Explore the legal status of ayahuasca in different countries and the potential implications for its use
Overview: Ayahuasca is a psychedelic plant-based medicine used for healing and spiritual purposes by Indigenous communities in South America for thousands of years. Shamanic healers lead ceremonies using ayahuasca to communicate with spirits, heal, and receive artistic inspiration. Ayahuasca's use dates back to ancient times, and its popularity has grown among individuals in modernized regions. However, the legal status of ayahuasca is complex and varies by country. DMT, the main psychoactive component of ayahuasca, is classified as a Schedule I drug in the US and prohibited in many other countries. While some countries have decriminalized ayahuasca or have legal exemptions for religious use, it is important to understand and comply with local laws. Proper guidance, preparation, and integration are essential for safe and responsible ayahuasca use. Concerns about sustainability and protecting Indigenous cultures accompany discussions of ayahuasca's legality.
Shamanic healers called curanderos/curanderas lead sacred ceremonies using the ayahuasca-induced state of consciousness to heal, communicate with the spirits of plants and animals, engage in spiritual warfare, receive songs and designs for pottery and textiles, and more.
Evidence from hair samples of Azapa Valley mummies suggests that the use of the ayahuasca vine dates back to 600-1000 AD, though some scholars argue that the tradition has been present for at least 5,000 years. Over the past millennium, the use of ayahuasca has spread throughout South America, becoming a central component of Indigenous folk medicine in Peru, Colombia, and Ecuador.
Over the past few years, the popularity of ayahuasca as a tool for personal growth and healing has grown among individuals in North America, Europe, and other modernized regions, with an increasing number of Indigenous shamans traveling westward to provide the medicine, and a significant number of Westerners traveling to the Amazon to participate in multi-day retreats. However, ayahuasca’s legal status is not straightforward.
Ayahuasca is an Amazonian psychedelic brew that is comprised of the stem bark of the Banisteriopsis caapi vine, which is rich in beta-carboline harmala alkaloids, and leaves of the Psychotria viridis bush that contain the classic psychedelic compound N-N-dimethyltryptamine (DMT).
The enzyme monoamine oxidase found in the gut and liver quickly breaks down orally ingested DMT, making it inactive. However, the harmala alkaloids present in the Banisteriopsis caapi vine act as monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs) that prevent the rapid degradation of DMT and facilitate its wildly fascinating psychoactivity. Interestingly, understanding of this mechanism has been known by Indigenous populations for thousands of years.
An ayahuasca experience is commonly characterized by changes in spatial and temporal awareness, altered emotional and cognitive processing, and an alternate view of oneself and/or reality. Ayahuasca can also induce dream-like, religious or spiritual states of consciousness that feel sacred and may be experienced as mystical. Such states are often accompanied by a deeply felt positive mood and a profound sense of unity or interconnectedness.
Interactions with seemingly sentient discarnate “entities” or spiritual beings are also commonly reported by users of ayahuasca. According to the anthropologist Benny Shanon, experiences of encountering serpents and large felines such as black pumas are common during an ayahuasca experience. In traditional mythology, the serpent figure is regarded as the spirit of the ayahuasca, and the feline is considered the shaman's power animal, sometimes causing drinkers to feel as though they have transformed into the creature.
Encounters with mythological beings, chimeras or human-animal hybrids, extraterrestrials, angels, semi-divine beings, demons, or monsters are also commonly reported. Such entities are often described as being “more real” than anything the individual had previously experienced.
Many ayahuasca users experience a multitude of enduring positive effects as a consequence of their use. Of course, the use of ayahuasca comes with risks, too, that should not be ignored. Some individuals may have medical conditions or take medications that may be contraindicated. Such contraindications could result in adverse reactions, including psychological and physiological effects.
Additionally, without proper preparation, guidance, and integration, irresponsible use of ayahuasca can lead to potentially destabilizing experiences, including re-traumatization and exacerbation of underlying mental health conditions. Furthermore, uncontrolled use could result in unintended harm, including overdose, due to the variable and unpredictable potency of the medicine.
Though adverse effects and experiences are exceptionally rare, ayahuasca should only be used under the guidance of experienced practitioners in a carefully structured environment to minimize the potential risks associated with its use.
As mentioned above, the psychoactive component of the P. viridis plant, DMT, is a classic psychedelic that is very similar in structure and comparable in function to other classic psychedelics such as LSD and psilocybin. Despite DMT having a relatively favorable safety profile, it is classed as a Schedule I drug in the US, and prohibited to varying degrees in other countries.
DMT is classified as a Schedule I drug worldwide, but the Vienna Convention did not ban plants that naturally contain DMT. Therefore, the regulations on plants containing DMT and ayahuasca preparations differ in different countries.
As a result of variations in regulations, it may still be possible to obtain ayahuasca in different ways, depending on the country of residence. In this blog, we will explore the relevant laws concerning ayahuasca in various countries.
Despite DMT being classified as a Schedule I drug in the US, plants containing DMT can still be legally purchased online from various vendors. However, the moment an ayahuasca brew containing DMT is made, it becomes illegal and its use is against the law.
