The Psychedelic Podcast by Third Wave
Should We Be Worried About The Future Of Ayahuasca?
Beatriz Labate, PhD, joins us for a discussion on ayahuasca, shamanism and cultural evolution. Her expertise in anthropology gives her a unique perspective on what the commercialization of ayahuasca means for the future of psychedelics, and how psychedelic traditions and cultures will be affected by the growing mainstream popularity of plant medicines.
- Bia Labate is one of the world’s leading ayahuasca experts
- She has spent much time in the Amazon studying the brew and its traditional practitioners
- Bia highlights the need to respect ayahuasca’s heritage to safely introduce it to mainstream society
- Bia reflects on the legal challenges of ayahuasca in the US
The Sacred Plants of the Americas conference, taking place in late February in Mexico, is the peak of Bia’s career. The conference, which she has organized, brings together people from Brazil, Mexico, the US and Europe to build a bridge between psychedelics and drug policy.
Bia believes that the link between psychedelics and drug policy needs more attention. Psychedelic users often don’t want to be associated with other substances, so carve out a niche for themselves. However, that means that psychedelics get ignored in drug policy discussions, and their criminalization isn’t considered as an issue of justice or public health.
Bia’s journey to this important stage in her career started in her 20s, when she backpacked around the world for a year and a half. Bia experienced many different psychedelics, but it was an ayahuasca ceremony with the UDV church in Minas Gerais that ended up having the the biggest impact on her life. “The Ceremony was the most beautiful revealing thing. I felt blessed.” She decided to journey to the Amazon to discover more about ayahuasca.
After spending many months with different shamans and ayahuasca practitioners in the Amazon, Bia decided she wanted to spread the news about its sacred properties. She began organizing conferences and writing books, and started meeting other people who also wanted to expand the knowledge of ayahuasca beyond its roots.
Now, Bia is optimistic about the future of ayahuasca in modern society, despite the challenges it faces. Medical or policy experts give opinions on ayahuasca without ever having tried it; fake shamans erode its cultural heritage and risk lives, and commercialization threatens to not only destroy the sanctity of ayahuasca, but the very environment in which it grows.
Going forward, Bia emphasizes that we have to consider justice and cultural sensitivity as the most important issues for ayahuasca’s inclusion in mainstream society. To make the most of this unique sacrament, we have to respect its heritage and not abuse its power.
0:00:29 Paul Austin: Hey, listeners, and welcome back to The Third Wave Podcast. I’m your host, Paul Austin, and I’m excited for a last Third Wave Podcast, well, sort of. So basically, what we’re going to do is this will be the last podcast that we publish for about a month. So we’re going to take all of September off. And that’s basically to step back and get some clarity on what’s going well with the podcast, what’s not going so well, and how we can improve the podcast so that it is a gold standard in podcasting. The whole reason I started this podcast was to see if there was a desire for this type of information, if people wanted to listen to the stories and the information that exists in the minds of so many different individuals around psychedelic substances. And this is why I’ve interviewed such a wide range of people. And I think we’ve now confirmed that there is definitely a need and a desire for this sort of podcast. So now that we’ve understood that, I wanna take a step back and I wanna make this, like I said, a gold standard in podcasting. So this means looking at how we can change the intro music and the outro music. So if you’re listening to this and you think you have an excellent intro or outro that you could contribute, drop us a message and let us know.
0:01:49 PA: I’d be happy to take a look, and I’ll listen to any samples you have. It also includes improving the audio quality. So I’ve done a few podcasts with people in public places. So for example, I did a podcast with Mark Manson in a Breather room in New York that had a bunch of construction right outside, so the audio quality really wasn’t all that great. So I wanna make sure that our audio quality every time is super high. And I also really wanna get the word out to more people. Right now, we’re doing pretty well with the podcast. We have about maybe between 1500 and 2000 listeners on a consistent basis. And I wanna get that up to 10,000-15,000. I think there are a lot of people who are interested in this material, but we really haven’t put a lot of effort into promoting and getting the word out there. So we’re taking a step back, we’re looking at what needs to happen to make this a gold-standard podcast. And this will also include really stepping up the people that we’re interviewing. So someone who I’m interviewing very soon is an author who I really admire, Charles Eisenstein. I’d also like to get people like Gabor Mate, Rick Doblin, talking with Jim Fadiman about a potential appearance.
0:02:52 PA: So really, really also stepping up into these kind of “higher-level people,” because we’ve already interviewed a lot of high-level people. But just consistently across the board, names that you would recognize from mainstream media publications. And again, I see this as being part of the larger narrative in changing the cultural conversation around psychedelics. That’s announcement number one. We’re taking a break, and we’ll be back at the beginning of October, I promise.
0:03:20 PA: Announcement number two is we’re releasing our flagship Microdosing Course. So basically, the focus of this course is to help people address the three main problems that come up whenever they think of starting a microdosing protocol. Problem number one is sourcing. So we won’t actually provide the substance because that’s highly illegal, obviously, but we are trying to create a community of people who are interested in microdosing, and communities can communicate. Obviously, that’s a big part of being part of a community, even online, through apps like Signal and by leveraging cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin. So that’s the first issue that we wanna help address, although that would be more indirect.
0:04:00 PA: The second issue that we wanna help address is validity of information. So obviously, a lot of the work that I’ve been doing has been under the advice and guidance of Dr. James Fadiman, the father of microdosing. And I wanna then take that advice that I’ve gotten from Jim and all the work that he’s done, and I want to combine it with all the things that I’ve learned about the intersection of microdosing and flow states and microdosing and leadership development, microdosing really for the betterment of well-being. And I wanna create a comprehensive online course that has information that everyone can trust when it comes to microdosing. That’s the second problem we wanna overcome, is validity of information.
0:04:36 PA: And then the third and the biggest problem that I wanna overcome, and this will be a problem regardless of whether microdosing is legal or illegal, it will be a problem regardless of where the quality of information that one is receiving, and that is how do you customize the microdosing protocol for your needs. So the reason that everyone gets into microdosing is probably slightly different because everyone’s life is a little bit different. Although we have these overarching reasons like depression or addiction, social anxiety, procrastination, emotional bonding, I think there are nuances within everyone’s life that if they can take this concept or technology of microdosing and customize it like a glove for their personal situation, then they can really get the most out of it because I think microdosing as a tool has a tremendous ability to unleash and unlock incredible potential in each and every one of us.
0:05:29 PA: So really, that’s gonna be the core of the course is, okay, you’ve got the substance, you understand the basics of microdosing, how do you utilize it for your specific purpose. Fully. We’re releasing that course on Tuesday, August 29th. Okay, so we’re releasing the course Tuesday, August 29th. That’s in a couple of days from when you’re listening to this. We’re only letting in 100 people initially. So if you want in on that course, make sure you’re on our social media, make sure you’re on the email list, but we’ll be releasing it for only 100 people for that soft launch.
0:06:02 PA: It will be $127, as a one-time payment, which will get you lifetime access to all the course updates. We’re at the infancy of what we know about microdosing so far and what I plan to create is a course that will be consistently and constantly updated with all the cutting-edge information that we know about microdosing. So, for example, when the research comes out from Beckley about their LSD microdosing study, we’ll be integrating that into the course and talking about how you can apply it to your life to improve and better your life. We learn more about what microdosing is doing in the brain. We’ll include that in the course. We’re going to include exclusive interviews with various people as well that won’t be released anywhere else. And obviously, a number of other things including customized protocols, including best practices, including how to utilize microdosing for leadership or creativity or low mood, whatever it might be. $127, we’re only letting in 100 people at that price.
0:06:55 PA: And we’ll release it on Tuesday, August 29. If you can’t get in at that point, if you’re, for example, at Burning Man, or if you’re just generally busy, we’ll be re-releasing the major course, the full, fleshed out course which we’ll be promoting every which way. That will be in probably early to mid-October. And that price point will likely be at $197. So if you get it now, you get it at $127 plus we’ll send you a free microdosing kit as saying thank you for getting in early. So that’s just the two announcements from Third Wave.
