Nixiwaka Biraci Yawanawa, the leader of the Yawanawa people in the Amazon, delivered a passionate speech at the Psychedelic Science conference in Denver, Colorado, which was organized by MAPS, a key player in the ‘Psychedelic Renaissance.’ His speech echoed the sentiments found in the 1854 speech by Chief Seattleof the Suquamish tribe to the first governor of Washington Territory. He emphasized the urgent need to consider the environment and indigenous perspectives in the context of the ongoing Psychedelic Renaissance.
“When you pollute the last river, when you cut down the last forest, we will also be out of this Earth”.
Nixiwaka Yawanawa did not miss the opportunity to remind that the so-called ‘Psychedelic Renaissance,’ in which MAPS is one of the main actors, is taking place without listening to indigenous peoples, “the true guardians of many medicinal plants, of sacred plants”.
Albert Casasayas teaches Spanish and Latin American Studies at Santa Clara University in California. He admits he’s a newcomer to psychedelia or, according to Juan Carlos Usó, who wrote the book’s prologue, a “neo-convert.” This fresh look at psychedelics is one of the book’s greatest strengths. The book is not intended to be academic, but rather a “middle-ground” perspective, distinct from those deeply involved in the psychedelic community but also beyond the “very biased mainstream media with its anti-drug discourse.”
Speaking via Zoom from California, Albert is preparing for the imminent academic year while continuing to delve into the complex, fascinating, and often paradoxical world of visionary drugs.
In 1910, the German bacteriologist Paul Ehrlich made a groundbreaking discovery and patented arsphenamine, a chemical compound derived from arsenic that proved effective against syphilis and was marketed for two decades under the trade name ‘Salvarsan’.
Ehrlich, who had already been awarded a Nobel Prize for his vaccine research, had a profound impact on 20th-century pharmacology with his concept of the “magic bullet”:a pharmacological compound that specifically targets a particular pathogen without harming the host’s body.
‘Salvarsan’ was the first successful drug based on the “magic bullet” hypothesis and saved millions of lives in Europe until the introduction of penicillin, discovered by Alexander Fleming two decades later. Penicillin proved to be more effective than ‘Salvarsan’ for treating syphilis and other infectious diseases. However, the echo of Ehrlich’s discovery and the “magic bullet” concept continues to resonate, albeit with diminishing influence.
When we talk about mental illnesses, anxiety, depression, and suicide, we usually focus on modern Western societies, considering them as afflictions of our time caused by an increasingly disconnected lifestyle from nature. However, indigenous peoples in the Amazon suffer from extremely high levels of alcoholism, and their suicide rate is three times the national average, as denounced by the artist and activist Daiara Tukano, from the Tukano (or Yé’pá Mahsã) people, during the opening of the 7th Colloquium ‘Shamanism, Science, and Knowledge’ held last week in Tarragona.
“It seems incredible to me that there are so many research projects for mental health, but I have a request because I know that we need that attention in our communities. Indigenous peoples are the most marginalized. If you want to investigate how to treat suicide, depression, come and research with us… the suicide rate among indigenous peoples is 300% higher than any other social report,” explained Daiara Tukano via videoconference from her community in the state of Vaupés, on the border between Colombia and Brazil.
The botanical classification only includes two species of ayahuasca, the famous Banisteriopsis caapi and the lesser known Banisteriopsis inebrians, a gnarled vine that is also used, less frequently, to make the Amazonian medicinal concoction. However, traditional indigenous peoples contemplate a wide range of ayahuasca vines, not only in terms of colour and morphology, but also in terms of their effects.
The taxonomy of Amazonian plants by indigenous and mestizo healers and shamans is no less precise or “scientific” than that offered by botany. In fact, more and more researchers are trying to build bridges between traditional knowledge and the western Cartesian vision, two complementary approaches with the same objective: the attainment of knowledge.
