Ayahuasca Santo Daime and the Law  | Pharmakeia.com


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by Aymeric Longi

In one of globalization’s unexpected twists, a sacred beverage used for two thousand years by the shamans of the Amazon has made its way to Europe setting off a strong reaction from law enforcement institutions. On November 18, 1999, the leaders of the French chapter of the Brazilian neo-Christian church Santo Daime were arrested by the police and put into custody at the La Santé prison in Paris. They had to wait until December 8 to be released.


Ayahuasca, which in Quechua means, "vine of the soul" or "vine of the dead", is a beverage used by the initiate to communicate with the world of spirits. For two thousand years before the early 20th century, the religious use of ayahuasca was restricted to the native people of the Amazon region. In the 1920s, many Brazilian neo-Christian churches started using ayahuasca as a sacrament in a syncretic fusion of Christianity and Shamanism. The largest of these churches today are Santo Daime (literally "Holy Give Me") and União do Vegetal ("Union of the Vegetal"). The churches functioned unhindered in Brazil until the mid-eighties. Then Brazil’s Medicine Division of the health ministry (DIMED) and Federal Council on Narcotics (CONFEN) intervened in response to pressure by the United States.
Basically, ayahuasca is prepared from two plants: yage (Banisteriopsis caapi), which contains harmaline, and chacruna (Psychotria viridis), which contains dimethyltryptamine (DMT). When taken orally, a gastric enzyme, monoamine oxydase, normally deactivates DMT. Harmaline protects DMT from the enzyme thus allowing it to be effective. Many other plants can be added in order to enhance or diminish certain effects, or for therapeutic purposes.
DIMED and CONFEN put Banisteriopsis caapi on the list of controlled substances in 1985 (ayahuasca means both the vine and the beverage made with it). União do Vegetal protested and an investigative committee was appointed. After scrutinizing the churches’ uses of ayahuasca for two years and tested it on themselves, the members of the committee recommended that ayahuasca be removed from the list of controlled substances. This was duly done in 1987, to the dismay of the U.S. embassy. In 1988, following "anonymous complaints" denouncing the distribution of cannabis and LSD to "millions of fanatics belonging to the cult" and to "drug addicts and former guerrillas", CONFEN again appointed an investigative committee. The later not only confirmed the 1987 decree legalizing the sacramental use of ayahuasca in Brazil but also recommended that ayahuasca be permanently exempted from the country’s list of controlled substances.

Currently, there are 22 religious groups using ayahuasca as a sacrament. One of the largest churches, Santo Daime, has branches is many countries including the United States, Japan, The Netherlands, Belgium, France, Germany, Spain, Britain and the Czech Republic.
But while the Brazilian authorities have given their blessing to the use of ayahuasca for religious purposes, this is far from being the case in the other nations where Santo Daime is established. Thus, in early October 1999, successive police raids in several European countries have resulted in seizures and arrests. The German fardados, as the members of Santo Daime call themselves, were the first to be targeted, followed by their Dutch brethren. On October 6, the police raided the Santo Daime shrine in Amsterdam, a chapel, during a ceremony (and waited until ayahuasca was distributed to the worshippers so as to be able to record an offense). The Dutch fardados leaders were charged as members of a criminal organization and of conspiracy to distribute DMT, which under the Dutch Opium law is a class 1 "dangerous drug devoid of therapeutic value".

The two leaders of the Netherlands chapter of Santo Daime were released on October 8. There were many differences in the way the case was received in France and the Netherlands. The raid in a church during a ceremony shocked the Dutch public, although the police allowed the worshippers to carry on with their celebration but not to ingest ayahuasca. About 100 people demonstrated in
favor of legalizing ayahuasca in Amsterdam on December 20. During the march,
Santo Daime’s lawyer said that the office of the public prosecutor, embarrassed by the scandal, had offered to drop the case altogether. The lawyer said that Santo Daime rejected the proposal because the church wants "a clear verdict from the judiciary". In addition, the case was well covered in the Dutch press.

By contrast, very few people have heard of the "Santo Daime affair" in France. The church leaders arrested on November 18 spent three weeks in detention (compared to three days for their Dutch counterparts) and the police have said that they will question all 40 members of the church’s branches in France. Reportedly, the police have tapped the phones of some church members. There are two branches of Santo Daime in France; one is in Paris and the other in Marseilles. Each branch should be registered as an association under French law. When it was raided, the Paris association had not completed the registration procedure but it had collected dues from its members as well as a fee of 150 francs each per ceremony (US $25; the Dutch chapter charged $50). Thus, in addition to drug trafficking (the ayahuasca had been imported from Brazil), the association could be charged with embezzlement. No-one demonstrated in support of the church in France. But the case gave rise to an intense mobilization of the fardados of Europe, and representatives from various countries have met to agree on a plan of action. They want their religion to be officially recognized and ayahuasca to be legalized.

Is Ayahuasca a Drug or Not?