0:07:33 PA: We’re taking a break and we’ve got a micro-dosing course. What else? Let’s kinda get into the typical before I discuss our guest for this week. So This Week in Psychedelics, just two announcements. One, a woman was banned from the US after a border agent found proof of illicit drug use on her phone. So the woman from Canada had her email searched while she was trying to cross into the US border. And basically, the border agents found an email that she had sent to her doctor about a Fentanyl overdose that she had survived a year ago. She’s been issued a lifetime ban from the United States as a result. So basically, the story is this woman was at a strip club. She snorted what she thought was cocaine. It was actually Fentanyl. She was sent to the hospital, almost died, survived, had an email that she had sent to her doctor about it. The US border agents found it, and they’ve now banned her for life. So this is relevant, obviously, to this crowd because psychedelics are still illegal. Psychedelics are still Schedule 1 substances. And although we have the freedom of speech to openly talk about them, we unfortunately do not have the legal right to use them.
0:08:35 PA: So if you have been using them, like I have, and if you’ve talked about it in some sort of app or email, delete those emails or hide them so that border agents do not see them if you plan to cross into the United States. That’s that, next thing. Norway takes a major step towards LSD decriminalization in the Supreme Court. They will decide whether current penalties are in line with the scientific evidence regarding LSD safety. Decision is expected around the 25th of August, which is just before this podcast will be published. So check out EmmaSofia, EmmaSofia for more details on that. I’ll kinda give you the brief overview on August 17th. For the first time since 1999, the Norwegian Supreme Court reviewed the penalty level for import and dealings with LSD. The court will decide whether or not today’s penalty level for dealings with LSD is in accordance with an updated scientific assessment of the risk and health profile. Boom. LSD is not dangerous. It is the second safest recreational drug that you can consume after Psilocybin Mushrooms, so I’m excited to see what happens in Norway.
0:09:39 PA: That’s that. If you like this podcast, and you wanna continue to help support it, improve the quality, we have a Patreon, Patreon.com/thethirdwave, and we would really appreciate your support in that as well. As always, if you like the podcast, could you leave a review on iTunes? Please, and maybe just share it with a few friends? If you think they’d find information that’s valuable in this podcast, we ask that you share it with them. So now, without further ado, our guest for this week, and this is one of my favorite podcasts that we’ve done so far, is Bia Labate, who joins us for a discussion on Ayahuasca, shamanism and cultural evolution. Bia’s expertise is in anthropology. And through this discussion, she gives us a unique perspective on what the commercialization of Ayahuasca means for the future of psychedelics, and how psychedelic traditions and cultures will be affected by the growing mainstream popularity of plant medicines.
0:10:31 PA: We spoke in total for about an hour and a half. I think the podcast might be cut down to an hour and 10, or an hour and 15 minutes, so it’s a little bit longer than usual. But this is definitely… I’ve been wanting to do this interview for a long time. Bia is basically the foremost authority on Ayahuasca, and we had a fantastic conversation. So without further ado, I bring you Bia Labate.
0:11:12 PA: We can pretty much just start by talking about the conference that you’re organizing in Mexico. So I would love to hear more about that, basically, what’s the topic of the conference, why did you wanna organize this conference. Let’s just talk a little bit about that to start off.
0:11:26 Beatriz Labate: Okay. So we’re going to do this conference called Sacred Plants in the Americas. It’s going to be February 23 and 24 in Ajijic, in Chapala Lake. It’s the biggest lake in Mexico in the state of Jalisco. I live in Guadalajara, and it’s an awesome conference. And I’m really, really excited about it, and we just launched the website today. It’s the first public announcement. So it’s the result of several months of work and networking and connections and years, in fact, because we wrote a project to OSF, Open Society Foundation. And it took a long time to get approved and we had to go through this whole bureaucracy, it took almost an year-and-a-half. And then I got a very generous grant. So the conference is very lucky, and it’s a kind of I think peak of my career, and of my interest and of the different universes that I navigate in and the different connections and networks, and I kind of move between Brazil, I’m Brazilian, Mexico, where I live, and California, where I’m currently staying for one semester. The conference is uniting people from these three countries, plus other people from Europe. And it’s a big combination and bridge between the topic of psychedelics and drug policy.
0:12:54 PA: Go a little bit more… So what was the inspiration for that? ‘Cause I was just talking about this with someone the other day, basically saying I think psychedelics are sitting at this really interesting point in time where Cannabis has become pretty normalized. I mean, in certain parts still there are taboos, but it’s kind of accepted that Cannabis will become legalized, but psychedelics, when you talk to the average person, they’re still like, “Oh, that’s a Schedule 1. Those are highly addictive.” There’s a lot of misinformation. So I would be interested to hear more about the inspiration for organizing this conference. Why did it come about?
0:13:28 BL: Sure. So I think that this link between psychedelics and drug policy is something that really needs more attention and in many regards has been underestimated. So it’s like you have a lot of resistance of making this dialogue, this bridge between these two universes. On the one side, the people that are related to religious use of psychedelics, the traditional religions or ethnic and tribal uses frequently reject the label of drugs to their substances and they don’t like to be equated on the same level of, let’s say, people that use Peyote or Ayahuasca to be put in the same level of discussion of people that use methamphetamine or cocaine, or heroin.
0:14:16 BL: Even the logo of our collective, drugs, culture and politics, has a little logo of a Peyote and then of a needle and different substances. And some people were pretty mad to see all of them lined up. So this is one of the actors. The other actors are frequently the medical doctors, psychologists and health workers that want to advocate for legalization for medical uses of psychedelics, and think that equating these medical uses of psychedelics for specific diseases under certain controlled settings, with a lot of preparation, screening and integration, is a battle in itself and should be not mixed up with other political agendas, such as the recreational use of Cannabis, or legalization or decriminalization of all drugs and frequently also deny being put on side-by-side with other substances.
0:15:14 BL: Then there’s the people from the universe of drug policy that frequently are prejudiced against psychedelics and think that this is not a real problem, and this is not a real issue and psychedelics are not related to major violence problems or public health problems or just immigration and job politics. And that it’s a kind of vanity project or a minority project, or irrelevant in terms of social impact. This is a kind of paradox where, because their damage is not bad enough, it doesn’t call the attention for policy-makers to wanna discuss rescheduling and discuss focus on psychedelics.
0:15:55 BL: Now, of course I created a little bit stereotyped picture, just for the sake of making a point, because in between, there are others like myself, and I’m not the only one, there’s a bunch of us that do think that there’s a lot of dialogue between the two universes and that it’s important to make these connections and to create these bridges. So I think that one of the great merits of our conference is convincing funders and donors that this is relevant and that, in fact, we should be getting grants and financial support to be working on such topics. So I am particularly happy that it cost me a long time and a long career to be able to convince people of the relevance of this. For example, I previously worked on a drug policy program in a university where they did not consider any of the publications that I do related to Ayahuasca, Peyote or other sacred plants as drug policy work, because it’s not related to the mainstream drugs, so to speak.
0:16:58 BL: So this conference reaches a big goal. On the other side, there’s another dialogue that needs to be done, is between the universe of people that study traditional drug use or contemporary drug use in the context of more spiritual, therapeutic, shamanic, religious circles. So all the movement of the globalization of Ayahuasca or the, even the expansion of different Peyote circles in kind of tipi formats or more new-age contemporary circles, either by indigenous people or by movements such as the Camino Rojo, the Red Path, all this universe, of the so to speak sacred shamanic religious use, and the universe of the scientific research on plant medicines. So that is also a kind of cross dialogue, that has not been done very much. Frequently there’s a kind of division of labor, where people there are more from the bio and the C field are studying the potentials of substances like Ayahuasca or salvia or Iboga from a scientific point of view and frequently they are not in dialogue with the people from social sciences and the ethnography and the users and the practitioners.
0:18:19 BL: So a good example of this was Psychedelic Science 2017. I worked in that conference for one year, I was part of the organization. It was a great gig that I got with MAPS. I have been collaborating with MAPS for 10 years now, and I have loved it a lot, and I was well succeeded in my lobbying and we had a whole plant medicine track. So in previous conferences we had Ayahuasca track more or less shy and it got more and more attention and this time it was a plant medicine track. So the conference was still mainly focused on scientific research, and on MDMA and Psilocybin, a little bit LSD and Ketamine and all that. But inside the conference we had a… One whole track called plant medicines that, okay, I’m not gonna get now, in here, to the definition of plant medicines. But anyway, the idea is that you incorporated more other ways of knowledge. So more social sciences, more anthropology, more of the perspective of the users, so the practitioners and more this… More women, more indigenous people, more voices from the Global South.