Allan Finney began his “healing journey” with ayahuasca at the age of 59, seven years ago, with a lineage of Shipibo shamans in Peru. The journalist and television producer from British Columbia, Canada, returned home to find that ayahuasca was illegal, in contravention of the UN Conventions on Narcotic Drugs, which recognise that the Amazonian concoction is not banned. How did this happen? “It’s about the pharmaceutical industry, about big corporate interests. They don’t want to see people being cured, healed by ayahuasca,” Finney responds in this interview we conducted via Zoom last week.
To try to get a licence for the use of traditional ayahuasca in Canada, three years ago he founded Companionship for the Sacred Vine (CSV), a religion that would allow the opening of ayahuasca centres in the Shipibo tradition in all provinces of Canada.
Why a religion? “Because it is the only legal possibility Canada allows to import ayahuasca,” explains Finley. In order to file a legal battle in the Supreme Court, and eventually sue Health Canada, the CSV has launched a crowdfunding campaign seeking to raise $20,000.
Next May 7th will start the second edition of the course ‘Increasing safety in ayahuasca sessions’, a pioneering training offered by ICEERS for guides and facilitators of ayahuasca work in non-native environments to learn the best practices around ayahuasca to reduce risks and increase benefits during the sessions, will begin.
The course lasts six months (May to December) and its format is mixed: one hour a week of video and live dialogue every two weeks to chat and ask questions to the instructors, namely David Londoño, José Carlos Bouso, Constanza Sánchez Avilés, Marc Aixalà and Jerónimo Mazarrasa, all members of the NGO based in Barcelona and its Support Center, which has completed ten years attending “hundreds of cases” of people who have suffered some kind of mishap during or after the ingestion of ayahuasca.
We chatted with Antón about the current state of psychedelic-assisted therapy in Europe, about research in Spain and about the eventual (and unlikely) integration of the shamanic model in the future regulatory framework.
Francisco Azorín is a veteran in the defence of cannabis clubs, an experience he applies to put recent police operations on ayahuasca ceremonies into perspective. Azorín achieved a landmark court ruling on ayahuasca in the Malaga provincial court in 2021. It recognised that ayahuasca cannot be considered a “toxic drug, narcotic or psychotropic substance”. Only two years have passed, but the current situation of the plant is very different. Nobody would dare to speak today of the “(pen)last judgement on ayahuasca”.
We talked to Azorín, member of the Murcian law firm Brotsanbert, about laws, politics, police strategies and the role of shamanism in the booming ‘psychedelic renaissance’.
One of the questions we are most often asked is about the legality of ayahuasca in Spain. Is ayahuasca legal in Spain? To answer this question we have to look at international and national legislation, as well as some recent court rulings that create jurisprudence, as it is a relatively new substance in our country.
The Convention on Psychotropic Substances of 1971
Ayahuasca is not controlled under the 1971 United Nations Convention on Psychotropic Substances, to which Spain acceded in 1976 [BOE]. “In this convention, which regulates psychotropic substances, “there is no direct allusion to ayahuasca, nor to the component plants of ayahuasca: Banisteriopsis caapi, Psychotria viridis or Diplopterys cabrerana“, as lawyer Antonio Martín Pardo explained in his speech during the World Ayahuasca Conference held in Girona in 2019. Dr. Pardo is co-author of the book ‘The legal status of ayahuasca in Spain’.
What is controlled, specifically in Schedule 1 (the most restrictive) of the aforementioned convention is DMT, dimethyl tryptamine, the active component of P. viridis and D. cabreana. The fact that ayahuasca includes DMT in different percentages sometimes leads to confuse the part with the whole and to consider that since ayahuasca contains DMT and DMT is banned, ayahuasca is also banned.
But this is an aberration, as Diego de las Casas, lawyer of the Plataforma de Defensa de la Ayahuasca explains: “DMT is endogenously present in most plants and living beings in varying quantities. Strictly applying this reductionist view, tomatoes should also be banned for containing DMT”.
