UNIAO DO VEGETAL (UDV) TIMELINE
1922 Jose Gabriel da Costa was born.
1961 Jose Gabriel founded Uniao do Vegetal and shortly thereafter began distributing Vegetal (ayahuasca) to his followers.
1990s American ecologist Jeffrey Bronfman traveled to the Amazon rainforest and encountered UDV and ayahuasca.
1994 Bronfman founded the American branch of UDV.
1999 U.S. Customs and DEA Agents confiscated thirty gallons of ayahuasca tea from the UDV's offices; in response, Bronfman sued the U.S. Department of Justice.
February 2006 – The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of UDV in the case Gonzales v. O Centro Espirita Beneficente Uniao do Vegetal et al. 2006 .
UDV history begins with Jose Gabriel da Costa, known to his adherents as Mestre Gabriel. He was born in 1922 in Coracao de
Maria, in Brazil’s state of Bahia. With little formal education, at the age of twenty he traveled from Salvador, Brazil to the Amazon where he worked. He became acquainted with indigenous Bolivians, in particular Chico Lourenco, who was “a master of curiosity” and who introduced Gabriel to ayahuasaca tea (UDV n.d.).
Ayahuasca, also called “hoasca” or “vegetal,” is a hallucinogenic tea brewed from mariri and chacrona leaves, which are found in the Amazon river basin. The tea has been consumed in Amazonian and Andean rituals for centuries, but it only became known in the United States during the twentieth century. In the 1950s, Beat writers William S. Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg popularized ayahusaca in literary correspondence that would eventually be published as The Yage Letters. These writings chronicle Burroughs’ journey through South America where he hoped to acquire ayahuasca as a means of overcoming opiate addiction. Several decades later, in the early 1970s, Irish-American philosopher and psychonaut Terence McKenna and his brother Dennis conducted psychedelic experiments involving ayahuasca in the Amazon. The pair published their findings in the book The Invisible Landscape: Mind, Hallucinogens and the I Ching and a subsequent book, True Hallucinations.
After Mestre Gabriel consumed ayahuasca, “the visions, spiritual revelations and sense of personal mission he discovered came together in a coherent belief system and he began to gather a group of followers” (Dashwood and Saunders 1996). On July 22, 1961, Gabriel founded Uniao do Vegetal (literally the “union of the plants”) and began disseminating his teachings, which are a blend of Christian and indigenous beliefs. On December 13, 1964, Gabriel moved to Porto Velho, Rondonia with his wife, Pequenina, and their children. He established himself at 1215 Abuna Street, which became the de facto headquarters of Uniao do Vegetal (UDV), where Gabriel worked as a brick-maker and distributed Vegetal to his followers. Originally UDV was not registered officially in Brazil as a religious organization.
In 1968, the first UDV temple was built in Porto Velho. This building, now the historic UDV headquarters, is known as the Nucleo Mestre Gabriel. On September 24, 1971, Mestre Gabriel passed away, having transmitted his teachings to his disciples. These followers, including his wife and his children, then became mestres themselves, sharing Jose Gabriel’s message and administering the growing religion. The Security Division of the Guapore Territory briefly curtailed UDV’s activities during the 1970s. After the church regained its legal standing, it changed its name to Centro Espirita Beneficente Uniao do Vegetal. On October 30, 1982, UDV’s General Administration moved its headquarters to Brasilia. Brazil legalized the use of ayahusaca in 1987.
In 1993, UDV was incorporated in the U.S. by a group of individuals, including ecologist Jeffrey Bronfman, in Santa Fe, New Mexico. The Bronfman family immigrated to Canada from Russia during the 19 th century and subsequently owned and operated the Canadian distillation company, Seagram, and has a long history as a wealthy and powerful American family. According to Peter C. Newman’s book, Bronfman Dynasty (1978), Jeffrey Bronfman was accepted by Yale University but chose instead to join Guru Maharaj Ji’s Divine Light Mission (Vincent 2001). During the 1990s, Bronfman made several trips to the Brazilian rainforest. There, he came into contact with UDV, and sampled hoasca. His experiences with the tea inspired him to learn Portuguese, to become a mestre, and to import the religion to the United States. He has served as president of the American UDV branch since 1994. Bronfman and his wife, Lucy Luzader Bronfman, divorced in 2000.
Uniao do Vegetal is a syncretic religion that “blends traditional Christian theology with indigenous beliefs, and a central tenet of the faith is the drinking of a tea known as hoasca. According to church doctrine, members can fully perceive God only by drinking the tea” (Toobin 2004). UDV has neither a formal dogma nor a written doctrine. Church leaders orally transmit the teachings of Mestre Gabriel to UDV members. Understanding of these teachings is understood to be a gradual and individual process. The Mestre’s teachings are passed on ritualistically and solely to church members, and only a general synopsis is available to outsiders.
