Benjamin De Loenen, founder of plant medicine non-profit ICEERS, joins us for a discussion on ayahuasca and iboga. We discuss the wide-ranging impact that plant medicines could have on modern society, and the implications of disrespecting their power and origin. Benjamin lays out the various traps the psychedelic movement could fall into, and the best approaches to getting psychedelic medicines accepted by policymakers and the public.
0:00:26 Paul Austin: Hey, listeners, and welcome back to The Third Wave Podcast, your host Paul Austin coming at you from Brooklyn in New York City. I'm actually prepping to go to a family trip in Scotland where I'll have the opportunity to take a full week off, no Slack, no email, no back and forth, just nature and some Scottish food and potentially some whiskey. I don't drink much anymore, but we're going to Oban, they have some really good single malt scotch there. So something that I always look forward to anyway, little personal update, I suppose.
0:00:58 PA: And for this week's podcast, we have the Executive Director of ICEERS, and that is Benjamin De Loenen who studied audio visual media and communication in the Netherlands and has now dedicated himself to making ayahuasca, iboga and other psychedelic plant practices valued and integrated parts of society. In 2009, Ben founded ICEERS which stands for the International Center for Ethnobotanical Education, Research and Service, a charitable non-profit donation with United Nations consultative status. Benjamin is also the author of several publications and films, has presented at conferences around the world and has participated in various leadership roles, including as a member of the board of the directors of the Global Ibogaine Therapists Alliance.
0:01:45 PA: Ben and I talked about a number of topics largely around ayahuasca and plant medicines, including why he became involved in this work in the first place, his thoughts on the growing importance of plant medicines within a cultural sphere, and the future plans for ICEERS, particularly around the research that they're doing with ayahuasca. This was a phenomenal conversation. It was an honor to talk to Ben for an hour and I really do believe that you'll get just as much out of this as I did while talking to him. So without further ado, I bring you Benjamin De Loenen.
0:02:24 Benjamin De Loenen: It's an interesting phenomenon, almost or more than 500 years ago, now, a few boats left Spain to colonize the Latin America and then just instead of just really recognizing the treasures there in front of them in the indigenous cultures, in the plants, they mastered, instead just slaughtering everything, and now more than 500 years later, there's those plants are in a way, or those practices are inspiring people around the world and maybe the opportunity for both worlds to get together. Which is a way of kind of connecting to the world, ayahuasca conference, now the vision we have for our next conference. Really bringing the best of both worlds together and for true partnerships to be able to come out of that and overcoming the whole thing of the past and trauma around that.
0:03:18 BL: That was one of the hard parts of the conference in Brazil as well. You were there, so you've seen some of it, kind of, "Who are these people from Spain coming here to colonize us again and steal our knowledge?" And I get where that comes from now, because that's been the way it was for 500 years. But yeah, it's kind of a journey, overcoming that and just having something that came out of very ancient roots, just kinda make its way to the world.
0:03:47 PA: So... And why is it that you chose Rio Branco as that location for the World Ayahuasca Conference in 2016?
0:03:54 BL: Well, for us, it was... The first conference we did was in Ibiza, which came out of the need to bring together people from the policy world, who many of them weren't very interested in ayahuasca really in thinking, it was just for a minority audience. But due to the increase in legal incidents, to really bring those people together and think about how can we advance policy and the good legal defense. But then after that, we only had three indigenous representatives there and we kind of wanted to really bring the next edition to the home of ayahuasca in Brazil, Rio Branco, where many of the indigenous peoples live in that province, in Acre, but also is the home of many of the churches, the ayahuasca churches. So we really went to that hometown and organized that six-day conference, which was quite a challenging, but very inspiring experience.
0:04:52 PA: And what for you was one of the most exciting aspects of not only organizing the conference but also attending the conference, what sort of vision did you come out of that conference with and inspired to do?
0:05:04 BL: Well, I think the most inspiring thing was just to see how... There could be genuine disagreement and how we managed to hold the space for even conflict between groups to come out. But at the end that everybody really went through that, like an ayahuasca experience, you know, there's sometimes deep holes and it's difficult to see the light at the end of the tunnel, but then really through that space, be able to grow all together and really in a very multi-cultural way. So that was for me, the most inspiring part of that. One of the attenders told me... Normally, when I see conflict at a conference, it's like, two egos, you know, people kind of are in disagreement, and they fight. But here was just really groups and cultures, just defending their views and the sacredness that ayahuasca is to them and being able to just share how they feel that other people's behavior might threaten that. So it was a really a process, it was a conference where we started in a certain way in relationships and then it evolved with an outcome where people started to talk about the future together.
0:06:00 PA: And what are some of those conflicts that the larger ayahuasca community is dealing with?
0:06:00 BL: One thing that came up a lot is the commercialization of ayahuasca. So, the ayahuasca churches, they obviously don't believe in commercialization, they really kind of hold that, those practices with ayahuasca in a community way where there's no price tag to that. You're a member of the community, you're supporting the community. So there was a group of indigenous peoples who offered ceremonies for a price that was considered too high. There was some thought that we were involved in those ceremonies and getting money off that, which was not the case. And so the question is what does commercialization look like? All of that came up. And just in Brazil, that's illegal, for example. So seeing how some people commercializing with ayahuasca then endangers, really, the credibility of the other groups. So that was a part of that. There was some conflict also around certain types of practices or what is considered safe and ethical. So there were some disagreements around that. And I think just a cultural difference between groups and understanding, really, how you have to work with those plants.
