Tim’s response was short and sweet. “This is the best text I’ve ever gotten. I’ll send you my guy,” he wrote.
Traditionally, ayahuasca is used by populations as a ceremonial medicine designed to serve several purposes, including spiritual guidance and reconnections with nature. Practically, that means vivid hallucinations, increased euphoria or anxiety, increased heart rate and blood flow, and occasional malaise. The ayahuasca ceremony involves incredibly specific rituals, all of which serve a purpose: chanting to keep guests connected to their physical space and fasting before the ceremony to enhance the tea’s efficacy are just two examples.
I’ve had a couple young people try it who just wanted to trip and they quickly found out this isn’t it.
Cultural appropriation can be a vague term, but generally, taking an element of a culture that isn’t yours by birth—for example, eating Peruvian food when you’re as Irish as they come—isn’t considered cultural appropriation. It becomes appropriation when it’s used in a disrespectful way or in a manner outside of how it’s intended by the culture to whom it belongs; think of a Kardashian wearing a Native American headdress at Coachella. In 2017, a subcommittee of the United Nation’s World Intellectual Property Organization defined cultural appropriation as “the non-consensual taking and illegitimate possession, sale and export of traditional cultural expressions.” While the nuance of the issue can’t be overstated, most participants and practitioners alike seem to agree that intention and respect are key to making sure an ayahuasca experience is beneficial rather than destructive to both Amazonian cultures and the ayahuasca users themselves.
It is normal and often necessary to adapt native traditions so that we can benefit from them, but I feel that to honor rather than distort those ways can only benefit us in the long run.
“As far as I am concerned this medicine welcomes all,” Regueirosays, “but it’s not about ‘rights’, which often leads to feelings of entitlement.” He believes that engagement with other cultures leads to positive outcomes, and that the key is to respectfully engage with those cultures—so another vote for intention and respect rather than a desire to trip as the proper motivation for a culturally sensitive ceremony. According to Regueiro, cultural blending is inevitable and will have a net gain on users across any nationality or background. “It is normal and often necessary to adapt native traditions so that we can benefit from them,” he says, “but I feel that to honor rather than distort those ways can only benefit us in the long run.”
According to Young, the reason for creating the Church was to fulfill his calling to share ayahuasca’s benefits with others; the church is the vehicle for legally making that happen. “Due to the fact that Mr. Jeff Sessions and Mr. Donald Trump believe in freedom of religion so much,” says Young, “they created what we can a double-edge sword.” His church has submitted a lengthy document claiming ayahuasca use as freedom of religion, and he feels extremely confident in his right under the first amendment to continue to use and publicly advertise the church’s services.
If you have respect for the medicine...then you have every right to partake in it.
While it takes nothing more than a quick chat with Young to believe his good intentions, his opinion isn’t without bias; obviously, a consensus that his services were culturally exploitive and dubiously legal would be detrimental to his church. Fortunately for Young, though, experts with little-to-no skin in the game agree that the medicine’s benefits outweigh accusations of cultural impropriety.
“I am a strong proponent of ayahuasca as a universal medicine,” says David Casey, the chief executive at NuMundo.org. The organization operates without religious affiliation to connect travelers with sustainable and transformative experiences across the world, including experiences involving plant medicine. He believes that the true benefit of ayahuasca is its ability to reconnect people with nature and that having non-native (or partially non-native practitioners) running ceremonies can be a good thing, citing their ability to “contextualize and translate the ayahuasca experience in a way that is easier for the Western individualist psyche to assimilate.” If you have respect for the medicine, he thinks, then you have every right to partake in it.
That fact remains that despite the best intentions of participants—take Brandon, a responsible traveler who felt he truly tried to find an authentic, respectful experience— you’re participating in something for reasons other than what the culture who “owns” it uses it for. Even if your intentions match those of traditional users—for example, seeking a reconnection with nature—as a non-indigenous person, your one-time recreational use is not the intended purpose of the medicine.
It all could be deemed a bit liberating too. It doesn’t matter if your goal is to awaken to the spirit world or just to experience a new kind of hallucination, because to some extent, you’re guilty of some degree of appropriation either way. And since experts and users agree the key is self-awareness, it becomes—like the drug itself—a personal decision that each individual has to consider for themselves.For the best takeaway, maybe an off-the-cuff message from Young sums it up: “No one will ever do ayahuasca just to trip,” he says. “Because this medicine will punish you.”