Ben Meeus

Ben Meeus holds both a master in International and European Law and in Latin American Studies. He is a member of Chacruna’s Council for the Protection of Sacred Plants.
Ben Meeus

Introduction

It’s never easy for people belonging to minority groups to express their identity and have the freedom to live accordingly. Often, majority groups feel threatened; their fear and misunderstanding then interferes with earnest dialogue, clouding judgement and eventually leading to exclusion, oppression, stigmatization, etc.  Opening any history book on peoples and nations can inform you of a wide variety of catastrophes caused by man’s egocentrism and sense of superiority. Our common understanding of the detrimental impact of such events has stirred the need for constant vigilance, and the international recognition that “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood” (article 1, Universal Declaration of Human Rights). Yet, if I am born free and equal in dignity and rights, then why do the authorities of my country refuse to see me as anything other than a drug user belonging to a harmful sectarian organization? If we are supposed to act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood, why do they mark my religious practice as a threat to public health and cut off all possibilities for earnest and constructive dialogue?  

the Santo Daime community is indeed facing more and complex legal issues, causing difficulties that may become insurmountable if we lose sight of the human rights dimensions at stake

Those are some of the questions I have been struggling with for the past 10 years, and it’s in that light that I’m writing this short note on Chacruna. Since I was 16 years old, I have been participating in Santo Daime works in a variety of churches in the Netherlands, Belgium, and Brazil, ingraining in me a sense of awareness and identity that I am, just as anyone else, a child of God. This is a personal belief that apparently around 80% of the world’s population— each within their respective tradition—seems to hold in some way. Yet, for me, it is profoundly intertwined with the doctrine I practice, and thus, also, with the religious use of ayahuasca. Endowed with reason, I became painfully aware that this poses significant issues in a Western European country, and it came to lie heavily on my conscience. The fear and rage for being misunderstood by family, friends, and society as a whole inspired me to study law, with a specific focus on human rights. Since then, I have obtained a MA in International and European Law, and another MA in Latin American Studies, while volunteering for various causes and learning two new languages. I also did an internship at the United Nations OHCHR’s Indigenous Peoples and Minorities Section, and spoke as a representative of the legal interests of Santo Daime at the Parliament of the World’s Religions in November 2018. As I foresaw at a young(er) age, the Santo Daime community is indeed facing more and complex legal issues, causing difficulties that may become insurmountable if we lose sight of the human rights dimensions at stake. Through this short note, I wish to introduce the master’s thesis I wrote during the year of 2017. It attempts to shed some light on the historical and legal intricacies related to the religious use of ayahuasca in Brazil and Europe.

The Issue

Since 2001, the established legality of Santo Daime for the ICEFLU churches of Céu dos Ventos and Céu de Amsterdam served as a beacon of hope for its practitioners in the Netherlands, Europe, and abroad. The religious use of ayahuasca had been recognized as a genuine expression of faith and, in line with expert opinions, was considered harmless to public health within this religious context, and with the specific provisions the church had put in place. February this year marked a significant turning point, as the previously established religious freedom has suddenly been revoked. After 17 years of lawful presence and practice, the Court of Appeal of Amsterdam decided that a restriction on their right to use ayahuasca is “necessary to protect public health in a democratic society.” Despite the absence of any well-founded evidence to produce such a statement while bound by the European Human Rights Framework, its practitioners are now legally obliged to abstain from practicing their religion. 

legally speaking, the Santo Daime church in the Netherlands—after a period of 17 years of being considered a legitimate religious practice—could now be considered a transnational organization involved in the international traffic of drugs