Although its active ingredient is hallucinogenic and banned, ayahuasca cannot be simply classified as a dangerous drug because it is practically never used recreationally, but for spiritual and/or therapeutic purposes within a strict ritual framework.
According to Dr. Jacques Mabit, the founder of the Takiwasi detoxification center for basuco addicts in the Peruvian Amazon, which is subsidized by the French government’s Inter-ministerial Mission for the Fight against Drugs and Drug Addiction (MILDT), ayahuasca "is ingested by men, women and even children. It generates no addiction whatsoever. It is a purgative that can provoke spectacular but foreseeable and therefore harmless bouts of diarrhea and vomiting. At the same time, it induces amplified states of consciousness and for this reason it has psycho-therapeutic and traditional magic and religious applications." Dr. Mabit, who uses ayahuasca to treat his patients, adds, "it is wrong to say that ‘the smallest dosage error can be lethal’; in case of an overdose the patient vomits and eliminates the substance. That said, ayahuasca must be used in a controlled environment, as an instrument for exploring states of consciousness, not as entertainment. It must be used cautiously not because of its potential toxicity, which is extremely reduced (or even non existent), but because it is difficult to maintain control over altered states of consciousness. This is an exercise that requires the guidance of a ‘master’, who must be a specialist in these matters."

On top of all this, users must be physically and psychologically prepared before ingesting ayahuasca; for instance they must follow a strict diet in the days before the intake. Finally, ayahuasca tastes absolutely foul, so much so that some people cannot bring themselves to drink it, which provides an additional safeguard against its being used for the wrong reasons. While researchers have shed some light on its active ingredients and how they interact with the body, many features of ayahuasca are still shrouded in mystery. For instance, it is not known why the visions that it provokes are often staged in the Amazonian jungle and involve Amazonian animals such as jaguars and snakes.
Dr. Mabit’s detox center is not the only one to use ayahuasca to treat addicts. Friends of the Forest, the Amsterdam-based non-governmental organization that hosted Santo Daime, also proposed a detoxification program that included the use of the beverage. The special properties of ayahuasca could give ideas to the pharmaceutical industry.

At present, the legislation is quite ambiguous vis-à-vis ayahuasca. In France and in the Netherlands its active ingredient, DMT, is classified as a dangerous drug devoid of therapeutic interest. But when this classification was established most of the DMT sold on the illicit market was in the form of a highly-concentrated, ready-to-smoke crystal known as "the businessman’s trip" because its powerful hallucinogenic effects did not last very long (less than 30 minutes). Nowadays, this highly pure form of DMT is extremely rare and therefore very expensive at about 1000 francs ($170) a gram in France.
Almost all the DMT consumed today is in plant form and it is usually ingested as herbal tea. Importantly, the plants used to prepare these teas are not subjected to the same legislation as ayahuasca. It is legal to grow and possess them as long as they remain in their naturally occurring form. But when ayahuasca is prepared, the plants are subjected to a process of extraction and concentration and the resulting beverage becomes illegal. Banning the plants that contain DMT would be difficult, perhaps useless, and could have adverse consequences, above all for the Indians who not only use them but also grow and sell them. Finally, dozens of plants containing DMT grow around the world and new species are discovered regularly. For example, a large proportion of the species of acacia that grow on the planet contain DMT, and some have large amounts of it.

Ayahuasca Mad(e) in USA?

What caused the law enforcement agencies of several countries to target Santo Daime? Although Santo Daime can be viewed as a cult, it does not seem that its objective is to rob or enslave members. Santo Daime does not recruit new members aggressively and no more than 500 people in all have been involved with it since the church first started to operate in France in the late 1980s. Therefore, it is unlikely that the police acted to protect the public from a dangerous cult. In the Netherlands, fardados have been charged with drug trafficking and belonging to a criminal organization (logically, this latter charge should also be brought in France, in addition to a possible charge of embezzlement). If Santo Daime is a drug-dealing criminal organization then why did the French authorities and their European counterparts wait so long to intervene?

