MAPS Bulletin: Volume XXXIII Number 1 • 2023
7 April 2023
A Call for Public Support Against the Current Demonization of Ayahuasca Practices in Spain
By Bia Labate, Ph.D.; Henrique Fernandes Antunes, Ph.D.; Glauber Lourdes de Assis, Ph.D.; and Clancy Cavnar, Psy.D.
This article originally appeared on chacruna.net.
It is undeniable that that we are living in a psychedelic renaissance with a growing interest in the use of psychoactive plants, not only in Indigenous, religious, or neoshamanic contexts, but also in their therapeutic use (Labate & Cavnar, 2021a). This renaissance is associated, among other factors, with the world ayahuasca diaspora (Labate & Jungaberle, 2011; Labate et al., 2017; Labate & Cavnar, 2018), the global expansion of ayahuasca religions, and the insertion of Indigenous groups in urban ayahuasca circuits in South America and beyond. However, an increasing backlash has also emerged.
Its presence can be seen in the repercussions of the case of a YouTuber who infiltrated a Santo Daime group in Spain for nine months. During this period, he used a hidden camera to film private ceremonies without authorization. This YouTuber edited these recordings and published a very sensationalist and self-promotional video that garnered almost 600,000 views. He also filed a complaint for attempted kidnapping after being discovered by one of the members. Since then, he has been invited onto several TV shows, where he accused the Santo Daime of being a dangerous sect that brainwashes people and provides a number of illicit drugs without any health or safety precautions. In addition to the repercussion of the case, the public perception of ayahuasca got progressively worse, as raids and arrests of members of two neoshamanic groups took place shortly after.
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These circumstances have reignited the debate about the use of the beverage in the country, led by the sensationalist media coverage that frequently ignores the scientific data readily available. The allegations are the same: Ayahuasca groups are sects that use dangerous drugs to manipulate their adepts (or “targets”), commonly described as fragile and gullible people, for financial gain. The emergence of ayahuasca as a public health and safety issue, however, is not limited to the case of Spain. In March 2022, the Italian Ministry of Health issued a decree banning ayahuasca and its component plants, as well as its active constituents (Berazaluce, 2022a, 2022b, 2022c). The Italian government’s decision took Santo Daime members in the country by surprise, forcing them to hold their ceremonies drinking water instead of ayahuasca as a form of protest, as the União do Vegetal did in the United States during their court case.
Italy followed a similar approach to France. In 2005—just three months after the acquittal of a Santo Daime group in Paris who were accused of consuming and trafficking illicit substances—the French government, through the Ministry of Health, banned ayahuasca and the plants used in its making. In 2019, the leader of the same Santo Daime group acquitted in 2005 was arrested again. He was released on bail after being detained for four days. He is currently awaiting his trial, and he could be sentenced to several years in prison. In the French case, the ban of ayahuasca was assisted by the contribution of the MIVILUDES, the governmental Inter-Ministerial Mission for Monitoring and Combating Cultic Deviances (dérives sectaires), whose representative gave a presentation on ayahuasca during the meeting of The Commission of Narcotic Drugs that established the prohibition of ayahuasca in France (Bourgone, 2012; Novaes & Moro, in press). This unique partnership shows that ayahuasca is perceived and portrayed by public authorities not only as a health risk but as a dangerous social movement with sectarian tendencies. They suspect not only ayahuasca the drink, but the practices of ayahuasca groups themselves, without presenting any substantial evidence to support their claims. We cannot fail to mention the prohibition of ayahuasca by the Dutch courts in 2018, after almost two decades of the decision that allowed the religious use of ayahuasca by a Santo Daime church in the country (ICEERS, 2018)
Amid this scenario of arrests, prosecutions, sensationalist reports, and the dissemination of fear, distrust, and misinformation, it is necessary to approach the subject in a judicious way, leaving aside prejudices and preconceptions. It is crucial in a moment like this to analyze the accumulated knowledge on the subject of the religious use of ayahuasca (Labate et al., 2008), as well as to understand the contexts in which the regulation of the brew has occurred successfully, creating public policy models that can be studied and adopted in other sociocultural contexts.
