Ayahuasca and the Vines of Politics
After bubbling and brewing away for millennia in the Amazon, ayahuasca began seeping out through the foliage at the turn of the 20th century. This powerful visionary tea was adopted by rubber tapper communities in what is now the Brazil-Bolivia-Peru borderland, and various sects emerged, including Santo Daime. A syncretic mix of Catholicism, Spiritualism, and indigenous shamanism, it spread to the rest of Brazil in the 80s, and today there are groups dotted around Latin American, Europe, and the US, as well as in Japan, India, Israel, and other places[i]. This article focuses on the legal history of Santo Daime (SD), of which I am a member, though other lineages also have international profiles, the most widespread being the União de Vegetal (UDV).
Ayahuasca contains N,N-Dimethyltryptamine (DMT), which is internationally scheduled under the Convention on Psychotropic Substances. DMT-containing plants, however, are specifically exempted, and “preparations of these plants, including ayahuasca… are not subject to the articles of the 1971 Convention”[ii]. Despite occasional arrests in mainland Europe and the US, that position generally held, and SD groups operated discreetly and unmolested in the British Isles since the mid-1990s. In August 2009, however, customs officers in England and across Europe began seizing ayahuasca and its raw ingredients at borders, and also material used to make pure DMT.
Media interest in the UK began in 1996. A journalist from The Independent reported how, after several glasses in a community in the Amazon, he was confronted with a question posed introspectively: “Why are you here?” Writing a story was not good enough, and the answer remained elusive, but the journalist did briefly experience life as a tree [iii]. Though respectful and even-handed, the article contained a few errors, such as the assumption that the Church proselytizes. (In fact, new recruits must approach the Daime from their own volition, and even extending an invitation is strictly taboo.)
The press tended to follow this format, beginning with confusion, nausea, or occasionally terror, and concluding with a degree of respect for the “gentle, kind and thoughtful” [iv] members of the community, or asking “why shouldn’t they do what they do?” [v]. The exception was a report from Rio Branco, where the correspondent visited a brothel the first night and a Daime session the second. “My Daime was not working,” he complained, “so I went outside and swigged another cup”[vi]. He lost control of his legs and jaw almost immediately, before forgetting who he was or whether he was a man or a woman. He went to bed unharmed but none the wiser (and with the lights on.)
This was the only really negative account of ayahuasca until after the seizures, when The Sun ran “Mind-busting Jungle Drug Hits UK”, claiming that purified DMT was set to “become a bigger menace than crystal meth” [vii]. The sacrament exists in legal limbo until the legal questions are resolved, and English Daimistas have substituted water for ayahuasca in sessions. We continue to approach the divine with prayer, candles, reverence, and even sick buckets, and the current remains strong, but not so strong that we forget our genders.
Attempts to control ayahuasca date back to the colonial period, when missionaries judged it to be as demonic as the rest of indigenous culture, but the first modern confrontation took place in the 1930s. Raimundo Irineu Serra (hereafter and forever after referred to as “Mestre”) originally brought ayahuasca out of the Peruvian Amazon and into a Brazilian Christian context, where he named it Daime[viii]. Inevitably, it aroused suspicion. Mestre was a devout Christian before encountering ayahuasca, but he was also very tall and very black in a very short, very traditional and conservative part of Brazil. Accusations of demonic practices were soon heard. The compound which had grown up around his house was surrounded by soldiers with orders to shut it down or destroy it, under a lieutenant renowned for his severity [ix].
The Daimistas resisted and Mestre was arrested, but he made a good impression during interrogations, and made a friend of Governor Santos, who protected the group from then on, and secured land in Rio Branco for Alto Santo, the first Daime church, in the district still named Irineu Serra in his honour [x]. Mestre became a corporal in the police force, and stories are still told of this impeccable seven foot giant laying out wife-beaters and knife wielding drunkards with deft swings of his belt [xi].
Ayahuasca quickly became part of the cultural landscape in Rio Branco, and in 1965 the Secretary of Health and Social Services of Acre declared that there were no objections to its ritual use [xii]. In the 1980s, however, as it spread to other states, the government scheduled the ayahuasca vine Banisteriopsis caapi. It soon became clear that this was a breach of protocol, and the Division of Medications of the Ministry of Health and the Federal Council on Narcotics appointed doctors and professors to conduct a battery of tests on its “sociological, anthropological, chemical, medical and general health aspects”. In a series of visits to several communities, the commission braved stingray-infested jungle streams, and attended rituals as described in point fifteen of their report:
“The liquid is brownish, with an extremely acrid, repulsive and nauseating taste which, in both our cases, provoked serious nausea and vomiting. In my case (that of the author of this report), it also caused serious diarrhoea.”
