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How Should the World Approach Ayahuasca?


The Ethnobotanical Stewardship Council works to promote safer, sustainable ayahuasca use and protect indigenous communities.

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The Ayahuasca plant. Photo via Shutterstock

The Ayahuasca plant. Photo via Shutterstock

Ayahuasca, a hallucinogenic plant brew, has been used in shamanistic spiritual and medicinal contexts in South America for centuries. These days, its growing global popularity makes it an increasingly important part of the drug policy debate (although some aficionados would object to its being described as a “drug”). Given the special place ayahuasca occupies in indigenous cultures—and in the hearts of many other people who have found their experiences with it to be profoundly spiritual, emotional or healing—how should modern societies best regulate it, if at all?

Last night the Drug Policy Alliance hosted an event in New York City to explore such questions. “I’m excited for DPA getting more involved in this area,” said Ethan Nadelmann, its executive director. He stressed the importance of including ayahuasca in the drug policy reform conversation, given how governments are struggling to deal with it. “We want to do what we can to prevent any additional criminalization.”

The main speaker was Joshua Wickerham, the founder of the Ethnobotanical Stewardship Council (ESC), an organization working to promote sustainable, safe use of psychoactive plants and protect the communities that traditionally use them. Ayahuasca, he told us, is brewed from a combination of two plants, the vine Banisteriopsis caapi and the shrub Psychotria viridis—which contains the powerful, restricted hallucinogen DMT, resulting in international concern over ayahuasca’s legal status.

Although ayahuasca is specifically not banned by international treaties, the International Narcotics Control Board, a drug war-waging organ of the UN, has lately been “drawing attention” to ayahuasca, said Wickerham, who feels the INCB “has overstepped its bounds, because it’s a traditional medicine, not a narcotic.” Individual countries have adopted various approaches. Some, like France and the UK, have banned ayahuasca entirely, while others, like Brazil, the US and the Netherlands, allow its use for religious purposes only. In much of South America and in South Africa, ayahuasca is legal as a traditional medicine. Peru has declared this “wisdom plant” to be a “cultural patrimony.”

Wickerham talked of “a vision beyond prohibition” and of moving past harm reduction with ayahuasca and toward “benefit maximization.” He cited its longstanding spiritual and medicinal uses, and modern research into the ability of psychedelics to help people with conditions like depression and PTSD, among reasons for treating ayahuasca as a special case when it comes to regulation.

Danny Kushlick of the UK-based drug policy organization Transform, who was in the audience, responded to that, noting that other substances, such as cannabis, also have claims to be considered “special,” and that ayahuasca, for all its potential to help, has the potential to harm, too—a point with which Wickerham agreed. It was a reminder not to think in terms of “good” or “bad” drugs.

Wickerham estimates that around 100,000 people from the Global North travel to South America each year to take ayahuasca. The impact of these visitors on the communities they visit is a key ESC concern. Ayahuasca tourism has disrupted some societies, he said, for example when shamans leave their villages because they can make more money catering to tourists—leaving indigenous communities without a traditional doctor. The aim is to create and share tourism practices that are economically and environmentally sustainable.

The ESC is currently conducting dialogues with indigenous communities, other ayahuasca users, scientists, policymakers and other stakeholders in an effort to arrive at a consensus on best policy—including the degree to which ayahuasca should be regulated—and practice, modeled on successes in ayahuasca’s home continent. “We see the South American approach to ayahuasca as a potential model for other countries to follow,” Wickerham told Substance.com. “We see the Ayahuasca Dialogues as eventually providing a body of evidence that less restricted ayahuasca activity is overall safer than prohibition, is good for people and is good for the rainforests.” The ESC aims to produce a consensus document in 2016.

One result of these dialogues is the still-developing Ayahuasca Health Guide. A crowdfunding campaign to support some of the Ethnobotanical Stewardship Council’s projects will run until November 29.