What is ayahuasca? Pastor of ayahuasca-based church reveals the history and truth behind the drug

Plant-based tea 'is not for everyone,' said Pastor Derek Januszewski of Maine

The pastor of the Pachamama Sanctuary in Casco, Maine told Fox News Digital that his congregation's worship practices are misunderstood and wrongly portrayed.

Unlike most churches, the Pachamama Sanctuary uses ayahuasca — a mind-altering drug — as a worship aid, something that is a longstanding tradition in some South American cultures.

Ayahuasca contains the psychoactive chemical dimethyltryptamine (DMT), which the Drug Enforcement Agency lists as a schedule one drug. Its use is legal in certain religious contexts. 

Ayahuasca has been in the news as many celebrities, including Aaron Rodgers, Prince Harry and Miley Cyrus, have spoken out positively about their experiences with the drug. 


After encountering zoning issues that complicated the operation, the Pachamama Sanctuary "took a hiatus" before purchasing the property in Casco. 

Its official reopening was Friday, August 11. 

"We serve a community, a pretty large community, of people that are looking to improve their connection with themselves and with God, or with their spirit," Januszewski told Fox News Digital in a phone interview. 

A group photo of the Pachamama Sanctuary

A group shot at the Pachamama Sanctuary. The religious organization recently moved to Maine after it encountered zoning issues in New Hampshire. Unlike most churches, the Pachamama Sanctuary uses ayahuasca — a mind-altering drug — as a worship aid, something that is a longstanding tradition in some South American cultures. (Pachamama Sanctuary)

Derek Januszewski, Pachamama Sanctuary's founding pastor, said he started the church in February 2019 in New Hampshire. 

"And we do that with the use of our sacrament, which is ayahuasca," he said.

It is that use of ayahuasca, a plant medicine from the Amazon region of South America, that has caused some to describe the Pachamama Sanctuary as "controversial." But Januszewski rejects that label. 

picture of decorated fireplace

The inside of the Pachamama Sanctuary; the church is located in Casco, Maine. The church uses ayahuasca as its "sacrament." (Pachamama Sanctuary)

"I don't think there's any controversy," he told Fox News Digital. "I think that there's sort of a shortage of education."

Ayahuasca has "been used for thousands of years," he said. 

"It's two plants that are boiled together to make a tea." 


That tea "creates a mystical, spiritual" effect that some describe as a psychedelic or hallucinogenic, said Januszewski. 

"Hallucination" is not an entirely correct description, he said, although it is a deeply spiritual experience. 

"You don't hallucinate — like, little green men running around or anything silly like that."

"Hallucinogens kind of indicate ‘hallucinations' — and that doesn't happen with this medicine," he said. "A hallucination would be like seeing something that's jut not real." 

Instead, after consuming ayahuasca, a person may experience "visions," said Januszewski. 

"These visions are representations of things that are real. Usually it's attached to some form of healing or trauma or growth opportunity that we either have experienced or need to experience." 

He added, "So you don't hallucinate — like, little green men running around or anything silly like that."

tea leaves on spoon

Ayahuasca is typically consumed as a brewed tea. Dried ayahuasca tea leaves are shown here. Januszewski, the founding pastor of the Pachamama Sanctuary in Casco, Maine, told Fox News Digital that he does not photograph cups of ayahuasca tea, as he considers them to be sacred. (iStock)

"It's a very powerful medicine and it shows us things that we avoid, that we hide from, that we hide ourselves from because our ego likes to block a whole bunch of stuff that would cause us pain if we actually interacted with it." 

These feelings include painful emotions such as grief, shame, guilt or resentment — things Januszewski says the human ego can prevent a person from experiencing in an effort to protect the psyche. 


"This medicine removes the ability to look away," he said. "It removes the ability to lie to ourselves." 

Januszewski first got involved with ayahuasca in an attempt to treat his own struggles with addiction. 

Before he was introduced to ayahuasca, he was not overly religious or spiritual.

"I knew God was there, but He and I didn't do business," he told Fox News Digital. 

man in poncho playing small guitar

Shamans, such as Juan Carlos Arkawa, pictured here, are the ones who prepare and administer the ayahuasca tea, said Pastor Januszewski.  (Pachamama Sanctuary)

Ayahuasca "does not heal anybody," he said. It "doesn't heal anxiety, depression, PTSD."

Instead, ayahuasca "allows us to remember that we can heal ourselves in these things. So getting closer to God is the way to do that." 

As he is not from South America, Januszewski does not feel comfortable actually brewing and serving the ayahuasca tea at his retreats.

placeholder"That is not my life path. That is not what I do," he said.


Indigenous "shamans" from the Amazon, who "have been passed the correct wisdom and training down from their elders," actually serve ayahuasca. 

"My role is to put the shamans and the people who need healing together," said Januszewski. "That's it." 

And while Januszewski said he is a strong proponent of the use of ayahuasca, he is careful to note that the drug "isn't for everybody." 

He also said, "It's not a fad. It's not something to do because they saw [that] Machine Gun Kelly and Megan Fox did it."

Megan Fox and fiance Machine Gun Kelly

Megan Fox and Machine Gun Kelly made headlines in 2021 when they discussed their experiences with consuming ayahuasca. (Lester Cohen)

Machine Gun Kelly and Megan Fox made headlines in 2021 when they described their experience using ayahuasca. 

More recently, NFL quarterback Aaron Rodgers has spoken positively about his use of ayahuasca.  

Jansuzewski said people should use ayahuasca only if they feel they're being called to do so, "not because their friends are doing it or anything like that." 

"Additional physical side effects include increased blood pressure, vomiting and dilated pupils."

He said, "And because it's not for everyone, it might look a little odd or different."

Januszewski said he encourages people to consider the medicine with an "open mind" — and to understand that it may have positive effects on a troubled society.

"All of the stuff that we see out there that's uncomfortable today in society … People that sit with this medicine ultimately become more positive members of whatever community they're in," he said. "It's almost always that." 

Some concerns, says clinical psychology professor

Dr. Joseph Troiani, an associate professor of clinical psychology at Adler University in Illinois, told Fox News Digital that there are some concerns that the consumption of ayahuasca is unsafe, but that there have been positive interactions as well.

Aaron Rodgers practices at the Jets facility

New York Jets quarterback Aaron Rodgers has been an outspoken user of ayahuasca. On Sept. 11, 2023, Rodgers' first regular-season start with the Jets came to a halt when he tore his Achilles in Week 1. The star quarterback has since undergone surgery and has started rehab, as Fox News Digital previously reported. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

"The side effects [of consuming ayahuasca] include hallucinations and tremors, and additional physical side effects include increased blood pressure, vomiting and dilated pupils," said Troiani, who added that there have been "life-threatening side effects and even death" associated with ayahuasca use. 

"Individuals experiencing anxiety have also reported additional side effects; others may experience mental health symptoms with its use," he said. 


Not everyone experiences negative side effects, however, said Troiani. 

"People who have taken the drug have reported an improvement in their psychological health, including some reporting a reduction in depression," he said. 

"Additionally, recent research reports that there are health benefits, such as improved brain health resulting from its use. Other reports state that there are long-term life-altering changes that result from the taking of this drug." 

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