The report was extensive and scientific, with the erudition of the panel shining through with quotes from St. Thomas Aquinas and Lévi-Strauss. No evidence of social harm was uncovered in the entire history of the three sects studied, and all were judged to be legitimate expressions of religion. The report warned against thoughtless use of the pejorative term “hallucination”, noting that the ritual is of paramount importance, and that great care is taken to ensure that ayahuasca is only consumed in ritual [xiii]. The ban was suspended in February 1986, with the panel recommending further tests. Diarrhoea notwithstanding, they found plenty of good things to say about ayahuasca religions:
“The ritual use of the tea does not appear to be disruptive or to have adverse effects upon the social interactions of the various sects’ followers. On the contrary, it appears to orient them towards seeking social contentment in an orderly and productive manner.”
“Moral and ethical standards of behaviour, similar in every respect to those which exist and are recommended in our society, are observed within the various sects, at times in an even stricter manner. Respect for the law always appeared to be emphasized.”
With reference to this last point, the Brazilian authorities behaved respectfully and their subjects reciprocated. In the US, whilst district police rarely intervened and the brew passed customs inspections for many years, federal agents entered the fray quite differently, armed with attack rifles. In May 1999, they entered the house of church elder Jonathan Goldman whilst he was out and questioned his children. When he arrived home he was handcuffed, and then taken to jail for twelve hours. He was released without charge, but with a warning not to conduct ceremonies [xiv].
Mr. Goldman’s petitions to the Justice Department over the next nine years went unanswered, so he sued. The US constitution protects religious freedoms, and in 2002, the UDV had successfully sued the Food and Drug Administration for unlawfully seizing their sacrament. The injunction was upheld in the Supreme Court in 2006 [xv], but the ruling pertained only to the UDV, and ayahuasca remained a controlled substance subject to strict protocols.
In the Goldman case, the federal agents submitted an affidavit explaining how he had discovered 400 gallons (i.e. five cubic feet) of Daime in eighteen plastic jugs, and carried said amount (i.e. 1.7 tons) to his pick-up truck. Whilst wondrous tales and miracle cures are not uncommon around ayahuasca, and in my own case it cured an “untreatable” and potentially fatal leishmaniasis infection, this agent’s superhuman strength and vessels defying the laws of physics are the most outlandish claims I know of.
The judge would not be swayed and ruled that SD was protected under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act [xvi]. The defence was permanently “enjoined from applying or enforcing any of the laws, regulations, and treaties that govern the legal importation and distribution of Schedule I substances for the purpose of prohibiting, preventing, unduly delaying, or otherwise interfering with Plaintiffs religious use of Daime”. More recently, in October 2010, a Colombian shaman was arrested at George Bush International Airport in Texas, charged with possession of ayahuasca. He was held for one month, but eventually released amidst an internet outcry.
The European Convention on Human Rights upholds “the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion” [xvii] and European courts have generally protected SD. Dutch district courts ruled in 2001 that it could be freely practised [xviii] and in 2009 a Dutchman was acquitted after being arrested with ayahuasca at the airport [xix].
Two Spanish arrests lead to no convictions in 2003, after a Brazilian Catholic Bishop protested that it “would seriously violate religious freedom and the God given human dignity of those people who wish to practice this Christian religion for any government to arrest Church members” [xx]. After a series of arrests in Italy in 2005, the case collapsed when the brew was found to contain only 0.064% DMT, less than a tenth of the amount in dry chacruna leaves (used to make it) [xxi]. Accordingly, the judge did not consider the preparation of Daime a process of concentration. A similar ruling was made in France the same year for the same reason [xxii], but four months later the ingredients and any preparation of them were scheduled. France remains the only European country to criminalise Daime.
