What is the Legality of Ayahuasca?
By Patrick Smith
Disclaimer: ayahuasca is a potentially illegal substance, and we do not encourage or condone the use of this substance where it is against the law. However, we accept that illegal drug use occurs, and believe that offering responsible harm reduction information is imperative to keeping people safe. For that reason, this guide is designed to ensure the safety of those who decide to use the substance. We do not encourage using this drug outside of a legal or traditional context.
Ayahuasca is an ancient psychoactive brew, intertwined in numerous South American cultures and traditions. Experienced shamans can dedicate days to producing a batch of ayahuasca, adhering to various traditional preparation methods and rituals. The resulting brew is drunk in ceremonies under the supervision of a shaman – after an initial purging (most commonly vomiting), ayahuasca induces a prolonged psychedelic experience that can be traumatic, joyful, healing, and usually all three!
Considering there have been no confirmed deaths from ayahuasca use, it’s strange that this sacred brew is illegal in many countries. Here we explain why ayahuasca is illegal in some forms and in some places, and what opportunities are available to people who want to experience ayahuasca without breaking the law.
Why is Ayahuasca Prohibited?
Ayahuasca is thought to have numerous healing effects, and the experience is often described as being like “100 hours of therapy in one moment”. Although there have been no clinical studies on the therapeutic effects of ayahuasca, several observational studies suggest that it could help combat addiction: one study of regular ayahuasca users found that they are considerably less likely to become addicted to alcohol and other drugs compared to non-users; another survey of religious ayahuasca users found that almost all of those who had previously had substance abuse issues were now addiction free; and finally, adolescent members of a Brazilian ayahuasca church were found to be less likely to consume alcohol than non-ayahuasca using controls in a 2005 survey.
The ayahuasca experience lasts several hours, and often forces users to confront their darkest fears and vices. This is considered by many to be the reason why ayahuasca can have such a healing effect; the experience provides you with an outside perspective to your life, helping you see how you can help yourself. Many people report that ayahuasca has helped to cure their depression; for example, this user of the ayahuasca subreddit:
“It was by far the most terrifying experience of my life. Imagine cramming like 50 years of therapy into 5 nights, going down to the core of your being and being forced to confront and release all the emotions and negative thought habits you’ve been holding on to and repressing. Not only did it cure my depression, but also several physical ailments which I learned were physical manifestations of mental problems (eczema, heart palpitations, and digestive issues). If you are at the end of your rope (or even if you’re not) I can’t recommend it highly enough.”
But despite these documented healing effects, ayahuasca is illegal in many countries. What is the reason for this?
Ayahuasca is made from two plants: Banisteriopsis caapi and Psychotria viridis. The main psychoactive effect of the brew comes from P. viridis, while the B. caapi plant prevents your stomach from digesting the psychoactive chemicals. The psychoactive component of the P. viridis plant is called DMT, or dimethyltryptamine. DMT is a classic psychedelic, meaning it is very similar in structure to the other classic psychedelics, LSD and psilocybin. Similarly to LSD and psilocybin, DMT also has no addictive potential, is not toxic, and can be used safely and responsibly. However, since classic psychedelics were used as a scapegoat to subjugate the counterculture movement of the 60s and 70s, LSD, psilocybin and DMT have been classed as schedule I drugs in the US, and prohibited to varying degrees in other countries.
Internationally, DMT is a schedule I drug, but the Vienna Convention did not prohibit plants that contain DMT. As such, individual countries have their own regulations on the plants that contain DMT, and ayahuasca brews and preparations.
Luckily, due to the specifics of some laws, it’s possible to still get your hands on ayahuasca in various ways, depending on the country you live in. We’ll run through some of the laws relevant to ayahuasca in various countries.
Ayahuasca Legality in the US
Although DMT is a schedule I drug in the US, plants that contain DMT are not prohibited and can be bought online from various vendors. However, as soon as you make an ayahuasca brew that contains DMT, the stuff becomes illegal, and using it breaks the law.
However, two major court cases in the past decade have opened a door for the legal use of ayahuasca. The religious groups UDV and Santo Diame are two churches that use ayahuasca as part of their healing ceremonies. Both succeeded in their legal challenges to ayahuasca law, which now allows them to practice the use of ayahuasca within the US. Joining these churches will give you the opportunity to use ayahuasca legally; although both groups are religions focussed on drug abstinence and other lifestyle changes, so aren’t for the casual ayahuasca user.
If you want to use ayahuasca in the US legally, your only choice is to join a church. Even though you can easily buy DMT-containing plants from these vendors and make your own ayahuasca brew in the privacy of your own home, you’d be technically breaking the law.
“Although DMT is a schedule I drug in the US, plants that contain DMT are not prohibited and can be bought online from various vendors. However, as soon as you make an ayahuasca brew that contains DMT, the stuff becomes illegal, and using it breaks the law.”
Ayahuasca Legality in Canada
In Canada, both DMT and harmaline (two of the main psychoactive components of ayahuasca) are classed as schedule III drugs, meaning they can get you sent to prison for up to three years. Since ayahuasca brews contain both of these chemicals, ayahuasca is illegal in Canada. Unlike the US, ayahuasca has not been given any religious exemption. However, it is still possible to purchase the plants used to make ayahuasca and brew your own at home, despite the resulting brew being illegal.
