As Ayahuasca Use Spreads, How Do We Keep It Safe And Sacred?

"Ayahuasca prep" by Terpsichore - Own work. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 via Wikimedia Commons


by April M. Short

on November 19, 2014

In pursuit of connection, healing, adventure and spiritual enlightenment, covert travelers meet in basements and living rooms from London to New York, Sydney to San Francisco to sip the psychedelic brew called ayahuasca. Then, they vomit and have intense visions for hours as a guide, or ayahuascero, conducts a ceremony. Some say the brew can heal cancer, anxiety and post-traumatic stress. Others say it connects them to all that is, to Mother Earth, to God. Many compare it to 15 years of therapy in a single night.

On top of the hundreds of thousands of people who are flocking to South America each year to partake in ayahuasca ceremonies in the traditional setting, the sacred tea-like medicine is rapidly making its way from its ancient home in the jungles of the Amazon, across the globe. CNN sent reporter Lisa Ling to the Amazon for a special about the brew that ran in October, and Bob Morris penned a New York Times feature in June, centered around ayahuasca ceremonies in Brooklyn.

As Morris put it, ayahuasca appears to play a coveted role in this overtly digital age. He wrote:

“In a world increasingly dominated by screen time, not dream time, it is not surprising that many people, having binged on yoga and meditation for years, are turning to a more dramatic catalyst for inner growth. But those who swear by ayahuasca’s usefulness…also caution that it has to be treated seriously, calling their experiences while under its influence ‘work’ because, in addition to causing them to vomit and sometimes have diarrhea, it can be frightening and challenging to the psyche.”

For centuries, and perhaps millennia, the indigenous peoples of the Amazon have used the psychoactive medicine under the supervision of maestros (teacher-healers, often dubbed “shamans”) in healing ceremonies. These ceremonies adhere to guidelines and principles passed down through the ages –– including a strict diet for weeks leading up to the ceremony. Ceremonies are conducted by individuals with years of experience with the plant medicine. But, as ayahuasca’s worldwide use soars, whispers of false-shamans and untrained ayahuasceros set on making money off of vulnerable Westerners are circulating. The apparent need for better guidelines and scrutiny  has both the traditional stewards of the brew, and those at the forefront of global drug policy, raising questions about how to ensure its responsible use going forward.

Legal Ambiguity

Depending on where you are in the world, ayahuasca’s legality varies.

In Peru it is legal, viewed as a medicine and protected as part of the nation’s cultural heritage. In Columbia, indigenous groups are charged with vetting healers and recognizing only those with the proper accolades via an intricate internal system. Throughout South America, a variety of rules account for its use in a traditional, cultural context.

France has labeled ayahuasca a cult and prohibited it, and in a majority of developed nations, ayahuasca’s legal status is ambiguous at best, and often prohibitionary. In the U.S., following major court decisions in 2006 and 2009, it is allowed only for specific religious purposes with strict parameters.

Internationally, its status is not so vague. While the plants used in ayahuasca admixtures are not illegal according to international conventions, their combination is. According to the UN Convention on Psychotropic Substances (CPS), ayahuasca is technically illegal because it contains the Schedule I substance DMT, which is responsible for the drug’s psychoactive properties. As Joshua Wickerham pointed out at an event hosted by the nation’s leading drug law reform group Drug Policy Alliance (DPA) on November 11, that logic is a bit absurd since the human body also contains DMT.

“So we’re all illegal according to the international drug conventions,” Wickerham, who is executive director of the Ethnobotanical Stewardship Council (ESC), told the crowd. The ESC is a nonprofit organization that, on its website, describes its mission as “assuring the sustainable and safe use of traditional plants, and enriching the communities who work with them.”

Wickerham said the International Narcotics Control Board (INCB), the UN’s “quasi-judicial body” charged with implementing drug treaties has recently set its sights on ayahuasca.

“I feel that the INCB has clearly overstepped its bounds, because ayahuasca is a traditional medicine,” he said. “It’s not a narcotic, it’s not being trafficked at scale and the benefits are larger than the harm.”

Regulating Ayahuasca?

The event, titled, “Peeking Beyond Prohibition: Emerging Ayahuasca Policy Innovations,” was focused on discerning potential modes of regulating and ensuring the safe use of ayahuasca. It was organized around the realization that the future of ayahuasca policy is currently up in the air due to its expanding popularity.

As the DPA explained in a press release about the event, there are several ways to go about regulating a substance like ayahuasca:

“On one side is the prohibitionist model of some governments. On the other end of the spectrum is the lack of regulation in the Amazon. Yet in the middle area there’s a range of policy options that recognize traditional practices and that provide a framework for community self-governance.”

Jag Davies, publications manager for the DPA, said in an interview with that ayahuasca is in a unique position: Unlike many psychedelics and other drugs, its traditional uses are well-preserved and continue to be practiced. And, since it causes intense, painful purging, nobody’s likely to argue that it’s a party drug –– which is the main rationale the U.S. and other governments used to prohibit LSD, psilocybin mushrooms, MDMA and other psychedelics.

Davies has worked for drug policy reform for over a decade, and previously worked at the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), a nonprofit at the global forefront of education and research on psychedelics. He said a side project of his at DPA has been finding an overlap between policy and research when it comes to psychedelics, and ayahuasca appears to be in its own category where both are concerned.

