Aya2014: Joining Worlds for Bottom-up Self-regulation
The rain in Spain fell heavily on the plane as it landed, and continued in thunderous bursts for the three days of the ICEERS Aya2014 conference in Ibiza. Ben De Loenen opened proceedings by thanking the Beckley Foundation and MAPS, and by outlining the increasingly restrictive pronouncements made on ayahuasca by the International Narcotics Control Board. He also shared his hope that bringing together 700 researchers and practitioners from various lineages and disciplines would generate strategies for self-regulation, so that the authorities need not regulate our favourite beverage from outside.
There is no simple way to navigate such matters, especially given that the original custodians of ayahuasca maintain a cosmology which is in many ways incompatible with the scientific and legalistic frames of reference which carry weight in the industrialized world. It was, therefore, very encouraging that Aya2014 featured a track entirely composed of indigenous people describing their world (a task usually left to white guys like me).
Various talks considered the interaction between these two worlds; Alex Gearin’s on the Australian neo-ayahuascquero scene described how one visiting shaman echoed the idealized mystique projected upon him by describing his training “deep, deep, deep in the forest”. The track on gender was also extremely important because the occasional incidents of sexual misconduct in the jungle can damage both the lives of individuals effected and the media profile of ayahuasca. Clancy Cavnar’s tales of homophobia and pervy padrinhos confronted some ugly truths, as did Daniela Peluso’s monograph on sexual dynamics between practitioners and clients. But it is vital that this material is considered if responses to the challenges are to be found.
Sustainability was a recurrent theme and also warranted its own track, which was introduced by Denis McKenna, describing our current historical moment in cosmic terms. He proposed, with characteristic eloquence, that the survival of our species hinges upon us deepening our symbiosis with ayahuasca. Joshua Wickerham and the extremely cheerful Roldan Rojas of the Ethnobotanical Stewardship Council (ESC) then proposed novel solutions to legal and environmental issues respectively, incorporating elements of permaculture and education into their plans, and proposing the creation of lists of reputable practitioners. They are taking suggestions of other initiatives here.
Again, differences in world views pose considerable problems to ESC’s mission of producing a set of standards, but they are keenly sensitive to questions of democratic process and participatory engagement, and if they are not shot down in a cloud of virotes, the initiatives may be very positive to the long-term survival of ayahuasca. You can sponsor a vine with their crowd-funding campaign here.
The biomedical, psychological and psychopharmacological talks were best when the researchers went beyond the limitations of their disciplines. Presentations that stood out were Ede Frecska’s groundbreaking research on DMT’s anti-inflammatory role, Gabor Mate’s discourse on the close relationship between psychological and physical health, and Anja Loizaga-Velder’ investigations into consciousness. Sam Gandy’s thoughts on neuroplasticity were beautifully delivered, and both Eduardo Schenberg and Tania Re described their EEG studies – the former carried out in a Sao Paulo lab and the latter by a boiling river in the Peruvian Amazon. I even understood some of Robin Carhart-Harris’s talk this time round (unless that is just my Default Mode Network talking).
There were plenty of legal presentations, with Charlotte Walsh trawling through case law in her psychedelic leggings and Jon Hobbs describing his own trials, both literal and figurative, in the often arbitrary British justice system. But perhaps the most extraordinary matter on law came from Sufi scholar N. Wahid Azal. His correspondence with one of the twelve highest authorities of Islamic jurisprudence led to a surprising fatwa ruling that ayahuasca, along with iboga and cannabis, are entirely permissible according to Sharia law if taken in order to know God, and under the tutelage of someone who knows what they are doing. More wonders from the East were offered by Sanskrit scholar Matthew Clark, whose close textual analysis of the Vedas and the Zoroastrian Avesta supports Mike Jay’s argument that the mysterious soma potion of ancient India was an ayahuasca analogue.
One of the highlights for me, apart from the thunderous applause following my own presentation (paper here) was a deeply moving personal account of ayahuasca for manic-depression. PhD candidate Southern Cross proposed that harmaline and DMT act at two different sites concerned with mood regulation (as does lithium, but in a much more clumsily mood-dampening fashion). This challenges the academic taboo that ayahuasca is best avoided in cases of mania, and also made a great case for tolerance concerning mental states that many live with, to a greater or lesser degree.
Those on the edge of perceptual experience are some of the most interesting and creative people on the planet, as well as being some of the most suicide-prone, and this resonates with where we are at as a species – on the brink of either collective suicide or a magnificent creative explosion. If ayahuasca can balance the extremes in an individual’s brain, as it did for this charming chap where 17 different psychiatric drugs had failed, perhaps it can help channel the madness at a macro scale as well.
