Drugs, Sacraments or Medicine? Psychedelic Churches Blur the Line.

Facing the latest participants attending her four-day psychedelic retreat, Whitney Lasseter made a bold claim: The ceremonies they would take part in were sanctioned by federal law, which sets a high bar for the government to interfere in religious practices.

“We are using these medicines to connect with the divine,” said Ms. Lasseter, the founder of All Tribes Medicine Assembly, one of dozens of organizations that describe themselves as churches and view their use of psychoactive substances as sacramental, even though they are generally illegal under federal law. “It’s your right to practice your religion however you are guided.”

Eight guests seated in a circle in a suburban Austin, Texas, living room nodded, some looking apprehensive, as Ms. Lasseter outlined the sequence of body-jolting, mind-altering rituals ahead.

First, there would be a detoxification protocol in which poisonous secretions of a frog from the Amazon are dabbed on tiny burn marks on a person’s skin, often inducing nausea and projectile vomiting.

Later, they would take a potent dose of psilocybin mushrooms, then smoke toxins from the Sonoran Desert toad, which brings on a brief altered state in which people often flail about, scream and sob. When it is done, many describe a feeling of bliss.

As psychedelics show promise as treatments for depression, trauma and addiction, they are increasingly being offered at retreats that blend spirituality with alternative medicine by people who assert that their dispensing of such compounds is protected under religious freedom laws. There is no official count of psychedelic churches, but an association of them, established two years ago, says it has more than 60 groups in North America.

Two churches, in New Mexico and Oregon, sued the Drug Enforcement Administration in the 2000s, winning the right to import and serve ayahuasca, a psychoactive Amazonian brew. The ruling set a legal precedent at the intersection of religion and drug policy, but as new organizations have emerged rapidly in recent years, the courts are grappling again to determine what constitutes a church.

The growing field includes a wide range: retreat businesses, operations that sell psychoactive drugs online and congregations that hold worship services regularly in keeping with longstanding traditions.

For now, law enforcement officials have shown little interest in cracking down on these groups, most of which are subject to little state or federal regulation. But experts say they worry that as such operations rise in visibility, especially among people seeking help with mental health issues, many lack the oversight and scientific rigor needed to safely administer psychedelics.

“There is going to be a disaster down the road,” said Anthony Coulson, a former D.E.A. agent who now works as a consultant for medical companies that hope to bring psychedelics into clinical settings. “There’s no doubt in my mind there’s going to be a reckoning.”

Evidence suggests that ancient societies used mind-altering drugs ritualistically long before a British psychiatrist coined the term psychedelics in the 1950s, when scientists were studying whether compounds like L.S.D. could improve psychotherapy and help patients overcome alcoholism.

In the 1970s, the Nixon administration’s war on drugs ended that research as psychedelics were added to the government’s most restricted category of illegal drugs. Narrow exceptions were made in the decades that followed. In 1981, the Department of Justice sanctioned the use of peyote, a psychoactive cactus, in Native American Church rituals.

Members of that church sued an Oregon state agency after losing their jobs for using peyote, which remained banned under state law. The case, which reached the Supreme Court, led Congress in 1993 to pass the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, establishing that the government could restrict religious practices only to advance a “compelling governmental interest,” and even then, the “least restrictive means” were required.

That standard was tested when the churches in New Mexico and Oregon successfully sued the D.E.A., bolstering the case for the sacramental use of psychedelics.

Major universities and the federal government are spending millions of dollars researching the medicinal value of psychedelics, which scientists say disrupt routine brain function in therapeutic ways.

For some, psychedelics can be more destabilizing than healing and can, in rare cases, induce psychosis, mental health experts say. No government agency closely tracks adverse experiences with psychedelics in unregulated settings.

Oregon and Colorado recently passed measures allowing the therapeutic use of psychedelics. But for now, the drugs remain largely unavailable for patients in regulated settings because they are illegal under federal law, leaving people who seek them turning to groups that claim religious exemptions.

That worries officials, who say more research is needed.

“Though the early data are promising, the safety and efficacy of psychedelic treatments for mental illnesses have not been established,” said Dr. Joshua A. Gordon, the director of the National Institute of Mental Health. “Psychedelics should therefore not be used for treatment outside of clinical trials.”

Law enforcement officials, too, have expressed concern that some groups are actually drug retailers or profit-making retreat businesses using religious grounds to skirt drug laws. The Internal Revenue Service has issued guidelines on the criteria religious groups must meet to get tax benefits, but Congress and the courts have not established clear guidance on what constitutes a legitimate church.

Last year, Detroit police raided a group called Soul Tribes International Ministries after city officials concluded it was operating as an “Uber Eats” for narcotics. Its founder, who says his work is protected under religious freedom laws, has not been charged with a crime connected to the raid.

