You are currently viewing The Church of the Eagle and the Condor Settles with Federal Agencies, Can Continue Importing and Using Ayahuasca

The Church of the Eagle and the Condor Settles with Federal Agencies, Can Continue Importing and Using Ayahuasca

A small, Phoenix-based church has reached a settlement with a handful of three-letter federal agencies that effectively permits it to continue importing and using ayahuasca—which contains the Schedule I substance DMT—as part of its religious practice.

The settlement was reached between the Church of the Eagle and the Condor (CEC) and the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), Department of Homeland Security (DHS), Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and the Department of Justice (DOJ). This marks the first time a non-Christian church has received protection for its use of ayahuasca within its spiritual practices.

It’s certainly a win for those who believe the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) should provide protections to such practice, but the fact that the case never made it to trial—instead being closed via settlement—might limit its impact on other religious groups.

Nonetheless, some supporters hope that it might represent a softening of the government’s position, or at least provide a roadmap for other groups that might attempt to reach a settlement with federal agencies.

As we note at the end of this article, however, certain indigenous organisations have spoken out against the settlement and CEC’s invocation of “the Shipibo tradition” without prior consultation or consent.

The Church of the Eagle and the Condor

The CEC, founded six years ago by Joe Tafur and Rodney Garcia, describes itself as, “a religion and a spiritual community dedicated to universal spirituality in fulfilment of the Prophecy of the Eagle and the Condor” (see page 14 of the Complaint, onward, for more information).

CEC positions the ceremonial use of ayahuasca as central to its ‘spiritual evolution’ and ‘religious expression’, “through its role in building community, connecting members to Divine Guidance, and guiding leaders and members to Walk in Beauty” (Complaint, p. 16).

A key part of its belief system, as in the Prophecy of the Eagle and the Condor, is the merging of Native American and other Indigenous peoples’ cultures and spiritual traditions with those in contemporary North America.

Today, CEC has “approximately 40 regular members in the Phoenix area and over 100 members nationally”, a representative told Psychedelic Alpha.

Church Sues After Ayahuasca Seizure

The Church filed a Complaint against the federal agencies on June 9th, 2022, nearly two years after U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) seized a shipment of ayahuasca in September 2020. The ayahuasca had been sent by Shipibo elders in Peru, but was seized at the Port of Los Angeles.

DHS Notice - CEC
A notice received by Joseph Tafur in lieu of the ayahuasca shipment (Submitted by Tafur as an Exhibit)

This seizure, according to the plaintiffs, violated the free exercise of their religion as protected under RFRA. Beyond the material loss of the shipment, the Church also suffered a spiritual loss, it argued. “The loss of any ayahuasca is considered a sacrilege”, the Arizona District Court acknowledged in its Order (p. 2).

Following the seizure, CEC and the Chacruna Institute filed two Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests with CBP and DEA, in March 2021. They hoped these FOIAs would uncover what had happened, as well as “the government’s interests in and knowledge of the ritual use of ayahuasca”, according to a CEC statement provided to Psychedelic Alpha. CBP provided an ‘inadequate’ response, according to CEC, while the DEA failed to answer on two separate occasions.

By September 2021, a team of five legal professionals assembled and CEC fundraised to cover its out-of-pocket costs for the early phases of the case. The Complaint was ultimately filed in June 2022.

The Complaint sought accommodation for CEC’s religious use of ayahuasca under RFRA, as well as alleging violation of plaintiffs’ First Amendment, due process, and equal protection rights.

The defendants sought to have the case dismissed, but it was permitted to continue on three of the eight claims in the original Complaint. Following a period of discovery, the government offered to enter settlement negotiations in September 2023.

Two months later, on November 1st 2023, DEA met with the Church’s lead ayahuasqueros to undertake a site inspection in order to process a Schedule I registration. Settlement negotiations continued until February 2024, when a final agreement was reached and CEC’s Schedule I permits were issued on April 15th, 2024.

The Settlement

A closer look at the 17-page Settlement Agreement reveals something that looks, in some regards, like a conventional DEA license, with stipulations such as record keeping and security measures.

The settlement permits the CEC to import ayahuasca in a concentrated paste or liquid form, and to manufacture, distribute, transport, securely store, and dispose of ayahuasca for religious purposes. As is expected of other entities handling Schedule I substances, the CEC must account for the ayahuasca and comply with DEA’s “verification efforts and procedures” (p. 2).

CEC must continue requiring health screenings for ceremony participants, have a first aid trained person on-site for ceremonies, maintain medical emergency protocols, and so on.

