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:
The repeated cases of police raids on ayahuasca ceremonies are part of an intentional campaign of “fear, mistrust and misinformation” aimed at calling into question an ancestral practice that offers numerous benefits for its participants, benefits repeatedly supported by science.
The harassment of Amazonian drink facilitators in Spain has raised a wave of rejection among the international scientific community. More than a hundred leading scholars, psychologists, anthropologists and activists have endorsed the article/manifesto published by the Chacruna Institute and signed by Bia Labate, Henrique Fernandez Antunes, Galuber Loures de Assis and Clancy Cavnar with the title ‘A Call for Public Support Against the Current Demonisation of Ayahuasca Practices in Spain’.
Among the signatories of the manifesto are Rick Doblin, founder of MAPS; David Bronner, CEO of Dr. Bronner; anthropologist Edward MacRae, leading scholar of the Santo Daime cult; Helle Kaasik, Ayahuasca researcher; Doctor of Pharmacology José Carlos Bouso; psychiatrist and writer Ben Sessa and Spanish researcher Carlos Suárez Álvarez.
The arrests of ayahuasca facilitators in Spain “have reignited the debate over the use of the concoction in the country, led by sensationalist media coverage that often ignores available scientific data. The accusations are the same: ayahuasca groups are cults that use dangerous drugs to manipulate their adherents (or “targets”), commonly described as fragile and gullible, for financial gain,” according to the Chacruna article. .
“In the midst of this scenario of arrests, prosecutions, sensational reports, and the spread of fear, mistrust, and misinformation, it is necessary to approach the issue judiciously, setting aside prejudices and preconceptions. It is crucial at a time like this to analyze the accumulated knowledge about the religious use of ayahuasca, as well as to understand the contexts in which the regulation of the drink has occurred successfully, creating public policy models that can be studied and adopted in other countries. sociocultural contexts.
In order to protect the good name of ayahuasca from the attacks it is suffering in Spain, from the Plantaforma para la Defensa de la Ayahuasca, with the support of ICEERS and the Ayahuasca Defense Fund (ADF) we have launched a crowdfunding campaign with which we will pay for a series of documentaries on ayahuasca and the legal defense of its good name in court.
If at any time you believe that ayahuasca did something good for you, it is time to say thank you.
“For me, the Amazon is the last frontier, a mysterious universe where the power of nature can be felt like nowhere else on Earth. Here, there is a forest that stretches to infinity and contains a tenth of all existing plant and animal species. It is the world’s largest natural laboratory,” writes Sebastião Salgado in the foreword to his new book ‘Amazonia’, which has just been published by Taschen.
Slowly but surely, the repeal of the ban on psychedelic drugs is progressing state by state, country by country. The normalisation of entheogenic substances raises, however, several questions: who is legitimised to give these medicines: doctors, psychiatrists, psychologists, shamans…, what experience does a traditional healer need and how can he or she prove it, can these substances be dispensed as if they were conventional medicines?
To answer these and other questions, we talk to Manuel Villaescusa, psychologist, musician, ayahuasca expert and co-founder of the Plantaforma de Defensa de la Ayahuasca.
One of the most disconcerting effects of ayahuasca is that it sometimes seems to allow us to “read” other people’s minds or “transmit” ideas without the need to speak. The description of this phenomenon is not anecdotal but very frequent in the scientific literature, to the point that the active principle of ayahuasca (Banisteriopsis caapi) was baptised “telepathine” back in 1915.
The term was coined by the famous Colombian botanist Rafael Zerda Bayón, and appeared for the first time in his paper ‘Informes sobre mi excursión científica en las regiones colombianas de Caquetá, Bogotá, Colombia’ (Reports on my scientific excursion in the Colombian regions of Caquetá, Bogotá, Colombia). However, the error persists of attributing the discovery to the American ethnobotanist Richard Evans Schultes, who began to use the term “telepathine” during the 1940s. Since Schultes studied yagé in Colombia, it is very likely that he was aware of Zerda Bayón’s studies and writings three decades earlier.
But it was neither Bayón nor Schultes who popularised the telepathic abilities of ayahuasca but the novelist and drug addict William Burroughs, who in his ‘The Yage Letters’ to his friend, the poet Allen Ginsberg, wrote the following:
“A Colombian scientist isolated a substance from yagé which he called telepathine. I know from my own experience that telepathy is a fact. I have not the slightest interest in proving telepathy to anyone or anything. I want to have the useful knowledge of telepathy”.
The book was published in 1963 (although it was written ten years earlier, in 1953) and aroused great interest in ayahuasca in North America, giving the starting signal for the ayahuasca tourism that is so common in the Amazon region today.
Telepathine, a personal experience
Like Burroughs, many of us who have been touched by the ayahuasca angel can affirm that telepathy is a fact. I had the certainty exactly one year ago, during the summer solstice of 2019. It was in Madrid, at a ceremony of my dear Nak, then president of the Plantaforma. Rita and I went together, once again, and spent a good part of the trip in each other’s arms, our heads in contact, and we were able to have telepathic “conversations” without uttering a word or even looking at each other. I felt like his brain was mine and I could directly access his thoughts.
-Don’t worry, I’m fine.
-But you’re making me worry by telling me that.
The next day we confirmed these and other “words” by word of mouth. Rita had a hard time that night and tried to reassure me, but I knew – I could see – that she was having a hard time.
Harmina = telepathine
Unfortunately, the evocative name “telepathine” is no longer used (the last references are in the writings of Claudio Naranjo in one of his last books ‘Ayahuasca’, which is also written half a century ago, during the 50s and 60s). The reason is that telepathine is exactly the same molecule as ‘Harmine’, a beta-carboline described a few years earlier and which takes its name from harmel, the common name of the Syrian rue (Peganum harmala), a plant widely used in the traditional pharmacopoeia of Arab countries and which some call the “European ayahuasca”.
*”The first among us who undertook its study was Dr. Rafael Zerda Bayón, of pleasant memory, a true man of science, who spent most of his life observing nature with the idea and conviction of one day extracting from it some of its hidden secrets.
He made a famous scientific expedition to Caquetá and Putumayo with the purpose, among many others, of studying more closely and in detail the active principle of this plant, which was the object of a profound and conscientious work, by means of which he managed to suppose, after multiple experiments without managing to isolate it, that this plant must contain as its active principle an alkaloid, which he baptised with the name of telepathine because of the very particular and curious effects produced by the ingestion of its preparations.
In honour of the memory of this illustrious scholar, the alkaloid which we have isolated, and which he supposed to exist, should retain the name of telepathine”.