0:19:32 BL: So it was… Now, the conference in Mexico is going to be a confluence of several projects that I have done throughout my career that unite these different streams. So as I said, different disciplines, different countries and it’s a kind of mix between the World Ayahuasca conference, which I also worked, which was led by ICEERS, in 2016 in Rio Branco in the Brazilian Amazon. Which the big emphasis was Ayahuasca and it had a lot of anthropologists and 150 indigenous people. And a mix of this with a mix of psychedelic science, that had more biomedical research and had a plant medicine track with it, and also another conference that we did in Brazil last year called Jornadas Plantas Sagradas em Perspectivas, the journeys or the encounters of sacred plants in perspective.
0:20:30 BL: And this one we went deep on ethnology. Ethnology is a branch of anthropology, at least in Portuguese that’s how we define it, because there’s variations in different languages, that is dedicated to indigenous people. So in this conference, we brought together more than 40 substances and some of them pretty unknown and pretty unique and pretty out of the radar or out of the trendiness, such as, for example, poison to kill fish or substances given to dogs for them to hunt and all kinds of snuffs and all kinds of poisons, from hallucinogens to others. So we had a lot of anthropology and a lot of different substances and plurality. And now in Mexico, we’re going to have a little bit of all of that, and I wanna invite everybody that is hearing this podcast to keep on tuned on our social media and our upcoming announcements. What we’re trying to do in this conference is to have a lot of anthropologists and the original vision of the conference was as simple as that: One indigenous person and one plant from each different part of Mexico and the Americas.
0:21:39 BL: Of course, that’s not very easy to do, but we do have one Huichol or Wixarika, as they call themselves, in the scientific commission of the conference and we also have one Mazatec in the scientific commission on the conference, and I’m trying to get Nagual and Tarahumara Rarámuri and other ethnicities to come and join. And of course, the idea here is to go deeper and make it really more inclusive and give these people the stand. But it’s very hard to make conferences that you give space to plural voices, because it’s not easy on pragmatic terms to connect this people, to reach them, to bring them, to get visas to access them and it’s not easy to incorporate them in an academic format either. It’s very potentially suffocating to get an elder, indigenous elder and tell him, “Here’s your 20 minutes and after that I’m gonna take your mic away.”
0:22:36 PA: Yeah, I wanna kinda summarize a little bit for the listeners…
0:22:39 BL: Okay.
0:22:40 PA: In terms of some trends that you’re talking about, which we’ve been picking up on as well, and I know that you have started Chacruna and Poppy which we’ll get into a little bit. And I bet many of our listeners are familiar with Chacruna because you guys have been publishing long form pieces, and these are topics that you often write about on there. Particularly this kind of necessity of evolving from the science first materialist reductionist molecule only laboratory framework to understanding that there are more holistic ways of knowing and ways of understanding that our current system doesn’t accept. So for example, it would be very difficult, almost impossible, with the way our current system is set up to get prescribed a plant medicine like Ayahuasca or Peyote because there’s so many different variables. So to facilitate that in a laboratory is difficult. I was recently at Breakin’ Convention in London about six weeks ago, and I was speaking to someone there who is living in Zurich and who’s working with the Mind Foundation out of Berlin and he’s trying to get Ayahuasca prescribed in Switzerland.
0:23:42 PA: And he’s like, the biggest thing is it’s not a molecule, so it’s really, really difficult to go through that process. So, what I’d be curious, based on your expertise, because one thing we haven’t got into yet, which maybe we should dig a little bit into, is like how did this all start for you? So you’re from Brazil, when did your journey start with plant medicines specifically? And then I wanna tie that into what you’re talking about with the conference in Mexico.
0:24:07 BL: Something like I had a vision?
0:24:10 PA: Well, did you?
0:24:12 BL: Everybody does, don’t they?
0:24:14 PA: Did you read Carlos Castaneda and get inspired to… Probably not, because you’re from Sao Paulo, so I’d imagine just being there and living there you had plenty of exposure to Ayahuasca.
0:24:25 BL: Well, I got to know… When I was 20 years old, I was a backpacker around the world for one-and-a-half year and then I tried a bunch of things like LSD and Peyote and mushrooms and they were absolutely revolutionary and mind-changing and substantial points of revelation for me. That was when I was pure and young and naive at the age of 20, 21, backpacking for one-and-a-half year, doing a lot of adventures and just being really curious out there in the world. After that I had a big break of like I think around five years that I haven’t tried anything or done anything and I just enjoyed my memories and my great experiences, and then in… When I was 26, your age, I tried Ayahuasca and I had a super incredible experience. It was in the south of the state of Minas Gerais, so I used to live in Campinas, Sao Paolo state, and I went to a UDV church, we had a little house in this town, a bunch of young students from the university rented a house together. Thirteen women for one room with one bed bunk and one double bed…
0:25:41 PA: Oh, my gosh.
0:25:43 BL: And we [unclear speech] and one of those weekends that I went over there, I joined this UDV ceremony and it was just the most beautiful, revealing thing, and I really was completely, felt completely blessed and feeling like this eternal light of wisdom and power and magic and enchantment. And I just told myself… I put two and two together and I’m an anthropologist, and I’ve been a backpacker all my life. And I said, “Hey, I’m just gonna go to the Amazon where everything started, I’m just gonna jump this short cut here and I’m gonna go.” And then I took off, I went in November to this ceremony and then in December I hit the road for this big trip and I bought this camera ’cause I decided I was gonna do a documentary. Highly naïve, highly naïve, highly pure, highly well-intentioned. I look retrospectively, I feel a little bit like that cartoon of Mr. McGoo, you know, but…
0:26:44 BL: He was kind of blind, but he was so optimistic and he was doing all these very dangerous things but convinced that he’s doing something else. And he just had so much, good vibes in his heart that he was always protected and nothing bad happened. So that’s 20 years later, I’m 46 now… That’s a little bit how I see that first trip, because I just went everywhere and drank with everybody completely open, like open to all kinds of spiritual venereal diseases. And it’s just very open and just talked to everybody. And then that was when I had this vision. The founding vision of me in this path was when I had this insight that I had to organize a conference for the whole world to know about this power, this magic, this light from the Amazon forest, from the Queen of the forest. And then I came back, of course, at that time I thought that, typical Ayahuasca, I thought I had this great idea and I was kind of told by the plant to do that, then I… I realized that other people also had this idea and that I was not the first person who had this idea and there was a whole field of things going on. But back then it was much less than now, it was not like the real pioneers which were on the ’60s, like if you think of a guy like Michael Horner that went to Peru in 1961 or Gene Langdon that went to the Putumayo on the beginning of the ;70s or the McKennas.
0:28:11 BL: But still, in 1997, ’96, 20 years before now, it was not as trendy, as popular, it was not on conferences all over. And then I just went to my university, I was a Master’s student, and I spoke to my professors. And I said there’s this great thing going on in the Amazon, and the indigenous people and this and that. And then I had a friend that studied medicine and I spoke to him and I said, “Let’s go talk to them. They should give us money, we should hire some people, some medical doctors.” And we went there and we got funding and we just went on and on, and it was just smooth, and then organized like this two to three-day conference with one international guest or two, and called the first CURA, The Congresso de Uso Ritual da Ayahuasca, the Conference on the Ritual Use of Ayahuasca. And it was fabulous because it was like a mainstream university. So that was not the first conference in Brazil, they had already had it Rio Branco in the state of Acre, they had it in Salvador in ’93 or something. But this was a big, big university in Sao Paolo so that was kind of, it has more impact in a way and it really created this collective community and spirit.
