Companionship of the Sacred Vine, a religion for legally taking ayahuasca in Canada

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. 

You can listen to the full interview here:

Hi, Allan, can you share with us what is your relationship with ayahuasca?

I started taking ayahuasca when I was 59. I went for a month long trip to Peru and I was working with a lineage of Shipibo shamans and started on my healing journey. So that was seven years ago and after my first first set of ceremonies, I thought “wow, that’s it. I’m cured”, but no… [laughs] but it was amazing. My whole life I was looking for something but I didn’t quite know exactly what that was, but it was like the turning point of my life. That turning point in my life was after my first ayahuasca ceremony. So now things are revealed so you get to understand the nature of this reality.

After this first trip I went back to Peru with my daughter… if I can recommend anything to anybody is I do highly recommend to share ceremonies with your family members. Since then we’ve done maybe 80 or 90 ceremonies together and every time it’s just opens up so many different and get the walls get knocked down.

So you decided that this experience should be shared with the rest of the world.

Sure. I started Ayahuasca Canada, which is a website basically to help people that is in the same situation I was  when I was looking for ayahuasca: how do you find this? Where do you go? You know, it was such a big mystery, right? So I put up a website and people email me. I did some videos on Ayahuasca Canada YouTube channel, and so I started working into the medicine and trying to give back to people and help people out.

And how did it come that idea of the Companionship for the Sacred Vine?

That was around four years ago now. I was in ceremony one day and it was like I don’t know where the idea came. It’s just like everything else with ayahuasca, but it was like, “oh, well, there is a way of getting legal ayahuasca ceremonies in Canada?”, ‘cause people would would contact me and they say “well, is this legal?” 

So I started looking into it and there is a way of getting legal ceremonies in Canada, looking into legalities and then I started organizing with contacts that I had made and also starting an organizing committee and recruiting members.

How much did it take to have the job done?

I spent about a year organizing all that and getting information together for our application and then about well, it’s over two years now.

What is the purpose of the Companionship?

There’s no other way to take Ayahuasca legally in Canada but having a religious exemption, and there are churches in that are that have gotten religious exemptions in Canada. The first one was Santo Daime, and for them it took 16 years to get a religious exemption. I think that’s ridiculous.

Did you get any answer from the Canadian Government yet?

We put our application with Health Canada but we haven’t got any answer yet. I knew they were just delaying things. I mean they were deliberately delaying the process. . So in one email I get they ask me for my criminal record. Then, three months later we got another mail asking for the criminal record checks of our organizing committee. And I’m like this could all been put in one email and been done with so you could tell right away that organizationally or institutionally.

But you are not asking for a religious exemptions, do you?

The difference between our application and the churches that have been granted application or granted exemptions is that ours is based on traditional Amazonian, like the shipibo, the tradition I come from.

What is the goal of the Companionship?

The Companionship for the Sacred Vine is kind of the umbrella organization. So if you’re operating a facility or you’re a facilitator, then you apply under our banner because we’ve already gotten the exemption application. In this way they can just run their ceremonies and we can look after the paperwork, health and bureaucratic requirements.

Is it legal to introduce ayahuasca in Canada?

For us to get the medicine in Canada, it used to be no big deal: you put it in the mail and, in a month, it shows up in Canada. No problem. But now, when I’m talking to my facilitator friends, they’re they’re medicine isn’t getting through. Ayahuasca it’s getting confiscated more and more all the time. So it seemed like they didn’t care about the medicine coming into Canada. Now they’re more vigilant. A friend of mine in Ontario the psychologist at the base the Canadian Forces base. He works with veterans with PTSD. He’s not supposed to, because it’s illegal, but he will send veterans suicidal veterans over to an ayahuasquero friend of mine. The transformation of these veterans suicidal veterans is amazing: they just turn their lives around. Nevertheless, for some more veterans, none of his medicine is getting through.

When and why this started to change?

Before, you could always send the medicine through Canada Post, but suddenly, about six months ago, it became a problem to get the plant through Canadian customs. They were confiscating a lot of ayahuasca, so we switched to DHL. But now in Peru, when our friends who cook the medicine try to send it to us, they can’t because they now have a new rule: it’s forbidden to transport liquids. We are trying to send again through Canada Post, but right now it is very very difficult to get ayahuasca to Canada.

Ayahuasca is controlled in Canada, even though it was never banned by the UN. Why is this contradiction?

The UN conventions never banned natural plant materials and yet when legislation appears in Canada, and I am sure everywhere else in the world, suddenly ayahuasca is put on the list of banned substances. How did that happen? It’s the pharmaceutical industry, the big corporate interests. They don’t want to see people being cured by ayahuasca. It threatens their profits. 

Are facilitators arrested or imprisoned for importing or serving ayahuasca?

The laws are on the books, but they don’t arrest anyone for the ayahuasca they confiscate. They give you a warning, they take away the medicine, but they don’t want to take the case to court, because if someone challenges it in court and there are experts testifying about how safe ayahuasca is, they may be forced to change the law. So the ceremonies are clandestine, but the enforcement of the law is also clandestine.

Allan Finney denounces the existence of “systematic corruption” in Health Canada, the Canadian health department: 

“Corruption is a ‘loaded’ term. In this case, it does not mean that bribes have been paid to Health Canada employees or that anything illegal has occurred, but that the regulatory system has been corrupted from serving the public interest to serving commercial interests. 

The systemic corruption is that Health Canada serves business interests. This is where the corruption comes in. I can point to many references from medical industry experts on this”.

Finney concludes his plea by reminding us that the eventual legalisation of ayahuasca in Canada may be the first step in an international movement to overturn the prohibition and stigma surrounding this ancient culture.

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Companionship for the Sacred Vine

Operation AyaLiberation (crowdfunding de CSV)

‘Estatus legal de la ayahuasca en Canadá’, ICEERS.‘Afinando el alma: enseñanzas sobre el quijotesco intento de importar legalmente ayahuasca en España’, Plantaforma, 1 de febrero de 2023

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