In late 2009, a 20-man SWAT team burst into a therapy center in Santiago, Chile. After breaking windows and kicking in a door, the armed policemen ordered a shocked group of ayahuasca ceremony participants to get on the floor. Shaman César Ahumada and an assistant psychologist who was also present were then apprehended and charged with drug trafficking.
Soon after the raid, three different people contacted The International Center for Ethnobotanical Education, Research and Service (ICEERS), an organization dedicated to scientific exploration, education, risk reduction and policy reform related to such plants as ayahuasca, peyote, San Pedro cactus, iboga, and cannabis. ICEERS responded by offering technical advice on ayahuasca.
Through a solid defense strategy and a lot of endurance, the defendants won the case after a two-year legal battle. In a historic ruling, the judge not only acknowledged ayahuasca’s legal status in Chile (according to U.N. lists, it is not under international control), but also determined that it had been beneficial to the ayahuasca session’s participants. ICEERS captured the entire event on film, using key parts of the footage in an online video clip. At a time when ethnobotanical-related arrests were on the increase (Spain alone has seen nearly 40 such busts in the past five years), people in need of legal defense began to find ICEERS via the trailer.
One year after that trial ended, the Public Health Institute of Chile attempted to ban ayahuasca. This was largely in reaction to the horrific actions of an apocalyptic cult, whose leader reportedly drank the brew. In an effort to keep the historic 2012 court victory from being overturned, ICEERS worked with eight of the world’s most important biomedical researchers in the field of ayahuasca to compile a technical report that helped Rodrigo González, one of the lawyers who fought the case, persuade the Public Health Institute to abandon that plan. The same report became an important tool used in subsequent court cases, along with a letter from the International Narcotics Control Board, which states that international law does not prohibit DMT-bearing plants like ayahuasca.
ICEERS — which was initially established in the Netherlands in 2009 — now has an office in Barcelona, Spain and has helped defendants in about 25 different cases in EU countries like Switzerland, Belgium, and Denmark, as well as Spain. In such situations, the organization compiles technical reports, provides expert witnesses for testimonies, and helps the defendants with strategy and preparation.
While raids of ayahuasca sessions have occurred in areas like Argentina and Chile, this is still fairly uncommon. Most of the cases involve the importation of ayahuasca. In some instances, disciples of shamans who brew their ayahuasca in Peru have had the tea confiscated at customs or intercepted while it was being shipped home. In other cases, traditional practitioners have been caught sending the brew to someone’s house while traveling to other countries.
ICEERS’ executive director, Benjamin De Loenen, notes that users of psychoactive ethnobotanicals are encountering increasing resistance from the International Narcotics Control Board, whose 2010 and 2012 reports invited governments to make these plants illegal where needed in their countries. “The legal pressure and the questions about the validity of these practices have increased over the years,” De Loenen tells Reset. “I think it’s important to make sure that they don’t become pushed in a criminal environment in the drug control system. What we’re talking about here is a cultural practice, a ceremonial practice, where these plants are one element of a carefully constructed context of use.”
According to De Loenen, prosecuting attorneys typically disregard the role that ayahuasca plays in a much broader ceremonial practice. “When the case goes to court, what the prosecutor always does is completely decontextualize something that, for a lot of people, is a tool for improving something in their life or for having access to the divine — a spiritual, religious practice,” he says. “They reduce that to this concept of somebody just selling psychoactive substances to somebody else, and then they all get high on it.”
ICEERS’ experts choose their terminology carefully to allow ‘outsiders’ like judges or policy makers to better understand the underlying issues. Rather than describing plants like ayahuasca as medicines, they refer to them as tools for personal development and for therapeutic use. “I think talking about ayahuasca or peyote as a medicine is problematic, because that word, medicine, is [interpreted under] the paradigm of Western medicine,” De Loenen states. “To be able to claim that something is a medicine, it should be approved [after passing] phase I, II, and III clinical trials.” He cites one arrestee in Argentina who was accused of practicing therapy without a license: “Because they talk about ayahuasca as ‘the medicine,’ [authorities] saw that as false therapeutic or medicinal practice,” he explains.
Another way in which prosecutors denigrate the use of ayahuasca is by referring to the plant’s active ingredient, DMT, as opposed to the plant itself. “They say that the whole concept of alternative therapy or medicine, the rituals, nature, and all that comes with ayahuasca, this whole worldview, is basically an excuse for people to have access to what they sometimes even call a ‘new’ psychoactive substance — as if this was a new thing,” De Loenen notes. “The use is becoming more popular — maybe that’s a relatively new thing — but, of course, it’s quite an old material we’re talking about. So a lot of the legal defense is really re-contextualizing, [showing] that what we’re talking about here is a valid cultural practice or religious practice.”
ICEERS is currently in the process of establishing a legal defense fund to unite the best legal expertise. De Loenen says, “It aims to provide information about legal protection to practitioners in order to reduce legal risks; to generate positive legal precedents through the highest level legal defense for those persecuted; it will closely monitor legislation, new arrests, and tendencies per country and internationally and compile it all into a database and interactive world map to be made available online; it will promote ethical guidelines and best practices for practitioners and the rest of the community. Furthermore it will be a platform to counter sensationalist media coverage of arrests and the plants in general; and constructively engage with policy makers to move towards legal frameworks for their use.”
Near the end of January 2016, people can begin contributing to the fund via the website teacherplantdefense.org. At that time, ICEERS will also begin publishing information to educate site visitors on the subject of teacher plants and to help them avoid legal problems. By clicking on their own country on an interactive map at the fund’s website, viewers can get information on past arrests, trial outcomes, and region-specific legislations for practices related to these plants.
Donations will also go toward the writing of technical reports about the science behind ayahuasca, as well as its effects, safety, risks, and potential benefits. “It’s basically trying to take all that very scientific language and publications and turn them into materials that can give a judge confidence about the fact that ayahuasca is not a substance of high risk or a threat to public health,” De Loenen explains.
ICEERS also hopes to curb malpractice on the part of teacher plant workers, with sexual abuse at the very top of that list. “All of that can really harm, first of all, the image of the use of these plants, but also the people who participate in those ceremonies,” De Loenen offers. In an effort to raise the minimum standards of care and ethics for people working with ethnobotanicals, ICEERS will post guidelines to which all practitioners must adhere in order to be eligible for this fund’s resources.
“I hope it will stimulate ethical, responsible behavior,” says De Loenen. “That’s what’s most [legally] defendable — when you can show that there was a lot of human care; when people didn’t just accept anybody, but really knew what the medical history and mental health of the participant was.”
De Loenen takes a big-picture view of ethnobotanical-related court battles. “We have to stop thinking, ‘Well, I’m in the U.S., I don’t really care what’s happening in Spain or Switzerland,’ or the other way around,” he notes. “If you properly defend a case and win it, like in Chile, that outcome and the process of that court case can later on serve in other countries. I really feel that a good defense and a victory in a case is a victory for the whole community.”
Updated on November 11 to clarify the nature of ICEERS’ work and their involvement in the cases discussed.