What Is Santo Daime & Why Can It Legally Use DMT?

By Dan Simms Last Updated: January 13, 2024
Last Updated: January 13, 2024

In the United States, there are only two religious groups that can legally use ayahuasca — a natural drink containing DMT — as part of their religious ceremonies. 

One such group is Santo Daime, a 90-year-old religion from Brazil with roots in Catholicism and shamanism. The other group is the Uñiao Do Vegetal — also from Brazil. 

Here, we’ll explore who the Santo Daime are and why this group has been allowed to use DMT legally.

What Is Santo Daime?

Santo Daime is a religion founded in the 1930s by Raimundoi Irineu Serra in Brazil. It borrows elements from many other religions, including Folk Catholicism, African animism, and South American shamanism. Followers of Santo Daime are called Daimistas.

Practicing Santo Daime involves participating in group ceremonies with other followers. These ceremonies center around meditation, singing, dancing, and drinking ayahuasca, a tea-like brew that contains DMT. 

Santo Daime practitioners call ayahuasca Daime, and it is one of the core features of the religion.

Santo Daime has historically been mostly confined to South America, although it started gaining popularity in other cultures in the 1990s. It has recently experienced another surge in popularity due to renewed mainstream interest in DMT.

What Are Santo Daime’s Beliefs?

Santo Daime’s beliefs are an eclectic blend of philosophies from other religions, but the core tenets come from Christianity. Practicing Santo Daime involves many Catholic traditions, including starting and ending each ceremony with Christian prayers and reciting the rosary.

Santo Daime’s teachings require followers to live according to Love, looking to the lives of Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mary to guide them. The religion also emphasizes responsibility for one’s actions and encourages its members to live a moral life.

While much of Santo Daime’s iconography comes from Catholicism, some figures from South American shamanism also garner some attention. Ogum and Iemenjá feature heavily in Santo Daime’s belief structure, and much emphasis is placed on communion with nature. 

Daimistas worship the Sun, Moon, and Stars as symbols of nature and the human connection to the universe.

How Does the Santo Daime Practice Its Religion?

Santo Daime ceremonies begin with a Christian prayer, similar to how Catholic masses begin. However, unlike Catholic mass, Santo Daime rituals vary considerably. Some congregations prefer to practice silent meditation, emphasizing the internal aspects of Irineu’s teachings. Others embrace the communal values by singing and dancing, choosing to focus on our connections with each other and an overall sense of Oneness.

One of the most intriguing aspects of Santo Daime is the role of ayahuasca in ceremonies. Daimistas believe that ayahuasca gives them a better understanding of their place in the universe and makes them more humble. Devotees say that drinking ayahuasca enhances their communion with nature and provides deep insights into who they are.

How Is Santo Daime Related to DMT?

Ayahuasca contains DMT, a psychoactive compound that induces audio and visual hallucinations similar to those created by LSD (lysergic acid diethylamide) and psilocybin (from magic mushrooms).

DMT users say that the compound helps them feel more connected to nature and that it fosters a sense of connectedness to other people. Some people believe that DMT experiences offer users a new perspective on reality and the nature of the universe. Daimistas usually profess that drinking ayahuasca is a tool for introspection rather than a way to learn about reality.

Are Ayahuasca & DMT the Same Thing?

No. ayahuasca is a South American brew containing two or more separate plants. 

One of the plants contains DMT (usually Mimosa hostilis or Psychotria viridis), the other contains a monoamine oxidase inhibitor to allow the DMT to remain active. The MAO inhibitor component comes from a species of vine called Banisteriopsis caapi. Without the MAO inhibitor, the DMT would not be active in ayahuasca. 

What Does Ayahuasca Do? Why Does Santo Daime Use It in Religious Ceremonies?

Ayahuasca’s effects come from its natural DMT content. Drinking ayahuasca induces intense auditory and visual hallucinations that many people describe as seeming more real than reality. Not everyone experiences the same level of hallucinations. Some describe ayahuasca’s effects as more ethereal, saying they make them feel different emotions rather than cause them to see and hear things.

Daimistas say the visions and feelings from drinking ayahuasca bring them closer to nature and enhance their understanding of their egos. The ayahuasca ritual is thought to open the mind and spirit and help a person confront their place in the world and connection to other lifeforms.

Why Can Santo Daime Use Ayahuasca Legally?

Santo Daime is allowed to use ayahuasca as part of its ceremonies in the United States due to the protections afforded to religions under US law. Keep in mind that United States law protects Santo Daime practitioners’ right to use ayahuasca, not DMT.

The religious right to use ayahuasca despite it otherwise being banned for recreational use was upheld in the 2009 case Church of the Holy Light of the Queen vs. Mukasey. This is one of the only cases of a Santo Daime church fighting a legal battle to preserve its right to consume ayahuasca.

Outside of the United States, Santo Daime’s legal right to use ayahuasca varies by location. Santo Daime is granted legal exemption from laws banning ayahuasca in Brazil, Canada, and the Netherlands, but the situation is more complicated in Europe. France considers ayahuasca use illegal even if it’s used as part of a Santo Daime ceremony, while a 2006 ruling found ayahuasca use by Santo Daime members legal under Italian law.

Is Ayahuasca Legal for Any Other Religious Groups In the US?

Yes. The Uniao de Vegetal — commonly called the UDV — is also allowed to use ayahuasca during its rites and ceremonies. 

The UDV has fought several high-profile court cases to maintain its legal right to use ayahuasca. The 2006 Supreme Court case Gonzales vs. O Centro Espirita Beneficiente Uniao do Vegetal ruled that the UDV could continue to use ayahuasca, a ruling that indirectly benefits Santo Daime.

Summary: Santo Daime & Ayahuasca

Santo Daime’s popularity in the United States is mostly due to its use of ayahuasca and its DMT content. However, Daimistas will tell you that Santo Daime is more than a legal loophole for taking DMT.

The core principles of Santo Daime promote togetherness with nature, introspection, and a divine obligation to live a moral, just life. 

Many people who give Santo Daime a shot find it helps them live a more peaceful, less stressed. Santo Daime followers routinely say the religion has given them a better perspective on life, helping them organize their minds and see what really matters. Ayahuasca is just one piece of the puzzle.