0:29:27 BL: And out of that conference, I created my first book collection and started to develop my greatest talent or virtue, which is an editorial one. So I created a book collection, it took two or three years to make, called The Ritual Use of Ayahuasca. It was three parts, it was one part was, Ayahuasca among forest people and religions. So both indigenous mestizo and the Brazilian Ayahuasca religions and more anthropology. And then there was one session on… Well, the first was on forest people, the second of the religions, and the third was like biomedical research on Ayahuasca. So it was a kind of little new Ayahuasca bible, and the launching was highly celebrated and a lot of people, like the feeling we had is that all the, the rats come out of their hiding spots and they just gathered for this launch. It was so happy, so beautiful, so intense. There was singing and people felt so emotional. Kind of this pride about Ayahuasca that it’s being recognized. At least I felt like that, I don’t know, maybe it was my early golden days that I was feeling so enamored by the whole thing.
0:30:44 BL: And the fact is that the book had a history in itself, and I started to get invited to give a lot of lectures. And there’s an institutional gap on this area. Like if people wanna learn about it, wanna talk about it, wanna share, wanna just delve into it, where do they go? What do they do? There’s not institutional places where you can go and talk about these things, if you have… If you like gardening, you can just go to this gardening club and join kindred people, but when it comes to Ayahuasca, the knowledge is fragmented, and it’s frequently stigmatized and it’s frequently out of access. Again, nowadays, it’s much better, but still I think that a lot of people are longing for information and for places to exchange knowledge and dialogue. And so I became a little bit a kind of public figure in this field, first in Brazil and then abroad, always conveying knowledge, publishing scientific books and organizing conferences, giving lectures, giving consultancies to the media, and just doing a lot of random lost and found stuff regarding Ayahuasca. There’s a lot going on.
0:31:55 PA: There is a lot going on. I think one question I wanted to go into a little bit more was, you talked about this conference that you organized. Was this in the late ’90s? Like ’97?
0:32:05 BL: ’97, yeah.
0:32:05 PA: Okay, ’97. And then obviously you talked about how you… I was at the World Ayahuasca conference in Rio Branco. I saw how extensive it was, it was five days. The 17th-22nd, there were dozens of panels, like you said, 150 indigenous people, it was massive and it was in the middle of nowhere. I remember to get there, I had to fly from Lisbon, because I was living in Lisbon at the time, so I had to fly from Lisbon to Rio to Brasilia to Rio Branco and then back the same way again. So, and there was still like a huge turn-out. So my question would be, what was that conference like in 1997? What type of talks did you have and how has it evolved in 20 years? And in that evolution process of Ayahuasca, why do you think it’s evolved so much? So why is Ayahuasca growing so much in popularity? So I guess first, let’s start with the comparison. The small conference in ’97 to the World Ayahuasca Conference, what’s changed in 20 years in terms of what people are talking about at conferences?
0:33:08 BL: Well, if I was actually older, I think the more cool comparison would be to compare the conference that was organized in 1986 by Luis Eduardo Luna in Bogota, in the context of the Americanists Conference. That was probably what is the first international conference on Ayahuasca that also united anthropologists and people from the biomedical health field and had an indigenous representative. So I think there is a common thread between that conference, our conference in ’97, and the World Ayahuasca Conference in 2014 in Ibiza and the 2017 in Rio Branco. And I think that one of the cool things about the Ayahuasca field it is that it is very multidisciplinary. I think it, since the beginning, it has shown this ability, it’s such a complex and dance and fascinating phenomenon that really no single discipline can tackle it down.
0:34:07 BL: You really need cooperative research and different perspectives. And the other thing is that I think different than other fields, it’s much harder to exclude indigenous people like you would normally because their knowledge is so prevalent and so important and foundational and I think all these conferences have had a little bit of this attempt to include other voices, and to include the voice of practitioners, because this dialogue between policy-makers, social scientists, health and Bio-C experts and practitioners is really a good model on how we can advance knowledge. And I think that in this regard, Ayahuasca is a great laboratory that has a lot to teach to us on how to talk about drugs and how to have good dialogues about drug policy. I think particularly the case of Brazil, and this was very clear in ’97, but more in 2017, it’s this idea that you really need to have cooperation between different voices to create working agendas.
0:35:18 BL: I think the most prominent thing about the conference in Rio Branco in 2017 was the indigenous participation, they were really massive and they made a very strong statement on the end, saying something like these dialogues can’t happen without us and we are people that are the traditional guardians or the founders, the people who have this knowledge and we need to be included in the conversation, we need to be heard. And it was pretty beautiful to see their participation. And what was also interesting to me was that despite… There were so many… I wrote a paper with a colleague from Brazil, Sandra Gullan, about the conference, and we talked about the multiple Ayahuascas of the World Ayahuasca Conference. Like can we even talk just about one Ayahuasca, there’s so many perspectives on what Ayahuasca is. To start off with, how do you name it? How do you call it? So there’s several different names…
0:36:16 PA: Aioasca or daime, or yage I think is another one, right?
0:36:20 BL: And several different native names, and then Ayahuasca can be an object of scientific inquiry, it can be a sacrament, it can be a tool, it can be a medicine, it can be something for a spiritual development, it can be related to identity, to ethnicity, to territory, and these multiple views kind of clashed and were in conflict, but at the same time that they were in conflict and they clashed, I think that there is this emergence of this kind of idea that there is a global movement and a global interest in the topic. So it all depends on how you wanna see. I think a lot of people who have gone to that conference and say, “Well, you really show there’s too many conflicts and there is no common agreements, and there’s no points of commonality.”
0:37:11 BL: And other people will say, “There’s multiple views and there’s multiple perspectives and depending on where you stand, you see different things.” But there’s also a kind of creation of a common agenda where people seem to be each time more worried with things like the sustainability of Ayahuasca, the commodification of Ayahuasca, the emergence of charlatans or opportunist people, the needs of regulation, the problems of criminalization, and just the need to document and register the beauty and the diversity. Then again, there are so many things to say about that conference. That conference was so intense because not only… We had six full days of the full main track happening, we had also three parallel tracks happening, and we had rituals every night.
0:38:00 PA: I went to one of them.
0:38:01 BL: Which one did you go to?
0:38:03 PA: I think it was on the very last night and they did it in the amphitheater just inside and it was, full disclosure, I still haven’t had a proper Ayahuasca experience in the jungle, so most of my psychedelics use is LSD, mushrooms, DMT and then MDMA, which is not really a major psychedelic. So I was kind of like you in your early 20s, when you were talking about how you were having fun, you were exploring. A lot of that for me it was in my early 20s and lately, I’ve been more into microdosing, but I’m starting to get more into plant medicines. I’d like to start to experience Ayahuasca as well as Peyote, and San Pedro. So like I was very nervous going into that, because I was expecting this Ayahuasca experience, but the medicine that they served, it was diluted, I think, because there were like 70 people were drinking and so I only had one cup and I know a few other people had more than that, and so there were some people who were definitely having the experience, whereas with me, it wasn’t as significant, so I was a little… I don’t know if disappointed is the right word. It seemed like there were too many people who were trying to drink at the same time and that led to certain precautions being taken, which were obviously necessary for the context.
0:39:15 BL: Well, but that’s also a typical Ayahuasca experience because, as I’m sure you’ve heard, sometimes you can drink Ayahuasca and not get a full, what you think is a full experience, like that’s the mystery of Ayahuasca, it’s not really completely dose-dependent and it’s not predictable. And what people that drink Ayahuasca believe, and I’m modestly gonna place myself in that category, is that you really get from Ayahuasca what you need to get and there’s nothing like a bad experience, it’s always a kind of teaching and a kind of learning and sometimes the learning is subtle and sometimes the learning is not very clear and sometimes it’s not a full orgasm, but that’s nevertheless as legitimate as not. It’s like a path, it’s like a road that you travel in and you’re traveling and you’re learning, it’s not like one thing and it’s multiple things and it can be different things depending on your age, depending on the time of your life, if you’re a man or a woman, depending on the day, depending on the moon, depending on so many things. So, I wouldn’t disregard your experience.
0:40:22 PA: Yeah, and I don’t, yeah. I use, even… I was talking with Tanya Mate right after because she was also at the ceremony and she said something very similar to what you’re saying now. And so after that, I took it as it was; at the same time, I do have plans to return and I would like to return sooner rather than later to the Amazon to have another experience.