Ayahuasca Legality in Brazil
In Brazil, possession and use of ayahuasca has been legal since 1992, following legal battles for the religious rights of traditional ayahuasca practitioners. As such, multiple ayahuasca retreats exist across the country, allowing anyone to experience healing ceremonies with the substance in a spiritual setting. It’s also legal to grow the plants yourself, and make your own ayahuasca at home.
Ayahuasca Legality in France
France is a particularly heartbreaking case; just a few months after a French court decided that ayahuasca was not a controlled substance, a new law was passed that made most of the ingredients of ayahuasca brews illegal to possess. As such, it is now illegal to brew ayahuasca in France.
Ayahuasca Legality in Italy
There is no specific law prohibiting ayahuasca in Italy, although one recent case of a Santo Daime member being arrested shows that there is some reason for concern. The man was not charged, but it’s always possible that a court could rule against ayahuasca legality in the future.
Ayahuasca Legality in the UK
The UK is not a prime example of sensible drug laws, and the trend continues with ayahuasca. A few years ago, a court in the UK found that ayahuasca could be considered a class A drug, as it contained DMT. Although it’s hard to get your hands on plants containing DMT in the UK, it doesn’t seem to be specifically illegal to possess them. However, any preparation containing DMT is considered a class A drug, so it’s illegal to make your own ayahuasca.
Ayahuasca Legality in Spain
Spanish law surrounding Ayahuasca is slightly murky, but it is not specifically prohibited. In 2000, several members of the Santo Daime church in Spain were arrested, and spent some time in prison. Ayahuasca use seems to be in a ‘legal vacuum’ in Spain, and we can’t find evidence of anyone being successfully prosecuted for using the substance.
Ayahuasca Legality in the Netherlands
Ayahuasca Legality in Chile
There is contradictory evidence about the legality of ayahuasca in Chile. Although there are no specific laws to prohibit the substance, there have been ayahuasca-related arrests. One often-cited example describes a court case that was thrown out due to expert testimony; the defence argued that the level of DMT in ayahuasca brews was low enough to not be considered in the same category as pure DMT.
Ayahuasca Legality in Peru
Similarly to Brazil, Peru has a long traditional history of ayahuasca use, and the substance is legal to use and possess. There are also a large number of companies offering ayahuasca retreats – although it’s important to avoid scammers and pseudo-shamans.
Ayahuasca Legality in Australia
Australia typically has a harsh drug policy, but there is no specific law to deal with ayahuasca. There haven’t been any prosecutions for ayahuasca use or supply. One man even goes around the country facilitating small ceremonies. It is reasonable to assume that you would be liable to be prosecuted if you’re careless with ayahuasca use in Australia.
What Are Your Options?
If you don’t want to risk breaking the law, there are several ways of experiencing this ancient healing brew for yourself.
If you don’t live in a country where ayahuasca is legal, you can always travel abroad to a country where it is; the most common options are Brazil, Peru or the Netherlands, where many companies offer ayahuasca retreats. Holiday retreats like these can vary from the vividly authentic (imagine trekking through the jungle to meet a wizened shaman) to the ultra-modern (five star accommodations and fresh fruit buffets), and can also vary in trustworthiness. Recently, there have been reports of various companies using fake shamans or taking advantage of their customers. If you decide to experience an ayahuasca retreat, make sure you trust the company and their staff. To help you out, we’ve reviewed some of the most popular retreats in Brazil and Peru; maybe you can find the right one for you.
If you don’t want to travel abroad for an ayahuasca experience, then your other option is to make it at home. In some countries, it’s legal to own the plants that are used to make ayahuasca – the brew only becomes illegal once you’ve created it. Therefore you’ll only be breaking the law for a brief moment in your kitchen, which seems like minimal risk. We’ve compiled a guide to obtaining substances to make your own ayahuasca, and another guide that should help you make your own brew at home. We’re not condoning illegal practices – only sharing information.
In the US, two religious groups have been given a special allowance to use ayahuasca in their ceremonies. Therefore, if you live in the US, you can join either the UDV or Santo Daime, and take part in their healing rituals – however, you should be aware that their programs are centred around spiritual development and may require you to abstain from alcohol, or make other significant lifestyle changes.
The landmark court rulings that allowed ayahuasca to be used by these churches in their ceremonies has huge implications – and it might not be long before we see similar ‘religious freedom’ rulings in other countries. Keep an eye out for the progress of UDV, Santo Daime or other organisations in your country – as of this moment, there are ayahuasca churches in Argentina, Belgium, Canada, the Czech Republic, England, France, Japan, Italy, Ireland, Mexico, Portugal, Spain and Switzerland (Horak et al. 2016). It’s quite likely that you could get involved with your local church and help out to get ayahuasca use recognised as a religious right.
The Future of Ayahuasca
Ayahuasca has been a part of human culture for thousands of years. It’s not going to disappear because modern governments are afraid of one of its components.
There is growing evidence of the healing benefits of ayahuasca – it’s being used to treat addiction, depression, PTSD, autism, end of life anxiety and OCD. Healing rituals are bringing people to a level of spirituality that usually takes decades of focussed learning and meditation. Ayahuasca offers people a fresh perspective on life that can not be found through typical pharmaceuticals or a modern lifestyle.
We know that ayahuasca is relatively safe, can induce life-changing shifts in perspective, and heal traumas and mental health issues. As the evidence, scientific and anecdotal, continues to pile up, it’s only a matter of time before ayahuasca is legal to consume everywhere.
Important Note: This is a constantly-evolving document. If you believe we’re missing something important, please let us know via the contact page.
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