Two recent court cases have resulted in the legalization of ayahuasca use for religious purposes. Two religious organizations — Santo Daime and União do Vegetal (UDV) — successfully challenged ayahuasca laws, permitting them to use ayahuasca in ritual ceremonies in the US. However, membership in these religious groups requires drug abstinence and lifestyle changes, which may not be suitable for casual users.
Each of the UDV and Santo Daime has its own set of practices and rituals that guide how the ayahuasca is consumed. Members are required to follow certain behavioral guidelines, which typically include abstaining from alcohol and other drugs.
Alternatively, one could travel to Oakland, CA, where the city council passed a unanimous vote to decriminalize ayahuasca and other plant entheogens or psychedelics.
Also, in Colorado, the passing of Proposition 122 has seen the decriminalization of several psychedelic plants and fungi, including DMT, ibogaine, and mescaline (excluding peyote) for personal possession and use by adults aged 21 and above. The state plans to roll out psilocybin therapy at regulated clinics by late 2024 and may consider similar programs for other psychedelics, such as ayahuasca, in 2026.
It's worth noting, however, that despite these changes at the state level, all of these substances, including DMT, remain illegal under federal law. Although decriminalization does not make ayahuasca legal, it does eliminate criminal penalties for its possession, use, cultivation, manufacture, and distribution.
In Canada, ayahuasca is illegal as two of the main psychoactive components, DMT and harmaline, are classified as Schedule III drugs. Although it is possible to purchase the plants used to make ayahuasca and brew your own at home, the resulting brew is still illegal.
Australia, on the other hand, has no specific laws against ayahuasca use, but the country's strict drug policy means that prosecution is possible if the substance is not used responsibly. No prosecutions for ayahuasca use or supply have been reported in Australia yet.
In the UK, ayahuasca is considered a class A drug due to the presence of DMT, a controlled substance. Although it is not illegal to possess plants containing DMT, any preparation that includes DMT is considered a class A drug, including ayahuasca. This means that making and using ayahuasca in the UK is illegal.
Portugal decriminalized all previously illegal substances, including ayahuasca, in 2001. While possessing or taking the medicine does not lead to criminal charges, the importation, cultivation, and sale of ayahuasca are still illegal.
In Spain, ayahuasca seems to be in a legal gray area. The Santo Daime church faced legal action in 2000 when several members were arrested for their use of the plant. However, there have been no recent reports of ayahuasca-related arrests, and there is no specific law prohibiting ayahuasca use in the country.
In the Netherlands, ayahuasca possession and use are legal, and online vendors and even ayahuasca retreats are available in the country. Although there have been some arrests in the past, there are currently no laws prohibiting ayahuasca.
Italy has no specific law prohibiting ayahuasca, but a recent case involving a Santo Daime member being arrested highlights some concern. The individual was not charged, but there is the possibility of future legal action against ayahuasca use in the country.
France recently passed a law making most ayahuasca ingredients illegal to possess, which means that brewing ayahuasca is now illegal in the country. It is important to note that although some European countries have more lenient laws around ayahuasca, it remains illegal under international law.
In South America, where the ayahuasca vine grows in certain regions, the use of ayahuasca is generally legal, especially in countries with Indigenous cultural ties to the medicine, such as Peru, Bolivia, and Colombia.
Brazil and Ecuador have churches that adhere to shamanistic belief systems. In Brazil, ayahuasca has been fully legal since 1992, including growing the vine and making the brew.
The legality of ayahuasca in Chile is unclear, but no specific laws are outlined.
In Costa Rica, the laws surrounding ayahuasca are vague, and retreat centers offering ayahuasca ceremonies have sprung up in the country. Although the lack of specific policies means these centers are allowed to operate, it is important to do proper research before attending any retreat.
The legal status of ayahuasca — a powerful psychoactive brew made from a combination of Amazonian plants — varies greatly around the world. It is important to understand the laws and regulations of the country you are in before using this powerful medicine.
Despite ayahuasca’s illegal status in many regions, many people use it for a variety of reasons, ranging from religious to recreational. At Webdelics, we do not encourage or condone the use of illegal substances, but we believe that providing information regarding their legality and information on responsible harm reduction information is important to help keep people safe.
Ayahuasca users generally recognize the importance of legally regulating or at least decriminalizing the preparation, importation, and use of ayahuasca for legitimate purposes.
For instance, even the most impassioned advocates believe that ayahuasca should be used only under the guidance of an experienced guide, therapist, or shaman who has undergone extensive training in the tradition. Also, proper preparation, the correct setting, supervision, and post-session integration are all foundational to the safety of the user and the positive impact of the medicine.
Despite the many potential benefits of ayahuasca, there are some concerns about the sustainability of the B. Caapi vine, one of the main ingredients in the brew. The vine has been heavily harvested due to increasing demand in recent years, which has raised concerns about its ability to regenerate.
Members of the ayahuasca community worry that improper harvesting practices threaten the vine's survival, and the controlled status of ayahuasca in most places around the world does provide some protection for the vine by limiting its export.
Some argue that for ayahuasca to be ethically decriminalized, it is important that its use is regulated for safety purposes. It is also critical to ensure that sacred reciprocity is maintained to protect the well-being of Indigenous Amazonian cultures and that the sustainability of the plants is safeguarded.
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