For the past few weeks, a local branch of the Oklevueha Native American Church has been holding regular three-day retreats in the middle of the Mills 50 District. The retreats allow attendees to sample from a menu of psychotropic drugs like ayahuasca, cannabis, and frog secretions, to be used under the guidance of church officials.
The local branch, Soul Quest (Facebook | Website), is led by Chris Young, a native Orlandoan who returned from abroad to preach the gospel of ayahuasca to his hometown because, as he puts it, “the medicine told me to.”
Young spoke to us over the phone, and told us how he chose to start an independent branch of the Oklevueha Church (Website) because of the protection it offers to its members. According to Young, the church is federally protected (namely by the Religious Freedom Restoration Act) and members are able to consume otherwise illegal substances because it is part of their religious practice. The church sees all “earth-based medicines” as holy sacraments and sometimes even as conscious beings. In fact, the very first paragraph on Soul Quest’s website states:
Those hoping to join the church can do so via a third-party website, HERE, for a one-time $30 membership fee and can ask for a photo ID that identifies them as a card-carrying member of the Native American Church. Members of the church pay a $20 a month donation which gives them access to things like sahanga (a liquid that is dropped into the eye and derived from plants) and RAPÊ (snuff). Members are then allowed to partake in heavier drugs like kambo (frog secretions) or ayahuasca/DMT if they pay an up-charge, around $100-$150 a session. Members can also requst 30 ML micro-doses of ayahuasca to take with them between retreats, to keep “the spirit in you” and, according to Young, aid in lucid dreaming. Young described the donations as more of a religious tithing, and told us that the bulk of those funds are deposited into an account to pay for legal fees if any members are ever prosecuted.
We spoke with a number of lawyers and law enforcement officials about the legality of using psychotropics and all of them declined to comment. The OPD was unfamiliar with ayahuasca/DMT but promised to research the matter and get back to us. We will post that information as soon as we have it. The Orlando branch of the DEA was reluctant to comment as well but did state that they were unaware of any previous cases in the Orlando area where members of a religious organization had been persecuted for drug use associated with their religious practices. They had however heard of cases in other states where people had been arrested upon leaving a place of worship where they had been using drugs as a religious tool, and then tried to leave with some in their possession.
Yet during our brief talk with Young he was adamant that anyone who interrupted a retreat could face a five-year prison sentence for impeding a religious ceremony and the right of church members to practice their religion. Again, we couldn’t get anyone in law enforcement to confirm that claim.
The Native American Church was founded in 1918 in Oklahoma as a way for Native peoples to practice their culture and traditions in a way that was structured like Christian churches. This made it easier for them to use medicines like peyote without any restrictions. A number of appeals by Native churches throughout the country in the ’60s were supported and upheld in numerous state courts.
The Native American Church now has over half a million members in 24 states. According to an article by the NY Times, even if you’re a card carrying church member, you can’t officially be a member of the church unless you’re a member of a recognized tribe but then contradicted themselves by quoting Utah Supreme Court Justice Jill N. Parrish as saying, “on its surface, existing federal regulation, does not restrict the exemption to members of federally recognized tribes.” You can read the NY Times article, HERE.
Soul Quest is hosting a “Full Moon Ayahuasca Ceremony,” (Facebook event page HERE) at the end of the month at the Mills 50 arts/events space True Serenity (Facebook | Website), but there are only 15 spots available at a time and they fill up quickly. There are three more events scheduled through the month of September.