Ayahuasca is a hallucinogenic Amazonian plant brew. It has been used by native Indian and mestizo shamans in Peru, Colombia, and Ecuador for healing and divination, for hundreds, if not thousands of years. Used as a sacrament in religious ceremonies, it is an integral component of their religious expression. The indigenous peoples who worship their gods with the use of Ayahuasca are having their religious freedom threatened by western culture whom in their zealous desire to control drug use (fueled by the so called “drug war”) are passing legislation that bans the use of this plant. Through pressure and manipulation by the United States, most countries have unilaterally criminalized any use of various plants and the compounds within them, Ayahuasca is one of them. These legislative bans have been made without analysis or consideration of the people involved or the religious significance of the use of these plants in spiritual ceremonies.
In the following essay, I will explore the history and spiritual significance of Ayahuasca to the indigenous people of South America, and I will defend their right to use Ayahuasca in religious ceremonies.
Ayahuasca comes from the Quechua language: huasca means ‘vine’ and aya meaning ‘soul’ or ‘spirit’. This ‘Vine of the spirits’ is vital to spiritual tribal health and vitality. It is an integral part of their spiritual worship that has endured for centuries. The origins of the use of Ayahuasca in the Amazon Basin can be traced to prehistory. No one can say for certain where the practice originated but its widespread use among indigenous tribes throughout the Amazon Basin came to the attention of Western ethnographers in the mid-19th century. There is abundant archeological evidence (in the form of pottery vessels, anthropomorphic figurines, snuffing trays and tubes, etc.,) that plant hallucinogen use was well established in the Ecuadorian Amazon by 1500 – 2000 B.C. Suffice it to say, the use of Ayahuasca in worship is grounded in antiquity, it is a foundational component to Amazonian spiritual life.
Dimethyltryptamine or DMT is the active, mind altering compound of Ayahuasca. DMT can be found in relatively any life form, plants, animals, fungi or most astonishingly, secreted by the human brain. Despite its ubiquity, the role of DMT remains a mystery. It is believed that DMT fuels vivid dreams, mystical revelations, and religious exaltation, as well as having a role in memory. The difficulty in studying the effect of DMT in the body is that it is broken down quickly by the enzyme, monoamine oxidase. This enzyme quickly renders the compound useless in the gut before reaching the brain, unless taken with an MAO inhibitor. The role of MAO was only realized by scientists through the study of shamanic rituals in Ecuador, Brazil, and obscure areas of the Amazonian basin. Shamans have overcome MAO’s effects by careful combinations of wild Amazonian plants. One such plant is Psychotria viridis bush, which contains significant quantities of DMT. The other is the vine Banisteriopsis caapi, which contains Harmine, one of the most effective MAO inhibitors. This combination allows the DMT to pass the brain blood barrier causing a psychedelic effect.
Many Western trained physicians and psychologists have acknowledged that these substances can give access to spiritual dimensions of consciousness, even mystical experiences similar to classic religious mysticism. In spite of the fact that no harmful physiological effects have been found in association with Ayahuasca consumption, the US government has continued to pressure foreign governments to criminalize its use.
Anti-drug legislation has been particularly harsh with regard to hallucinogenic substances since the popularity of Lysergic Acid Diethylamide in the 50’s. Legislation was pushed in part because the effects produced by psychedelic drugs are strikingly similar to the symptoms of psychosis. In the 1950s, these similarities led to the suggestion that psychoactive compounds like DMT were the cause of schizophrenia. This gross speculation was later found to be short sighted and erroneous.
Ayahuasca is not the latest party drug, but a foul-tasting plant concoction that Amazonian people have been consuming and using for religious purposes for centuries. The nausea and vomiting that ensues after consumption of the plant verifies that it is not a “party drug” but is used for a spiritual, personal journey.
