From the Desk of General Counsel
The Situation of Twenty-First Century Humans
Every day we wake up and live our lives. We carry on with our affairs, making the best of the situation in which we find ourselves. We adapt to a pace of change and uncertainty, keeping up with a machine we don’t program or control. We adapt, assembling our lives, caring for those who depend on us, fulfilling complex responsibilities in the process. We wonder – how did we end up in a world like this one? We sense the potential for human fulfillment in a wholesome culture, buried beneath the thick veneer of modern technological artifice. The doomsday clock keeps ticking down, politicians temporize, war taints everything, the Amazon burns, and an aging elite class sells humanity’s future for absolutely nothing. And we ask ourselves – what can we do?
A Path with Heart
From Don Juan Matus, the Yaqui sorcerer whose words and deeds were chronicled by Carlos Castaneda, we learned that in this world of endless contention, the warrior sets out to follow a path with heart. So I feel fortunate that, as General Counsel of NAAVC, I can help to reverse the deluge of bad decisions that have initiated a mass extinction event threatening the future of earthly life. Because NAAVC exists to make Visionary Religion a safe and legal practice, which leads to better thinking and fewer bad decisions by human beings. All of the bad decisions that have led us to planetary collapse have been made by humans. To make better decisions, we need to change the human mind, we need to unwire millennia of programming that were apparently functional when resources were unlimited, transportation was local, and humanity’s population was not in the billions.
Building the Case for Visionary Religion
As General Counsel, I’ve collected evidence about how the experience of Visionary Religion changes human minds. In my opinion, it often changes them for the better, fundamentally making them more honest, less confused, and more capable of making decisions on ethical grounds. But that’s not a scientific statement, it’s an opinion based on life experience and anecdotal evidence. The sort of thing that tends not to hold up in court. So back in 2018, after Scott Stanley pulled me into his orbit and I started learning about Visionary Religion from an insider, we wrote up a survey and emailed it to 1,600 people who attended an AYA ceremony. We got back 268 completed surveys, a statistically-valid sampling, and after I reviewed the results online, I called Scott and told him that he had no need to worry that he might be wasting his life. With satisfaction rates in the high ninety-percentiles, and people reporting positive life changes of various types as a result of ceremony, I was confident he was doing good work.
Relieving Suffering and Satisfying the Need for Beauty
I summarized the results in an Executive Summary that you can download from this link. The statistical summaries tell us that the AYA congregation is a mature group of people who enter the ceremony with spiritual intentions to obtain healing, energy, insight, vision, motivation, and inspiration. That’s how they feel before they drink the medicine. After they drink, their expressions are almost uniformly very positive, like in these quotes that I selected almost at random from the seventy I included at the end of the Executive Summary:
- “Ayahuasca has improved every dimension of my life. But mostly I’m no longer consumed with anxiety and so I function better at everything.”
- “Two years ago I wanted to die every day. I daydreamed about ways to do it 4-5 times a day. I am so grateful not to feel like that anymore. I never dreamed that life could be so amazing. The only thing that really changed was my perspective. I truly believe I would be dead without ayahuasca and AYA. I did all the work but they helped save my life. Literally.”
- “There were parts of myself I was afraid of before the ceremony, particularly I was afraid God hated me for this. I learned through the ceremony that I could grow and improve but that God loves me as I am.”
- “It was a beautiful, safe and structured experience. They did not stand between me and my experience; they created a safe environment for it.”
- “The experiences have exceeded any possible expectation I may have had before attending a ceremony.”
Clearly, important work is being accomplished in ceremony. In the legal context, I refer to ceremony as “Visionary Communion,” because it involves communication with the Divine source of ourselves and our world, and because it is facilitated by a sacrament that is not a placebo. The survey results proved to me that effects of Visionary Communion are often profound. The first three quotes describe, respectively, relief from anxiety, from suicidal fantasies, and from attachment to a frightening notion of God. These types of psychological shifts are quite nearly miraculous, and the fact that they can be so swiftly achieved in Visionary Communion is very encouraging. The last two quotes express another aspect of Visionary Communion – that it can satisfy a yearning for a moment of sanctuary, a breath of air from another dimension, an insight into a world of beauty and harmony that perhaps has not entirely slipped from our grasp.
The Power of Scientific Allies
After we did our survey of the AYA congregation, Scott and I started looking for more evidence of the benefits of Visionary Religion, and we found a strong ally in Paulo Barbosa, PhD. Dr. Barbosa teaches at the State University of Santa Cruz ( UESC ) in Ilhéus, Brazil, and is a noted expert on the interaction between human beings and sacred plants in the ceremonial context. He has collaborated with Dr. Rick Strassman and other researchers to perform original studies, and at my request, back in August 2020, undertook a complete review of virtually all peer reviewed studies that have been performed to determine the physical, psychological, and social effects of ceremonial Ayahuasca use, i.e., Visionary Communion practice. Dr. Barbosa (who was at pains to acknowledge the work of his research partner Eduardo Ary Villela Marinho) prepared an expert declaration that AYA submitted in support of its position in pending litigation with the DEA, expressing as a legal conclusion:
Ayahuasca consumed in a religious context is not being used as a drug of abuse, nor does the religious use of ayahuasca lead to the abuse of other drugs; instead, religious ayahuasca users generally abandon abuse of alcohol after they become members of an ayahuasca church. These data are backed up by pre-clinical evidence indicating that ayahuasca blocks many abuse-related behavioral effects of drugs of abuse. Ayahuasca does not adversely affect mental health. Many religious ayahuasca users start out with greater psychological morbidity than the control groups, and show a marked improvement with years of ayahuasca use, reporting greater mental health after participating in religious ayahuasca use compared to control groups.