0:07:42 BL: Cool. And I'd love to just dig further into that because I think this is something that, obviously, ICEERS' work focuses a lot on is you're really the leading non-profit group organization who's discussing plant medicines, and amplifying the message of plant medicines, not only to protect and preserve them, but also because of the potential that they hold for healing, development, understanding, self-awareness. In fact, one thing that really stuck out to me as I was reading some past interviews that you did online is because of your background in audio-visual, you've taken an approach where you've tried to present this material... You have presented this material in a way that's aesthetically appealing because you recognize that in order for these medicines to be more widely accepted, the message doesn't have to just appeal to people who have already done this, so to say, but it also has to appeal to a wider audience, people who maybe are skeptical of some of these practices.
0:08:46 PA: And I think this goes into, again, the conversation that we were talking about of this marriage between this indigenous wisdom of preserving the sacredness of these substances, and the modern need for healing, which these substances can provide. And so, I'd love to just hear your thoughts on, either personally or from an organizational perspective, how is ICEERS handling that balance between preservation and amplification?
0:09:17 BL: Yeah, I think we try to be careful in promoting. I don't feel we are an organization that promotes the use, say, "Hey, let's all drink ayahuasca or do iboga, or whatever plant." We try to have a balanced message in the sense of, "This is what there is," giving objective information, but then, really inviting people to do their due diligence to really be informed before getting into an experience like this. It's serious, it's a serious experience, so people really should consider that serious as well. So we try to, in that sense, have a bit of a neutral aesthetic to it and really, to talk to a broader audience, because more and more people, as they hear about it, are obviously getting interested in these practices. So we wanna make sure that the first information they have is really trustworthy and stimulating them to take these responsible decisions.
0:10:16 BL: So that on one hand. And then what I see very often with the psychedelics world is that now, you have the medicalization of psychedelics. In general, you have PTSD or you have a certain condition, and then these psychedelics can help you in overcoming that. And I think what we try to focus on very much is to really make people understand where this comes from in the community, and the role that these plants have played in communities for very long. Where it's not just about the individual, it's really about the community and about the functioning of the individuals within the community. And we brought some indigenous taitas from Colombia to the UN last year, to the Human Rights Commission. And it was very, to me, very inspiring to see how they shared there to the commissioners and the diplomats, that actually, for them, they have survived all of the tragedy they have lived through the use of their plants, through use of their ayahuasca. Because it helped them protect themselves against internal struggles and threats, internal leadership, corruption and so forth, and also, external ones. It's even in the decision-making processes of these communities that these plants have played a role.
0:11:36 BL: And so, limiting that to just a tool, which can help you heal a certain disease, I think... And with plants that come from such rich background, needs to be really clear. It's really much more of that. And as these plants might become available to those who need it for treatment or for certain personal benefits, I think it's always important that the regulation or the processes of policy that are developed, that they really always take into account this background and really respect for community uses of these plants to continue. So yeah, and within our research as well, we are trying to move also to really researching global mental health. So looking at what is the impact of these plants on the community where people live in. Do the they go less to a medical doctor or the same? Do they function better? Do they have better quality relationships? And really, framing it in that context of people growing, maybe, or overcoming difficulties, personal difficulties. But how does that reflect to you being part of the community and hopefully, shifting consciousness or the way people interact with each other and with nature as well.
0:12:33 PA: So not only the individual... I believe you've carried out research on how effective is ayahuasca treating PTSD.
0:13:05 BL: We are at this point doing a study at the Temple of Way of Light, which is almost finishing, where we have for several years now followed people, and there's a PTSD group, there's a group with grief, there's one with depression and anxiety. We've been looking at people who come with primary focus on dealing with their depression. How did the series of ayahuasca sessions they had within that traditional context kind of have an impact. But also in that study, we look at, say, healthy people or just people coming for personal development or spiritual experiences, how that impacts their quality of life. We have been doing all of that research. And now more recently we have started, we have developed based on this concept called Global Mental Health, which was proposed by the World Health Organization, to also look more at ayahuasca circles and people who are part of those communities. What impact does these practices have on them and how does that compare to other communities that don't drink ayahuasca, for example.
0:14:15 PA: Can you define that, just briefly, what is this sense of Global Mental Health, what is that? What does that mean?
0:14:22 BL: This is a term and our scientific director could explain this better than me. But it's basically we touched on because mostly in third world countries, where there's very often a lack of access to modern medicine. They have obviously their traditional medicine and their traditional health systems. And they are very often not recognized at all, so the World Health Organization kind of stimulates in their report, which goes over still several years to come, the focus on really looking at what impact do those traditional healthcare systems or medicines or practices have on the community health. Does that translate to people having less need for pharmaceuticals or less need for a certain intervention. What's the impact on the economic cost of that as well. And so, that's the way they framed it and what we have been doing is basically taking that concept and trying to translate and develop indicators to measure how do, for example, ayahuasca practices or iboga practices, and this could even be done as well, in countries that approve medical cannabis programs. Now there's all of a sudden a different substance or practice available, what does that do to the cost of healthcare in the traditional healthcare system and so forth. And also that's where we're looking at now, we started a study in Spain.
