Owen James, the founder of ayahuasca church Ceu de Toronto, is celebrating a new legal exemption that allows him to use the medicine in ceremonies without risking criminal charges.
He’s also welcoming new members to his chapter of the international church, Santo Daime.
James leads ayahuasca ceremonies, known as “works,” in his World Peace Sound Chamber in Grafton, Ontario — one of about 60 buildings like it worldwide. He says he built it after an angel told him to “buy this piece of land.” The 74-year-old from San Francisco began practicing Santo Daime there in 2005.
Surrounded by pine trees, the single-storey building lined with rose quartz hosts gatherings of about 20 people, dressed in all white, two-to-three times a month. White clothing signifies readiness to be initiated. The works last five-to-seven hours and involve hymns, dancing or long periods of silence.
The works are central to the century-old religion. Santo Daime is a fusion of Catholicism and Indigenous faiths that recognizes Jesus Christ as God.
Ceu de Toronto and several other branches of the Santo Daime church have received a religious exemption from Health Canada, allowing them to use ayahuasca, a tea brewed from two different plants that produces visions, called miração. Not everyone reports visions during ceremonies, though.
“You may receive the divine mother, a conversation with Saint Michael, you may even receive a conversation with god,” James said. “And at that point you’re not really aware of what’s going on in the room, you may not even hear the music or the singing [around you].”
Ayahuasca contains dimethyltryptamine, or DMT, which is illegal in Canada under the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act. But James says it is a medicine, not a drug.
In Canada, several of the legal Santo Daime groups coordinate together: Ceu de Jerusalem, Ceu de Luz Davina, and Ceu de Toronto. The independent Ceu do Montreal, led by founder Jessica Rochester, was one of the first to receive an exemption in 2017. The other groups requested exemptions after seeing her success. The religious exemption allows them to possess, import and use ayahuasca in ceremonies.
James said the exemption comes as a relief to him. He says it will allow people to freely practice their faith without fear of being involved in a legal process. “And I expect that it will probably bring more people to the church.”
Santo Daime is the name of the religion and also the name of the tea used in ceremonies.
The tea is a combination of the vine Banis-teriopsis caapi, also known as ayahuasca, and the leaves of the shrub Psychotria viridis. The plants James uses come from the Brazilian rainforest.
Brewing the tea takes days, and is a sacred act on its own. In one evening, James says each person can consume between 30 and 65 millilitres of the tea, depending on how sensitive they are to the medicine. Other than hallucinations, the tea also prompts vomiting and sometimes diarrhea.
Santo Daime was founded in the 1920s by Raimundo Irineu Serra. According to the journal Shaman’s Drum, Serra worked in the rubber industry, which saw a boom in the early 1900s, bringing rubber workers into contact with Amazonian Indigenous groups that use ayahuasca. Serra studied with Indigenous shamans. According to the journal, during a vision quest in the rainforest, Our Lady of Conception, the Forest Queen, came to him. She told him to call the ayahuasca tea “Daime,” which means “give me” in Portuguese.
Through his experiences with Daime, Serra claims that he received hymns through visions that he used to form the Santo Daime religious doctrine known as the Third Testament.
“The doctrine is very simple,” James said of the religion. “Love your brothers and sisters, don’t gossip, work hard, if you have a duty, perform it, if you have something against somebody, make sure you go and talk to that person. And come with an open heart to the works.”
Some of the hymns ask followers to clean up their lives. James says he has seen Santo Daime help people with addictions.
“Many people come [to Ceu de Toronto] who are addicted to alcohol or cocaine,” he said. “They get a clear message that this is something that they need to stop, and often people stop cold, sometimes in one ceremony.”
A study involving ayahuasca retreats on a First Nation in BC in 2011 found the medicine was effective in decreasing use of alcohol, tobacco and cocaine. The study involved a small number of participants, who were asked to respond to several surveys. The study’s authors say they also found statistically significant improvements in hope, mindfulness, empowerment and quality of life.
A 2018 study—the first of its kind to study ayahuasca on treatment-resistant depression—found the drug was safe to use in appropriate settings, and had significant antidepressant effects. Researchers in Canada are hoping to convince the government to allow them to further study its therapeutic effects.
There’s an interview process for all newcomers to Ceu de Toronto “for medical and mental reasons,” James says.
“If they are really mentally unstable, we cannot have them in a work — it’s not safe for them,” he said. “So we need to do an interview to know if they’ve had a mental breakdown, to know if they’re on certain drugs, whether they’ve been in the hospital for psychotic episodes.”
He said the church can’t welcome anyone who has experienced a mental breakdown. “We are not prepared.”
New initiates are not screened by a registered psychologist, he says. “We have a comprehensive list of questions and the interviewers are trained. If there is any question about a person’s state of readiness, they are referred to me. I am a trained psychotherapist for 46 years and also trained as a naturopath.”
On his site, James says he began his formal training in psychotherapy in 1970 in California. He has training and certificates in acupuncture, Chinese traditional medicine, homeopathy and received Shamanic training in the Peruvian Amazon in the 1990s.
James asks guests to donate $60 to attend a ceremony. The money covers the expenses of running the church, preparing the tea and the cost of bringing the sacrament in from Brazil.
Guests are asked to abstain from alcohol, drugs and sex for several days before attending a ceremony.
James is anticipating a surge in new church members. He’s planning an event in Toronto where people can come and ask questions, and says he’s launching a website soon.
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Correction: An earlier version of this story said that Ceu do Montreal was connected to other organizations when it is in fact an independent organization. The church also applied to Health Canada for an exemption in 2017, not directly to the Liberal government. We regret the errors.