The church states that, “the doctrine of Mestre Gabriel teaches love for our fellow man and the faithful practice of goodness, according to the principles of spiritual evolution through reincarnation, and in communion with the teachings of Jesus as the divine master” (UDV n.d.) This principle of successive reincarnation is essential to UDV doctrine. According to the church, it is “a millenary precept adopted by Eastern spirituality as well as the first Christians until the 5 th century A.D.” and “is based on the conviction that through successive incarnations, the spirit evolves, gradually developing faithfulness to the practice of Goodness, until reaching Purification – or ‘sainthood’ for western traditions” (ibid). In keeping with Christian doctrine, UDV considers Jesus Christ to be the Son of God. UDV espouses the theme “Light, Peace and Love.”
The church’s central ritual is the consumption of ayahuasca tea in a sacramental ceremony that has been likened to the Catholic communion (Perea 2004). The church emphasizes that the drinking of ayahuasca is not recreational drug use but a religious sacrament. The ritual takes place at least twice a month. UDV teaches that “drinking the Vegetal creates an enhanced state of consciousness capable of amplifying the perception of our own essentially spiritual nature” (UDV n.d.). During these rituals, after the leaders, or mestres, serve the Vegetal, they provide instruction, often in the form of “chamadas,” chants that contain the teachings of Mestre Gabriel.
The visions that are induced by the drug may include “coiled fluorescent serpents, prowling jaguars, and brilliant multi-colored tableaux of gardens, and palaces and lush forests.” Peruvian shamans teach that these visions are like the “television of the forest.” And, “When they turn it on, it is as though they are dialing up channels and communicating with spirits, possibly from other dimensions” (Posner 2006). Attorney Richard Glen Boire, “who has written extensively on psychoactive plants and specializes in defending clients accused of using them,” says that hoasca creates “ ‘a significant alternation in consciousness’ that can be terrifying” and that “ ‘the average person…would find it somewhat nightmarish’” (Simon 2009). Furthermore, the “tea is quite bitter and often induces intense vomiting and diarrhea” (Simon 2009). A doctoral student in anthropology, Jeremy Narby, sampled ayahuasca while residing with Peruvian shamans for his ethnographic research, and described the experience as follows: “‘Images started pouring into my head…an agouti [forest rodent] with bared teeth and a bloody mouth; very brilliant, shiny, and multi-colored snakes…I suddenly found myself surrounded by two gigantic boa constrictors that seemed fifty feet long. I was terrified […] I find myself in a more powerful reality that I do not understand at all…’” (Narby qtd. in Posner 2006).
At the U.S. branch of the church, Jeffrey Bronfman presides over the ceremony twice a month, at Saturday evening services that are held in a tent (or yurt) at his Santa Fe home. A New Yorker journalist who observed the ritual described it as follows: “He gives each U.D.V. member a glass of the tea, and then, after a prayer in Portuguese, the congregation drinks together. The ensuing service involves ritual singing, ‘individualized contemplation,’ and ‘a more informal period of unstructured conversation among the congregants’ (Toobin 2004).
UDV’s global membership is estimated at 8,000 to 10,000, with between 100 and 200 members in the United States. The church has branches in Brazil, Spain, and the United States, but headquarters are still located in Brasilia, Federal District. The original church in Brazil has an administrative structure that “is hierarchical and has a sophisticated bureaucracy with technical and judicial departments, by-laws and statutes. UDV has maintained a Council of Recordation of the Teachings of Mestre Gabriel since 1988 that consists of 15 disciples who have been followers of Mestre Gabriels since1965. The Council has included Jose Gabriel’s wife, Pequenina, and one of his sons. The primary responsibility of the Council is to orally transmit the original Mestre’s teachings. The UDV has 66 centres divided into 11 regions throughout Brazil” (Dashwood and Saunders 1996). Each center has a local congregation, called a “nucleo,” and a mestre who serves as leader in the ayahuasca ceremonies. The United States division of UDV is relatively small. Bronfman’s Santa Fe church has a membership estimated at 130-150 and is the sole branch.
UDV has faced a number of legal challenges predicated on its useage of hoasca tea. A division of the Brazilian Ministry of Health placed Vegetal on a list of scheduled substances in 1985. This decision was later reversed, however, and the church’s use of hoasca in Brazil was sanctioned. The U.S. branch of UDV generated far greater legal controversy.