0:15:52 PA: That's one of the most exciting frontiers in terms of understanding the paradigm shift that psychedelics generally, but also plant medicines can facilitate. It's like this process of awakening to our self, awakening to how we feel, to really getting in touch with that deep intuition, so we end up making basically better choices about our own personal health. This has even been reported anecdotally, for example, with people who start to microdose, which is a lot of the... A trend that, what we're doing with at Third Wave, we're very in touch with people who notice that when they start to microdose, for example, they make better eating choices, they might exercise a little bit more, they maybe go vegetarian, they do things where they... I think it stems out of the sense of self-love, where through these experiences, we come to... From the spiritual experience, we come to understand this sense of divineness in ourself and for that reason, we're more motivated to really take care of our body.
0:16:57 PA: And obviously, this is a total change from particularly the for-profit pharmaceutical healthcare model that's developed in largely the United States, about, you know, you're sick and you need a pill and then all of a sudden you've built this customer from a long-term perspective. In psychedelics, it's, "No, let's heal the root cause," so that going forward, even though, for example, I know with studies that, not with studies, but with the treatment that MAPS, for example, is carrying out for PTSD. It's a pretty high five-figure number in terms of the 12-week process that people will go through to treat their PTSD. But if you look at from a long-term perspective, how much "money" that's saving our system, it's considerable. And I think this is something that represents, like I said, a tremendous paradigm shift in just how we treat health and ourselves.
0:17:56 BL: I think also it's important, governments obviously very often, they don't really understand these plants or practices at all. They don't distinguish between more ethical practices and problematic or criminal behavior, that sometimes occurs. It's kind of a drug. They don't have the knowledge to really understand what these practices are about. Being able to really measure or demonstrate as opposed to being, if plants, if properly integrated being a threat to public health, that actually people can become better citizens. People that are more part of the local community, they have better health choices and so forth. Obviously, there's a big impact and it's beneficial to everybody. I think that's why it's so important not just to only focus on the individual and the benefit to that, but also how does that translate to living in our society.
0:18:53 PA: I think that, I just wanna emphasize that, it is so important because we look at going outside of the... You talked about the medical model, which is what MAPS and Heffter and the Beckley Foundation has been so great at, is, okay, let's look at how we can develop treatments to heal PTSD, depression, addiction. But we're doing it within a clinical, institutional, largely academic model. And while that's great in terms of what it can mean for psychiatric care, I think a lot of us who are heavily involved in the plant medicine and psychedelic movement are also looking at that larger vision of what changes can this facilitate on a socio-political basis, on a cultural basis.
0:19:38 PA: Because that's when we get into the real exciting aspects, particularly as we're facing some level of ecocide. What we've seen with, this has been my personal experience, maybe it's been yours as well. I know it's been many people's experience. When we have this sense of interconnectedness, this sense of ego loss that connects us to everything around us, we start to pay much more attention to how we treat particularly the environment but also our friends, our family, you know, our larger community, and that, I think, for me at least, is really what's so motivating and inspiring about where this movement can go in the next 5 to 10 to 15 years.
0:20:19 BL: And I think in terms of kind of drug development, and the medical model, which you talk about, that MAPS and Heffter and [unclear speech] have been doing, you know, the really positive thing on that research is well on the way. Clinical research is considered kind of the golden standard even though there's something to say about that as well, in the more naturalistic research or the global mental health research, I think is also very important because it shows really the context of use. But that type of research really has taken away, I think, a lot of fear, social fear around these tools along the way, and I think public perception has been shifting along the way.
0:21:04 BL: There's more and more sensible media coverage that has been going on. So I think for sure there has been a positive impact on the broader picture of the integration or the roles, the place of these plants or psychedelics in our society. And then obviously there are strategies really to develop a medicine which then can be administered to people with certain pathologies, then maybe go off-label and then broaden that scope, I think that's more or less the strategy that MAPS and Heffter have. At the same time, I think it's very important what you say that there's a very big group of people, maybe the majority, really, of people interested in seeking these experiences who are in this for spiritual, for connection to their divine, or to maybe part of a religion or maybe outside of a religion. And there's a lot of people who wanna improve their health, their life, get very in touch with their purpose in life. And if just use, which is, of course, outside of this medical model.
0:22:11 BL: And so we work a lot around that as well. We've been looking very much at the association model, which is a model that we have here in Spain for the cannabis associations, which is a private non-profit user association format, where within Spain, drugs for possession and use of drugs is not a crime, only if you give it to other people. And then also there's something considered which is the collective purchase or collective use. Which is considered personal use as well, but in a collective, in a community. So we've been looking at that as well, kind of, can we create a safe space, a safe container where it doesn't matter if somebody, if it's a patient association where some people want to have access to, say, iboga for treating their condition or for their Parkinson's, or it's a spiritual group who wants to have their work with a sacrament with ayahuasca or with others.