After floating on a wave of critical optimism, the closing ceremony began. My Daimista dogmatism had relaxed enough over the three days that I barely batted an eyelid at the sitar-plucking and gong-bashing – Amazonian Indian, sub-continental Indian, it is all cool with me. Kasia Malinowska-Sempruch, the Open Society Foundation’s (OFS) Global Drug Policy director, then brought excellent news about OSF’s presence at the high-profile UN General Assembly Special Session on Drugs coming up in 2016. This is an historic opportunity to influence global drug policy, and Kasia Malinowska-Sempruch is well-experienced in handling policy at this level, and has an impressive track record behind her. But her rhetoric seemed a little simplistic, where most of the presentations had been so much more nuanced.
Perhaps it is a function of her working in policy rather than anthropology, but her potted history of anti-malaria medicine celebrated the “millions of lives saved”, and neglected to mention the costs. These include the many tons of DDT and other persistent pollutants used in pristine environments since 1955, when the World Health Organisation (WHO) began its malaria eradication program; the failure of said program, leaving a generation with no natural resistance, leading to massive resurgences and the spread of malaria, including drug-resistant strains, to new areas; the resulting situation today, where malaria kills more today than ever before; the catastrophic destruction over the same period of rainforests once protected by malaria, including the forests which gave birth to ayahuasca. Eco-fascists are not so popular, however, so I kept my thoughts to myself.
My neighbour was more vocal though, offended by her tale of the consequences of the nasty Russians cutting off methadone prescriptions for Ukrainian addicts immediately after taking over the Crimea. Again, the preventable deaths are lamentable, but the story is complex. Transferring social services to a new governing body is no simple matter, and while Russia’s general opposition to harm reduction is draconian, forbidding even needle exchange programs, there are strong scientific arguments against methadone for heroin addiction. It is at least as addictive, and just about every drug worker I have discussed it with is sceptical about its utility.
Both addiction and malaria are treated with ayahuasca, according to anecdotal reports; but the speaker’s discussion of these conditions did not mention ayahuasca. Her description of human suffering seemed to champion a certain model of addiction treatment by demonising its opponent; it was reminiscent of the old methods of the old colonial powers, up to their old tricks in the second and third worlds, managing communities incapable of managing themselves, oblivious to the lessons of history. Perhaps it reminded me of the that dualism which perpetuates the War on Drugs simply because that is what political discourse sounds like, and this kind of thing is exactly what the UN General Assembly needs to hear next year. But after three days of balanced and nuanced presentations, it seemed a bit superficial.
The plot thickens, as that same analysis of the Ukrainian methadone situation was first published on Radio Free Europe, and both RFE and OSF are funded by George Soros. The anti-prohibition movement is deeply indebted to the philanthropist, who supports a variety of initiatives, and the fact that his major holding, Teva Pharmaceuticals, manufactures both methadone and antimalarial medicines should not necessarily indicate a grand conspiracy. But the OSF address did suggest an uncritical pro-pharma philosophy which jarred with my own naturopathic, pro-ayahuasca bias.
We find ourselves at a very complex confluence of currents, where the worlds of medicine, politics, finance and philosophy meet, and there can be no simple answers – but I would hope that a partial answer at an ayahuasca conference would include ayahuasca. We need not be paranoid, but the psychedelic community should remain vigilant wherever established power structures exert an influence on discourse concerning the post-prohibition world that lies on the horizon.
There are many challenges that the ayahuasca community faces, from brujos in the jungle and the boardroom to deranged New Age lunatics, like the messianic Argentine Alberto Varela. He was prosecuted after advertising ayahuasca ceremonies in the Spanish press – offering it to anyone without screening or preparation, and at discounted rates to children. Plantaforma for the defense of Ayahuasca, one of the organizations at Aya2014, originally came together out of a concern that such aggressive marketing and careless proselytising could damage the ayahuasca movement.
After 14 months in jail, Varela continues to advertise openly on Facebook. His organisation, Ayahuasca International, was not officially present at Aya2014; but people reported that someone was approaching guests and giving them hand-written notes for Varela’s sessions.
All that said, even a grizzly old apocalyptic like me found plenty of room for optimism, because ICEERS is composed of honest, very well-organized and extremely hardworking people. Along with groups like Plantaforma and ESC, they are taking the lead by confronting persistent problems head-on, and with an admirable degree of transparency.
The rain fell heavily, biblically even, and continued to fall, leaving waterlogged the streets built for much drier climes. Across the Mediterranean sea, fire fell on Syria from flying death robots; it continues to fall now the conference is over. If there is any hope for a world where my children have more to look forward to than debt and doom, I place it in ayahuasca as a medicine for a suffering planet, and in ayahuasqueros like the ICEERS team bringing its teachings to life.