However, the possible confusion that the 1971 Treaty could lead to was resolved by the INCB – the UN drug control body – itself. In its 2012 report [.pdf], the UN body states: “No plants, including those containing psychoactive ingredients, are currently controlled under the 1971 Convention“. In case there is any doubt, it goes on to give khat and ayahuasca as examples: “For example, cathine and DMT are psychotropic substances included in Schedule I of the 1971 Convention, while the plants and herbal preparations containing them, namely khat and ayahuasca, respectively, are not subject to any restriction or control measures“.
Extract from the INCB document.
In the same report, the INCB clarifies that the DMT controlled in the 1971 Convention refers to synthetic DMT, not to DMT from natural sources.
While the INCB/UN does not consider ayahuasca to be a drug, it does recommend that countries that are signatories to the conventions regulate, if appropriate, the drink at the local level.
There are currently two laws regulating narcotic substances in Spain, neither of which mentions ayahuasca. The first one dates from 1967, and is an update of the 1961 UN Convention (which Spain did not sign). It lists substances such as opium, morphine, marijuana and cocaine, but there is not a single mention of ayahuasca. The second dates from 1977, when Spain had already acceded to the 1971 Convention, and ayahuasca is not mentioned either.
Spanish case law
Despite the fact that the law seems clear on the issue of ayahuasca, cases of ayahuasca seizures and arrests for importing or possessing ayahuasca come to light with some frequency, publicised by law enforcement agencies and reported in the media. Why this apparent contradiction?
On the one hand, the fact that ayahuasca is not on the lists of prohibited substances of either the UN or the Spanish government does not automatically mean that it is legal to introduce it into Spanish territory. Specifically, in 2004, the Ministry of Health published an order banning the importation of a series of plants due to their toxicity; ayahuasca was included in this list. However, says Martín Pardo, “due to a formal issue, this order was annulled, so ayahuasca is not illegal at the administrative level in Spain either”.
On the other hand, many of the police operations are initiated because the security forces and judges themselves are unaware of the legal status of ayahuasca. As lawyer Antonio Martín Pardo explained in the aforementioned presentation, of the 16 seizures that finally went to trial, only one of them ended in a conviction, and that was due to an agreement between the parties. Of all the other acquittals, only two of the 15 sentences “were based on the fact that ayahuasca is not a controlled substance”, explains Martín Pardo. “The rest of the judgments, although acquitted, were based on an incorrect reasoning: ayahuasca has DMT and DMT is a drug. The idea behind publishing the book is that judges learn that ayahuasca is not a controlled substance“.
Martín Pardo’s talk took place in 2019, and barely two years later it seems that things have started to change. An elaborate sentence [.pdf] of the Provincial Court of Malaga acquitted last May a defendant accused of importing 5 litres of ayahuasca for personal consumption. The 17-page judgement argues that “ayahuasca as a plant preparation is not subject to international or national control or prohibition in Spain as a psychotropic substance, drug or narcotic“, or in other words, it cannot be included in the concept of “toxic drug, narcotic or psychotropic substance”, narcotic drug or psychotropic substance” as referred to in article 368 of the Spanish Penal Code, according to the lengthy summary of the case in the article ‘El (pen-)ultimo juicio sobre ayahuasca en España’, signed by three ICEERS members in the newsletter of the International Drug Policy Consortium (IDPC).
The judgement ends with an anti-prohibitionist plea against ayahuasca by the court, after having heard the arguments of lawyer Francisco Azorín, from the Brotsanbert law firm, and the ICEERS experts. Carmen Castellanos, the judge judge who has ruled on the case, states that “a policy of greater tolerance accompanied by rigorous controls and regulation, avoiding absolute prohibitionism, could be more effective, or on the whole could do more good than harm”.
If you are interested in the legal nuances behind the legal situation of ayahuasca in Spain, you can watch this illustrative lecture by Dr. Antonio Martín Pardo: