Image Source: Ayahuasca Defense Fund video via Vimeo

As the new psychedelic revolution continues to expand, more people are investigating the many benefits of plant medicines like ayahuasca and ibogaine, but inevitably, in times of change like this, some people are still caught up in the fading but persistent machinations of the War on Drugs. Luckily, organizations like Barcelona-based nonprofit ICEERS (International Center for Ethnobotanical Education Research and Service) offer legal help to psychedelic facilitators who are being persecuted for sharing entheogenic traditional medicines. ICEERS recently launched a crowdfunding campaign to develop their Ayahuasca Defense Fund, a project that seeks to offer legal help, public education, and policy reform surrounding the use of psychoactive plants. We spoke with the founder and executive director of ICEERS, Benjamin De Loenen, about the genesis of their legal support program and their future goals.

A Cry for Help Gets Answered

Necessity is the mother of invention, and it took a legal case six years ago and a plea for help to get the ICEERS team to begin thinking about a comprehensive legal support program. As Benjamin explained to us, “In the beginning of 2010, I was contacted by people who said that the police raided their ceremony in Chile, and they asked for us to help. At the time, we knew about the scientific aspects of ayahuasca but had no idea about the legality, yet we were well connected so we started to help them.”

With his background in film, Benjamin thought to leverage the power of visual storytelling to study this case and reveal the prevailing forces surrounding it:

“The media had a harsh treatment of the case, saying they were a cult and drawing parallels to Charles Manson, really demonizing them. When I went there, I took a cameraman and we filmed without having a film plan. By the time the court case came in 2012, there was another local team that filmed too, and later we turned all that footage into a documentary, Ayahuasca Reframed. Other people saw that trailer online and started to contact us for help too. So that trailer and the experience we got going through the legal process of that case lead us to become involved in legal defense all around the world. So far we have helped in over 40 cases, and it came to the point where we felt we needed to professionalize this, and that’s how the idea for the Ayahuasca Defense Fund got born.”

Education and Protection for Psychedelic Traditions

Navigating the legality of psychoactive substances around the world is a daunting task, with differing laws around the world and different forms of plant medicines that may or not be treated similarly. As Benjamin shared with us, this legal complexity means ICEERS and they people they defend need to be well-informed on differing laws from country to country:

“The plants are different from the chemicals and the extracted alkaloids, so people really need knowledge before they deal with the authorities. At this moment, we are helping four defendants of three cases in Israel, a case in Malta, in Germany, France, Spain, Poland, and the US. We get contacted very often by people who are caught in the drug control system and don’t know what to do.”

No doubt, those people are extraordinarily grateful to have a team of international drug law experts at ICEERS to help them when they need it most. Benjamin also shared one fascinating bit of information about international drug laws surrounding plant medicines  they are actually legal under international law.

“[P]eople generally don’t know about the International Narcotics Control Board (INCB), [which] sets the international conventions on drugs. Convention 61 is about narcotic drugs such as heroin and plants that are controlled cannabis, opium poppy, and coca plant. They have a 1971 convention on psychotropic drugs that includes LSD, MDMA, DMT, mescaline, etc, but under that convention, they clearly state that no plants in their natural form are under control. We actually have a letter from the INCB stating that no plant or concoction made from plants that contain DMT are under international control, so teacher plants like ayahuasca, peyote, and San Pedro are not illegal under that convention (even though they are boiled into a brew). Countries can have specific laws that make them illegal, like the US and France do, but there is no international law prohibiting them.”

Why the Ayahuasca Defense Fund Is So Important

Supporting the legal status of psychedelic plants and the people who engage with them is important for many reasons, but even beyond the critical support it offers to people involved in the court system, it has deeper implications as well. “We are talking here about a cultural ceremonial practice, of which ayahuasca is just one aspect of many, and from a pharmacological point of view, DMT is very different from ayahuasca as well. You need a comprehensive legal strategy to navigate these cases. For governments, even if there are not jail times or penalties attached, each case very often decides how future cases go. It sets a precedent even though it’s not at a supreme court level.”

To be part of this movement to defend plant teachers and shift the legal tide in favor of respecting these ancient healing traditions, please make a donation to the Ayahuasca Defense Fund as you are able and spread the word so that this important program can help to pave the way for safe and legal psychedelic use across the world.