This article first appeared on VICE Quebec.
With little fanfare, Health Canada granted exemptions last summer to two Montreal religious groups to allow them to import and serve ayahuasca to their members. The drug, originating from the Amazon, is otherwise banned in Canada since it contains dimethyltryptamine (DMT) and harmaline, two prohibited hallucinogens.
The Eclectic Centre for the Universal Flowing Light, also known as Céu do Montréal, and the Beneficient Spiritist Center União do Vegetal, have so far been very discreet about their exemption. Beyond an announcement on Céu do Montreal's website, the news has gone virtually unnoticed in Quebec.
"Our legal counsel warned us of the unintended negative consequences of participating in interviews that could jeopardize our continued exemption by Health Canada," said Céu do Montreal vice president Robert Ferguson in an email to VICE. "The freedom to practice our religion is still fragile in Canada, despite our new status."
Health Canada confirmed that it has exempted both groups under section 56 of the Controlled Drugs Act. "The Minister of Health may, on the conditions he considers necessary, exempt a person or a substance from the application of any provision of this Act or its regulations," said spokesperson André Gagnon.
The two-year exemptions, first granted in June 2017, are renewable. Health Canada refused to provide VICE with the quantities allowed, claiming the information is confidential. "These exemptions were for religious purposes only."
The Céu do Montreal and the Beneficient Spiritist Center União do Vegetal are religions originating in Brazil. The main sacrament at the heart of their practice is called Santo Daime and consists of consuming ayahuasca to meet the divine. "Health Canada recognizes that the use of Daime tea is an integral part of religious practices in some cultures," Gagnon said.
The mixture is mainly composed of two ingredients: the ayahuasca liana, which contains harmine and harmaline, and the chacruna, a bush whose leaves contain DMT. These plants are used to make a tea.
In Amazonia, Indigenous people have been consuming ayahuasca for hundreds of years, well before the arrival of Europeans. In the 1930s, in the state of Acre in Brazil, Raimondo Irineu Serra founded the syncretic religion Santo Daime, which incorporates elements of Christianity, South American shamanism and African animism, among others. Both groups in Montreal come from this tradition.
Ayahuasca is a drug with dangerous side effects, if consumed without supervision. "It may be incompatible with certain substances, including certain antidepressants," says Jean-Sébastien Fallu, a drug addiction specialist at the University of Montreal. "Some people with mental health issues…may also be at risk for toxic psychoses. This is not an experience to be taken lightly. It is a journey that can reactivate trauma. Hence the importance of being surrounded by experienced people."
Canadian followers of these religions have fought for more than 15 years to obtain an exemption from the Canadian federal government. Jeffrey Bronfman, a third-generation heir to one of Montreal's wealthiest families, was at the heart of the negotiations. Ironically, his great-uncle, Samuel Bronfman made his fortune in the 1920s with the Seagram liquor company, while alcohol was banned in the United States.
Jeffrey Bronfman discovered the Beneficient Spiritist Center União do Vegetal (UDV) during a trip to Brazil in the early 90s. Fascinated by his experience with ayahuasca, he learned Portuguese and then became a "mestre," a title given to the clergy of religion. He then founded the US branch of the UDV in 1994 in Santa Fe, New Mexico. He is also a director of the Montreal chapter.
In 1999, US federal authorities raided his church and seized more than 110 liters of ayahuasca. No one was arrested in connection with the seizure. In response to the raid, Jeffrey Bronfman sued Washington saying that the prohibition violates the freedom of religion of members of the UDV. The battle lasted for a decade.
In 2004, the US Supreme Court finally ruled in favor of the Bronfman UDV, which can now import the plants and distribute them in the United States. "The Court cannot conclude, based on the evidence presented by the parties, that the government has proved that ayahuasca poses a serious risk to the health of the members of the UDV who drink tea ceremonially" reads the judgment.
The exemption in Canada closely follows the protocols established under an agreement negotiated with the drug control authorities in the United States, Bronfman writes, in an email sent to VICE. Previously, Canadian members of the UDV had to cross the border to participate in religious services. "To obtain permission from the Canadian government for our tradition to be recognized stemmed from the need to care for our members so that they would not have to travel so far to practice our religion. "
In 2000, Canada Customs intercepted a number of plants destined for Ceù do Montreal and turned it over to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. The president of the organization, Dr. Jessica Rochester, made an initial request for an exemption from Health Canada. On the group's website, she writes that the Conservative years in Canada, from 2006 to 2015, completely froze the process. Health Canada officially rejected her application in 2012. (Dr. Rochester refused all our requests for an interview.)
Rochester then called on her long-time friend, Jeffrey Bronfman, to help her obtain the necessary authorizations to legally import the drug into the country. "Personally, I have had close relationships with Jessica Rochester for over 15 years and I knew very well the difficulties she had had in the past in obtaining a license," wrote Bronfman. "As part of UDV and Céu do Montréal's shared need for regulatory accommodation for our religious practices, we decided to join our efforts, which were successful. "
Justin Trudeau's election in 2015, which promises to legalize cannabis and recognizes the harm reduction approach to drugs in general, opened new possibilities. Both religious groups reiterated their request for exemption to the Office of Controlled Substances. In June 2017, they learned that they can import and serve ayahuasca to all their followers.
Stephen Bronfman, director of funding for the Liberal Party of Canada, is a distant cousin of Jeffrey Bronfman. Jeffrey Bronfman told VICE his family connection had nothing to do with the decision.
"I have never been in contact with Stephen Bronfman about this, and I have no knowledge of his political position on this or any other issue," he said. "I also had no personal contact with a member of the Liberal Party in Canada, the Prime Minister or a member of his family on this matter. I [have] lived in the United States, without much contact in Canada, for almost 50 years. "
Jean-Sébastien Fallu looks favourably on this new openness on the part of the federal authorities. The professor is also the founder of GRIP Montreal, a group that has been fighting for two decades to obtain an exemption for the purpose of analyzing substances.
"Any move away from prohibition is good news," he said. "The more exemptions are granted, the more likely it is to facilitate our requests for the analysis of [these] substances. "
Simon Coutu is on Twitter.