Canadian customs seized some tea in 2000. Whilst Daimistas have praised the authorities for handling the matter respectfully, and the authorities have approved “in principle” that SD be exempt from restriction, the export law is still under review on the Brazilian side [xxiii]. Tax issues aside, years of exhaustive test-tube shaking and subject-probing at the behest of the original Brazilian panel bore fruit. A 2002 statute fully endorsed the ayahuasca religions of Brazil, formally recognising their cultural and spiritual value [xxiv].
The final development in the Brazilian story is that the Minister of Culture petitioned the government last year, asking that ayahuasca be recognised as cultural patrimony, alongside certain colonial buildings, Afro-Brazilian religions, a form of samba, and a style of pottery (this latter had immediate practical implications, because the water supply used to make it was under threat from logging interests.) Official recognition of diverse forms of cultural expression indicates a commitment to the protection of Brazilian culture in the face of rapid industrialisation and social change [xxv].
Whilst that petition is still under review, the Peruvian government awarded ayahuasca the status of cultural patrimony in 2008:
“That plant is known in the indigenous Amazon world as a sage or teacher plant, showing initiates the very fundaments of the world and its components. The effects of its consumption constitute the gateway to the spiritual world and its secrets… [It is] indispensable to those who assume the role of privileged carriers of these cultures” [xxvi]
This wording would be unthinkable in the context of European legislation. Whilst it may be tempting to conclude that Latin countries are still governed by superstition, the facts suggest otherwise. In Brazil, despite a vibrant religious culture and a vast array of sects and shamans, mediums, healers and exorcists, the government commissioned experts from every relevant science to study ayahuasca, as practiced by its citizens. The legislature followed the advice of the experts, as is proper in any democratically functioning society based on reason, and ayahuasca took its place as a respected and protected component in the Brazilian cultural milieu. But can the political machine in Britain live up to its own native-born ideals of rationalism, humanism, and science?
In 2009, Professor David Nutt, the head of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD), announced his panel’s findings, that the evidence did not support the government’s decision to reclassify cannabis [xxvii]. He was dismissed, and the following year two more ACMD scientists resigned over the decision to ban mephedrone, claiming it was driven by the media, not the evidence [xxviii]. Errors from Wikipedia and jokes on blogs were reported as facts in the media, including a teenager ripping his scrotum off [xxix], 180 schoolchildren off sick from one school, and a series of spurious deaths. Two deaths were reported in March, the ban went through in April, and toxicology reports, showing that they hadn’t taken mephedrone, came out in May [xxx].
One might hope that the government values expert advice over press hysteria, but the new Police Reform and Social Responsibility Bill removes the panel of experts from the ACMD. The Secretary of State may soon, without recourse to a single scientist, declare any substance to be a temporarily controlled drug, and the police may detain, search, seize and dispose of property accordingly [xxxi]. This extension of discretionary power represents a serious erosion of the Rule of Law.
Daimistas welcome scientific investigation of their sacrament, because when you have watched ninety year old women dancing and playing maraca for six hours straight through the Amazon night, and when you have noted the marked absence of either dementia or decrepitude in these seasoned psychonauts, it seems absurd to suggest that Daime damages one’s health at all. The UDV cites “ciencia” as one of its guiding principles in the service of spiritual evolution [xxxii], and members took part in the peer-reviewed Hoasca Project, studying the effects of ayahuasca. They scored above average in tests of memory, recall, attention and verbal ability [xxxiii], and were found to be more optimistic, gregarious and confident than sibling controls [xxxiv].
Science of a sort does inform European law. As of May this year, herbal medicines will be subject to the same tests that pharmaceuticals are. Whilst Glaxo-Smith-Klein can afford £100,000 of assays per product [xxxv], cottage industries and gardeners in the developing world are elbowed out of the marketplace at a stroke, and hundreds of medicines are set to disappear from the shops. The justification is that traditional medicine, despite being herbal, can still be harmful. Whilst that is absolutely true, properly-tested pharmaceuticals cause plenty of harm. Meta-analysis revealed that such drugs, properly prescribed at normal doses in American hospitals, caused “serious adverse reactions” in 6.7% of cases, and killed 106,000 people in 1994 [xxxvi].