“With ayahuasca there’s this total policy vacuum, and the medical research doesn’t fit the medical model,” he said. “There haven’t been a lot of instances of these [ayahuasca ceremonies] being raided but it is in sort of a legal grey area, and there’s a lot of ethical gray area there too.”

He noted that there is a glaring lack of go-to guidelines for Westerners to assess ayahuasca ceremonies, and the influx of travelers is “effecting a lot of people in South America in different ways,” with unintended consequences.

For that reason, earlier this year he encouraged his boss and executive director of the DPA, Ethan Nadelmann, to focus more attention on ayahuasca and the potential for shifting policy therein. So far, the DPA has seen little traction when it comes to involving psychedelics in the drug policy reform conversation. However, Nadelmann said after he attended the World Ayahuasca Conference in Ibiza, Spain he became convinced that drug policy reform can pay a useful role when it comes to ayahuasca.

“Our mission is driven to some extent by whenever government…is discriminating against people based on their use of a psychoactive substance,” Nadelmann said. “Whether it’s methamphetamine or mushrooms, whether it’s cocaine or marijuana or ayahuasca, that is a potential area where the DPA is going to work. And then we look for, where’s the niche, where can we make a contribution in this area?”

People have safely used ayahuasca for hundreds if not thousands of years, and fatalities in any way connected to ayahuasca are extremely rare. However, as with any popular activity, there are bound to be some isolated tragedies. There are numerous reports of women being violated by so-called shamans during ceremonies, and occasional instances of injuries and accidents in the jungle. The tragic, unexplained death of 18-year-old Kyle Nolan while staying in the Amazon for an ayahuasca ceremony caused a media uproar over ayahuasca earlier this year. Nolan’s death was never directly linked with ayahuasca, but the story drew international attention. Davies said as millions of unprepared travelers venture to South America, he thinks it’s inevitable that there will be more isolated tragedies, so “we need to be prepared to show that we’re creating some system for accountability –– that it’s not totally out of control and dangerous.”

Ethnobotanical Stewardship

Jag Davies said a good first step to help ensure the safety of people trying ayahuasca in the U.S. and elsewhere is to publish official health and safety guidelines for ceremonies, which is one of the first projects of the Ethnobotanical Stewardship Council (ESC).

When he first met Joshua Wickerham of  ESC several years ago, Davies was impressed. Wickerham’s background is in sustainable development, primarily focused on food policy.

“He’s been bringing his background in food policy to this issue, and building a whole new model for regulating drugs that’s very ‘from the ground up,’” Davies said. “It’s not governments coming in and saying ‘This is how you do it.’ It seems like exactly what is needed.”

Wickerham said during his talk that one of his goals for ESC is to help strengthen the ayahuasca community at its base, meaning the communities in the Amazon, so that their traditional knowledge about the brew remains intact as it makes its way into the rest of the world. Another goal is to ensure sustainable practices that don’t threaten the habitat of the Amazon where the plants used to make ayahuasca live.

“ESC’s vision is a world beyond prohibition,” Wickerham said. “We estimate that there are over 100,000 people going to the Amazon every year to drink ayahuasca, and that’s putting tremendous strain on the way ayahuasca was used traditionally. Our mission is to transform the lives of people all along the value chain…–people who drink all the way to the people who cultivate and offer ceremonies– so that they’re benefiting from these activities.”

Wickerham said the idea is to “maximize the benefits and minimize the harms.”

ESC is starting at the ground level, inside of ceremonial spaces, “making sure they’re safe.”

Their first major project involves creating a dialogue between all of the various stakeholders: healers, seekers, policy makers, indigenous groups, and so on.

Through the dialogue, the ESC plans to create a consensus among those groups, called the Ayahuasca Agreement. Parties who enter the agreement will do so completely voluntarily, and the ESC will recognize good practices in centers, communities, or cultivation sites that approach the ESC.

They’ve already spent a year and a half traveling the world, asking the relevant players about their safety and sustainability concerns. They hope to catalogue those concerns and establish the Ayahuasca Agreement by 2016.

Wickerham said recognizing safe ayahuasca ceremonies depends a lot on feedback from visitors.  ESC is using surveys, and working to educate local NGOs about what’s happening in the ayahuasca world. They’ve also got a network of “mystery shoppers” in place, meaning people who know a little about sustainability and safety who attend ayahuasca ceremonies undercover, than assess them.

“Once we have [the Ayahuasca Agreement], we want to build the capacity for communities and centers to be able to implement the Ayahuasca Agreement consistently, and have consistent, safe and sustainable practices,” he said.

Wickerham said one of the reasons he founded ESC is that “ayahuasca’s reputation is at risk” as it becomes more and more widespread, and removed from its traditional context.

“We want to achieve sustainable and safe outcomes on the ground, keep people safe and protect the reputation of ayahuasca,” he said. “And we need to see how the changes are evolving over time, and then change our system to maximize those positive impacts. We hope…through collecting evidence on the ground where ayahuasca is legal, that we can have this body of evidence that we can take to policymakers –– through the DPA and other policy-oriented organizations –– and say, ‘Hey, South America is managing ayahuasca just fine.’ Actually, it would reduce harm, it would maximize benefits if we took a different, non-prohibitionary approach.”