0:40:44 BL: Well, I believe having personal experiences is really important and speaking without empirical experiences is really not very very… I think in this field doesn’t work a lot. It doesn’t mean that if you drink a lot you’re really wise and then, much less that you’re gonna write good papers about it. So I don’t think that the relationship between drinking and writing about it, it’s a big topic. In one line I don’t think it’s fundamental to drink to write about it and I don’t think that if you drink, you’re gonna get guaranteed good papers about it. But definitely as a personal experience, I think it’s very hard for you to talk about Ayahuasca and have an idea of what Ayahuasca is if you haven’t taken it.
0:41:25 BL: So, that’s what frequently irritates us when we see just random people giving opinion, like certain policy-makers or experts, or medical doctors, people that never have seen a vine in their entire life, and if you show them whatever and any kind of substance or tree and tell them that was Ayahuasca, they couldn’t tell because they have never seen one, they have never drank it, they don’t know anybody who drank it or have seen it, but they feel so comfortable in giving opinions about that and frequently go on TV shows and media reports.
0:41:57 PA: This happens, really?
0:42:01 BL: A lot.
0:42:03 PA: Oh, yeah. I could tell you’re a little irritated by that.
0:42:06 BL: Well, it’s very irritating because the media sometimes has this idea, like they send out the journalist with the idea, You got to have the two sides of the story. Like you have… That’s good media, that’s good journalism. You need to put both perspectives. So the one side, they get people like me that have studied this for 20 years and published 17 books and has gone 30 times to the Amazon and drank a lot of Ayahuasca, and I know what I’m talking about. And on the other side, they get a professor that is a medical doctor in whatever mainstream American university and that has maybe had a course on psychedelics when he was 25 in university, and they’re giving both sides of the question, but this person is simply not informed, he’s ignorant, he doesn’t know what he’s talking about. So I do get irritated about that and I also get irritated that as an anthropologist, my opinion seem not to count so much sometimes. So there’s a very unfair division of labor where everybody says that drugs should be understood from like a multi-disciplinary or interdisciplinary perspective, that is set setting, the substance, set and setting, so both the pharmacology, the individual and his personal intentions and expectations, characteristics, and then the social context the same.
0:43:29 BL: But in fact, what we see in public drug policy is that the setting is super disregarded. It’s really just the cherry on top of the cake. Like, nobody really cares to talk about the setting and understand the setting well. And that’s where us, we anthropologists now have a lot to say because the setting is totally fundamental on the experience. It is completely different if you take a substance recreationally with a bunch of friends in a night club than if you go to a shamanic ritual with an indigenous person, I’m not saying that one is bad and the other is good, I’m not saying that one is wrong and the other is right. I’m just saying that there are different contexts and the same substance taken in different contexts will have different effects, people will experience those things in different ways.
0:44:20 BL: So the context is not minor, the context is not less relevant, the context is essential as the substance and the whole idea of the system of drug policy is very much the international conventions is this kind of random list that divides substances according to their pharmacology and places some in certain categories, giving very, very, very little importance to the context, to traditions, to cultural roots, to all the multiple links that these substances have in people’s lives, their relationship to socialization, to identity, to territory, to celebration, to communication, to transmission of knowledge, and all those things.
0:45:02 PA: And do you think that’s changing now, ’cause this kinda gets back to our conversation before, how four years ago when MAPS… Even in the psychedelic space, when MAPS organized the Conference for Psychedelic Science, the plant medicine track was much, much smaller, more of the emphasis was on the clinical science, the molecules, MDMA, Psilocybin, Ketamine, LSD, whereas this year, 2017, because of the growth, the popularity in Ayahuasca and Peyote, and also because of larger cultural things going on, where more and more people are recognizing kind of the limits of really materialist kind of just things that exist in a vacuum that’s not really representative of reality as we’re experiencing it. And by incorporating substances like Ayahuasca and Peyote in a pharmacological sense, where it’s not just the molecule, but it’s everything around it. It’s the entire experience, what I like to call the container, we create the context. Jim Fadiman talks about… In setting, the six S’s: Set, setting, substance, three more, which I really don’t remember offhand. Are you hopeful, are you optimistic that culturally some of these conversations are starting to change? Or do you think we’re going to remain stuck in this kind of narrow point of perceiving drugs and molecules and substances?
0:46:19 BL: No, I’m definitely very, very enthusiastic. And it was my great honor to be part of the opening of Psychedelic Science. So it was just three people: Rick Doblin, Amanda Feilding and I, and that was my whole shtick. That’s what I advocate in my opening that I was there, I was a foreigner, Brazilian, a woman, an anthropologist, not a medical doctor, not somebody… Powerful American, or from Europe and I was there in the opening. And I feel that I earned that space by doing this work of advocacy and of scientific research and insisting on this kind of message, which I think echoes a lot of this period of times, and people are interested in these kind of things. And I also think that’s why MAPS gave this space of plant medicine to make a track, which was not only one track, it was called almost a double track, we had three tracks but the plant medicine track was almost double the other tracks and it was almost 50% more, not exactly 50%, but almost.
0:47:23 BL: So we had a huge space, why? Because also there’s so much research blossoming with Ayahuasca and so much other research blossoming with other substances and there is the great interest in these substances in culture, and people are interested in talking about them and having those conversations. The folks that like plant medicines, they are a great number of the people that attend psychedelic science conferences. The organizers want to be able to accommodate this kind of public and I think that’s also why I got that space, and we were able to influence the course of the conference.
0:48:02 PA: And why do you think it’s growing so much in popularity? Why is it that there are so many Americans… ’cause this is obviously a huge issue as well with Ayahuasca, is the growth and the potential commercialization and I think there were some discussions, even at the World Ayahuasca Conference, between indigenous people and the rest of the community about the commercialization of Ayahuasca. Why is it do you think Ayahuasca is growing so much in popularity? And what are your concerns going forward about kind of the potential growth and commercialization of the plant medicines?
0:48:33 BL: Well, that’s a big question.
0:48:34 PA: I know. [chuckle]
0:48:35 BL: And I’m afraid I don’t have any too brilliant answer. I think we launched last year a book that was a result of the first World Ayahuasca Conference. The book is called The World Ayahuasca Diaspora: Reinventions and Controversies. And I am co-editor of this book with Alex Gearin and Clancy Cavnar. And the preface of the book is written by Glenn Shepard, and he titles it, The Genie is out of the Bottle. So Ayahuasca remained a kind of obscure thing since travel writers and botanists and people interested in South American shamanism and anthropologists, or just very fringy underground stuff like Burroughs and Ginsberg’s The Yage Letters, and that sort of thing. But since the ’80s and ’90s, and more and more in the 2000s, it really did hit big cities, and then it combined with multiple aspects of contemporary cosmopolitan cultures, and combined to different forms of spirituality, to both, in Brazil, for example, to offer religious movements or to alternative therapies, all kinds of phenomena like yoga or meditation or Hinduist, Orientalist, New Age tendencies.
0:49:54 BL: And this has happened in Brazil and has happened in other countries as well. And it’s a process both of in South America, leaving the Amazon and arriving in the big cities, and the foreigners going to South America and the shamans going abroad and doing their own researches, their own connections and activities as well. And then as a side thing related to that is the interest in the expansion of scientific research about it. And then you have all the hybridity that appears from all these universes, because you have more and more researchers that sort of become initiated or traditional people that get interested in research and then you create all these new hubs that are hard even to classificate, because they are just a mix of several tendencies. And I think this interest has to do… There’s many ways to understand it, but it has to do with the expansion of the New Age movement and other alternative therapies and alternative religious movements. And their appeal towards institutionalized religions or more traditional Western medical systems, that people are not satisfied, and do not find answers in those traditional systems, either religious or therapeutic, medical.
0:51:19 PA: Bob Jesse was kind of speaking about this at Horizons, I remember this past year, 10 months ago and, well, his talk was about a potential backlash, but he was specifically talking about religion, and kind of… Because Bob heads up the council’s spiritual practice, and someone asked him this, and he kinda, I think it was him or someone else who said New Age, which is what you’re talking about, is like, it’s kind of like a soup of all these things, whereas I think with something, particularly with Ayahuasca, when we’re talking about answers, I think that was what kind of I was drawn to in what you said is the experience, the psychedelic experience, whether that’s with plant medicines like Ayahuasca and Peyote that exists within, oftentimes, an indigenous context or the experiences that people have, for example, in the clinical studies with Psilocybin, it’s providing answers to this sense of an existential crisis that a lot of Westerners are going through as these models that we’ve lived on for so long, have kinda failed us.
