge is the Honorable Roslyn O. Silver.

Our case will be earning its day in federal court. We have much farther to go in this case. Our objective is to free visionary churches across the US from agency intimidation, in addition to halting illegal seizures of our community’s religious sacrament. We’ve made great strides. We have much farther to go in this case, much of it uphill. We will not rest until our religious community is freed from the presence of seizures, threats, and intimidation. We’re demanding to stand on equal footing with every religion in this country. There’s strength in numbers. Stand with us.