Legal Ayahuasca Churches Are Spreading Across Canada

A sixth religious group in Canada has been granted an exemption to use the hallucinogenic tea, known for causing visions and vomiting, as part of its ceremonies.
September 17, 2020, 10:00am
Ayahuasca sant daimeo
Six religious groups in Canada can now legally use ayahuasca. Photo by Martin Mejia/Associated Press via the Canadian Press

A church in Winnipeg, Manitoba just became the latest to get a government exemption to legally import and use daime tea, known as ayahuasca, VICE News has learned.

The Centre for Universal Illumination Luz Divina is part of a growing number of religious groups with special permission to use ayahuasca, as advocates and scientists continue to push for more research into the potential benefits of the substance—and the decriminalization of all psychedelics.

To date, Health Canada has granted six federal exemptions for churches in Montreal, Toronto, and Winnipeg to allow them to import and use ayahuasca, a tea brewed from plants from South America containing harmaline and dimethyltryptamine, otherwise known as DMT, which is banned in the U.S. and Canada. The brew has been used for centuries in healing ceremonies in Central and South America, and its effects can last several hours and include visions and vomiting. 

In an email, Health Canada spokesperson Maryse Durette told VICE News exemptions are issued after a “comprehensive assessment” that ensures the “risk of diversion and any other health risks” is minimized. 

The Winnipeg church received support for their Health Canada exemption application from Jessica Rochester, the founder of the Ceu do Montreal, which uses ayahuasca, referred to as “the sacrament” in its ceremonies according to the tenets of the Brazilian religion Santo Daime. The mission of her church, founded in 1996, is to “provide for transformation and evolution of all persons seeking enlightenment,” according to its website.   

As VICE previously reported, Rochester’s Montreal church was one of the first two in Canada to receive an ayahuasca exemption in 2017 after more than a decade of trying. Since then, four other exemptions were granted to churches that use ayahuasca in Quebec, in Toronto, and now in Winnipeg. 

“Somebody in Winnipeg found out about our church and actually for a couple of years flew from Winnipeg to participate in our work [rituals] and … just fell in love with the path,” Rochester told VICE News in an interview.

Is Ayahuasca Mainstream Now?

Someone who identified as the president of the Winnipeg Centre for Universal Illumination Luz Divina, but would not reveal their identity over concerns that doing so would compromise their job, told VICE News in an email that the group was founded in 2019 and has three members.

“We were not open to new members until now because without an exemption it was illegal to import, possess and serve the Daime Tea in Canada. Now things have changed for us,” the spokesperson wrote. “We will begin our calendar of ceremonies this fall.” 

On average, the spokesperson said ceremonies involving ayahuasca last six hours. 

There are two types of ceremonies. Concentrations—silent meditations combined with hymns and prayers—are shorter while Hinarios, involving singing and dancing in a formation on special festive days such as Christmas, may last longer.

The spokesperson said they expect more Santo Daime churches to open in the future, but at a slow pace, as the existing groups “demonstrate the benefits of the Daime so more can follow the trail.”

Rochester said she is not aware of any other groups with pending exemption applications for ayahuasca, but warned there are plenty of unregulated, “underground” ayahuasca ceremonies across the country taking place. 

An advisory on her church’s website cautions members to “assure themselves of the authenticity, legality and accountability of any event they choose to attend.”

Drug policy and psychedelics experts say these types of exemptions that allow for the legal use of psychedelics can help demystify it and also help support calls for decriminalization. Health Canada has also been issuing exemptions for people with terminal illnesses to legally use psilocybin, known as magic mushrooms, to support their end-of-life care. 

“The more we talk about psychedelic medicine, the more we reframe psychedelics into popular culture, the more popular it becomes,” Mark Haden, Chair of the Board of MAPS (Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies) Canada, told VICE News. 

“And that changes public opinion, and eventually it becomes relatively less painful for politicians to support it.”

Haden’s group is currently involved in researching supporting final-phase clinical trials on MDMA-assisted psychotherapy for post-traumatic stress disorders.

Unlike cannabis or other psychedelics that can be manufactured into standardized doses, ayahuasca is more difficult to study because it’s in the form of a tea and is usually taken within ceremonial settings, Haden said. Brazilian researchers recently found that ayahuasca may help with depression, however the pharmacology of it is not completely understood and may carry some risks.  

Why You Vomit on Ayahuasca

One Canadian study from 2013 followed 12 people in an Indigenous community in British Columbia as they participated in treatment that included the use of ayahuasca. The researchers found that ayahuasca-assisted therapy may have potential benefits for people struggling with drug addiction and that there was “no evidence of harm associated with the administration of ayahuasca in a controlled ceremonial context.” 

Another Canadian researcher at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto has also been evaluating an ayahuasca-based treatment program in Peru, where the substance is legal. 

But Haden added that ayahuasca specifically probably does not need to go through clinical trials in order to become legalized in Canada. 

“The more the Santo Daime churches become legalized, the more people have access to it, and they’re not having access to it through a stage one, two, and three clinical trial and prescription process, they’re having access to it through the shamanic process,” Haden said.

“There are many different roads to legalization, and I think different medicines are on different roads. And that’s probably a good thing.”

Durette would not say how many pending ayahuasca exemption applications Health Canada has received. People can apply for the special exemptions from the federal minister health to use illicit substances for medical or scientific purposes. They last for two years and are renewable.

Follow Rachel Browne on Twitter