Date of Award

May 2023

Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy



First Advisor

Ingrid Jordt

Committee Members

Kalman Applbaum, Thomas Malaby, Benjamin Campbell


Altered States of Consciousness, Ayahuasca, Entheogens, Law, Psychedelic Justice, Soul Quest Church of Mother Earth


This dissertation examines the process by which Soul Quest Church of Mother Earth Inc., an ayahuasca church, in Orlando, Florida, seeks to become a legal church in order to be exempted from the Controlled Substances Act of 1970 which classifies DMT, the psychedelic by-product of the boiled ayahuasca vine and chacruna leaf, as an illicit substance. The three-year study charts the process by which Soul Quest undertakes to demonstrate their practice and belief in terms that will conform to the State’s idea of what “church-ness” looks like and how sincere belief should be demonstrated in terms the law will find legible. In the process, Soul Quest is compelled to make a series of situational adjustments to their practices and front-facing self-presentation in order to perform “church-ness,” which the DEA ultimately reads as insincere and uses as the grounds for denying exemption. Soul Quest then sues the DEA for being insincere in their own arbitrary process for denying Soul Quest exemption, arguing that the DEA does not have the right in any kind of statute or law to decide what sincerity is or what a religion is. In the case of Soul Quest v. the DEA we see that the lines between the secular and religious are increasingly blurred and entangled and are not mutually exclusive. Drawing on ethnographic fieldwork at Soul Quest where ayahuasca ceremonies take place, online, where Zoom integration sessions are held, through court documents drawn from the court case and through an account of the broader cultural context of the psychedelic decriminalization movement in the United States, I show how the social meaning and identity of ayahuasca is entangled and contested on multiple registers. I show how the State tacitly regards rights to exemptions to use entheogens according to an exceptionalism based on racial ideas and on the exceptionalism extended to combat vet’s experiences as hallowed testimony in the face of high suicide rates and intractable PTSD. I argue that at the heart of these various contests and meanings is the question over how altered states of consciousness are to be reckoned with as a social fact.