The Long March of Ayahuasca; From the Amazon basin to UNGASS 2016

Notes on the World Ayahuasca Conference 2014

Constanza Sanchez Aviles, GDPO Research Associate & Law, Policy & Human Rights Coordinator at ICEERS Foundation

The World Ayahuasca Conference (AYA2014), held in Ibiza on September 25th-27th and organized by the ICEERS Foundation gathered more than six hundred professionals and non-professionals with an interest in this psychoactive Amazonian beverage, coming from nearly 60 different countries: shamans, psychologists and therapists, anthropologists, lawyers, doctors, drug policy experts and even some government representatives shared and enjoyed, in the symbolic and privileged environment of this Spanish island, workshops, book presentations, film screenings and conferences of the most prominent experts in the field such as Jonathan Ott, Dennis McKenna, Claudio Naranjo or Bia Labate, naming just a few of the 100 international experts that participated for this event. Renowned personalities from the drug policy arena such as Ethan Nadelmann, Amanda Fielding, Pien Metaal, Rick Doblin or Kasia Malinowska-Sempruch and many drug policy researchers and activists also attended, turning AYA2014 into a pivotal moment in the history of ayahuasca in the broader drug policy context.


Benjamin de Loenen, Bia Labate, Leon Garcia, Amanda Fielding, Joan Obiols and Claudio Naranjo.

For hundreds of years, Amazonian indigenous societies have been using ayahuasca to facilitate the physical and psychological health of the individual as well as the community. However, Western societies are in general repressive and intolerant towards the potential of plants with psychoactive properties, mistakenly interpreting their use as destructive and addictive, even though they are increasingly being recognized for their potential role in psychotherapeutic processes and the improvement of interpersonal relations.

Ayahuasca is a psychoactive beverage composed of two plants, Banisteriopsis caapi and Psychotria viridis, the latter of which contains DMT (N,N-dimethyltryptamine), a controlled substance under the 1971 United Nations Convention on Psychotropic Substances (Schedule I) and therefore under most national drug legislations. However, the International Narcotics Control Board (INCB), the quasi-judicial monitoring body for the implementation of the United Nations international drug control conventions, has specifically stated that ayahuasca and similar botanicals that contain psychoactive alkaloids that are included in the 1971 convention are not under international control, unlike coca, opium poppies or cannabis.

During the past few decades, ayahuasca use has spread beyond its native Amazonian context; the globalization has facilitated the cultural interchange between indigenous and occidental practices leading to a globalized interest in traditional ceremonial use, therapeutic use and religious use of ayahuasca. Brazilian churches like the Santo Daime or the União do Vegetal, which incorporate the ritual use of ayahuasca in their practices, have settled in an increasing number of countries, along with indigenous healers as well as occidental practitioners offering ayahuasca sessions to a broader interested public. Particularly in the last five years, collectives and individuals involved in these practices have suffered stigmatization and legal prosecution in the US, and many parts of Europe and South America. These prosecutions included respected indigenous leaders such as Taita Juan Bautista Agreda (also present at AYA2014) who was arrested in Texas in 2010, and released later on, members of Santo Daime and UDV in the UK, Spain, Netherlands, US, Italy, Belgium and Germany, and Western practitioners working with ayahuasca in therapeutic or spiritual practices, such as the arrest of members of the Argentinean center Emilio, Manto Wasi in Chile, and over 50 cases in Spain, Portugal, UK, Belgium, Switzerland, Netherlands, and Germany.

At the end of 2009 ICEERS became involved in the defense of the court case of Manto Wasi Center in Chile and made a request to the INCB on March 2010 to clarify the legal status of plants and preparations containing DMT. On June 2010, the INCB response confirmed that “no plant or decoction containing DMT, including ayahuasca is currently under international control”. However, the Board added that some countries may have decided to apply control measures to the use and trade of ayahuasca, due to the “serious health risks” that the use of this preparation carries[1]. In fact, the experience suggests the interpretation of the 1971 Convention has not been uniform among individual States, which have had the final decision in regulating ayahuasca use within their own territories.

The challenge faced by lawyers and policy-makers comes, on the one hand, from the fact that the religious and ritual use of ayahuasca has spread at the global level but resists traditional conceptualizations and categorizations of illegal drug “abuse” that has determined drug policy formulation. Ayahuasca has a long history of use as a medicine, sacrament and ‘plant teacher’, categories that do not fit into contemporary drug policy frames[2]. On the other hand, the presence of ayahuasca religions is forcing some States to balance the respect for these groups against their international commitments within the worldwide “war on drugs”, namely to balance Western perceptions of drug use with the evolving use of ayahuasca[3].


Taita Juan Bautista Agreda, Kajuyali and Sia Kaxinawa.