0:23:11 BL: Or is it a group of people who just want to have personal development or other experiences, and just focusing really on that safety container. And what does that look... What are the boundaries in terms of the ethics on the safety or sustainability of the model, how is money handled? In such a way that marketing and profit is not the incentive, but it's really creating a safe space for people to get together and have access to the practices that they want to have. So that's something we work around. And with that, it's important also to consider that these plants are really not under international law, and that the legality of most of these plants is very different from country to country. That's a difference with the psychedelics as well, more modern-day psychedelics.
0:24:05 PA: And so, what is, like in Spain, for example, what is the legality of ayahuasca and ibogaine and... I even know, and I've seen that people will, for example, do 5-MeO-DMT ceremonies in Ibiza. What are kind of the drug laws in Spain, and then maybe elsewhere in Europe as well, around these plant medicines?
0:24:29 BL: So I mean, it's important to consider... So there's the UN level and at the UN level the plants or concoctions made with these plants are not illegal, they don't fall under the 1971 Convention, which is a convention on psychotropic drugs. And so then if you go down to the government level or the national level. So in Spain, so DMT is illegal. So at the UN level all the extracted alkaloids, mescaline, DMT, psilocybin, those are controlled but not the plants, you know? So in Spain, for example, there is no law that specifically bans ayahuasca. And like in many other countries, there is no law that specifically bans ayahuasca or peyote or San Pedro, and so forth.
0:25:16 BL: But that doesn't mean that there's a legal certainty. There is for sure the risk of arrest. And in Spain, Spain is the country with most arrests of anywhere in the world. There's been more than 60 I would estimate by now. But of those 60, only one person declared guilty, and didn't go to jail because it was a plea bargain, but all the others were acquitted. Part of them, because personal... The possession for personal use is not a crime in Spain, so. And even some of the court outcomes, the judges really recognize this is really not illegal here. One in Catalonia they even said it was beneficial for the participants, they kind of even stated that maybe instead of criminalizing these practices, we should regulate them.
0:26:05 BL: So that's the reality here. And in other countries, there's been the same situation from a legal point of view. But some court outcomes have been more challenging, like in Germany. And then some countries have been changing laws also after as a result of cases like that, you know? And then countries like Holland, for example, where they say that all these concoctions are actually considered illegal as well, there's countries where it's specifically illegal, like France, the US as well, so there's a big variety. And we have a project called the Ayahuasca Defense Fund where we are building a map and always adding more information about the legality in different countries, so that people really can know what the risk they're taking or what the reality is before going to a certain country.
0:26:56 PA: Well, I think something like the Ayahuasca Defense Fund, which I'd love to hear you talk a little bit more about, because that is one of the projects that I've been most aware of in terms of ICEERS work. Particularly because of events recently, I think two or three months ago, there was something that happened in the Netherlands where a church that had legal protection for a number of years, that legal protection was rescinded. And I saw another thing that happened maybe a year, year-and-a-half ago where a Curandero, I believe, was going through Russia and bringing in ayahuasca and was caught and sentenced. So, I'd love to... Two questions of this, and I think you can tie them together: What is your initiative with the Ayahuasca Defense Fund, and what role do you hope that plays in the next three to five to 10 years in helping to facilitate this transition from criminalization to regulation where people can actually use these substances in a way that doesn't seem so shady and underground?
0:28:00 BL: Yeah, well, first of all, I hope that in 10 years, the Ayahuasca Defense Fund is not needed anymore. Also, we don't only work around ayahuasca cases, but 99% of the cases are with ayahuasca. But there are some cases that are around San Pedro as well, or we've done iboga case, mushrooms, so there's... But we try to focus really on ceremonial practices that are done by practitioners and they get arrested. So we started to see the open space where we can operate within court proceedings. The first experience was in Chile in 2010 where we brought together very good legal experts. The defendants, they hired really very good lawyers, and then we brought in some experts, scientific experts. Jacques Mabit of Takiwasi came. He talked about the clinical experience they have there, including drug dependency. Some of the participants of ceremonies came to testify.
0:29:10 BL: And just building a solid defense on demonstrating that what they're talking about is not DMT, it's not just a molecule that somebody buy... We're talking here about ea cultural practice which it's way more than... It's not even about the ayahuasca, it's about everything around it as well, and people being trained in long traditions for years, really learning in that tradition, and then bringing that culture to another place in the world. So just bringing that in front of a judge, really, they're used to cocaine trafficking, guns, a lot of money, sometimes violence, and then there's this person with a brown bottle with some feathers in front, and they are like, "What the hell is this? What do have to do here?" So generally judges are very open to input and expert witness testimonies and reports. So we saw this is really an opportunity within this kind of grayish genre of where ayahuasca and the other plants are really not illegal in most countries, it's really an opportunity to educate.