Herbal medicines have, like ayahuasca, been prescribed for millennia by practitioners trained in the field, who study combinations and contraindications, who learn about dangers and how to avoid them. The field is complex, as are the plants, and scientific research can help unravel the mystery. Statistical analysis leaves little doubt that some medicines work, and biochemistry can supply models for modes of action. When the analgesic and anti-inflammatory properties of meadowsweet were linked to acetylsalicylic acid, it was synthesised and marketed as Aspirin, which has those useful properties, but also increases the likelihood of stomach ulcers, and low-doses were implicated in a third of cases of hospitalisation for vomiting blood [xxxvii]. Meadowsweet, by contrast, is a remedy for heartburn, as it also contains compounds which protect the stomach from the acid [xxxviii].
When considering a ban on a traditional Amazonian medicine, the Brazilian government footed the bill, but the considerably richer European Union is demanding that small companies pay impossible sums. This is not to contest specific claims that harm has been done, but to meet the standards set by a system which may be generally based on scientific principles, but has cultural, political, and industrial dimensions which cannot be ignored.
The debate over ayahuasca does not appear to be driven by robust scientific data, nor by any appeal to reason. It is not a religious issue either, because England is a secular country (and besides, drugs are not scheduled in the Bible.) Does big business control the strings, or is it nothing more than an assumption that drugs are bad, and that war must be waged against bad things? That is, of course, the position taken by The Sun, but hopefully we can expect a more sophisticated response from the government.
The question of legality in the UK remains open, and there is some cause for optimism. After thirty years, the ban on psychedelic research has been lifted, and various British Universities are testing therapeutic applications. Several top politicians, once freed from the muzzle of office, have spoken out against drug policy. Bob Ainsworth, the former Labour Home Office minister, argued for the legalisation of all drugs, describing the War on Drugs as “nothing short of a disaster” [xxxix]. Former Conservative cabinet minister Peter Lilley declared that “the current approach to drugs has been an expensive failure” and the Chief Constable of North Wales called for all drugs to be legalized [xl].
Perhaps the greatest cause for optimism in an age when the media carries so much clout resides with the power of the plants themselves. Many investigators discover this, whether they go looking for spiritual secrets, scientific data, political policy, or a journalistic scoop, and sometimes a journalist’s or anthropologist’s agenda changes very suddenly (because as a wise old man said, you only drink Daime once.) National Geographic Adventure’s most popular feature ever was a glowing report from a correspondent who overcame her long term depression during a trip to Peru [xli]. In one of the first internationally televised ayahuasca trips, Bruce Parry was confronted with the horrific magnitude of his own ego, and emerged humbler, wiser, and grateful for “one of the most profound experiences imaginable (or more correctly unimaginable as it is almost defined by its inexplicability)!” [xlii]. What other news-story is intrinsically ineffable? Even Rupert Murdoch’s FOX Channel painted a hugely positive picture, citing “many thousands of cases in which people have been healed of physical, mental and emotional disorders, and many curious cases of recovery from grave and even fatal disorders” [xliii].
Journalists are, by nature, open to sensational claims, and Daime often leaves people feeling sensational, brimming with health, inspiration, and trust in the benevolent forces at play in the universe. Politics and legal processes are sometimes inconsistent, but ayahuasca is consistent, responding according to how it is approached, returning terror or wonder in kind. Given half a chance, ayahuasca can quickly dismantle restrictive frames of reference, and in the space that opens up, such arbitrary concerns as legal code become completely immaterial.
The following article has been written and contributed to PsypressUK by the Reverend Nemu, author of Science Revealed and the Nemu’s End blog, with special thanks to the other Devilish Dan. We’d like to extend our thanks to the Reverend for his time and effort writing this article.