0:52:16 PA: And I think that for me is like, it tends to encapsulate, at least, a big part of why Ayahuasca has grown in popularity, but it also, that also then speaks to all these things that you’re saying is the dangers of that continuing to grow. Because if Westerners continue to take the mindset that they’ve been raised in and almost apply it to the pursuit, so to say, of these experiences, that’s when commercialization happens and that’s when it almost becomes stripped away from its indigenous nature and context.
0:52:46 BL: I think people like a lot, there’s all this trend to, every week, every day, there’s a new article. Psychedelics can heal this, psychedelics can heal that and psychedelics are a new hope for medicine. People like a lot to say that psychedelics are providing answers that we can’t find elsewhere, like this big criticism of modernity or post-modernity. But I think it’s more complicated than that, because it’s that, but there’s expansion in the way people relate to this thing. So it’s frequently also, it’s a product of this very modernity, it’s a product of these expert systems, where people each time consume more alternatives on how to be happy, and how to have wellness, and how to be an expert in different areas of their life. So the way this grows and evolves, it’s very much related to many regards to our ideas of individual and of self that are very contemporary phenomena, that have to do little with the teachings or general doctrine of where these plants come from. So I don’t know if you understand what I’m saying, but I mean…
0:53:58 PA: I understand. Oh, yeah, I understand what you’re saying.
0:54:00 BL: We’re appropriating that, but not necessarily transforming our paradigms, and not necessarily understanding what indigenous people do and have to say.
0:54:09 PA: So for me, that kind of speaks to that paradigm is they don’t really, the tech execs don’t really get it, it’s not about them. It is… This sense of going through Ayahuasca is this sense of transcending the ego, this sense of going beyond the individual and coming to this understanding of community and connection. And I don’t know, we could go on to non-duality and this collective mindset, but then it’s like, okay, if we experience that, how do we live that out in our everyday life? And we still, when people come back to a Western world, like you’re in San Francisco right now, right? And I remember in our conversations that we’ve had a little bit, you’ve had some previous issues with the way that things happen in America, which is because it’s, I think partly it’s so individual and so people come back to this mindset and they’ve stepped out of that paradigm, but then they step right back into it, when they’re living here for most of their time.
0:55:00 BL: I just had this great revelation that there’s all these really, really awesome, incredible, alternative, underground, radical, post-modern revolutionary things going on in California all the time, which is the reason why I fell in love with California and wanted to live here. But then when you looked at it, there’s these amazing events, which is super questioning mainstream and status quo and all, and then I put interested in Facebook, but I don’t look at it very well. And then when I look next, like the upcoming event, and you click there, and it’s $50 one lecture, $30. Everything costs. I’m walking around telling my friends, “Hey, we’re making this revolutionary lecture, but you have to pay $30 to go to this community event.” So they are making a little bit fun of my process of Americanization and trying to figure out America. And the other day, I said I didn’t want any hashtags with my breakfast, and my friend said, “What? Oh, you mean hash browns?” “Oh, yeah, yeah.” And also, as a Brazilian, I’m so shocked about the underground circles of Ayahuasca in the US. And I’m just, I feel bad for my fellow Americans that it’s so expensive.
0:56:16 BL: It’s a lot of money. And here, it’s that thing, money talks and it becomes very elitist, and there’s not a very much a sense of community. It’s a lot of circulation, so the groups are organized on making lists that people attend, like a retreat model, and there’s not continuation or a definite permanent group of people always attending and reasonable prices. Which again, doesn’t mean that people don’t have really good experiences and doesn’t mean that I’m against it, but I think that these are topics that emerge and I’m particularly interested in this and this whole discussion about the legalization of Ayahuasca in the US. That’s a major concern for me. Major. Major.
0:57:01 PA: What’s the concern for you then in particular to the legalization?
0:57:04 BL: I am wishful that these underground circles could become legal, because there’s currently from my modest perspective, and I’m a big traveler. Since I’m a teenager, I have been continuously a non-stop traveler, so I’ve been all over the place. What I see with these eyes that God gave me, as we say in Brazil, with my own eyes, I see that there’s Ayahuasca circles happening in the US all over, in all cities every weekend, so it’s just grown a lot substantially. We don’t have a clue on numbers, nobody knows. That’s like the magic question. Everybody’s, once every two weeks, you get an email. How many people drink Ayahuasca in the world, or how many people drink Ayahuasca in the US? And I wanna say, “Oh, let me just click here and I’m gonna give you an answer.” I’m like, “No, hey, sorry, we don’t have that answer. Nobody knows.” This is totally hard to estimate, so in any case, there’s a lot of people, and these people live in constant fear, some more, some less. I have met people that you met in a cafe and they refuse to say the word Ayahuasca in a cafe. And I’m like, “Sorry, it’s gonna be hard for us to have a conversation.”
0:58:15 PA: [unclear speech] for dates.
0:58:18 BL: You can’t, you know, people send emails that they can, they use other words and meditation circles, prayer or all kinds of other, you know, strategies and some are more or less paranoid. And then again, it’s kind of surprising because the DEA has been kind of really, really quiet. And if you think of this great expansion on the use of Ayahuasca internationally, and I just wanna make a short disclaimer that everything that I’m saying here doesn’t represent the views of any institution or projects to which I am related to… They are my own views, so I can be…
0:58:55 PA: You could say whatever the hell you want.
0:58:58 BL: Doing [unclear speech] complimented about on my own expense. But I think that it’s surprising that there is not so much more legal problems. We’ve know of a few legal cases. The most classic perhaps known case is the case of Taita Juan, who is a famous yage taita from Putumayo region, very traditional, is now the governor of his region, and he was arrested in Houston and stayed in the airport and in the US, I think, around one month and then sent back to Colombia and got his yage apprehended and can’t come back to the US. I am not sure if forever or for a few years. That was one case. And then you know there’s here and there. We hear a certain, like one person got Ayahuasca apprehended… The other one had a SWAT team went in because somebody had… Like a break in the session and called the police or there was a little case of Alan Shoemaker with importation and exportation.
0:59:55 BL: But it’s kind of quiet. However, in the last years, like two years, from 2015 on, you have the emergence of the so-called new Ayahuasca churches or new native American Ayahuasca churches, and what are those? Those are groups that claim to be native American branches. A lot of them were at a certain point in their timeline related to James Moony or James Eagle, he has also another name. This person was claiming that he had the ONAC church, that was kind of like selling membership cards where you would have your use of Ayahuasca or Peyote or Marijuana or in certain cases other things like topless or even prostitution or other kinds of illegal or otherwise behaviors. You would have these rights protected if you were related to his church.
1:00:53 BL: And these claims from him came from the fact that he had won a case in the state of Utah, which later down was overruled and was much more complicated than that, and it’s also a long story and you know I can’t go into all the details, but it in fact is that these claims are really not true and a lot of people, either out of good will or out of naiveté, or some maybe not so good will, joined and embarked in this narrative and started to claim to be, you know, legal churches and the most notorious one was a guy named Trinity de Guzman and he launched a big campaign saying that Ayahuasca healings was legal, and I was among one of the first people, I published a series of posts in my blog, so I have a blog, showing that it was really not legal, because the general argument that they make is that they are protected under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.
1:01:54 BL: So there’s two religions that are protected in the US. One is the UDV, the União do Vegetal, that is federally protected in the all different states and the other is the Santo Daime, that has protection in only three states, Oregon, in LA and in Washington State, not Washington, DC They were claiming Ayahuasca healings that they had similar kinds of protection and that they were a native American church add therefore they were protected by law. And then they got a lot of people signing up for their retreats. Ends up that they advertise extensively, claimed they wanted to open 200 churches all over the country and that generated a whole noise and the result of that was the DEA sent them a kind of, I don’t know the formal term, but it’s something like cease or stop or something like.
1:02:44 PA: Stop or you’ll get fucked, basically… Yeah.
