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Pinchbeck: 4

Edging ever closer to 2012, our resident shaman examines society’s tricky relationship with mind-bending plants

Over the last decade, a bitter tasting drink that makes people vomit, shit, and shiver for hours has become increasingly trendy, even though it remains illegal in many countries. The drink is called ayahuasca, and it is a powerful visionary potion. All across the Amazon, from Brazil to Ecuador, tribal groups use ayahuasca, sometimes called “the vine of souls,” as part of their traditional spiritual practice. Ayahuasca is a concoction brewed from two plants: banisteriopsis caapi, the twisting, doublehelix-shaped ayahuasca vine, which contains beta carbolines, such as harmaline, that are natural MAOIs (monoamine oxidase inhibitors), like many prescription antidepressants; and psychotria viridis, a shrub with dark, shiny leaves that hold dimethyltryptamine (DMT), a potent hallucinogen. When you take it, you enter the liquid current of a waking dream, exploring shimmering realms of patterns, scenes, beings and insights.

Along with tribes that have used ayahuasca for perhaps thousands of years, a number of syncretic modern religions have developed that meld elements of Christianity with indigenous spirituality that sees the forest, and all of nature, as sacred. The most well-known of these sects, Santo Daime and Uniao do Vegetal, started in the 1930s, when Mestizo rubber tappers and border guards befriended local Indians in the Brazilian Amazon and joined their ceremonies. The Mestizos, brought up Catholic, had visions and received songs – from the spirits they encountered in their visions – that linked ayahuasca with Judeo-Christian images and archetypes.

DMT is one of a class of substances that were made illegal – given “schedule one” status in the US and elsewhere – in the late 1960s. The legality of ayahuasca use has long been in question around the world. While it is possible to restrict use of DMT, it is impossible to outlaw natural sources of it – not only because it is in many common plants, such as phalaris grass, but because it is also found in the human brain and in our spinal column. It is, therefore, unclear if any potion containing natural sources of DMT could or should be illegal. 

In the 1980s, the Brazilian government decided to investigate whether there was any reason to outlaw or restrict ayahuasca use. The Ministry of Health in Brazil conducted a study, involving a team of doctors and professors, on the “sociological, anthropological, chemical, medical and general health aspects” of ayahuasca use in the União do Vegetal (UDV) Church. After months of study, the researchers deemed that ayahuasca was in no way harmful to its users’ physical or psychological health – if anything, they found it had a positive impact: “The ritual use of the tea does not appear to be disruptive or to have adverse effects upon the social interactions of the various sects’ followers,” they wrote. “On the contrary, it appears to orient them towards seeking social contentment in an orderly and productive manner.” Regular ayahuasca drinkers were law-abiding, hard-working and ethical in their conduct. Since they could find no evidence it caused harm, Brazil legalised use of the drug – since then, Gilberto Gil, former Minister of Culture in Brazil, has campaigned to have ayahuasca designated as part of the country’s cultural patrimony, following an example set by Peru.

In the United States, ayahuasca has been slowly edging toward legality since a 1996 US Supreme Court case declared that the UdV could use their tea as a sacrament. The decision was based on precedents set by the Native American Church, which uses peyote during ceremonies. More recently, a Federal court in Oregon ruled in favour of Santo  Daime’s use of their sacrament, following the Supreme Court precedent. Unfortunately, western Europe and the UK continue to prosecute and persecute users of this substance, which many people, including myself, consider to be a profound healing medicine. Europe lost connection with the native use of psychoactive plants when “wise women”, witches, were demonised during the Inquisition. In 2010, two members of the Santo Daime Church in England were arrested for narcotic possession. In 2009, Spanish police arrested two people for ayahuasca use. These arrests have had a chilling effect on ceremonial use of the drug in Europe.

Most people do not have to believe – as tribal shamans or the faithful in these ayahuascabased religions may – that ayahuasca is the spirit of nature or a manifestation of divinity, in order to support its legal use. There is abundant evidence that it functions as an effective anti-depressant with no lasting negative side-effects – unless receiving visions is somehow wrong. As this potion from the Amazon gains popularity, it is changing the way that many people conceive of drugs, or of the experience of getting high. As most people who have tried it will attest, ayahuasca is an extraordinary tool for self discovery, healing and insight. Hopefully, a time will soon come when people can explore this extraordinary medicine without fear of legal reprisal. 

Daniel Pinchbeck is theauthor of Breaking Open the Head, 2012: The Return of Quetzalcoatl , and the just-published Notes from the Edge Times. He edits and is featured in the documentary, 2012: Time for Change. Follow Daniel on Twitter here @danielpinchbeck