[i] Guided by the Moon: Shamanism and the ritual use of Ayahuasca in the Santo Daime religion in Brazil – Edward MacRae (ebook at www.neip.info)
[ii] United Nations Drug Control Program Ayahuasca Policy Fax – January 17, 2001 http://www.erowid.org/chemicals/ayahuasca/ayahuasca_law10.shtml
[iii] The Outdoors of Perception – The Independent Sunday, 8 September 1996
[iv] Now let us hallucinate – The Telegraph, November 20th, 2005
[v] Santo Daime: the drug-fuelled religion – The Times, April 7th, 2008
[vi] Green unpleasant land – guardian.co.uk, 28 November 2001
[vii] Mind-Busting Jungle Drug Hits UK – The Sun, October 7th, 2010
[viii] O trabalho oculto e exotérico de Raimundo Irineu Serra – Débora de Carvalho Pereira (www.neip.info)
[ix] Testimony of Padrinho Luiz Mendes – www.mestreirineu.org/luiz.htm
[x] Testimony of Mario Maia – www.mestreirineu.org/mario.htm
[xi] Pers. comm. Saturnino de Brito de Nascimento
[xii] Uso religioso da Ayahuasca é Patrimônio da Cultura Brasileira – Francisco Hipólito de Araújo Neto, Jornal o Rio Branco, 5 May 2008
[xiii] Relatório Final das atividades desenvolvidas pelo Grupo de Trabalho designado pela Resolução/CONFEN n. 04, de 30 de julho de 1985 – 28 Agosto de 1987
[xiv] The Church of the Holy Light of the Queen vs. Michael B. Mukasey (CV 08.3095.PA) Amended Witness Statement of Jonathan Goldman
[xv] Gonzales vs. 0 Centro Espirita Beneficente União do Vegetal, 546 U.S. 418 (2006)
[xvi] Religious Freedom and United States Drug Laws: Notes on the UDV-USA Legal Case – Matthew D. Meyer (www.neip.info)
[xvii] Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, Article 9
[xviii] District Court of Amsterdam – Case number: 13/067455-99, 21 May 2001
[xix] District Court of Haarlem – Case number: 15/800013-09
[xx] Support letter for Santo Daime members addressed to the Spanish judge – Morelli, Don Mauro. (2000) – http://www.santodaime.it/Library/LAW/Spagna/morellivescovo00_portuguese.pdf
[xxi] Italian Santo Daime juridical case resume and comment – May 16th 2006 – www.bialabate.net/news/italian-santo-daime-juridical-case-resume-and-comment/index.html
[xxii] Court of Appeal of Paris, 10th Chamber, sec. B, File no. 04/01888. Judgment of 13 January 2005
[xxiii] The Matter of Brazilian Export Permission and Ceu do Montreal’s (Canada) Exemption Process for the Santo Daime Sacrament – letter to Bia Labate’s site, April 16th 2009
[xxiv] Resolução Nº 26 – CONAD – 31 de dezembro de 2002
[xxv] Ayahuasca–From Dangerous Drug to National Heritage: An Interview with Antonio A. Arantes – Labate, B. C and Goldstein, I, International Journal of Transpersonal Studies 28, 2009, pp. 53-64
[xxvi] Designation as Cultural Patrimony of the Nation extended to the Knowledge and Traditional Uses of Ayahuasca as practiced by native Amazon communities – National Directorial Resolution Number 836/INC (my translation)
[xxvii] Drug adviser Dr Polly Taylor’s full resignation letter – BBC News. 2010-03-29
[xxviii] A collapse in integrity of scientific advice in the UK – The Lancet 375
[xxix] Mass-information: mephedrone, myths, and the new generation of legal highs – Davey, Z et al. Drugs and Alcohol Today (2010) 10: 24
[xxx] Teenagers’ deaths ‘not caused by mephedrone’ – BBC website, 28 May 2010
[xxxi] Police Reform and Social Responsibility Bill, part 4,
[xxxii] Short Glossary of the Terms Used in the União do Vegetal – Beatriz Caiuby Labate, Matthew Meyer and Brian Anderson v 1.0 – Jul 30, 2009
[xxxiii] McKenna et al. Pharmacokinetics of Hoasca alkaloids in healthy humans. Journal of Ethnopharmacology 65(3): 243–256.
[xxxv] Europe to ban hundreds of herbal remedies – The Independent 30 Dec, 2010
[xxxvi] Incidence of Adverse Drug Reactions in Hospitalized Patients: A Meta-analysis of Prospective Studies – Lazarou, J et al. JAMA 1998;279(15):1200-1205.
[xxxvii] The impact of cyclo-oxygenase II (COX-II) inhibitors on gastrointestinal (GIT) bleeding. Poster 30. Presented at the combined meeting of the Australian Rheumatology Association and the New Zealand Rheumatology Association. Christchurch, NZ: 28 May 2002. Sydney: Australian
Rheumatology Association, 2002.
[xxxviii] Encyclopedia of Herbs – Deni Brown (New York 2001) p. 214
[xxxix] Telegraph website, Friday 17 December 2010
[xl] Legalise all drugs: chief constable demands end to ‘immoral laws’ – The Independent