1:02:49 BL: Well… Also people disputed if the letter was nice or not because… I think it was nice because, they, you know, they kind of gave a warning, so they eventually withdrew their movement and what they did next was file a religious exemption. And another group led by Chris Young just did the same thing, so the DEA has put in place a mechanism. They have even published in like 2009 or something a document called Guidelines for Churches that use Psychoactive Substances, and it’s a short little piece that gives some recommendations. This was published after they had won a big case from Church of Reality that was a church that smoked Marijuana and claimed that everybody had the right to smoke Marijuana and everybody was, if you believed in reality and you used Marijuana and you were related to them, you were a realist, and you could have right.
1:03:46 BL: I read this process recently and it’s fascinating because both sides of the discussion looks like a real parody… Like the claims from the church and the answers from the DEA, pages and pages and pages of like legal argumentation, consumed dollars and months and years of debates, but basically they didn’t win their case, and both Ayahuasca healing and soul quests have now filed for exemptions. So what is the idea of this process in a very like short explanation from a non-native speaker and a non-lawyer? So, just…
1:04:23 PA: Anthropologists, [unclear speech] from a Brazilian anthropologist.
1:04:27 BL: Put a lot of filters and maybe I’m saying everything kind of wrong, I try to get the idea.
1:04:32 PA: I trust you, you’re Bia Labate, I trust you.
1:04:34 BL: No, don’t trust me too much. But the idea of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, is that you have to prove that your movement is religious in nature, and you have to prove that your beliefs are sincere. So not only are you religious but your beliefs are sincere. And then you have to say that the sustainability of your movement is burnt by specific government regulation. So on the one side there is religious freedom, and on the other side, there’s like drug policy law. So you have to show that the drug policy laws are burdening sincere expression of your religion. So therefore, the first question to be asked is, “What is a religion? How do you define a religion?” Well, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act doesn’t bring a definition of religion in itself. So what they do is they use certain criteria that have appeared in previous court cases, such as the Myers criteria, and in general, in rough lines again, in my modest understanding, what is the Myers criteria main points is that you have to express fundamental, and ultimate ideas that address reality beyond this physical world. So you need to have religious beliefs that talk about this.
1:05:51 PA: Supernatural. Ephemeral.
1:05:54 BL: And then you have to have a comprehensive, ethical and moral system, like rules about what to do and how to do. Basically they’re saying that you have to have a structure that is kind of characteristic to, that can be made an analogy to accepted religions. And they even have this whole list of things that you could sort of check and say if you have a religious movement or not, like do you have a founder, a prophet, a teacher? Do you have important writings? Do you have gathering places? Do you have keepers of knowledge? Do you have ceremonies and rituals? What is the structure of the organization? Do you have holidays? Do you have diets? Do you have fasting? Do you have certain appearance and clothing? What are your methods of propagation? So the question is, can we translate shamanism into a religious system? And I read also the regulations, and it’s interesting because they have a footnote. We are not attached only to normal religions, we are also open to other forms of religion. But the fact is that the definitions of religion are inspired in what we recognize as religion. And then…
1:07:04 PA: The West. In terms of we as in the West? Yeah?
1:07:07 BL: Yes, like the major monotheistic religions of the world, Judaism, Christianity, Islamism. The question is, would you be able to translate these religious practices that are happening in shamanic circles to these models, or not? And things like, for example, even if you are able to create a kind of religious doctrine, do all the participants that participate with you share this religious doctrine? And what is the system of membership? Do they have connections and ties to a permanent community? What is the difference between a religion and a kind of wellness center or a retreat model or a ceremonial model. And so as an activist and lover of the field and academic we’re interested in that. I just wish that there could be a great connection between all groups in the US to discuss these things and a means to advance this agenda collectively, because the fact that only two little tiny Brazilian religions have the right to use Ayahuasca in the US.
1:08:11 PA: UDV and Santo Daime, yeah?
1:08:13 BL: Yeah. As much as I am a Brazilian, as much as I am a lover of these religions, it is revolting to me, it is absurd. This is too limited, this is way, way, way, way, way, way, too restrictive. So how could we expand? And under which criterias and which parameters? There is a recent colleague anthropologist was criticizing this DEA model. And of course, there’s problems with this model, but if we are going to throw away this model, what is there to stay? And what are the other alternatives that we have. So the fact is that the DEA has been developing a relationship to the Daime and to the UDV of exchange and collaboration on different aspects. So they have also put… There is already a model going on about what the DEA considers proper handling of the substance and of the practices. We have recently published a very cool article in our site, Chacruna, by Robert Heffernan that he addresses a little bit of this problem. It’s called Seven Best Practices for Ayahuasca Legal Harm Reduction. What is the idea of legal harm reduction is that you prevent, avoid having legal problems, because once you have them, it’s a escalating nightmare.
1:09:33 BL: Imagine fighting with the government. These guys have endless resources, they can just put another one, another one, another one. And the drug war machine has a bureaucracy and has a means of work that is very powerful and very entrenched. And the drug war has deep moral stigma and taboo roots in our societies, that we can never ever underestimate. So once you get caught in that machine, it is not a good thing for you. The idea is that we could advance a certain kind of education where people would be already looking to the practices that the DEA has put in place with the groups, mainly the UDV, but also the Santo Daime, and take care of things like, for example, preparation and screening.
1:10:19 BL: So be really attentive to the health of the participants, keep track of your core beliefs, your lineage, your tradition. Have the history of your practices, of your church, of your community, of your spiritual congregation documented. And then the whole idea of where do you keep Ayahuasca? So the DA has in this case… I have all these documents available in my website, it’s a service that I do out of love and out of activism, and they’re all there. People can read, because people talk a lot but read little and do little research, in fact, beyond sometimes superficial research, but one of the things that the DEA is really worried about is the diversion of the sacrament. So where do you keep it? Is it in a locked place? Does it have refrigerator? Who has access, who has access to the keys? Do you have a track of your inventory? Can you account for how much has been used by who and where? And then the other big topic is this issue of multiple sacraments. Ayahuasca healing has claimed that they use Ayahuasca and San Pedro, and they were in this exemption request just petitioning for Ayahuasca, but maybe in the future they would do it for San Pedro.
1:11:38 BL: That, I don’t think, was a very intelligent move because the whole idea is that Ayahuasca has to be central for the expressing of your beliefs, because if it’s not central why do you need to do it? It’s that idea of the burden. The government’s rules have to be burdening you. So if you say, well, I can use other things, well, then use others and don’t use this. Is this central to your practice or not? And if you use several substances, perhaps it’s less likely that people would get approved.
1:12:08 BL: And then the whole idea of people that are advertising it aggressively, they are playing with fire. They can anytime have problems. So, the fact that nobody really got problems… Both the Ayahuasca healings and soul quests got warning letters from the DEA. Who knows if the DEA is gonna move on and decide to face them. And a lot of people say things like, well, this is the law of the land, and what they’re doing is legal, and because the UDV and the Daime are legal and because the Native American Church is legal what they do is legal, and because Peyote is legal… It’s not really like that. I think that promoting ceremonies aggressively online is very complicated, and also just this whole idea that you have to pay for ceremonies. It’s not very intelligent. One of these groups has the newsletter that signs off saying, “Thank you for doing business with us.” The idea is that you have to be a religious community that is sharing the cost… So sorry, I got carried away again.
1:13:11 PA: No, this is good, this is really, really good. Because you’re right. When you’re talking about this differentiation between underground circles, and there’s dozens of them in New York, there’s dozens of them in the Bay Area, there’s a ton in LA, and actually legitimizing it, legalizing it, there’s only been, like you said, a couple people who have done that. Jeffrey Bronfman was the main guy who led it through for UDV. That’s correct, in the United States?
1:13:37 BL: Yeah, well, he was the religion, UDV. And he was the master in charge at the time and he had the whole process and definitely used part of his personal fortune in advancing…
1:13:47 PA: From Seagrams, ’cause that’s his family, right?
1:13:49 BL: Well that’s very interesting as well, because you can’t deny that the relationship between the legitimacy and legality is not straightforward. It’s not like if you’re legitimate, you’re legal, if you’re illegitimate you’re illegal. It’s much more complex than that, and what we have seen in the case of Ayahuasca is that there is really a relationship between being more powerful and having more money and being more organized and having legality. And I’m not against that, of course, but I wish we could go for inclusive, more inclusive policies. The other way to try to advance this would be the medical avenue. So, leave aside this whole idea of religious freedom and the complexities of trying to fit these narrow views of religion into shamanism and what goes on in the underground, and go for the medical venue.