The legal disputes in the U.S. began in 1999, when Customs Bureau and DEA agents confiscated thirty gallons of hoasca tea from Mestre Jeffrey Bronfman’s Santa Fe office. Bronfman had imported the tea for use in the church’s monthly ceremonies, but because the psychotria viridis leaves used to brew hoasca contain N,N-dimethyltryptamine (DMT), the government classified the tea as a Schedule I controlled substance, along with such narcotics as heroin and marijuana.
Bronfman responded by filing suit against the U.S. Department of Justice, arguing that the tea was a “central sacrament” in the church and that the government was infringing upon First Amendment rights to freedom of religion (Perea 2004). At the initial court hearing in 2001 the church was granted a preliminary injunction that allowed UDV to temporarily resume the ritual consumption of hoasca tea. The Department of Justice unsuccessfully appealed this ruling. After a Circuit Court in Denver upheld the 2001 injunction, the Bush administration appealed the case to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Central to the case and its complexities was the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993, which “effectively gives objectors a presumptive exemption from laws that violate their religious beliefs” (Posner 2006). The act requires a “compelling governmental interest” to be proven in order for the government to restrict religious activities. This legislation bolstered UDV’s case. The essential question, according to Posner, was “whether the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993, ‘requires the government to permit the importation, distribution, possession, and use of a Schedule I hallucinogenic controlled substance’” (Posner 2006).
Deputy Solicitor General Edwin Kneedler argued a compelling governmental interest based on three grounds. First, he argued that DMT constitutes a health hazard and that regular ingestion of the compound could prove detrimental to health, eventually possibly resulting in psychosis. Secondly, Kneedler argued, there was the potential for recreational usage and distribution of the tea outside of religious parameters. Lastly, he argued that importing the tea would breach the U.S. Controlled Substances Act and the 1971 United Nations Convention on Psychotropic Substances.
UDV’s attorney, Nancy Hollander, contested such claims by arguing “that in Brazil, where hoasca is legal and where the UDV has been active for decades, and in New Mexico, sacramental consumption of the tea has caused not significant adverse health consequences and has not been diverted to illicit use” (Posner 2006). She also cited the Native American Church’s dispensation to ritualistically consume peyote, another Schedule I controlled substance. This precedent would prove influential in the Supreme Court’s decision.
On February 21, 2006 the Supreme Court made its final ruling, determining that UDV had “free exercise of its activities in the U.S.A.” (Gonzales v. O Centro Espirita Beneficente Uniao do Vegetal et al. 2006). The Court sided unanimously with UDV, with one justice abstaining. Chief Justice Roberts cited the government’s exemption for the Native American Church as a deciding factor in his decision.
Dashwood, Anja and Nicholas Saunders, 1996. “Uniao do Vegetal.” The Council on Spiritual Practices. Accessed from http://csp.org/nicholas/vegetal.html on 21 January 21 2012.
Perea, Mary. 2004. “High Court Allows N.M. Church to Use Tea.” Associated Press. 10 December 2004. Accessed from http://wwrn.org/articles/9575/?&place=united-states§ion=native-religions, on January 21, 2012.
Newman, Peter. 1978. Bronfman Dynasty. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, Ltd.
Posner, Michael. 2006. “Plants with Soul: How a Mind-Bending Plant-Base Drug Made its Way from the Amazon Jungle to the U.S. Supreme Court.” The Walrus. July 2006. Accessed from http://www.walrusmagazine.com/articles/2006.07-anthropology-ayahuasca-vision/3/, on January 21, 2012.
Simon, Stephanie. 2009. “Psychedelic Tea Brews Unease.” Wall Street Journal. 16 September 2009. Accessed from http://online.wsj.com/article/SB125306591407914359.html, on January 21, 2012.
Toobin, Jeffrey. 2004. “High Tea—The Bench.” New Yorker Magazine. 20 December 2004. Accessed from http://www.cognitiveliberty.org/dll/udv_toobin1.html on January 21, 2012.
Uniao do Vegetal website, n.d. Accessed at http://www.udv.org.br/The+Origin+of+the+Uniao+do+Vegetal+and+the+Spiritual+Mission+of+Mestre+Gabriel/Highlight/24/ on January 21, 2012.
Religious Freedom, the United States Supreme Court and the Uniao do Vegetal. 2005. Accessed from http://www.udvusa.com/ on January 21, 2012.
Vincent, Isabel. 2001. “Bronfman, the guru and their tea.” National Post. 12 January 2001. Accessed from http://www.rickross.com/reference/general/general330.html, on January 21, 2012.