Thanks to Health Canada, some folks in Quebec and Ontario are one step closer to finding god, as three more exemptions have been granted to religious groups to allow them to import ayahuasca, a powerful and controversial hallucinogenic, according to a report by Global News.
Many tourists travel to Indigenous communities in South America to try ayahuasca. But the hallucinogen remains banned in Canada and the US, despite many advocating for its legalization. The drug is said to have therapeutic and healing effects, and has been said to help fight various mental illnesses.
The brew, which originates from the Amazon, is used for religious and healing purposes in certain religious groups. It is banned in Canada due to it containing dimethyltryptamine (DMT) and harmaline, two prohibited hallucinogens.
In April 2018, VICE reported that two Montreal religious groups were exempt from the ban on importing the psychedelic tea, but it wasn’t without controversy. "Our legal counsel warned us of the unintended negative consequences of participating in interviews that could jeopardize our continued exemption by Health Canada," said the vice president of Céu do Montreal, one of the exempted groups, in an email to VICE in 2018.
Psychedelic drugs’ criminalization in Canada remains an issue that has sparked a movement for more humane drug policies, specifically targeting the legalization of psychedelics—following the legalization of weed this past October. It’s been widely reported that psychedelic drugs can help with mental health issues, like post-traumatic stress disorder and helping relieve people from the stress of being on the verge of death. It remains difficult to research the drug’s benefits while it is still being criminalized.
But their criminalization also remains a major religious freedom issue. "The freedom to practice our religion is still fragile in Canada, despite our new status,” the Céu do Montreal wrote to VICE.
The latest exemptions were granted to religious groups Ceu da Divina Luz do Montreal, the Église Santo Daime Céu do Vale de Vida in Val-David, Que. and the Ceu de Toronto. The exemptions last for two years and are renewable. A Health Canada spokesperson told Global News that the exemptions will provide members of the exempted groups with permission to possess, provide, transport, import, administer and destroy the tea, as long as it is being used within a religious setting.
Indigenous people have been using ayahuasca for religious, healing and spiritual purposes since before the arrival of colonizers in South America, and have been advocating for its accessibility to their groups in Canada since. Santo Daime was initially founded in the 1930s in Brazil, which has elements of Christianity, South American shamanism and African animism.
Before you go running to the Amazon to try it, the original practitioners of ayahuasca have had to deal with the influx of tourists coming to the Amazon to try it, unprepared. “There are serious travellers who understand the health benefits of this medicine, but there are also a lot of foreigners who see ayahuasca as an interesting way of getting high or drunk,” a former shaman of ayahuasca told VICE in 2016. “But if you're not prepared, if you don't follow the diet and don't know what you're doing, you cannot benefit from taking ayahuasca anyway. This way, a lot of people end up having bad experiences too.”
VICE reported that Canadian followers of these religions have fought for more than 15 years for the exemptions from the government. A battle in the US for religious freedom and the right to import the hallucinogen lasted a decade until 2004, when the US Supreme Court ruled in favour of the Beneficient Spiritist Center União do Vegetal an exemption.
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