There, in sober scholarly language, is what this lawyer wants to hear about Visionary Religion. I have to dispel the casual belief that Visionary Communion is mere drug-taking under a cloak of virtue, and Dr. Barbosa’s painstaking analysis helps me do that.
You might wonder what good all of this evidence-gathering will do us. Well, the best thing you can do in litigation is to sell your adversary on your case, because then they have an incentive to settle. Until they get the idea that you might be able to win, they generally have no incentive to compromise – they just plan to win. When you’re litigating with the DEA, represented by the Department of Justice, you figure it will take a while for them to decide that you might be able to win.
A Yurt is Raised, and The DEA Decides to Negotiate
AYA has been litigating with the DEA since May of 2020, so it’s been a little over two years, and they just decided to start negotiating. There was one piece of evidence, though, that I think tipped the scales, and it wasn’t a document or a sworn statement. It was a building – a yurt, to be precise – the beautiful maloka that Scott and the AYA congregation raised in the desert east of Tucson this summer. When I was able to tell the District Judge and the U.S. Attorneys in our Fifth Amended Complaint that AYA has a church in the District of Arizona where the congregation meets every two weeks to practice Visionary Communion, it was like announcing the first heartbeat of a new being. On June 13, 2022, Judge Silver approved a stipulation between AYA and the DOJ to stay the litigation while we enter into negotiations to explore the possibilities of settlement.
A Dangerous Proposition
What does negotiating with the DEA mean? What could come of it? Poorly-handled, it can lead to disaster, as Soul Quest discovered when their lawsuit against the DEA was dismissed in March of 2022, after they went through an “exemption process,” in which the DEA cross-examined their people, dismembered their faith, and denied the Soul Quest exemption request on the grounds that they weren’t a sincere religion. For some us, watching from the sidelines, the result was not too surprising. Soul Quest’s lawyers were always several steps behind the DOJ lawyers, who exploited their ignorance in predictable ways, achieving another DEA win against the Visionary Religion community.
So right now, we are in the early stages of negotiation, what people often call “arguing over the shape of the table,” but you can bet the first thing AYA made clear was that they were not making the same mistakes as Soul Quest had. AYA is not going to concede that the DEA has authority to examine our “religious sincerity.” As a matter of principle and law, AYA’s position has always been that only U.S. District Court Judge can adjudicate the issue or whether a church or its minister is “sincere” in their practice of Visionary Religion.
Seeking the “Least Restrictive Means”
In the legal calculus that underlies the process of getting a religious exemption from the Controlled Substances Act under RFRA, there are two phases in the process. In a lawsuit, the Court first determines whether the plaintiff is “sincere” in their need to obtain an exemption from the drug laws, and then “the burden shifts to the Government” to establish that the prohibition on importing and distribution of Ayahuasca is the “least restrictive means” of advancing the Government’s interest in preventing the plaintiff from importing drugs illegally. Because AYA contends that the DEA has no business determining whether it is “religiously sincere,” AYA’s goal will be to focus the DEA on AYA’s ability to lawfully import Ayahuasca under a contractual agreement with the DEA to operate as a registered importer with a DEA number, using all the required DEA forms, and operating their importation, storage and distribution facilities with DEA inspection and approvals. Going into this process, we are using the knowledge we have gained from talking with our allies at the UDV and the Santo Daime about how they have gotten along with the DEA under the regulatory regime that they negotiated with the DOJ. What others have done, we too can do.
The Road Ahead
Society has taught us to lie to get what we want, in small and large ways. As Li Po said, “If you are straight like an arrow, you will die in a ditch, but if you are crooked like a hook, you will be made minister.” Because we are all children of society, we all have been conditioned to deceive in a thousand ways, and these deceptions seep into our personality at every level.
Visionary Communion is an appointment with radical self-honesty. In Visionary Communion, we find out how much we have lost to our lying, the tiny world we have left to inhabit when we fail to stake out the space to live in truth. We realize that honesty is worth the sacrifices it demands. As self-deception dissolves, self-censorship and posturing are revealed as unnecessary and self-defeating. Self-trust and trust of others go hand in hand, so our ability to select and recruit good companions is strengthened. We are better able to collaborate to accomplish our work, and our work is made easier through cooperative effort.
We then feel the impulse to define ourselves and design our lives consciously. When we set out to design our lives consciously, we start to behave with foresight. We learn that the business of today is to take account of the future. Because the future is waiting for us, individually, and as a member of the species that dominates this planet. Right now, the species appears to be lost, guided primarily by confusion, and that is a dangerous situation that will only get worse, unless human beings start being honest with themselves and each other. Visionary Religion might be the thing that could bring us to that change, that could get human consciousness to that critical mass necessary to convert from the dominator model of planetary exploitation to the collaborative model of living peacefully and sustainably on Spaceship Earth.
Tyrone, New Mexico
July 17, 2022