0:30:16 BL: And so I don't feel the ADF fights against judges, or the judicial system, but kind of more seeks partnerships with judges and the judicial system to really educate them properly and say, "Okay, this is what you really have in front of you, and just base your decisions on that complete notion of what these practices are about, what motivates people to really engage with these practices, and what do we know about them really, in terms of threat to public health." They talk about safety, all of that, so that's really, it's for... It really works to educate judges and people around the legality of these plants, but also the cultural context and everything around it. And then the other side of it is really trying to educate the ayahuasca community more, and plant medicine community, to know more about what is really the legality of those plants and be properly informed. And then lastly, sometimes also when a court case ends, sometimes in acquittal, there's not an ideal outcome, can we then further bring together the strength that we've build up for that case to then start to engage with policymakers and see if outside of the court proceedings we can advance policy as well. So that's kind of the focus.
0:31:45 PA: And how has that process been going? Does it look like we're starting to move in a forward direction from a policy perspective? Or is it still too early to tell if they might be changing?
0:31:57 BL: I think it's always two steps forward and one step back. And depends also very much on the country and the laws that there are. But giving the example what you said earlier on Russia where we have been working with that case and also another case that's going on right now. In Russia, ayahuasca is illegal. Specifically, the plants are considered all illegal in Russian law. They have very, very harsh drug penalties. They have no mercy. In that case, Temer went to talk to Putin and asked for extraditing to Brazil, but they said, "No. We are very harsh on drugs. He needs to stay." But still, within that, instead of 10 years he got three-and-a-half. Still things are in appeal. This is ongoing. So there's different levels of success and depending on what country you're working, you're gonna have a different outcome.
0:32:50 BL: But I think always the awareness you bring, even if it's within one judge or sometimes in the media because in the Chile case, for example, the media really lynched these people. They talked about Charles Manson and a cult and drugging people. And then we started to collaborate with them, they had some media contacts, we gave an interview, we are close to the conference with them. Media came and all of a sudden these positive stories came out as well. So all of a sudden, the impact is not just within the court case, and they were acquitted in a very good way. But even if that's not the outcome, you still, I think, had a very positive outcome. So, yeah, I think it's... Sometimes we always think within our generation, we want to really solve this. But I think good strategies are longer-term strategies, and they really build up in a sensitive way and that's what we try to do.
0:33:44 PA: I think that's been one positive aspect of this time around with psychedelics and plant medicine is, by and large, most of the media coverage has been very, very positive. For example, with Michael Pollan's recent book that's been published, he was on the front page of The Wall Street Journal, the front page of the New York Times Magazine, he's been on the Colbert Show, all over the place. And it's been almost exclusively positive attention. And I think this is then when we look at, again, revisiting our conversation before when we look at how do we transition from that medical institutional model to really taking a cultural approach because I think, for many of us that are involved with this, it's giving people the freedom and the right to utilize these substances in a way that they deem appropriate with an integrated trust and saying, "We trust you to make the right decision for yourself because we recognize that you have the basic education about how these substances should be utilized."
0:34:47 PA: And this plays out in the ayahuasca world, for example, there's a difference between making ayahuasca at home, which anyone besides a curandero or a shaman should probably not do, to actually doing proper research, going down to the Sacred Valley or Peru or Colombia, finding a proper curandero or shaman and then actually working with them through that. And from my perspective, this is an educational process and that is something that's still very much an intangible in the psychedelic space. We have these tangibles of, okay, we know that MDMA treats PTSD and can cure it in 69% of cases, right? This is the phase two trials that MAPS carried out, but we still don't have very clear, like a clear understanding of again, how does this impact our culture at large in really changing minds and opinions about these substances?
0:35:51 BL: Yeah. I think the educational part is just more and more possible when these plants or these substances are not as taboo anymore. And that's obviously the effect of prohibition always. Something becomes taboo, illegal, hidden and then people also have more difficult access to objective information. The educational space is a space we've been focusing on very much, but also how can we create a support network for these practices? Knowing you have obviously, services like Kosmicare in Boom Festival or the Zendo Project, where people are supported who are having challenging psychedelic experiences. In ICEERS, we have been working I think since 2012 in a support service where people contact us who have had challenging experiences, or sometimes experiences they need to further integrate and they have nowhere to go. They have nobody to talk to because people might think that they're crazy to have done those... To have taken that plant. And so that's really the work we need to do. And when these plants become more, or substances become more accepted, it's gonna be more easy also to build those support systems.
0:37:07 BL: And those support systems include a good education and good information. In case somebody really needs psychological support, that that's available, just more kind of that feeling of a community and not being an outsider I think is just crucial as this evolves. And I think we're far away from that still, even though there's a lot of good media now coming. But there's also bad media that comes and also because of problematic behavior still, it's like a porcelain shop where there's an elephant going through this. Well, every time there's an elephant walking through it's like a big impact and really sometimes the policy response or the media is really very harsh. We just had one in Spain here of sexual abuse of a Colombian shaman in mainstream media, and that's what you see. So I think also there's... Stewarding this in the right direction is challenging as well, because of those internal challenges with the community.
0:38:12 PA: Which is where looking at the long-term strategy and going slow, the metaphor of the tortoise wins the race, so to say. I think that's particularly true with the reintegration of these substances because they have been, as we talked about before, taboo for at least 500 years, if not longer, to some degree. I think that's important. One thing that I love to talk about with podcast guests as well, we've talked a lot about ICEERS and some of these more of theoretical abstract concepts, but something I also love to hear is personal stories, and obviously your own personal story with these substances, I assume played a facilitating role in starting ICEERS. So I'd just love to hear a little bit more about that. What got you involved in this work in the first place? I believe you started ICEERS in 2009, what came before that? And why were you so driven and motivated to do this work?