1:14:44 BL: I have been in dialogue also with MAPS with the idea of doing a clinical trial with Ayahuasca, and then Ayahuasca would have to follow the same path that MDMA is following. Going through all the studies like phase one, phase two, phase three, and eventually getting regulated and being used in the context of clinical, of psychotherapists that are licensed in this specific training program and under certain circumstances. And this process could take years and years and years and cost millions and millions of dollars. And further, there’s a complex ethical and scientific question, endless, that I can also go and talk a lot about it but perhaps I’ll stop.
1:15:28 PA: Save it for next time. But I think I wanna make one last point on that. You talk about this difference between legitimacy and illegitimate, legal and illegal, and how groups with power and money and influence, they often are able to then legalize something. And we’re talking about Ayahuasca. And as you are well familiar with living or having spent some time in the Bay Area, as I’m familiar with being in New York, a lot of wealthy people drink Ayahuasca, a lot of really wealthy people drink Ayahuasca. In fact, I was at a tech conference in Berlin about a month ago and Sergey Brin, who is the co-founder of Google, he’s worth about $40 billion. He was asking about Ibogaine, because he has a brother who has Parkinson’s. And so it’s like… There seems for me, there have to be interesting ways where the movement can be legitimized by taking all this excess financial capital that a lot of people in the tech space have, and almost liquidating it into ecological and social capital in the form of legitimizing and legalizing psychedelic substances. So that’s kind of… That’s one of my hopes in terms of how do we avoid the overt commercialization of Ayahuasca.
1:16:39 PA: We basically find people who have had transformative experiences and open up channels of communication with them so they can join the larger community. Because right now there seems to be a distinct lack of relationship between the psychedelic subculture and major financial donors. I know there are some, like Dr. Bronner’s just gave five million to MAPS. There was another article written about this survivor of the Holocaust who’s given millions of dollars to MAPS research. I think it was published on Vice or something, but it seems like there’s a lot of potential there. So I guess my hope is maybe there is some way to start opening those minds and channels of community.
1:17:15 BL: Well, this brings us a little bit back to the initial points of these conversations which have to do with the bridges between drug policy and psychedelics. As I said, it is a bridge that needs to be broad. But regarding what you said, I think definitely those alliances have to be made, but we also have to think on ways to reciprocate indigenous peoples and communities from where Ayahuasca originates. So I think that each time, more and more, it’s important that people are engaged in some kind of project that favor the traditional users of these plants, and there’s been initiatives in South America, and they are not homogenous and they’re not totally spread, but there are some good initiatives which would, really should try to mirror them and think on ways that this Ayahuasca money could help both in creating more sustainable plantations of Ayahuasca and creating positive opportunities for indigenous people and stimulating indigenous rights, things such as indigenous health, indigenous education and indigenous land demarcation, indigenous alliances to fight big transnational and foreign money that are not favorable to their communities.
1:18:33 BL: So I think that a lot of the contemporary movement of Ayahuasca should really try to be creating more this kind of positive consequence of globalization, instead of just fighting over who is the traditional user and who’s not the traditional user, whether this is commodified or not commodified, whether scientific knowledge is bad and traditional native knowledge is good. The way I see it, I am more of a pragmatist, as I said, the genie’s out of the bottle and I think we need to think of harm reduction measures to protect the expansion of Ayahuasca. I think that everybody that is just advocating purely against the expansion of Ayahuasca is just gonna be preaching the emptiness because it’s happening, whether you like it or not, whether you want it or not, there’s people brewing thousands and thousands of Ayahuasca brew in the Amazon right now to send all over the world. So, what are the ways that we can make this growth more organized and organic and balanced? And here, I just can’t avoid quoting, for example, the initiative of the Ayahuasca Defense Fund, which I work for this project and I have ICEERS in high regards, that is trying to create some legal protections.
1:19:49 BL: As I said, the views that I express here are my own and not the ADF’s, but I really recommend people to pay attention. We are doing a legal map in the ADF website that we put the status of Ayahuasca in each country up and I’m involved directly in this project, as well as in the series of webinars that we promote and we’re just trying to bring really good information and create awareness and create community and create dialogues and get people informed, get them better aware. Like you’re gonna travel, it’s better to avoid having certain legal problems. You’re thinking, you can’t be naive anymore. Today, there is a man, a Brazilian man, in jail, in Russia, convicted to six and a half years for drinking Ayahuasca, for taking four bottles of Ayahuasca to Russia. So how can we avoid situations like that and also how can we avoid just this flux of tourists that are going to leave a lot of trash behind in the Amazon? So these different aspects of the discussion need to be addressed, and I think that, I’m in favor of science, I am in favor of advancing scientific knowledge, of creating conferences, of creating debates, of creating forums and just sharing information, and that’s also what we’re trying to do with Kahpi and Chacruna.
1:21:12 PA: Which we didn’t have enough time to talk about, but I’m sure many of our listeners have been to. We always share their content and we’re like we could keep talking all day, I think, but we’ve gone about an hour-and-a-half now, so it’s been a lot of fun and it’s been really interesting talking with you. We had tried to do this a bit ago and got caught up and I’m glad that we could come back now and make this happen. But before we wrap up, do you want to just tell our listeners where they can find you? So maybe, I know you mentioned your blog, your website, and any of the other projects that you’re involved in quick, as an overview.
1:21:45 BL: Well, I would add in a piece about Chacruna and Kahpi. Kahpi and Chacruna is a project that I co-founded with my dear beloved friend, Alex Gearin from Australia, and Kahpi is an online Ayahuasca learning hub and we have courses, we have 11 really amazing courses on science, spirituality and culture. Each teacher gives three classes of around 10 to 15 minutes. There are videos, they cost really cheap and we did an amazing investment of time and energy of years in this project and we’re really proud and I really recommend people to check these sites online. The basic idea is that you kind of translate scientific knowledge into a more accessible language, and not so hermetic, obscure and hard to understand like science, but also not so superficial and empty like social media or journalism frequently can be, and the other point of Kahpi is to really give some kind of practical tips, some wisdom and knowledge from people, that do have a lot of empirical experience and scientific experience.
1:22:55 BL: And Chacruna is the sister organization of Kahpi and we’re trying to do the same thing there. We also have… We’ve published short articles, and I think our brand is just to have some really good stuff on, like really quality by real academics who really know what they’re talking about, who have done real research based on ground work, and we try to educate them, to domesticate them to write papers that people actually read and care, because the fact is that these academic books, sometimes nobody ever buys or read, but these posts get a lot of visibility. So we’re trying to influence debate. And in Chacruna, we’re also trying to talk about the back stages of psychedelic science, such as some of the topics that we talked here that do not get a lot of attention. So it’s an opportunity to talk more directly about things that don’t go into peer review publications, but worry all of us. And I also recommend the ADF site, I recommend the site of our conference, Plantas Sagradas en las Américas, and I recommend my own website, there is the Nepi website, there’s… Maybe I can give to you a list and…
1:24:02 PA: Well, and I have all the lists and I’ll make sure we’ll write up show notes for this. So with any listeners who are just listening to the podcast, your website is bialabate.net, correct?
1:24:12 BL: Yeah.
1:24:14 PA: B-I-A-L-A-B-A-T-E.net, and then we’ll provide all the other links to the Ayahuasca Defense Fund, Chacruna, Kahpi, Nepi, anything else?
1:24:23 BL: I’m sure there’s more, there’s so many things, but hey, before I close up, I just wanna commend you and congratulate you, Paul Austin, for being so brave, and we shared a little of your story, and you’re such an entrepreneur and it seems like you’re coming with the right place in your heart and at the same time, your objective about making this happen and navigate and populate this cyber space with good stuff, and coming with genuine concerns, and I really admire what you’re doing, and I think it’s great that in this younger generation, and sorry to speak like that, I sound like an aunt already, but time flies, you have so many empty-headed millennials and you are on the good side of the millennials and the techies and you’re doing really great work.
1:25:13 PA: Thank you, that’s a great way to end. So Bia Labate, everyone. It was an honor to be able to speak with you for so long and spend time with you.
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