Mar 3, 2017

Ayahuasca: The lawyer fighting for those who take the hallucinogenic drug for religious reasons

Ayahuasca being used during a ceremony in Columbia
'I advocate for the use of ayahuasca as a sacrament. The world is in spiritual crisis these days'

Kashmira Gander
February 28, 2017

a state where it can do little else other than vomit and crap and while your brain vividly hallucinates. But it’s that level of potency that makes the ayahuasca drug so important in South American spiritual medicine.

Ayahuasca, also known as yage, is a blend of the ayahuasca vine and the chacruna shrub containing dimethyltryptamine or DMT: a hallucinogen. It is created by macerating and boiling the components. The thick, brown brew is then drunk. This process has been repeated for hundreds of years in search of spiritual awakening.

Although the statistics aren't concrete, experts believe that ayahuasca use has been spreading rapidly worldwide, as native American spiritual practices become better known and Westerners look to find themselves, sometimes with devastating effect. In 2014 19-year-old British backpacker Henry Miller died after taking a brew of yage in Colubmia.

While it is illegal in most nations - although almost a decade ago, yage was recognised as a “pillar” of the identity of Amazonian people in Peru - its links with religion sets it in a grey area. In the US, for instance, the First Amendment protects religious freedom while the Drug Enforcement Agency doesn’t look kindly on people supping on powerful hallucinogens.

J. Hamilton Hudson, a lawyer based in the US, is a Research Associate at the Ayahuasca Defense Fund (ADF) which is dedicated to protecting those who use the drug for religious reasons, and counsels those who are concerned about crackdowns.

We asked him about what it's like to try yage, and why he's fighting for people to be able to use it.

Which groups use yage?

Some shamans in the Upper Amazon rainforest from tribes that traditionally drink ayahuasca, Including the Shipibo-Conibo, Huni Kuin, Ashaninka, Huachiperi, and Jívaro, say they learned to drink ayahuasca from jaguars. Interestingly enough, in 2002 the BBC released footage of a jaguar eating ayahuasca leaves in Weird Nature.

Two big churches use ayahuasca all over the world, though they come from Brazil. Santo Daime and the União do Vegeta (UDV). For them, ayahuasca is used as a sacrament, like the Eucharist in Christian churches. Though ayahuasca packs a stronger punch than wafers and wine.

More and more new ayahuasca churches are forming with ayahuasca at their ceremonial centre.

Have you ever tried it?

When living in Pucallpa, Peru working for Alianza Arkana [a group advocating for indigenous peoples] I had the privilege of travelling with my Shipibo-Conibo [an indigenous people] friend to harvest an ayahuasca vine on his family land that he had his eye on since he was a child and I tried that. It was serious.

What is the current law on ayahuasca, and how is it problematic?

Ayahuasca is illegal in most countries save Peru. In some countries, enforcement is lacking. In others, like the Netherlands, ayahuasca is seized on sight by customs. This is all because ayahuasca contains a Schedule I substance, DMT. One problem is that many people think ayahuasca does not equal DMT because the amount of DMT in ayahuasca is too minimal. Another problem is that under some circumstances, religious freedom laws do permit ayahuasca use, but people totally misinterpret how much freedom they have and they think that if they call themselves a “church” they automatically get a blanket of protection—which is wrong. So they get their ayahuasca seized, they get arrested, or they get scary letters from the Drug Enforcement Administration.

Tells us about the controversy surrounding the use of ayahuasca by people posing as Native American churches

The problem with people who are not Native American identifying as a Native American Church and using ayahuasca should be pretty clear. It’s disrespectful to Native Americans. For hundreds of years immigrants have been appropriating Native American names and images for ski hills and football teams, their land for its resources, and their clothing for costumes. Costuming an ayahuasca church as “Native American” when Native Americans didn’t even drink ayahuasca because of some dubious belief that the shameless appropriation will provide some legal protection does a disservice to Native Americans. The “Native American Church” church “certifying” new ayahuasca churches is, in my opinion, super shady and a coalition of real Native American Churches disavowed it in court.

How can ayahuasca be used positively?

Ayahuasca can be used positively when it is used as a sacrament. That is, used for divine communion within the context of an institutionalised ritual with a framework for integration. There are some other ways ayahuasca can be used positively, too, like in the treatment of depression. In fact, there are a lot of ways ayahuasca can be used positively. This quote from a conversation between a Harvard ethnobotanist Richard Evans Spruce and a Kofán shaman tells it like it is:

“When Schultes asked the shaman how often the people drank Yagé [ayahuasca] his response suggested the question had no meaning; during illness, of course, and in the wake of death; in times of need and hardship; at certain passages in life; when a young boy of six has his initial haircut or when he kills for the first time. And naturally, the shaman suggested, a youth will drink Yagé at puberty…as a young man he may drink it at his leisure to improve his hunting technique or simply to flaunt his physical prowess. The message that Schultes received was that the Kofán took Yagé whever they felt like it—at least once a week and no doubt on any occasion that warranted it.”

I advocate for the use of ayahuasca as a sacrament. The world is in spiritual crisis these days, so people could benefit from a well-worn path to their "Divine Being". In the eyes of the law, the most legitimate use for ayahuasca is religious purposes.

Where does the balance lie between legislating on ayahuasca and enabling people to use it for religious ceremonies?

The right legislation enables people to use ayahuasca for religious ceremonies, but it sets the standard so that people are not doing shoddy, chaotic, and sloppy ceremonies without frameworks for integration.

What is the most important thing readers should know about ayahuasca?

The most important thing readers should know about ayahuasca is don't try it. They might not like the taste.

I think it is important to remember that in every “shaman” there is a “sham

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