The use of ayahuasca has not only been historically important for the Indigenous populations of the Amazon forest; it still holds a crucial role in identity and territorial processes, and in the development of organized social movements to preserve the forest and its traditions.
Despite the growing interest in ayahuasca in recent decades, its ritual use dates back to centuries ago. In fact, the first historical records of ayahuasca in the Amazon region date back to the late seventeenth century (Antunes, 2011). Historically, the Amerindian use of ayahuasca, present in Brazil, Peru, Bolivia, Colombia, Venezuela, and Ecuador, had several uses. Ayahuasca has been used to facilitate communication with spiritual realms and to explore relationships with the fauna and the flora of the environment. Shamans often drank it to diagnose and cure illnesses. It was also used for divinatory purposes. Ayahuasca was vital not only in shamanic practices; it was also a significant part of the sociocultural life of several Indigenous Amazonian ethnic groups (Luna, 1986).
The use of ayahuasca has not only been historically important for the Indigenous populations of the Amazon forest; it still holds a crucial role in identity and territorial processes, and in the development of organized social movements to preserve the forest and its traditions. This happened not only in Colombia, with the creation of an Indigenous association focused on the use of yagé, but also in Brazil, where a number of Indigenous ethnic groups established a political alliance to strengthen their cause regarding the Indigenous uses of ayahuasca. Since 2017, these groups have organized several Indigenous conferences on the subject (The representatives of the Indigenous Peoples of the Juruá Valley, 2020a, 2020b, 2020c, 2022).
In countries like Colombia and Peru, besides the Indigenous use of ayahuasca, there is also a form of folk medicine based on psychoactive plants, chants, and diets. These folk healers are called vegetalistas (Dobkin de Rios, 1972; Luna, 1986). Their practice is mainly found among rural populations who retained elements of ancient Indigenous knowledge about plants while absorbing some influences from European esotericism and urban environments. Particularly in Brazil, there was the unique development of a religious phenomenon centered on non-Indigenous populations who consumed ayahuasca, known as Santo Daime, Barquinha, and União do Vegetal. These religious groups, founded between the 1930s and 1960s, have reinterpreted local traditions with a strong influence of Christianity, incorporating elements of Amazonian shamanism, folk Catholicism, African-Brazilian traditions, and Kardecist spiritism, among other traditions (Labate, 2004). These groups have expanded throughout the early 1980s to some of Brazil’s major cities. In the early 1990s, these groups expanded to Europe and North America, mainly because of the influence of foreigners who discovered ayahuasca in Brazil and wanted to establish branches in their home countries.
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In addition to ayahuasca religions, anthropology has been noting, in recent decades, the emergence of new modalities of ayahuasca consumption in urban centers (Labate, 2004). Among the new uses, there is the use of ayahuasca in meditation sessions, in the treatment of drug addiction, in psychotherapy sessions, for artistic inspiration, and in group therapies. It is also possible to point out the intersection of ayahuasca with Afro-Brazilian religions and neoshamanism. The reinvention of the use of ayahuasca and the emergence of neoayahuasquero groups is part of the social and cultural process that unfolded during the expansion of ayahuasca religions. These elements circulated, mingling with the vegetalistas and Indigenous people in the large cities of South America where Amazonian traditions met local urban practices in a process that has led to alliances, exchanges, and new forms of ayahuasca use.