This ambiguous situation has generated considerable confusion surrounding the categorization of ayahuasca and the assessment of the potential risks of its use in the context of what are considered “reasonably safe and socially controlled ritual contexts”[4]. For instance, ayahuasca has been considered an ‘emerging drug’ by the Clinical Committee for the Spanish National Plan on Drugs and categorized as a ‘plant-origin drug of abuse’[5]. The INCB, rather than providing clarity, has contributed to this lack of understanding noting that there exist an apparent “interest in the recreational use of such plant materials” which are “often used outside of their original socio-economic context to exploit substance abusers”[6]. Two years later, the INCB referred to ayahuasca as one of “the most commonly sold new psychoactive substances” through the Internet, apparently encouraged by a lack of clarity concerning the control status of the plants at the national and the international level and exploited by “drug trafficking networks and online retailers, resulting in increased trade, use and abuse of these plant materials in many countries”[7].

However, epidemiological and scientific evidence available on the use of ayahuasca and its consequences do not seem to be in line with INCB statements. In contrast, ICEERS’ Ayahuasca Scientific Literature Compilation[8] and Technical Report on Ayahuasca[9] seem to point in the opposite direction. Moreover, scientific research points towards ayahuasca’s beneficial effects on addiction[10], cognitive functions[11] and depression[12]. The court case of Manto Wasi in Chile even concluded that ayahuasca had been beneficial for the participants of the sessions and the latest case in Catalonia concluded similarly to ICEERS’ Technical Report that there is no scientific proof of ayahuasca being a harmful substance.

Furthermore, in some Latin American countries (Brazil, Peru) ayahuasca religions and traditional practices are recognized as cultural heritage and the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples adopted in 2007 includes the right of indigenous people “to their traditional medicines and to maintain their health practices, including the conservation of their vital medicinal plants, animals and minerals” (Article 24).

Therefore, considering the ritual and therapeutic use of ayahuasca to be similar to the problematic use of controlled drugs like opiates, cocaine or methamphetamine, or considering that this psychoactive preparation is inserted in drug trafficking networks and illegal markets, is misinformed, not evidence-based, and contribute to generate confusion around the legality and legitimacy of these practices.

The grey zone in which ayahuasca is located nowadays encouraged ICEERS to give the legal and political issues a prominent place within AYA2014. The conference was intended to be a space for joint reflection and discussion, building a bridge between ayahuasca churches legal strategists such as Santo Daime and União do Vegetal, lawyers that have defended ayahuasca cases worldwide and drug policy researchers and activists.

In order to support this endeavor, the first meeting of the so-called Ibiza Expert Committee for Regularization of Psychoactive Ethnobotanicals took place within the Conference, intended to be a starting point for a multi-faceted international campaign aimed at rightful, justified, regulated, professionally managed use of psychoactive plants for individual and social benefit.

In addition to the need for assistance in the context of legal ambiguity in which ayahuasca unfolds today, ICEERS also is committed to foster a change of scenario. Particularly, its intention is to fight INCB attempts to control traditional plants. In this sense, learning from the experience of other substances such as cannabis and coca for the defense of ayahuasca, within a context of drug policy evaluation and reform is essential. Therefore, perhaps one of the main achievements of AYA2014 has been to “introduce” ayahuasca to drug policy activists and professionals. And vice versa: to introduce to the ayahuasca community the political strategies being developed for other substances in different contexts. Building a solid networking and political strategy for psychoactive plants vis-a-vis UNGASS 2016 could be a good starting point.

[1] The fax sent to ICEERS by the INCB in 2010 is available by request at

[2] Kenneth W. Tupper, “The globalization of ayahuasca: Harm reduction or benefit maximization?”, International Journal of Drug Policy, 19 (2008) 297–303.

[3] Beatriz Caiuby Labatea & Kevin Feeney, “Ayahuasca and the process of regulation in Brazil and internationally: Implications and challenges”, International Journal of Drug Policy, 23 (2012), 54– 161.

[4] Statement on ayahuasca, International Journal of Drug Policy, 23 (2012) 173-175.

[5] Mainly referring to ectopic uses in religious rites far from the places of origin, as peyote users in the United States or ayahuasca shamanic groups of the Santo Daime Church in Madrid. See Comisión Clínica de la Delegación del Gobierno para el Plan Nacional sobre Drogas, “Drogas Emergentes”, available at

[6] INCB Annual Report, 2010, par. 286.

[7] INCB Annual Report 2012, par. 329-330.

[9] Also available by request at

[10] Thomas G, Lucas P, Capler NR, Tupper KW, Martin G. 2013. Ayahuasca-assisted therapy for addiction: results from a preliminary observational study in Canada. Curr Drug Abuse Rev. 6 (1):30-42; Bouso, JC y Riba, J. 2014. Ayahuasca and the Treatment of Drug Addiction, in Labate, B y Cavnar, C (eds). The Therapeutic Use of Ayahuasca. Springer.

[11] Bouso JC, González D, Fondevila S, Cutchet M, Fernández X, Ribeiro Barbosa PC, Alcázar-Córcoles MÁ, Araújo WS, Barbanoj MJ, Fábregas JM, Riba J. 2012. Personality, psychopathology, life attitudes and neuropsychological performance among ritual users of Ayahuasca: a longitudinal study. PLoS One.; 7 (8):e42421. Available at

[12] Osório,F., Sanchez, R., Macedo, L et al. (in press). Antidepressant effects of a single dose of ayahuasca in patients with recurrent depression: a preliminary report. Revista Brasileira de Psiquiatria.