0:38:51 BL: So yeah, interestingly, my first real motivation to get into this was not because of a personal experience, it was because I was a film student then decided to make a film on iboga or ibogaine, and there was not very much out there about that topic. And just sitting next to the beds of people who were going... People with drug dependency issues, sometimes 20 years of severe drug dependency, and then seeing how they just open up in that experience, start to really share their deeper emotional trauma and relationships with their father or mother, very personal stuff the next day just all came out. And just seeing that transformation was just so inspiring from a human perspective.
0:39:55 BL: When I finished my film I started to really share that around and gotten drawn more into really advocating for something like iboga than continuing a classical film career and making films about just any topic. So that's kind of my first introduction to that and how I got really motivated in dedicating my life more to making information about these plants available. Mostly iboga. And then a few years later, I did... I participated in an ayahuasca ceremony of... [unclear speech] traditional ceremony. And that just blew my mind. The next day I was on the phone with my mother and I was just saying, "Wow, the ceremony and these indigenous peoples and... " It just was such a rich experience in really helping me overcome fears as well. And it was... A big part of the experience, was kind of to let go and then seeing the magic that happens when you let go of your fears and don't wanna control things. I'm a bit of a control person, so that was helpful.
0:41:03 BL: And just also the beauty of the culture, seeing this very old shaman who was then about 80-something years old, leading that ceremony with such a care and the chanting, and just the whole system, all these indigenous peoples with him kind of holding that space for us to have those experiences was just beautiful. So after that I was like, "Wow, I have a mini film production company and in making films... I really need to start a non-profit organization to do my work in public speaking and showing the film." And that was really the... What set the basis for ICEERS. And then it wasn't until 2009 that I did iboga myself. So I spent about five years talking in public and showing the film. That experience was very interesting because I had kind of a 10 hour-visionary phase, it was very, very challenging. Probably one of the most challenging things I've ever done. A lot of moments of being confronted with fear, sometimes very confusing, a lot of stuff I didn't really get. Brutal force... Really kind of hard-handed father teachings. But it didn't really, I didn't feel after 10 hours that it had changed my life. No.
0:42:21 BL: So after the visions wore off, I thought, "What a horrible drug is this? Why did I spend five years of my life really dedicated to this?" It felt in a way superficial. It wasn't just... I just felt compared to ayahuasca that it was just a horrible experience and that was it. But I didn't know that then the second phase of that experience starts and for 24 hours everything started to make sense. Getting an emotional charge. I really... It had a very, very profound impact on how I understood my relationship with my father and his relationship with his father and kind of that, the whole generation on generation, passing on our capacities, our qualities, but also our limitations and just being grateful for that and how it is our task to try to over grow that and solve certain issues that the past generation couldn't solve for themselves. And that that's really what human evolution is about. And I never really wanted children, I was convinced I would never want children in my life and then... Until I did iboga where I thought, "Well, this is so rich, that I really don't wanna miss that."
0:43:30 BL: So that in a way iboga had a major impact on my life then. And one month before the experience I was still living in Amsterdam doing film editing to live, that was kind of a comfortable job. And then starting in 2009, 2010 kind of ICEERS was just in my free time and every time taking more free time and working less in the film business to develop that idea. But I was afraid to jump and to really say, "Okay, I have no idea how to fundraise. I'm a filmmaker, I have no idea how to run a foundation, but how can I really do what I feel is in my life path?" And then after iboga I was just... Forget about Amsterdam and the film work, just go for it. And so I did it and I... One month afterwards I was living in Barcelona full-time and that's really how ICEERS started growing.
0:44:23 PA: I'd love to hear more about that transition for you, because this is something that I think has become increasingly common is you have a lot of people who are doing work that either, it's somewhat fulfilling... I assume the work that you were doing with film editing was something you enjoyed. Or maybe they're doing work... I find this to be particularly true in the United States, that they just really dislike and they wanna make a transition into something that's really... It has some sort of personal meaning to them. What gave you the courage or the confidence to make that transition? It sounds like, again, this is just my understanding. It sounds like it was partly logistical in that you had already spent a couple years building this up in your free time, and you felt confident, then, in making that leap. But it also sounds like it probably was quite a difficult decision to make because especially at this point in time in 2011, there really wasn't much going on with psychedelics. I went through a similar transition about a year ago or so, where I made the commitment to do this full-time, but there are so many other developments in the psychedelic space that weren't relevant seven years ago. So I'd love to hear more about that.
0:45:27 BL: Yeah. It was a very difficult decision. I had been sitting on that for a couple of years prior, but I guess, again, that's when these experiences connect you with a sense of purpose. And just kind of, "Why am I living on this planet? And how can I make the best of my life and impact lives?" And so, I felt afterwards I was so convinced that that was... On the long term that would be what would make me happy, even though on the way obviously in very difficult moments, sometimes I thought, "Why did I just abandon my easy film-making life before?" But I guess that's the path. And sometimes these decisions are very difficult, and then the path is very difficult, but it's getting, capacitating yourself, getting extra skills where needed and just going for it.
