In 2013, in the home of a Peruvian shaman, I had my first and only experience with ayahuasca. The potent psychedelic brew was every bit as intense as it was promised to be, and took me on a harrowing journey into the darkest recesses of my psyche, leaving me both haunted and comforted by visions of the afterlife. I don't consider myself to be a religious person, but the experience shook me, and I left the shaman with a completely new outlook on life (and death).
Despite its apparent therapeutic effects and long history of use in South America, ayahuasca is heavily policed outside of a handful of South American countries. This is because it contains dimethyltryptamine (DMT), a highly psychoactive substance that is legally considered to be without medical value in the United States and Europe. Nevertheless, the brew continues to flow from South America around the globe, destined for any of the dozens of ayahuasca churches or individual practitioners that have cropped up in the US in defiance of national law. Inevitably, these ayahuasca users end up being raided and arrested.
In spite of these arrests, relatively few people end up serving prison time for their involvement with the drug. This is, in part, due to the efforts of the International Center for Ethnobotanical Education (ICEERS), which has been fighting for the legal rights of ayahuasca users for over four years, and sees the legal acceptance of this psychedelic as a catalyst for more humane drug policies around the globe.
"The cultural dimension of ayahuasca really challenges the drug control system because it is much younger than these very ancient practices," Benjamin de Loenen, the founder of the ICEERS, told me. "Shamans have started traveling outside of their traditional territories sharing their culture and other people go there to learn from them, so we're starting to have a global, intercultural dialogue."
The Ayahuasca Defense Fund (ADF) was founded in 2015 as a branch of ICEERS, six years after they were solicited for advice following the raid of an ayahuasca ritual in Chile. After successfully helping the defense lawyers acquit the two Chilean men on trial in that case on the grounds of ayahuasca's therapeutic uses, De Loenen and his colleagues realized that this was a far from isolated incident. Indeed, between 2010 and 2015, there were 77 legal cases related to ayahuasca around the globe that were reported to the ICEERS—nearly 5 times as many as in the previous decade. Of these, 42 cases were in Spain, where ICEERS is headquartered.
This is somewhat surprising given that personal consumption of drugs in Spain is not a crime and the country provides "consumption rooms" for users. But according to Constanza Avilés, the coordinator of the Ayahuasca Defense Fund, Spain is also the gateway to the rest of Europe for drugs flowing out of South America.
"It's difficult to assess the reason for the increase in the number of arrests for ayahuasca," Avilés told me at the MAPS psychedelic conference in Oakland last month. "Ayahuasca isn't a priority for Spanish authorities, but Spain is a hub for controlled substances traveling to other European countries through South America. So when authorities receive this strange brown liquid, they test it, find DMT, and just follow the process they would for any other controlled substances."
In these cases, De Loenen and Avilés don't provide legal counsel themselves. Rather, the ADF serves as an educational resource available to lawyers handling ayahuasca cases, as well as a hub for these attorneys to network and help one another build their cases. So far, the ADF has been remarkably successful in their pursuit. They've yet to have a client they've assisted serve prison time for possessing ayahuasca and in many cases have helped set legal precedents for ayahuasca use in places such as the US, UK, and Spain.
According to Avilés, this largely has to do with ayahuasca's rather unique status among psychedelics. Unlike LSD, MDMA and other synthetic psychoactive drugs, ayahuasca has a history of indigenous use in South America which dates to long before the war on drugs and the resulting Convention on Psychotropic Substances. In 1971, the UN convened to draft a treaty banning many newly discovered psychoactive drugs that weren't covered during the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs a decade earlier.
This treaty internationally banned everything from LSD to amphetamines, but these bans didn't extend to plant material containing psychotropic substances. In other words, although DMT was made illegal under international law, plant substances, such as mimosa tenuiflora root bark used to make ayahuasca, were not. In fact, in 1986, a California entrepreneur patented the vine used in ayahuasca brews, a decision the US patent office later overturned after pushback from indigenous groups in the Amazon.
Despite ayahuasca's legality at the international level, in 2010 the UN-sanctioned International Narcotics Control Board (INCB) recommended that national governments consider criminalizing ayahuasca at a national level, which might partially account for the uptick of ayahuasca legal incidents seen by the ADF. This move was seen as illegitimate by many drug policy researchers and an affront to religious freedom. Indeed, it would be the spiritual dimensions of ayahuasca that would prove invaluable to its increasing acceptance as a religious and/or therapeutic substance around the globe. In 2005, the União do Vegetal, a Brazilian religion centered on the ceremonious use of ayahuasca tea, won a landmark court case in the US in which members of the church were allowed to continue to use ayahuasca on religious grounds.
For de Loenen, this is one of the many benefits of working to defend ayahuasca across the globe. Not only is it affording people a chance to experience what he considers to be a profound and natural plant therapy, but ayahuasca also functions as a sort of diplomat for the indigenous knowledge and culture of the Amazon.
"We are very afraid in our society of anything that alters consciousness, like psychedelics," said de Loenen. "But the popularization of ayahuasca goes hand in hand with the search for more natural approaches to health. These are plants that are totally integrated in traditional ritual systems and that makes people less afraid. If we can see the value of these traditional practices, they can slowly get integrated into other frameworks that really help to understand psychedelics in general in a better way."
CORRECTION (May 5 2017): An earlier version of this article's headline incorrectly implied that the Ayahuasca Defense Fund were lawyers, rather than a group that assists lawyers.