Although ayahuasca use by non-Indigenous people is a relatively new phenomenon, its development is associated with the emergence of a certain type of religiosity characteristic of urban centers, creating new networks, such as the neo-esoteric and therapeutic networks, that have gained their own autonomy within the New Age universe. On the other hand, many of these groups present an affiliation or some kind of connection to traditional ayahuasca religions, or to Indigenous groups, forming an intersection between urban networks and the traditional Amazonian uses of ayahuasca. In Brazil, the Federal Council on Narcotic Drugs (CONFEN) presented a report that found no evidence that the religious use of ayahuasca posed health risks or social harms (CONFEN, 1987). In the following decades, the public policies on ayahuasca moved progressively towards the recognition of the religious use of ayahuasca as a religious and cultural phenomenon protected by the Brazilian Constitution (Antunes, 2019; MacRae, 2014). In an historical decision involving scholars, scientists, jurists, public authorities, and representatives of the ayahuasca religions, the National Council on Drug Policy recognized the religious freedom of the use of ayahuasca in Brazil (CONAD, 2006, 2010). In the 2000s, the initiation of a process to recognize the religious use of ayahuasca as an “intangible heritage” of Brazilian culture, established by the Institute for National Historical and Artistic Heritage (IPHAN), marked an important change in Brazil. Ayahuasca would no longer be an object of drug policies; instead, it entered the realm of affirmative policies, attesting to recognition by the Brazilian government of the historical and cultural value of the religious use of ayahuasca in Brazil (Labate, 2010; Antunes, 2019; Labate & Assis, in press).
We must also highlight Peru’s recognition of ayahuasca as national cultural heritage. The heritage safeguarding in the Peruvian case aims to protect traditional and Indigenous uses of ayahuasca in the country. In Colombia, although there is no formal regulation of ayahuasca, various attempts at self-regulation have been made by Indigenous peoples, as well as administrative rulings legitimizing the use of yagé. Traditional Indigenous medicine and the Indigenous use of yagé became part of the country’s cultural heritage policy directives in 2009 (Labate & Assis, in press). There was also the creation of the Union of Indigenous Yagé Medics of the Colombian Amazon (UMIYAC). The Union developed The Code of Ethics For the Practice of Indigenous Medicine in the Amazon Piedmont of Colombia (UMIYAC, 2000), establishing a number of guidelines to prevent the commodification of traditional forms of yagé use (Caicedo-Fernández, in press). This self-regulatory measure was not an isolated case; on the contrary, it was preceded by the Declaration of Principles of the Religious Groups who Consume the Tea Hoasca, produced by ayahuasca groups in conversation with Brazilian authorities in the early nineties (Núcleo de Estudos Interdisciplinares sobre Psicoativos [NEIP], 2017). In Spain, the first activist group created around ayahuasca produced a similar initiative (Plantaforma para la Defensa de la Ayahuasca, 2009). Years later, UMIYAC published the Declaration from the Spiritual Authorities, Representatives, and Indigenous Organizations of the Amazon Region (UMIYAC, 2019). These cases prove not only the cultural and historical value of the use of ayahuasca, but they also demonstrate that it has a central role for a number of Indigenous and religious groups, not only socially and culturally, but also as a contemporary form of political expression.
Besides the important contributions of Indigenous groups and ayahuasca religions to advance the political agenda for the regulation of ayahuasca, NGOs, research institutes, and a number of scholars have also promoted the responsible use of ayahuasca and demanded its recognition. In that regard, one must highlight the Statement on Ayahuasca (Anderson et al., 2012), the Manual de Recomendaciones para el uso de la Ayahuasca (Gabriell, 2021), the Ayahuasca-Good Practices Guide (ICEERS, 2014), and the Ayahuasca Technical Report 2021 (ICEERS, 2021). The Chacruna Institute for Psychedelic Plant Medicines has also played an important role, not only through the development of The Council for the Protection of Sacred Plants, but also by publishing important guidelines for ayahuasca groups, such as 7 Best Practices for Ayahuasca Legal Harm Reduction, and the Guide to RFRA and Best Practices for Psychedelic Plant Medicine Churches. These initiatives are part of a collective effort to spread awareness about the responsible use of ayahuasca and to bridge the gaps between government, academia, and ayahuasca groups.
