Criminalization Makes It Harder to Study Ayahuasca, Scientists Say
It's an impediment to medical research on ayahuasca's potential to treat mental health disorders.
Painting of ayahuasca ceremony by Peruvian artist Pablo Cesar Amaringo | via Wikimedia Commons
For Isabelle, the need to seek out ayahuasca as an alternative form of treatment came after a long and continuous battle with an eating disorder growing up.
“When I was young I had experienced some trauma and abuse in my family, and I had a lot of resentment towards it, and I think it definitely contributed to my eating disorder,” Isabelle, 25, who works in the energy field in Toronto and has requested anonymity due to ayahuasca’s illegality, told VICE.
“I had tried a lot of external things for my mind to heal my eating issue, and none of them worked for me. I tried a lot of therapy, medication, drugs, diets—so many things,” she said.
In addition to practicing the 12-step program, Isabelle decided to incorporate ayahuasca into her recovery plan.
Isabelle explained how her first ayahuasca retreat took place in a private residence outside of Toronto, after being referred by a friend.
“I experienced quite out-of-this-world stuff. You have to see it to believe it,” she said. “The medicine stays with you after because you can’t deny some of the lessons you’ve learned from it—it’s not just, ‘I need to take shrooms for the day and have a good experience and that’s it.’
“It’s been five years now that I have not had symptoms of my eating disorder. On the mental side, ayahuasca has helped with that and also furthered me along a spiritual path,” she said, noting she undertook one more ceremony.
Eating disorders are among the most difficult mental disorders to treat, involving high rates of mortality. But a 2017 Canadian study found that the ceremonial use of ayahuasca on individuals diagnosed with eating disorders led to reductions in symptoms, with participants reporting that the drug altered their perception towards their physical bodies.
Researchers acknowledge that since there haven’t been any clinical trials and only qualitative studies on the connection between ayahuasca and eating disorders, we are very much in the preliminary stage of unraveling the psychedelic brew’s healing potential.
But the study highlighted the need for new and innovative approaches in treating eating disorders, including more research on traditional ayahuasca ceremonies.
Known today as one of the most potent hallucinogenic drugs in the world, ayahuasca was largely off the cultural radar until the past few decades, where it is gaining notoriety as an alternative form of therapy for addiction and mental health disorders.
But experts are arguing that the criminalization of the substance, as well as the challenges in getting government research grants, have made it difficult for the medical community to push forward research on its healing potential. (It’s a problem that scientists studying any controversy drug or subject often deal with.)
The psychedelic plant-based tea brew has been used for centuries by Amazonian Indigenous groups. While ayahuasca practices vary, they retain key traditional elements, such as taking place in a ceremonial group setting where individuals drink with a few experienced drinkers, otherwise known as “healers” or “shamans.”
In a global study published last week by the University of Exeter and University College London, researchers drew data from more than 96,000 people worldwide and found that ayahuasca is linked to improved wellbeing and holds potential as a treatment for alcoholism and depression.
Other research, such as a 2013 observational study of a rural First Nations community in British Columbia, have found that ayahuasca-assisted treatment is associated with positive and lasting changes in participants suffering from substance abuse and stress.
But amid legal challenges around the criminalization of ayahuasca, experts are highlighting the need for the traditional brew and its heritage to be incorporated into Canadian public health policy discussions.
Dr. Kenneth Tupper, director at the BC Centre on Substance Use, told VICE that what makes ayahuasca unique to other psychoactive drugs is its rich spiritual history and ceremonial aspects.
But he said the legality of ayahuasca use is a “major impediment” to determining how ayahuasca in its traditional form, can address mental health disorders.
“As a result, there’s no standardization or accreditation on who has done the training,” said Tupper. “It’s a bit of a wild west.”
Ayahuasca, which contains the drug dimethyltryptamine (DMT), is classified as a Schedule III drug in Canada, making it illegal. Other schedule III drugs include amphetamines, psychedelics and hallucinogens. According to the Canadian Controlled Drugs and Substances Act, those found trafficking ayahuasca could potentially face up to ten years in jail.
Those that want to conduct activities with ayahuasca, including studying its use in a clinical setting, need to apply for a Section 26 Class Exemption under the act.
In 2001, Céu do Montréal, a Santo Daime church in Quebec, applied to receive religious exemption under Section 26 to import and use ayahuasca in their rituals.
An investigation by Health Canada’s Office of Controlled Substances in 2008 found that the risks of ayahuasca are minimal when used in traditional ceremonial contexts and when participants were carefully screened. But when Health Canada provided a recommendation to exempt ceremonial ayahuasca use from the Canadian Controlled Drugs and Substances Act, the request was eventually denied by federal Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq, who cited that the brew “would not be in the public interest.”
In 2011, Health Canada sent a cease-and-desist order to physician Gabor Mate, who was experimenting with the ceremonial use of ayahuasca to treat addictions in a First Nations community.
Most recently, the Céu do Montréal was eventually granted a Section 56 Exemption in June 2017 - sixteen years after applying. But Tupper says there hasn’t been a similar pathway for the research community to access ayahuasca brews for clinical trials. He adds that some researchers expect the exemption process for medical purposes to be equal to, if not more difficult.
“It is theoretically possible to go about getting the necessary approvals,” he says. “But the regulation and protocols are not well suited to a traditional indigenous medicine.”
Tupper adds that the “amount of work and red tape” it would require to go through the exemption process makes it extremely difficult for researchers to study ayahuasca in its traditional forms.
While the regulation of ceremonial ayahuasca has not been clearly articulated in recent years, the Canadian government released a recent report exploring different approaches to legalizing the non-medical use of marijuana (which is currently illegal in Canada, except when used for medical purposes. It will be legal by next July) and other psychoactive substances.
While the report states that substances like ayahuasca “are currently planned to remain illegal” even in the context of spiritual or medical practices, it acknowledges that once marijuana is legalized, arguments may be made for other substances to follow suit.
Tupper explained that the road to becoming an ayahuasca healer requires a great deal of medical training and preparation, not unlike that of a medical doctor. Those who partake in traditional ayahuasca ceremonies must also engage in “rigorous periods of dieting, restrictions of foods like salt, alcohol and meats, and refraining from sex,” he said.
But ayahuasca’s criminalization has made it a mostly underground practice, contributing to “risks around the training and integrity of practitioners doing ayahuasca ceremonies…for instance, there have been accusations of sexual assaults on the part of practitioners,” Tupper added.
“In the Amazon, it’s the same way—some people are putting themselves out there as more knowledgeable in order to get tourist dollars.”
Tupper added that the need for more research also speaks to the limitations of modern medicine in treating a variety of illnesses.
While we are still at the early stages of unraveling ayahuasca’s healing potential, research is showing promising results, said Tupper.
“We need to recognize that ceremonial ayahuasca drinking is a different practice than Western approaches of addressing mental health issues,” he added.
“For some people, modern medicine is an effective treatment…but for many, they are not and we are in need of exploring further scientific research [to] clarify for whom and under what conditions ayahuasca can be used as a form of treatment.”
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