Behind the Vision Vine

June 02, 2005
Behind the Vision Vine
by Molly Brown, Medill News Service
Link to the lead story in Gonzales v. O Centro Espirita Beneficiente Uniao Do Vegetal

Annelise Schinzinger vividly remembers the first time she tried hoasca tea even though it was almost 20 years ago.

As a young student in Brazil, contemplating a return to the United States among other life issues, a friend suggested that she try the tea.

Schinzinger was soon introduced to the mestre, or the teas official holder, and asked many questions, but he was not willing to let her try the mysterious brew just yet. Instead, he advised her to think about it and return another time.

When Schinzinger returned shortly after, the mestre decided she was ready. He took her to his home office where he conducted a private hoasca tea session for her.

It was a beautiful session, Schinzinger said. He went to the refrigerator and pulled out a pitcher of this very muddy-looking substance. I stood up and took the glass in my right hand, which is custom, and we recited, May God guide us to the path of light now and always, Amen. Then I drank the tea.

About 15 minutes later, Schinzinger said she felt a tremendous need to purge and vomited. But after the purging came only extraordinary visions that included an Amazon jungle setting, roses and a woman sitting on an enormous water lily in front of a waterfall.

I was very much in a state of peace, Schinzinger said. I felt much joy, very light and very clear-headed.

During the next week, Schinzinger said she made the life-altering decision to stay in Brazil. For her, hoasca provided a physically, emotionally and spiritually cleansing experience.

It also began a healing process to overcome many struggles including bulimia and a sexual assault. Schinzinger said hoasca was instrumental in combating her ailments and personal problems.

At that time, 1977, hoasca and the religion that predominantly used it, the Uniao Do Vegetal–or the UDV–was still relatively new. Created in 1961, Schinzinger was the 35th member to join the UDV. The church now has about 8,000 members in Brazil and 150 members in the United States.

For Schinzinger, and UDV members today, the hoasca–or vision vine–is one of the most vital parts of the religion. She considers her experiences so important she has written a book about it, Drinking Light, that will be published soon.

Its definitely a truth serum, Schinzinger said. It helped me see what was out of alignment and the changes I needed to make. Its not an escape mechanism.

But the U.S. government contends otherwise. Hoasca tea contains the plant derivative dimethyltryptamine, or DMT, which is listed as a Schedule I drug in the Controlled Substances Act. In May 1999, U.S. Customs agents raided the Santa Fe, N.M., home of UDV mestre, Jeffrey Bronfman, and seized 30 gallons of the brew.

As a result, Bronfman sued the government, including the Attorney General and the Drug Enforcement Administration. He alleged violations of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act and his churchs 1st, 4th and 5th Amendment rights. He also sought an injunction that would allow church members to drink the tea.

The case has moved through the U.S. District Court in N.M. as well as the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals with judgments in UDVs favor. On April 18, 2005, the Supreme Court accepted review in this case that pits religious freedom against the governments war on drugs.

Some medical experts who study hoasca are quite vocal about its benefits, both physical and emotional. Dr. Charles Grob, a psychiatrist at the University of California, Los Angeles, who also appeared as an expert witness in the trial, and Dr. Jace Callaway, a pharmaceutical chemist at the University of Kuopio in Finland, conducted one of the first extensive studies on hoascas effects in 1993. Their study showed a usefulness of hoasca on both physical and mental health and found no signs of deterioration as a consequence of its periodic, regular usage over long periods of time.

In fact, hoasca seems to act as a safe and effective tonic, the doctors reported.

For more than 100 years, hoasca has been in widespread religious use throughout South America. It is usually brewed from a combination of two plants, ayahuasca and chacruna, which work together to set DMTs hallucinogenic effects free.

When orally ingested alone, DMT has no hallucinogenic effect, because the liver breaks it down too fast, but when it is consumed as hoasca tea, psychic effects begin in about 20 minutes and last up to four hours.

However, when smoked or injected DMT is a strong psychedelic agent and the effects last up to 10 minutes with all the cognitive and emotive content of a rocket ride through a fireworks display, Callaway wrote in the study.

For the study, Grob and Callaway monitored 15 healthy male volunteers who drank hoasca at least two times a week for more than 10 years. The men were kept in their religious setting and given a regular dose of hoasca. The doctors monitored metabolism of the substance, breathing, endocrine secretions, cognitive abilities as well as took blood samples.