Besides these innovative examples, there are other important cases regarding the regulation of the religious use of ayahuasca outside South America. In the United States, the União do Vegetal and a branch of Santo Daime won the right to use ayahuasca in a religious context. The Supreme Court established a ruling in 2006 attesting that the federal government could not produce any evidence that the religious use of ayahuasca posed health or safety risks for its users, nor for the country. The Supreme Court, therefore, granted União do Vegetal the right to import and consume ayahuasca. Two years later, a Santo Daime branch in Oregon had a similar victory. Since these rulings, no legal issues have arisen in the country regarding União do Vegetal nor the Santo Daime branch. Sometime after, the DEA established an application process for groups that want to obtain a legal exemption for the religious use of ayahuasca. Canada has also granted five exemptions allowing groups to practice their religion without legal restrictions (Rochester, 2017). The first two exemptions were granted in 2017 by Health Canada to Santo Daime and União do Vegetal. So far, the majority of exemptions were given to branches of Brazilian ayahuasca religions; ironically, the same groups that are now targeted as dangerous sects in some European countries.
These examples highlight that ayahuasca can be successfully regulated, not only in countries where it’s use is part of the cultural practices of traditional populations, but also in very different social, cultural, and economic settings. The cases in South America, and the exemptions granted in the United States and Canada, are proof that compromises can be made; that there are possible ways to successfully regulate the use of ayahuasca, not only protecting the rights of ayahuasca groups and traditional populations, but also creating codes of ethics and guidelines for its responsible use. We should not fail to note that the International Narcotics Control Board (INCB) has declared that ayahuasca is not subject to international control, an involved discussion that we will not get into here (see Tupper and Labate, 2012).
It is also important to note that União do Vegetal contributed directly to the first biomedical research on the use of ayahuasca, the Hoasca Project, in 1993. The project compared the physical and psychological health of several members of União do Vegetal with ten years or more of ayahuasca use and a control group that had never taken ayahuasca. After several tests, the researchers concluded that there was no evidence that the use of ayahuasca in a ceremonial context presented any risks for ayahuasca users. This trailblazing project served as inspiration for a number of research projects that focus on the therapeutic potential of ayahuasca (Labate & Cavnar, 2014, 2021b). Some recent double-blind research has shown that ayahuasca could be useful for treating certain treatment-resistant diagnoses, such as depression, drug addiction, PTSD, and anxiety (Dos Santos, 2013; Palhano-Fontes, 2019).
This collection of examples of successful regulation processes, the scientific data on safety and effectiveness, and the findings of the academic literature on the use of ayahuasca points to the fact that, if done in a controlled environment with the guidance of experienced people, it is a benign practice that poses no harm nor risk to public health and safety. In light of recent events, and the ongoing stigmatization of ayahuasca, we hope that this article can serve as a call for ayahuasca groups, academia, international agencies, and national governments to open up a channel for dialogue and for change.
We cannot simply accept the fact that ayahuasca groups are being treated as criminals, having their homes and workplaces raided by the police with machine guns. The recognition and accommodation of minorities needs to part of the political agenda. While raids are being made, there are calls that are not being answered from these groups to start a dialogue with public authorities to establish guidelines for the regulation of the use of ayahuasca.
Ayahuasca is not a threat to public health and the ayahuasca religions are not criminal organizations. To treat legitimate faith practices from minorities of the Global South as international traffic of dangerous drugs is a violation of human rights and reveals a complete lack of anthropological sensitivity and a serious Eurocentric prejudice against other cultures.
“The recognition and regulation of the religious and traditional use of ayahuasca is not only a desirable goal, but a necessary one. The rights of religious and ethnic minorities cannot be ignored.