DEA grants CEC an importer registration, with which CEC “initially anticipates importing up to 25kg of ayahuasca per year” (p. 5) across 2-4kg ayahuasca paste shipments. According to the settlement agreement, “[t]he quantity of imported ayahuasca for Plaintiffs’ religious use shall not be limited”, though the Church “must notify DEA of any increase in the amount of ayahuasca it plans to import” (p. 5).

Broader Implications

Prior to CEC’s settlement, União do Vegetal (UDV) and Santo Daime had seen their right to use ayahuasca as a religious sacrament vindicated by the Supreme Court and the Ninth Circuit, respectively.

“There is no appreciable difference between the Church in the instant case and the congregations of the UDV and Santo Daime”, CEC had argued in its Complaint, adding that “[d]ifferences in theology are a tenuous basis for selectivity in governmental accommodations” (p. 19).

Following the Settlement, however, CEC has emphasised the distinctiveness of its case, noting that it is “the first non-Christian church to receive protection for its spiritual practices regarding Ayahuasca.”

The key procedural difference between CEC’s settlement and those case decisions that led to religious-based exemptions that preceded it, however, is the fact that the present case never went to trial. “This case is not precedential or binding on any court”, CEC and its legal team told us.

Given that the Settlement resembles, in some regards, a DEA license (though with fees waived and some laxity elsewhere), some observers have questioned whether it’s truly a watershed moment for the religious use of plant medicine in the U.S.

‘While it provides a roadmap for other organisations hoping to obtain a religious-based exemption from the DEA in terms of diversion prevention aspects of security, storage, and record-keeping’, Allison Hoots, Principal Attorney at Hoots Law Practice and President of Sacred Plant Alliance, told us, ‘my understanding is that it’s similar to any other DEA license requirements.’

“If we had a case decision”, Hoots continued, “we would have more analysis to work from regarding a Religious Freedom Restoration Act application of strict scrutiny to protect the religious use of controlled substances.”

Regardless of the lack of precedent, the settlement “shows there is a path to vindicate one’s religious right to use ayahuasca in a ceremonial setting”, CEC told us.

There’s also hope among certain advocates that the settlement may be a sign of a shifting attitude among federal agencies. Indeed, Hoots agreed that “this may be a sign of future settlements where there is evidence of sincere and safe religious communities compelled to provide sacramental ceremony”, and CEC and its legal team told Psychedelic Alpha that “the government’s willingness to settle rather than go to trial may indicate a softening of their approach to religious use of controlled substances.”

If true, this softening attitude might benefit other legal challenges brought by ‘ayahuasca churches’, such as Soul Quest Church of Mother Earth and Iowaska Church of Healing.

But the question of whether the Settlement is truly representative of a changing appetite among these agencies to take such cases to trial, or whether it’s a sign of the strength of CEC’s particular case and legal team, remains an open one.

May we see more religious organisations ratifying their right to use psychedelics as sacrament via settlements with government agencies, as opposed to having to do so by trial? CEC and its legal team told us that they “hope this settlement provides a guiding light to others, who can discern our strategy from the filed documents and follow”. Those documents can be accessed here:

  1. CEC Complaint as Filed on 6-9-22
  2. Defendants Motion to Dismiss; Plaintiffs Opposition to the Motion to Dismiss
  3. Plaintiff’s Declaration: Joe TafurExhibit 1; Plaintiff’s Declaration: Belinda Eriacho; Plaintiff’s Declaration: Benjaman Sullivan; Plaintiff’s Declaration: Joseph Bellus; Plaintiff’s Declaration: Kewal Wright; Plaintiff’s Declaration: Martha Hartney & Exhibit A
  4. Defendants Reply
  5. Order
  6. Settlement Agreement

Another broad question is whether the same strategy can be successfully applied to religious groups that have other psychedelics as sacraments, such as psilocybin.

Regardless of its forward-looking impact on others’ ability to realise their RFRA-ordained rights to use plant medicines in their religious practice, CEC’s settlement is certainly a win for the small church. “There has been a small increase in online membership requests due to community members who wish to show support”, CEC told us, emphasizing that it does not proselytize.

For its part, DEA refused to comment as “litigation remains ongoing”.

Indigenous Groups Respond

Shortly after the settlement was announced, several intercultural organisations representing indigenous peoples such as the Shipibo-Conibo-Xetebo Council (COSHIKOX) and the Oni Xobo Intercultural Organization (OIOX) issued a statement on the matter.

The statement takes issue, among other things, with CEC “naming ‘the Shipibo Tradition’ without prior consultation or consent”. The pronouncement goes on to ‘call out’ the U.S. government for arriving at a Settlement with CEC “without consulting the Shipibo-Konibo People”, and demands that it “rescind the authorization” for CEC to import, prepare and distribute ayahuasca (“Oni”).