0:46:15 BL: But yeah, it's been a very interesting journey and also you start with an idea of what you think you wanna do in the world, and that also in some moments that initial vision is challenged by experience, by seeing how the... This whole phenomenon develops internationally. I've had one experience as well which was very, very difficult. Where... And also talking about risks, that's one thing where sometimes I have... It's a bit difficult to talk about, kind of the challenging experiences that people might have or the risks involved. Sometimes that's taboo in a way as well in our community and just when you have a challenging experience yourself and at the end, you learn from it, but it also makes you aware. It's important that we as a community can talk about the risks as well of these plants without needing to be alarmist or anything, but just it's part of growing and maturing and integrating practices, talking about the benefits as well as the risks.
0:47:19 BL: But the times we have published something about the combination of bufo and ayahuasca recently, there was a lot of criticism of the community, "You're being alarmist," but I think we need to be able to talk about risks as well so that we can prevent people from getting hurt and seeking the proper context.
0:47:38 PA: And what was the context of that? Bufo is 5-MeO-DMT, correct?
0:47:43 BL: Yeah, I mean, there's this phenomenon now that you see that more and more people offer all these substances altogether in the same retreat. Sometimes in a matter of just a weekend where it's first bufo then kambo then ayahuasca and then again kambo then... So obviously, thinking about the collective responsibility that we have because if it goes wrong in one place, it's gonna really affect people in another place. So we figured it was important for people to realize what we know really about the interaction between those plants or substances. And so, we published a small report, all science-based and based on a few fatalities that were reported on bufo 5-MeO being combined or being taken in a close range with ayahuasca. And so, we from a risk reduction point of view, really... Our conclusion was that if people are gonna do those two things, to really spread them enough. Leave at least 12 hours in between.
0:48:47 BL: And yeah, we get a lot of criticism mostly from people working with these substances but work with them much closer together, and that wasn't... Some people really appreciate the information, but yeah, you can just see when you publish about the benefits of these plants, you get a lot of support and people saying, "Yeah, great." But if you talk about risks, which is I think equally important, it's generally less well-received. And I understand the political climate and the media climate, obviously, it's very sensitive because juicy stories are what many journalists really love. So it's a matter of doing that in a sensible way and without being alarmist, but there needs to be space for that as well.
0:49:34 PA: Yeah, this is something that we've come to learn as well. There's an element of when we first started Third Wave, maybe giving over-emphasis to the benefits, and I think a lot of people who are new to this space often will do that, if for no other reason then as a reaction to a lot of the current stigma, misinformation, etcetera, etcetera that exist. But once you enter this space and you've been in it for a long enough time period and you start engaging with people who actually have worked with these substances, then you have a more holistic perspective in, okay, not only how might this be perceived by someone who is enthusiastic about psychedelics or who has worked with psychedelics for many years, but more importantly, how might this be perceived by a mom of a 19 or 20-year-old who decides to go off to the Amazon to drink ayahuasca, the mom has no interest in psychedelics but wants to know about the risks.
0:50:34 PA: I think we also need to keep those types of people in mind if there is to be a container that's created for the integration of these substances, because talking about the risks isn't sexy, but like you said, as long as it's not done in an alarmist way and as long as you provide scientific backing for the message, I think it's an important thing to communicate.
0:51:00 BL: Yeah, exactly. In our website, we have information as well for families or friends of people who go off and drink ayahuasca or take other plants so that they know, "How can I best support that person in their process?" What to do in case somebody really has a very challenging time afterwards. What is really the motivation for people to seek those experiences. So that they get a better sense and can better support also their loved ones. Yeah, I think that's crucial. And just the more tools people have really to choose a responsible place to have their experience, to prepare themselves properly, to integrate the experience properly. This, obviously, the outcome is gonna be better and also the risks are gonna be way reduced.
0:51:52 BL: And I think another issue around that is that also some of the marketing around these sessions is very much focused on the experience itself solely. You would come in and in one night we're gonna cure your addiction with ibogaine or we're gonna solve all your issues, and it sets an expectation of this quick fix again which is very part of our society and our culture. We look for that pill, that quick fix and our problem is gone, and that's obviously an expectation that's never gonna be met. So really setting up people with an expectation that this is actually hard work, there is a lot to do before and afterwards, and that it's not just about the experience, but the whole process where the experience is part of that. That I think sets a way better expectation for people.
0:52:37 PA: Yeah, managing expectations is critical. We experienced this when we did these retreats in Amsterdam where you do have people coming in who have never done psychedelics before, who are really looking at this experience as "the experience" and well, it may be that. So for example, it may be the most profound experience that they've ever had. It may be one of the most insightful or meaningful experiences. It might also not be, and being honest about that and upfront about that is really important. If we're looking at, again, a sustainable approach to familiarizing people with these substances because even though the first one might not be or the second one or the third one, the idea is through that constant process of engagement, people become more and more educated about how these tools are relevant to their lives and their purpose and the things that are going on.
0:53:34 BL: Yeah, exactly.