Grob says he was impressed by the ceremony and the results.

People are very quiet, said Grob. The leader will sing a religious song, a chamada or an ode to nature, all in Portuguese. Sometimes when the effect is abating, hell give a little sermon about life issues. A lot of it is, Its important to be good citizens, employees, parents.

With hallucinogens, theyre in a very powerful, suggestive state. What theyre hearing has a deep impact.

Grob and Callaways results show there is strong evidence that regular hoasca drinkers have a positive sustained mood which may help research in treating depression. Hoasca also has a positive effect on substance abusers. Grob said many members join UDV with serious problems with alcohol, drugs and violence. And they all transform quite impressively.

The doctors discovered the only downside to hoasca was if it was consumed while people were on serotonergic drugs–or antidepressants. Negative side effects could include elevated temperature, cardiac arrhythmia, renal failure and possibly coma, which could lead to death.

But Grob added that UDV members are monitored by medical personnel. Potential members are carefully screened as to what medications they are taking before they are allowed to participate.

And contrary to the governments assertion that allowing hoascas importation could result in recreational drug use, the study found, that this bitter tasting tea has not found a place of economic value in the illegal drug trade.

However, the DMT in hoasca is still considered a Schedule I Controlled Substance. The government believes it is a dangerous hallucinogen and allowing its use could lead to increased abuse and trafficking throughout the country.

And some doctors are not convinced it is safe. Dr. Donald Jasinski, a professor at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, testified for the government during the trial. An expert in hallucinogens, Jasinski admitted his experience with DMT was fairly limited and that his primary research has been with LSD.

DMT is one of the hallucinogens, Jasinski said. Euphoria leads to try, and repeat use of, a drug. It was quite popular in the 1960s. This case has to do with hallucinogenic effects and recreational drugs and drugs of abuse.

Jasinski said while it is nearly impossible for UDV members to poison themselves on hoasca, ingesting hallucinogens can have other detrimental effects.

For those who also have a predisposition to mental illness, it can produce an acute psychotic state that can cause them to harm themselves and others, Jasinski said.

Jasinski also said how a drug affects an individual depends on the person and the dosage. A high dose can lead to panic attacks or, in worst case scenarios, make people psychotic.

But even Jasinski questions the validity of
banning a plant. He even said he was impressed by the UDV at the trial. They did not look like drug abusers, Jasinski said.

The UDV case is not alone in the religious freedom v. drug war. In 2001, a similar case surfaced in Atlanta, Ga., that involved another South American religion, the Santo Daime, which also uses hoasca tea. At the center of it was Alan Shoemaker, a U.S. citizen in Peru who studied the culture and started a plant material export company.

Shoemakers son, Jesse Brock, tried hoasca on a visit and asked his father to ship plants to the United States so he could start a plant wholesale business. The plants were seized by U.S. Customs. In 2002, when Shoemaker attempted to return, he was arrested and charged with attempting to distribute a Schedule I substance. Brock was also arrested.

The cases, though they involve different people, places and religions, are closely connected. Shoemakers attorney, Mark Sallee, said many of the governments allegations used in the UDV case were also used in the Shoemaker case and that he considered it a test casethe government was trying to set a precedent to possibly use against the UDV.

Sallee argued that customs agents should have either destroyed the plants or sent them back. He convinced the judge to lift the travel restrictions placed upon Shoemaker. Shoemaker returned to Peru where he still waits for the climate to settle before coming back to the United States–something that depends heavily on the UDV case outcome which is to be argued next fall.

I believe people are doing it for sincere religious practices, Sallee said about the religions. Its not a party drug.

Scientists who study hoasca agree. Dr. Dennis McKenna, a botanist and expert who has studied psychedelic drugs for more than 30 years, said he has never heard of any adverse reactions as a result of hoasca use and calls the governments pursuit of a ban more junk science from the Bush administration.

There are hundreds of plants in North America that could potentially be used to make hoasca, McKenna said. These are not unusual molecules in plants. For the government to single out two plants because they claim they contain a controlled substance is absurd.

“You can’t criminalize nature.”

Molly Brown of Medill News Service reports on the case between the religious group Uniao do Vegetal (UDV) and the U.S. Supreme Court on the legal status of their sacrament, the Amazonian brew ayahusaca, in this comprehensive article.