Other groups have gone on the offensive, suing federal agencies for permission to import and provide psychedelics. The Church of the Eagle and the Condor, in Phoenix, reached a legal settlement with the Department of Justice last month, allowing it to do so.

A D.E.A. spokeswoman did not respond to a request for an interview. Mr. Coulson, the former D.E.A. agent, said counternarcotics officials have not focused on psychedelic churches partly because they are overwhelmed with a flood of opioids.

“The D.E.A. does not want to be in a position of deciding what a sincere religion is,” he said.

Ms. Lasseter, 44, founded All Tribes Medicine Assembly in Austin two years ago. Her guiding belief, she said, is that psychedelics can unlock people’s innate healing potential and give them a direct connection to God or the divine.

Psychedelics had first helped Ms. Lasseter, who had struggled with addiction to crack cocaine and alcohol, when she was in her late 30s, she said. Reeling after a breakup, she smoked Bufo, the psychedelic derived from the Sonoran desert toad. It left her with clarity about her past and future, Ms. Lasseter recalled, seeming to wipe clear years of pain and self-loathing.

“It showed me how everything in my life was perfectly placed at the right moment at the right time for a purpose,” she said.

Ms. Lasseter and many others who administer psychedelics in spiritual settings say they help numerous people who are suffering and have seen a vast majority of them walk away from retreats or ceremonies feeling better.

Still, even some intimately familiar with the field have misgivings.

The Rev. Joe Welker, who leads a Presbyterian congregation in Vermont, spent years taking psychedelics in spiritual communities and credited those experiences with deepening his understanding of theology. But about three years ago, he said he grew wary about the blending of spirituality and psychedelics as he saw people who emerged from such settings more destabilized than healed. He said he also saw cultlike behavior take root in some communities.

“The risks are understudied,” he said. And instances of harm often get swept under the rug, he added.

Ms. Lasseter, who was ordained as a minister through an online organization, said that she is well aware of the risks of her work. She said she engages a nurse to screen retreat applicants for psychiatric disorders that can be exacerbated by psychedelics, such as schizophrenia, and has participants sign waivers.

Since 2022, Ms. Lasseter has hosted dozens of workshops, ceremonies and a biweekly worship service where, she said, “we celebrate being alive.”

But her highest priority is the church’s therapeutic retreats, which cost $4,444 a person and are held every few months. Ms. Lasseter said her church is just breaking even financially.

Attendees struggling with depression, trauma and addiction, the church’s website says, can expect to walk away with “a new lease on life.”

During psilocybin and Bufo ceremonies at a recent retreat, Ms. Lasseter remained calm as participants displayed a jarring range of emotions. Some sobbed. Some laughed hysterically. At times, bouts of giggles gave way to tears.

There were guttural screams, growling and drooling. Often, Ms. Lasseter held a participant in a tight embrace until a moment of tension passed. The key, she said, was to create a safe and supportive environment in which people could process repressed emotions and see clearly what it would take to lead a healthier life.

One participant on this day was Mekenzi Falslev, a mother of two from Utah who was raised in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. She said she had been in deep distress when she met Ms. Lasseter last year.

“I remember praying and thinking, ‘This is it,’” Ms. Falslev, 33, said. “I have done everything I can do. What can God give me?”

Another participant, John Verhelst, 57, said he had come from his home in New Braunfels, Texas, hoping for a chance to reclaim his religious faith after hearing from a colleague who had smoked Bufo with Ms. Lasseter.

Then there was Sean Carnell, a former Marine from Massachusetts, who became interested in psychedelics after listening to accounts of transformation on a popular podcast hosted by a former Navy SEAL.

Mr. Carnell, 44, said he came to the retreat hoping to tend to wounds that began in childhood, when he said he was sexually abused, then compounded after the suicide of his best friend, a fellow Marine.

He found little reprieve in the psychiatric drugs he got from the Department of Veterans Affairs, he said. “I felt like a zombie. I didn’t feel alive.”

Much of the time guests spent at the retreat near Austin did not involve psychedelic compounds. Members of the group began their days going on early morning walks and praying together while watching the sunrise. They attended yoga classes and meditation sessions. At night, before eating, they held hands as someone said grace.

In the end, Mr. Verhelst said the ceremonies allowed him to make peace with his turbulent relationship with his late mother, who, like him, had struggled with addiction. “It completed a cycle of accepting it and forgiving it,” he said.

Ms. Falslev called the experience a “beautiful rebirth.” Suddenly, she said, the psychiatric diagnoses that had come to define her for much of her adult life no longer felt fitting.

Mr. Carnell said he felt an incandescent form of love during the ceremonies — for himself and those who stood by him as he struggled. But the most meaningful insight, he said, was feeling deeply connected to God, a figure who at one point seemed tangible, like a divine force sitting on his shoulder.

Other than witnessing the birth of his children, he said, “It was the most beautiful experience I’ve ever had in my life.”

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