TAMPA — Since he was 17, Gustavo Vargas has taken part in spiritual ceremonies of the indigenous people of his native Colombia. The rituals involve music, star-gazing, and the drinking of a specially brewed tea.
The tea was where his troubles began.
Known as "ayahuasca" (pronounced "eye-uh-Wah-ska"), the concoction of South American plants contains a chemical called DMT — or dimethyltryptamine — which induces what users describe as psychedelic visions and hallucinations.
It’s illegal in the United States.
Last November, Vargas had four bottles of ayahuasca in his baggage when he flew to Tampa International Airport after a weeks-long jaunt to Colombia. He didn’t know he’d be arrested.
On Tuesday morning, he was sentenced to a year of probation, having pleaded guilty in U.S. District Court to possession of a controlled substance.
"I want to apologize," Vargas said through a Spanish interpreter. "I never had the intention to cause any harm to my country and to its people."
Vargas, 42, a dual citizen of the U.S. and Colombia, said he had intended to use the substance at a religious gathering in Miami between Native American Seminole and Cherokee tribes, according to a sentencing memo filed by his federal public defender. He described ayahuasca as a "gift from God" and a "gift that teaches about life and nature."
"He did not understand that the tea would be considered narcotics and he would be arrested," defense attorney Nicole Hardin wrote in the memo. "His aunt describes his involvement in the case as ‘very naive.’"
Federal prosecutors could have sought a short prison sentence but said in court they were fine with probation.
U.S. District Judge Mary Scriven also ordered Vargas to complete 100 hours of community service.
The sentence capped a most unusual case. Although DMT is a controlled substance in the United States, its relative scarcity and its connection to genuine religious practices make it difficult for law enforcement officials to treat it the same as common narcotics. Prosecutions are rare.
In 1999, federal agents seized several drums of ayahuasca from a New Mexico church, which was a branch of a Brazilian religious sect. Threatened with criminal charges, the church filed a lawsuit against the federal government, asserting their right under the First Amendment to use ayahuasca in spiritual sacraments.
The case went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which sided with the church.
The sentencing memo describes Vargas as coming from a "close-knit and deeply religious family." He came to the United States about 15 years ago. He worked three jobs, as a baker, a janitor and a dish washer, before suffering a work-related injury.
Several of Vargas’ relatives attended the sentencing hearing. They embraced him afterward outside the courtroom. He declined to speak with a reporter.
Contact Dan Sullivan at [email protected] or (813) 226-3386. Follow @TimesDan