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.
Here you can watch and listen to the full interview:
Who do you think should be allowed to give psychedelic substances to patients?
In our society it is the doctors who are authorised to prescribe medicines. Therefore, the medical establishment will probably sweep the matter under the carpet and say that only doctors – and only psychiatric doctors – should be allowed to administer these substances. What happens is that substances like psilocybe mushrooms or ayahuasca come from traditions that have kept them alive for millennia, and indigenous peoples have a knowledge that psychiatric doctors do not have. I think that it should be authorised to the indigenous people, that is to say to those who are called taitas, healers, shamans, vegetalistas… who are the real experts in these substances, they are the ones who know the most about this. We are talking about a tradition that has been kept alive for centuries and is a very important part of their culture. There is a lot to learn from them.
However, the priority now is to decriminalise and decriminalise these substances. What is not logical is that in Italy, which has just banned ayahuasca, the penalty for having an ayahuasca session is 30 years in prison, a much longer sentence than if you kill someone. This is nonsense.
Indeed, there seems to be a tug of war between anti-prohibitionist forces, resistance to change from prohibitionist institutions and, to top it all off, corporations.
So far the game has been between the repressive police forces of the state and the underground therapists. Now, with the ‘psychedelic renaissance’ the pharmaceutical companies are going to come into play, the corporations that are taking out patents on these medicines and are going through the whole process of making them legal medicines, and the medical establishment, which is also going to get in there, so a new player is going to come into the game, and it’s going to get even more interesting.
What is the role of shamans and traditional healers in this eventual regulatory framework?
It is complex. I read about it in an article of yours about this movement called Decriminalize Nature. I thought the basis was, as the name says, to decriminalise all these activities, but it seems that what they want to do is to regulate and curb these activities. We have been using consciousness-altering substances since the dawn of civilisation. There is archaeological evidence to show that we have been using these substances since before the invention of agriculture, when we were hunter-gatherers. In other words, they are the cradle of our species. So, for that to be criminalised, I think it’s as nonsensical as criminalising music, because we’ve been making music for millennia gathered around the fire, probably doing both things at the same time: taking these plants and making music.
Decriminalize Nature tries, on the one hand, to repeal the ban on master plants and, on the other hand, to prevent their use from becoming the exclusive preserve of the pharmaceutical industry, which does not always take care of our health as it should.
The problem with pharmaceutical corporations is that their priority is their shareholders. They are profit-driven corporations and are not to be trusted in that sense. Moreover, these substances are not limited to pharmaceuticals, because they also have religious, spiritual uses…. They are not drugs that you go to the pharmacy, buy and take at home and that’s it, but they are substances that have their efficacy and their use in ceremonial contexts… there is a whole culture around the use of these plants that is necessary for their proper use; all of this goes beyond the scope of action of pharmaceutical companies. In the coming years there will be a conversation between all the actors involved in this issue and hopefully we will be able to reach an agreement that is most favourable for everyone, but, I reiterate, the fundamental thing is to put an end to criminalisation because if there are people in prison for this, it is as if it puts them in jail for playing music.
Do you think it is appropriate to speak of ayahuasca and other psychedelics as “medicines”? Because this can lead to them being automatically appropriated by the medical establishment.
What is happening now in psychiatry is that there has been no relevant drug development for many, many years. The last revolution in psychiatry was the serotonin reuptake antidepressants, such as Prozac, in the late 1980s, i.e. more than 40 years ago. Then, psychedelics arrived like a wave, although they were already being used and experimented with in the 40s, 50s and 60s. What happened is that at the end of the 1970s they were banned for mainly political reasons: Richard Nixon’s ‘War on Drugs’. The studies that are being done so far are showing a good performance in depression resistant to conventional treatment. The difference is that the psychedelic is not administered in the same way as an antidepressant, where you take a pill every day and after a few weeks it starts to work. These substances are taken in a special environment, with a guide, in a neat, comfortable room, and music is used to guide the experience. In addition, there is preparation work beforehand and integration work afterwards. All this is very different from the traditional pharmacological model. If we go to the traditional use of healers, we enter into the animist worldview that plants have their spirit and when you take them, it is the spirit of the plant that comes and heals you. This is completely unacceptable on a Western medical scientific level. The studies that are being done on depression do not go into the animist side, but they do recognise that there is a direct correlation between the experience of a mystical experience during the intake and the therapeutic results. In other words, the more complete the mystical experience the person has when taking these plants, the better the therapeutic results.
Another important difference is that sometimes it is enough to take the psychedelic substance once to obtain significant therapeutic results, sometimes even a cure.
It is indeed less cost-effective, but I also imagine that the companies involved in this will do their accounts and calculate how much a psychedelic intervention can cost. It is not that it is cheap, because you have a series of professionals dedicated to a person for a long time, both before and after, and all of that has costs. It is true that at the pharmacological level the costs of these substances are ephemeral, especially considering that LSD is active at the microgram level.
You pointed out another difference: the importance of the human factor in therapeutic efficacy, something we know well in the shamanic context: the importance of the tribe.
There are studies that show that when these substances are administered in a group they are more effective, something that traditional cultures already know.
It would be nice, therefore, if both worldviews – the pharmacological and the shamanic/psychonaut – were enriched, because the world is really facing a serious mental health problem.
All of us who have been in the underground of these therapies have made trips to the Amazon to learn with the traditions that keep these practices alive, we have gone to the source and then we have adapted as best we could what was adaptable from those traditions to our western world, but that is very important. I think that especially at the level of the importance of music; since the beginning, in the 60s, of psychedelic therapies, music has always played a fundamental role. The ceremonies were and still are guided by music and this is something that comes from the indigenous traditions. The healer is recognised by the way he sings: the way he sings is the way he heals.
You can watch and listen to the full interview here.
«Las plantas maestras pueden paliar la crisis de salud mental de los olvidados por el sistema de salud de EEUU», Plantaforma, 18 de marzo de 2022.
El Ministerio de Salud de Italia prohíbe, por sorpresa, la ayahuasca. Plantaforma, 24 de marzo de 2022.