0:53:36 PA: So I'd love to... We're about nearing the hour mark, which is usually about how long the podcasts go, but I'd love to just wrap up with hearing a little bit about your vision as the Executive Director of ICEERS in terms of where is ICEERS going? So, what major projects are you working on in the next year? But then also beyond that, what's your hope or vision for where ICEERS is going in the next three to five to 10 years?
0:54:06 BL: So one immediate thing coming up is the next World Ayahuasca Conference next year, in a year from now, we're gonna be in Girona in just north of Barcelona in Spain. We expect it to be a big... Large conference. The last ones have been large, been in very remote corners so this one is gonna be very, very large where we expect... And going back to the beginning, we really wanna bring together the two worlds, more the indigenous world views with the Western world views and see if we can, by bridging those two worlds. Also with organizations that work in Amazon conservation and thought leaders, thinking on how to move towards more sustainable life on this earth. To really bridging all of that and seeing what new partnerships can come out of that. So that's one project that's coming up.
0:55:04 BL: And then the other work we wanna continue is at the UN level. Last year we took these Colombian taitas to the UN, we're going back next month as well. Collaborating with Mallorca International, it's an organization bringing a Muisca leader from Colombia, doing a pre-consultancy session, which is the type... This is when mining companies or so, when they come in indigenous territory, they have the right to do a pre-consultancy session, and so this is in more indigenous way, so that's something we wanna do there very symbolically on the square in front of the UN. And really further cultivating relationships with people who work at the UN in the human rights level. Really bringing that indigenous reality on the importance of those plants in those cultures in terms of human rights to the UN. So that's also a continuation and linked very much to the next conference as well. So, that's coming up.
0:56:03 BL: Then we have research we're developing around global mental health with an organization in Colombia called Umiyak. This is an organization that brings together a lot of taitas and shamans from the Putumayo basin in Colombia. And really seeing how the ayahuasca in these post-conflict times, which actually is not post-conflict because there's still a lot of conflict going on, but how it can help heal trauma there and really help the communities there. So that's something we're working on. And just advancing, obviously, our research more as I said in the community sphere as well, moving away from this individual focus to more community. So yeah, those are things we're advancing.
0:56:51 BL: And in a major part, except for the world for the Ayahuasca Defense Fund continuing in our legal defense. And really keeping on using the opportunities that come out of the challenge of court proceedings. We also want to increasingly work with communities, talking about safety, the association models, how is a collective in different countries, how can people be better organized? Can really get to common agreements on safety, on ethics and so forth. And then through that kind of advanced policy and really being an example of saying, these plans, these practices are in the hands of responsible people engaging and learning altogether and upholding collective responsibility.
0:57:41 BL: And sometime it's also a bit more thinking about the collective strategy as well, where sometimes somebody wants to be the one who advances policy and gets the permit, and then does it in a not well thought out way or too fast and then at the end, everybody ends up losing. So I think there's a very big value as the science advances and as these psychedelics become medicines, and there's more social acceptance of those to really work at the community level. And seeing how can we organize the community that exists and is working with these plants in a more sustainable way. Sustainable both in the sense of the people participating in the safety and all of that, but also in where do our plants come from, and how can also there be, in that sense, a partnership with countries of origin, with indigenous cultures? And where there's mutual respect and no cultural appropriation and so forth. So that's, I think, the goal for the next few years to come.
0:58:47 PA: Fantastic, and the work that you've done so far, as I mentioned before, starting this in 2009, stepping into it full-time in 2011 and really being the gold standard from a non-profit perspective for plant medicines, I think is fantastic, because you've done an excellent job of again, bridging the gap between what might be more the Western medical model, and the indigenous traditional holistic model. And I think... I've had this conversation with Bia Labate as well. These changing models are going to become increasingly relevant as we look for new ways to treat. Well, at the core of it is like, a spiritual disease which is a total and complete disconnection from ourselves, from the earth, from our lineages, from our traditions. And so the work that you've done and that you continue to do, both you and the whole team at ICEERS, is incredibly important. So I just wanna express my gratitude and thanks for all the work that you've done.
0:58:50 BL: Yeah. Thank you very much. Yeah, and it's, really, I feel we are working on this specific angle, maybe, which is a bit different from other organizations, but also really doing that in alliance with the other organizations. MAPS has been very supportive to us, they're a fiscal sponsor, we've been collaborating with Beckley also very much. Yeah, and elders in the community who really have been believing in our angle of the work and how that fits also in the bigger picture and completes some of the work that the other organizations is doing. So I think building community and alliances has been an important part of it and I really hope also is a vision of the future that we can continue building those alliances and not just within the psychedelics world, but also more in the human rights, in the sustainability world as well and really connecting the dots.
1:00:34 PA: Yeah, the integration into the larger cultural sphere. I think that's where a lot of the work now is to be done now that we've seemed to legitimize these substances. What can we to build bridges with people who aren't really involved in psychedelics at all, or plant medicine? But these substances or these experiences are relevant, still, to the work they're doing.
1:00:53 BL: Yeah.
1:00:53 PA: Great, well, thank you, Ben, so much for coming on the show.
1:00:56 BL: Thank you so much.