According to sources close to the Peruvian embassy in Paris, this anti-ayahuasca campaign would be a reaction to American pressure on Europe, but opinions diverge as to what motivated Washington. Some say that it is an attack of antidrug hysteria, similar to the panic felt by the United States it was learned that some of the GIs posted in Somalia had picked up the habit of chewing khat. But U.S. law does allow the use of peyote during the syncretic ceremonies of the Native American Church. Then, others claim, the Americans must have more Machiavellian intentions, like wishing to get rid of a natural substance that competes with a product manufactured by the pharmaceutical industry. In 1986, Loren Miller of the International Plant Medicine Corporation took out a patent for Banisteriopsis caapi (yage) giving her the exclusive rights to sell and develop new varieties. To obtain the patent, Miller simply pulled out a yage plant from the garden of an Ecuadorian family without as much as asking permission, returned to the United States, and applied to the Patent and Trademark office (PTO). The Ecuador-based Coordinating Committee of the Native Organizations of the Amazon Basin (COICA) protested when it became aware of Miller’s intents in 1996, long in vain. The PTO eventually acknowledged the inadequacy of the American legislation and cancelled Miller’s patent in 1999. Meanwhile, COICA had announced that Miller and her company were "enemies of the native peoples" and that they were "banned from entering native territories", following which the Inter-American Foundation, a U.S. government development agency, said that it would reconsider all future assistance to COICA. Because of the scandal, in 1996 the Ecuadorian government refused to sign a bilateral agreement on intellectual property rights with the United States that would have made the U.S. legislation on patents applicable in Ecuador. Washington replied by threatening Ecuador with economic sanctions. Likewise, the United States has threatened Thailand and South Africa with sanctions if they start manufacturing cheap medicines for their AIDS patients. The patents for the molecules concerned belong to American firms — in spite of a WHO directive canceling such patents in case of a global pandemic, which is the case of AIDS – which illustrates the growing power of the pharmaceutical industry.

 Finally, the U.S. Senate has refused to ratify the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity that recognizes the property rights of native peoples and was signed by more than 100 countries including Ecuador. It took three years for the Amazonian Indians to win their cause. However, if a firm develops a synthetic yage or chacruna, then patents can be granted and profits made unhindered.

Internet to the Rescue of Ancient Gods

Ayahuasca is not an isolated phenomenon. Indeed, while the new millennium
raises fears that all kinds of dangerous synthetic drugs will spread, paganism and the spiritual use of traditional plants from around the world are coming back with a vengeance through the Internet. Paradoxically, although native peoples never stopped using these plants in spite of Western attempts at eradicating them, the enthusiasm for these plants, their uses and the ways of life that go with them is growing fast within the Western world.
In the recent past, when Internet did not exist, it was necessary to travel far or to know the right person in order to experiment with these plants; the information was just not there for the non initiate. Internet changed all this, firstly by making the information easily available. A large number of websites specialize in offering ethnological, historical and biological data about the plants and their uses. Psychonauts and basement shamans from around the world talk and exchange information in discussion groups while "Trip Reports" pages are there for them to post their experiences.

Want to buy a plant that grows 10,000 miles from your home? Get on the Web. Many sites that sell plants by correspondence (while saying that they should not be consumed) have appeared in the wake of the information websites; most are located in the United States. Alongside yage and chacruna, they sell other plants from which ayahuasca can be prepared as well as psychotropic plants from the five continents such as San Pedro and peyote cactuses, kava roots, Amanita muscaria mushrooms, Ephedra, Datura, tobacco, "diviner’s sage", "dream herb", etc. A type of chacruna reputedly stronger than the Amazonian
species is produced in Hawaii. Literally hundreds of these plants are available on the Net and, of course, the seeds of most of them can also be purchased together with spores of magic mushrooms (psylocybes) from around the planet and the paraphernalia necessary to grow them. Although psylocybes are illegal in most countries their spores are legal. Some American sites offer synthetic versions of active ingredients found in plants such as 5-MeO-DMT, an extremely powerful hallucinogen which is the active ingredient in Sonoran Desert toad venom, for $300 a gram.
In an interview about the Santo Daime scandal, Professor Wolff of the Leiden Academic Hospital, a toxicologist and advisor of the Dutch health ministry, said, "this is a complicated judicial contradiction, and to be honest, no one has ever explained to me why these substances are on list 1 of the Opium Law in the first place. This applies, in my opinion, also for psylocin and psylocybin! We see a specific group of substances, mostly from botanical origin, that influence human consciousness, but don’t have problematic side effects. We know from most of these substances that they are not addictive and people don’t show withdrawal symptoms when they stop using these substances. I don’t understand why such a fuss is made about substances that are even less harmful than marijuana."
Indeed, judging from the conversations appearing in chat groups most users do not view the psychotropic plants as drugs but as tools for meditation and self-exploration or as sacraments. All of these plants and their molecules are now referred to in the specialized literature as "entheogenic" (revealing the divine within) rather than hallucinogenic, and usually they are used within ritualistic settings. Many users of entheogenics have stopped taking banned drugs (except cannabis) even for recreational purposes. This is probably more than a new age fad, perhaps a return to basic principles. In a time when technology and money are the new gods while the "opium of the people" has proved unable to bring happiness to people, the religions inherited from ancient times find a fertile ground on which to grow simply by filling a common spiritual void. Especially as they imply no hierarchy or dogma but a personal form of spirituality that can be developed on a daily basis through the use of plants. A new stage in the expansion of this way of life has been reached in Europe where the "Santo Daime affair" has set off a debate on freedom of worship when it implies the use of a banned substance.

© of this article 2000 by Aymeric Longi, researcher at the Observatoir
geopolitique des Drogues (OGD)
. It was originally published in the
annual report of the geopolitical drug watch 1998-1999,
which can be downloaded for free on their Website

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