The prohibitionist bias linked to the stigma associated with ayahuasca groups as dangerous sects found in the media and proclaimed by public authorities serves only to obscure and exoticize religious minorities and traditional populations. In fact, the terms “sect” and “cult” are no longer used in the academic literature or by scholars of religion (Introvigne, in press). Abandoned by scholars, they have become accusatory and derogatory terms that frequently serve as tools to spread fear and prejudice and are used to constrain and control religious practices and to attack religious freedom. It is not a surprise, therefore, that these same notions are being used to classify ayahuasca groups and to justify repression of ayahuasca use in the alleged name of public order and health. We cannot abide by that. We are here to affirm the legitimacy of well-established cultural and religious practices and to defend the rights of traditional populations, bona fide religious institutions, and social minorities. The regulation of ayahuasca and the recognition of ayahuasca groups are not only desirable accomplishments, but necessary ones.
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Dr. Beatriz Caiuby Labate
Bia Labate) is a queer Brazilian anthropologist based in San Francisco. She has a Ph.D. in social anthropology from the University of Campinas (UNICAMP), Brazil. Her main areas of interest are the study of plant medicines, drug policy, shamanism, ritual, religion, and social justice. She is Executive Director of the Chacruna Institute for Psychedelic Plant Medicines and serves as Public Education and Culture Specialist at the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS). She is also Visiting Scholar at Naropa University’s Center for Psychedelic Studies. Additionally, she is Advisor at the Veteran Mental Health Leadership Coalition and at the Synthesis Institute. Dr. Labate is a co-founder of the Interdisciplinary Group for Psychoactive Studies (NEIP) in Brazil and editor of its site. She is author, co-author, and co-editor of twenty-six books, two special-edition journals, and several peer-reviewed articles (https:/bialabate.net).
Henrique Fernandes Antunes, Ph.D.
Dr. Henrique Fernandes Antunes is a postdoctoral researcher at the Centre d’Étude des Mouvements Sociaux (CEMS) of the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales (EHESS). He has Ph.D. in Anthropology from the University of São Paulo (2019), with a research internship as a visiting scholar at the University of California Berkeley. He holds a M.A. degree in Anthropology from the University of São Paulo (2012) and a B.A. in Social Sciences (2006) and Anthropology (2008) from the Universidade Estadual Paulista Júlio de Mesquita Filho (UNESP-FFC). He is a member of the research group Religion in the Contemporary World of the Brazilian Center of Analysis and Planning (CEBRAP). He is also a member of the Ayahuasca Community Committee of the Chacruna Institute for Psychedelic Plant Medicines, and a researcher at the Interdisciplinary Group for Psychoactive Studies (NEIP). He specialized in the fields of urban anthropology, anthropology of religion, anthropology of secularism, and sociology of public problems.
Glauber Lourdes de Assis, Ph.D.
Glauber Loures de Assis is a postdoctoral fellow at the Federal University of Minas Gerais (UFMG) in Belo Horizonte, Brazil, where he also earned a Ph.D. in sociology. He is also Research Associate at the Interdisciplinary Group for Psychoactive Studies (NEIP) and co-founder of the Center of Sociology Studies Antônio Augusto Pereira Prates (CESAP). He has developed research on Santo Daime groups from Brazil and Europe and has also studied the sociology of religion from a wider perspective. His main interests include the ayahuasca religions, New Religious Movements (NRMs), the internationalization of the Brazilian religions, and drug use in contemporary society. He is Associate Director of Chacruna Latinoamérica in Brazil.
Clancy Cavnar, Psy.D.
Clancy Cavnar has a doctorate in clinical psychology (Psy.D.) from John F. Kennedy University in Pleasant Hill, CA. She currently works in private practice in San Francisco, and is Co-Founder and a member of the Board of Directors of the Chacruna Institute for Psychedelic Plant Medicines. She is also a research associate of the Interdisciplinary Group for Psychoactive Studies (NEIP). She combines an eclectic array of interests and activities as clinical psychologist, artist, and researcher. She has a master of fine arts in painting from the San Francisco Art Institute, a master’s in counseling from San Francisco State University, and she completed the Certificate in Psychedelic-Assisted Therapy program at the California Institute of Integral Studies (CIIS). She is author and co-author of articles in several peer-reviewed journals and co-editor, with Beatriz Caiuby Labate, of eleven books. For more information see: http://www.drclancycavnar.com