Though legal processes are still playing out, and this decision is yet to be validated by the High Council of the Netherlands and, possibly, the European Court of Human Rights, the consequences of this judgement should not be underestimated. While already navigating the difficult waters of being a (foreign) religious minority using a psychoactive substance in their congregations within the European Union, its practitioners can now simply be regarded as “drug users” by authorities. Evidently, the stigma related to such an intimidating categorization of religious practitioners—and thus also their deep-rooted sense of identity—has a significant impact on the way daimistas conceive of their life and citizenship in the society in which they live, work, and grow as a minority. Besides the bearing this has on personal and collective well-being, criminalization and “exclusion” from society hold not only serious consequences for the religious community in question, but also specifically on the entire organizational framework and its transnational functions that would allow for an ethically and legally considerate way of producing, transporting, storing, and using ayahuasca by and within bona fideSanto Daime churches. In this case, legally speaking, the Santo Daime church in the Netherlands—after a period of 17 years of being considered a legitimate religious practice—could now be considered a transnational organization involved in the international traffic of drugs. In order to better understand the implications of this decision, it helps to get familiar with the history of Santo Daime and the legal processes related to its expansion outside of Acre, Brazil. 

A Double Paradigm: Drugs and Sectarian Organizations

comparative study shows that there is a tendency to accept questionable evidence in support of biases and prejudices towards such groups and their practices. These biases and prejudices, in turn, are intrinsically related to notions of “drugs” and “sects.” 

Written at the Center for Latin American Research and Documentation (CEDLA), this thesis briefly sketches this expansion and allows for certain conclusions to be made on the Belgian and Dutch cases that, although deplorable from a human rights perspective, do not come as a huge surprise. Western civilizations have a long history of promoting values and ideas that lead to—among various other atrocities—the persecution of alternative practices with spiritual and medicinal connotations. Such persecutions were, and are, always justified as a necessary “protective measure.” In the case of Santo Daime, who wouldn’t consider that the criminalization of a religious minority using a potent psychoactive beverage in their congregations can be justified for public health reasons? In certain cases, I would even be able to agree. Yet, agreement should always be based on reason, and reason to criminalize the use of a natural substance by a religious minority should be based on an earnest evaluation of facts and context. Unfortunately, my studies confirm that such an evaluation can easily be contaminated by the subjectivity of authorities and judges responsible for objectively balancing out the right to religious freedom and the protection of public health. More concretely, this comparative study shows that there is a tendency to accept questionable evidence in support of biases and prejudices towards such groups and their practices. These biases and prejudices, in turn, are intrinsically related to notions of “drugs” and “sects.” 

While it is agreed that drugs and sects form a genuine concern for public safety and health, both notions are instrumental in defining the limits of religious freedom within a given society while depending on the different historical (f)actors involved. From a European perspective, this is problematic, in the sense that a uniform applicability of the human right to religious freedom is absent. More strongly, the application of general principles related to this right have been particularly discarded by some, though not all, Dutch and Belgian courts deciding on cases related to Santo Daime. It simply seems that certain European countries, unlike Brazil,  are not keen to accept that the use of ayahuasca by a New Religious Movement can be a genuine and healthy expression of faith. In the deliberate exclusion of Santo Daime from society, flagrant procedural injustices and human rights violations have been committed by Federal Police units, Public Ministries, and judges.  

