Ayahuasca is a powerful and ancient psychedelic concoction that peoples of the Amazon have used for millennia in rituals and healing ceremonies. The ayahuasca brew is composed of two different amazonian forest plants, one that contains the powerful psychedelic DMT (such as leaves from the Chacruna shrub), and another that contains MAO inhibitors that allows the DMT to take effect (usually the vine Banisteriopsis caapi, known as the “vine of souls”). Use of ayahuasca is deeply engrained into the culture of amazonian peoples, but as a consciousness-altering substance it has faced scrutiny and been outlawed in many countries, even in South American states where it has been traditionally used for centuries. Thankfully, cultural advocates and forward-thinking government agencies in Brazil and Peru have undertaken genuine studies of ayahuasca and its physiological and social effects, and the results of their efforts have been eye opening. In these countries, ayahuasca is not only legal, it is honored and protected as part of their cultural heritage.
Brazil’s history of ayahuasca legalization is a wonderful tale of reason winning out over reactionary fear and speculation. In 1985 (not-so-surprisingly during the height of the “war on drugs”) the Brazilian government added ayahuasca and its constituent plants to their list of outlawed substances. The Brazilian people were outraged, and a group called the Uniao do Vegetal (UDV) brought a suit against the government to challenge the new law.
What happened next is remarkable. To investigate the matter, the Brazilian government appointed CONFEN (their federal drug agency) to look more deeply into ayahuasca. They found that use of ayahuasca was not associated with addiction or social disruption, and even found that those who used ayahuasca were periodically healthier and more productive than average citizens. As part of the investigation, CONFEN members did the unthinkable. They actually tried ayahuasca themselves in a traditional ceremony, and their personal experiences reinforced their findings that it was doing far more good than harm in Brazilian society.[1. “Legal Status of Ayahuasca in Brazil.” https://www.erowid.org/chemicals/ayahuasca/ayahuasca_law6.shtml] By 1992, ayahuasca and its constituent plants were officially exempted from the list of illegal drugs.
While the investigation and legalization of ayahuasca by the Brazilian government is impressive, the government of Peru has taken things a step further and declared ayahuasca a national treasure. In 2008, the Peruvian National Institute of Culture published a document that calls ayahuasca “one of the fundamental pillars of the identity of Amazonian peoples.” The institute, which is charged with documenting and protecting Peruvian cultural heritage, went on to describe ayahuasca as “a wise or teaching plant, which shows to initiates the very foundations of the world and its components.” It also stated that, when used in a traditional ritual, it “leads to a variety of effects which are always within culturally defined limits, and with religious, therapeutic, and culturally affirmative intentions.”[2. “Ayahuasca: Peruvian National Cultural Heritage.” http://www.ayahuasca.com/news/ayahuasca-national-cultural-heritage/XX] A declaration like this from a national government is incredibly hopeful for those who understand that psychedelics, when used in the proper context, have incredible healing potential.
Progress in the North
While countries like Brazil and Peru are far ahead of us when it comes to understanding and embracing ayahuasca, the good news is that progress is being made in the north as well. The Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) recently completed the first North American study of ayahuasca for addiction treatment, which concluded that ayahuasca-assisted therapy “was correlated with statistically significant improvements in mindfulness, empowerment, hopefulness, quality of life-outlook, and quality of life-meaning. It may also have contributed to statistically significant reductions in cocaine use.”[3. Ayahuasca-Assisted Therapy for Addiction: Results from a Preliminary Observational Study in Canada. http://www.maps.org/research-archive/ayahuasca/Thomas_et_al_CDAR.pdf] This is a big step in the right direction, and further studies will likely have us embracing the healing properties of ayahuasca more and more, showing us through the lens of science what the amazonian people have known for centuries.