Psychedelic churches in Phoenix score court wins over legal status

The charismatic pastor of Vine of Light Church, Clay Villanueva, was administering ayahuasca to his disciples prior to his death in 2022.
The charismatic pastor of Vine of Light Church, Clay Villanueva, was administering ayahuasca to his disciples prior to his death in 2022. Pablo Robles
Three years after law enforcement agents raided the home of Clay Villanueva — a Phoenix pastor steeped in the psychoactive brew known as ayahuasca — his lawsuit against the Drug Enforcement Administration has been greenlit for trial.

Though he has since died, Villanueva's Vine of Light church was once one of several ayahuasca churches in Arizona who are suing the government for legal status. In recent weeks, two of the churches have scored wins in court as they fight over their legal status.

On May 4, U.S. District Court Judge Roslyn Silver ruled that the case originally brought by Villanueva and a church in Tucson, the Arizona Yage Assembly, can move forward to trial. In March, U.S. District Court Judge Susan Bolton allowed a claim by the Church of the Eagle and the Condor in Phoenix to move forward, rejecting the DEA's requests to dismiss the case.

Charles Carreon, general counsel for the North American Association of Visionary Churches, a coalition of ayahuasca churches, and the attorney for AYA in its case against the DEA, applauded the recent rulings.

"We're off the on-ramp and onto the highway," he said. "It should be a sign for other churches to get off their rumps and file a lawsuit."
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Clay Villanueva was a Phoenix ayahuasca pastor whose home was raided by a federal narcotics task force in 2020.
Pablo Robles

‘Turning up the heat’

Ayahuasca is a psychoactive brew made from the yagé vine and chacruna plant, both of which are native to the Amazon rainforest, along with other ingredients.Originally used as a ceremonial medicine in the Amazon basin, ayahuasca has now become increasingly popular in the U.S. even though the brew's active ingredient — N-Dimethyltryptamine (DMT) — remains illegal.

Churches such as the AYA, which holds ayahuasca ceremonies in Tucson, Phoenix and Scottsdale, say that the use of ayahuasca is their sacrament. At ceremonies, congregants gather and take the psychedelic drug in a ritual that can last hours or even days. An increasing interest in the substance has resulted in a number of ayahuasca churches cropping up across the country.

However, the legality of ayahuasca used for religious purposes remains murky. The landmark 2006 U.S. Supreme Court decision in a case brought by ayahuasca church O Centro Espírita Beneficente União do Vegetal held that consumption of the drug for religious purposes exempts churches from prosecution under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. According to the church's website, the case "has been cited in 1,200 Judicial Actions and Law Review articles."

But in Arizona, federal agents have seized ayahuasca at the AYA and the Church of the Eagle. Villanueva was later arrested after agents allegedly discovered a stash of ayahuasca, psilocybin mushrooms and marijuana. He died from cancer in April 2022 before his lawsuit went to trial.

Carreon accused the government of "turning up the heat" on seizures of ayahuasca, perhaps prompting more churches to file lawsuits.

While Villanueva's lawsuit originally alleged a large-scale conspiracy between the DEA and local law enforcement, it now has narrowed in scope to a claim under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act for the AYA. The lawsuit claimed that the DEA’s process for granting a religious exemption for the use of ayahuasca is illegal.

Should the case succeed, the church would be immune to federal prosecution.

The next hearing in the case is scheduled for June 6.
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Katya Schwenk is a staff writer for Phoenix New Times. Originally from Burlington, Vermont, she now covers issues ranging from policing to far-right politics here in Phoenix. She has worked as a breaking news correspondent in Rabat, Morocco, for Morocco World News, a government technology reporter for Scoop News Group in Washington, D.C., and a local reporter in Vermont for VTDigger. Her freelance work has been published in Business Insider, the Intercept, and the American Prospect, among other places.
Contact: Katya Schwenk

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