Ayahuasca is a plant of many legends, credited by natives to yield visions of the future, communication with nature, and telepathic communication with the spirit realm. Today this bitter tea, also known as hoasca, has become the sacramental ritual of two modern religions in Brazil. One of them, the União do Vegetal (UDV) church, has begun a legal battle with modern pharmaceutical companies in an effort to invalidate patents they acquired through nefarious means. The conflict over the plant began more than 10 years ago, when Loren Miller, director of the small California-based International Plant Medicine Corporation, took a sample of a medicinal plant cultivated by an indigenous community in Ecuador. Miller returned to California and obtained a patent from the U.S. government in 1986, claiming a new plant variety, which gave him exclusive rights to sell and breed new varieties from the plant. U.S. patent law requires the person requesting the patent to be the original breeder of the new plant variety. Indigenous groups argue that the plant is widely used throughout the region and that Miller did nothing to the plant to improve it. Therefore, they say, he cannot claim to be the “inventor” of the plant, and is not eligible for a patent. “The root of the dispute is not the Foundation or Miller, but that the U.S. patenting process favors corporations over the rights of indigenous people” (Edward Hammond, a researcher with the Rural Advancement International Foundation (RAFI)). He says because the U.S. patent office does not thoroughly check to see if a plant variety is genuinely new or if the applicant is indeed the original breeder, corporations can easily claim patents on plants grown and bred in other countries by indigenous peoples.
The perceived theft of Ayahuasca is especially disturbing to indigenous groups because the vine, also known as Yage, is held sacred by many indigenous communities. It has been cultivated throughout the Amazon rainforest since the pre-Colombian era for religious ceremonies and medicinal purposes. Only shamans are authorized to prepare it and no member of the community can drink it without the guidance of a shaman. “We would like to believe that, as the millennium is ending, so is the time of paternalism, protection and colonial practices — but it seems that we have the sin of optimism,” Augustin Grefa says (a leader of the Rio Blanco community, which is located 350 kilometers of Quito, Ecuador). “Commercializing an ingredient of the religious ceremonies and of healing for our people is a real affront for the over 400 cultures that populate the Amazon basin.”
There is much unrest and anger within tribes and groups in the Amazon basin and world wide. This anger I feel stems from the unfair, capitol driven, legislation of the US government. As globalization becomes more prevalent, US foreign policy must evolve as well.
For 35 years the federal government has allowed Native Americans to use peyote in their religious rituals (in spite of the fact that the drug is otherwise banned) while denying American members of Centro Espirita Beneficiente Uniao do Vegetal (UDV), a Brazil-based religious group, the use of Ayahuasca in their religious ceremonies . This is a double standard, both religious experiences are grounded in antiquity, neither substance has proven harmful after thousands of years of use, and both represent freedom of religious expression.
Freedom of religious expression is the cornerstone upon which the United States was founded. Yet laws are being passed that obstruct the religious freedoms of countless peoples. Through sanctions and political pressuring, the U.S. has managed to impose unilateral drug laws worldwide. Ayahuasca was placed under federal control in Schedule I (along with heroin and cocaine) when the Controlled Substances Act was passed in 1971, this means it is illegal to manufacture, buy, possess, or distribute (sell, trade or give) without a DEA license. Since then, several countries have followed suit (Table A1) including all countries in the United Nations. The penalty for distribution could result in up to seven years imprisonment. There have been several developments in 1999, 2000, and 2001 which have affected the practical legal status of Ayahuasca. In the United States, Europe, and South America, Ayahuasca has become a part of the “War on Drugs” resulting in several arrests for possession of Ayahuasca or its component plants.
Shamans are spiritual guides and healers to the tribe’s people they represent. From crafting poisonous arrows for hunting, to healing those who suffer from physical or spiritual sickness, the shaman’s role is akin to that of professor, doctor, and pastor. They have endured the criminalization of their religious practices and suffered the loss of land and resources. Ayahuasca is the largest and possibly oldest psychedelic religion known. Thousands of years of knowledge and culture are represented by tribes that practice Huasca rituals. Whether Ayahuasca is truly a conduit for spiritual planes of existence or not, it is imperative that as a global community we protect the rights and culture of all people.