The Profanization of the Sacred

Due to these injustices, I conclude that European countries could learn a lot from the Brazilian legal processes concerning the use of ayahuasca. In Brazil, a 25-year long and multidisciplinary approach has allowed for an insightful assessment of Santo Daime, and earnestly debunked certain prejudices around the use of ayahuasca through dialogue and cooperation. Among others, it was considered sufficiently proven that the users of ayahuasca do not hallucinate and traditionally use it as a “tool” in the search of the sacred and self-knowledge. The national resolution governing the use of ayahuasca is subsequently based on ethical principles considered essential to warrant the integrity of cultural, spiritual, and religious traditions in which it is being used. Yet, how can European Santo Daime churches expect to engage in an equally earnest dialogue and cooperation with Belgian authorities who consider ayahuasca to be just as harmful as heroin (for example, the Belgian Public Ministry), or consider that the “users of this tea hallucinate” and could opt for yoga instead of Santo Daime (for example, a Belgian judge)? Dutch daimistasalso have every reason to be disheartened and offended. This because four requests (spread over a period of 17 years) for the arrangement of a mutually beneficial agreement with the Public Ministry on, among others, import, accountability, and transparency on all the churches’ activities related to money and ayahuasca, have been answered with radio-silence; this, while their religious freedom had been established through case law. Yet, confiscations of a legitimately imported sacrament continued as if somehow legitimate, and both the court and the Public Ministry have refused to acknowledge the legitimacy of a self-regulatory umbrella-foundation called the Centre for the Legal Assessment of the Religious and Ethical Integration of Ayahuasca (CLAREIA).This foundation was the fruit of a full years’ research, and offered total transparency and cooperation with authorities; the reason for which I happily—and upon request of church members—became a board member. It was supposed to be the absolute guarantee for the integrity of our religious practice. Now, it stands as a symbol of the injustice the Santo Daime community faces.

it is not within the authority of—primarily—judges to pass value judgements on the legitimacy of a religious activity they don’t really understand, nor wish to understand. That is where the observance of human rights law, dialogue and multidisciplinary research become imperative.

Through lengthy observation, study, and worry, I believe that the lack of a legal framework on the use of ayahuasca can partially be attributed to the authorities’ disbelief in the sacred, or the sacredness of the religious activities of Santo Daime. By categorizing the substance as a “drug,” or the religion as a “sect,” one inevitably implies that Santo Daime engages in harmful activities and thereby “profanizes” something that is sacred for others. This while, quite frankly, it is not within the authority of—primarily—judges to pass value judgements on the legitimacy of a religious activity they don’t really understand, nor wish to understand. That is where the observance of human rights law, dialogue and multidisciplinary research become imperative. It is also where the promise of a democratic, inclusive, and pluralist society is put to the test. So far, authorities are failing. My study attempts to support that statement and shed light on the errors of authorities.

The Need for a Legal Framework and Cooperation

“Any Santo Daime church can become a Harmful Sectarian Organization (HSO), but Santo Daime in itself is not. Just as one pedophile priest does not make the Holy See a pedophile organization, and just as one Muslim terrorist does not make the entire Muslim community terrorists.”

As mentioned, there are legitimate concerns regarding the harmfulness of ayahuasca practices when ethical principles are discarded by self-proclaimed church leaders or healers to the detriment of the personal autonomy or integrity of those partaking in their activities. For example, the commercialization of ayahuasca and its use together with other illicit substances have been categorized as major ethical misconducts in the Brazilian legal order and beyond. More recently, the question of abuse is one deserving of particular attention. Therefore, legitimate practices, such as Santo Daime, should be granted a legal framework in which they can differentiate themselves from (potentially) dangerous and unethical practices. This can guarantee the health and safety of its members, including from the repercussions related to the social and legal stigma of partaking in the ceremonies of an ayahuasca religion. This is particularly essential in the context of the so-called ayahuasca diaspora. If not, any individual might choose to establish a Santo Daime church under false pretexts and authorities risk projecting the harmful actions of a single person onto an entire religious community. As I concluded in my thesis, “Any Santo Daime church can become a Harmful Sectarian Organization (HSO), but Santo Daime in itself is not. Just as one pedophile priest does not make the Holy See a pedophile organization, and just as one Muslim terrorist does not make the entire Muslim community terrorists.” This should be well understood and approached with a genuine spirit of compromise towards a religious minority who have been offering full cooperation with authorities for over a decade. That is why I conclude that such efforts for cooperation should be seen as less restrictive means to an end; namely, safeguard public health while respecting both the religious freedom and the personal autonomy of daimistas.

We will see what the future holds.

Check Ben’s thesis here: Santo Daime in Brazil, Belgium and the Netherlands: The Transnationalization of a New Religious Movement and the Legal Issues Related to its Religious use of Ayahuasca