Ayahuasca playboy

Religion, Expression, and Psychedelics: On the Rising Power of Ayahuasca

As the drug becomes more popular, legality and motivation come into question

VT Studio

Tim’s response was short and sweet. “This is the best text I’ve ever gotten. I’ll send you my guy,” he wrote.

I had texted Tim, my geeky-hip northern California tech friend, to ask if he would lend me the name of his ayahuasca shaman for this article. I’m not sure what it says about me as a person that I’m only one step removed from having an ayahuasca shaman in my list of contacts. Given the popularity of the drug among the open-minded millennial crowd, perhaps I’m not the only one. Ayahuasca is a complicated drug, although calling it a drug is arguably a misnomer. It's a brew made from a variety of South American plants. 

One of the included herbs, Psychotria viridis, contains dimethyltryptamine. If your ears perked up when you hear the word “Psychotria,” that’s an appropriate reaction; dimethyltryptamine is also known as DMT, a recreational drug known to cause intense feelings and sensory hallucinations. Ayahuasca can produce a similar feeling, though its effects can last for up to six hours, unlike DMT’s brief 15-minute rollercoaster ride. 

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. 

Ayahuasca's legal status, specifically in the United States, is just as complex as the practice. While the plants ayahuasca is made from are not illegal or regulated, DMT is considered a schedule one drug in the US. A schedule one designation makes possessing or consuming it punishable by a $250,000 fine, not to mention up to five years in prison. 

As is the case with just about any forbidden fruit, ayahuasca can also be done illegally, though it's still generally done under the guidance of an expert on medicinal plants. While such ceremonies are underground and often move from place to place—one user I talked to did her ceremony in a barn hidden in the northern California redwoods—they’re not hard to find. There are even websites that will connect you with a practitioner, giving users the option to decide if they care about the legality of their setting.
I’ve had a couple young people try it who just wanted to trip and they quickly found out this isn’t it.
But given that ayahuasca is, arguably for some, a spiritual experience—the drink is supposedly able to facilitate otherworldly connections—the ban is often seen as a limitation on religious freedom. As such, the US has a few loopholes that can be used to (probably) legally partake in ayahuasca ceremonies.One such loophole is being used at Florida-based Soul Quest Ayahuasca Church Of Mother Earth where—provided an ayahuasca enthusiast joins the church—he or she can participate in one of a half-dozen ceremonies offered each month. But if anyone can join a church or sign up online for a ceremony, how do you stay true to the traditions and intent of the ceremony? Is attending one true freedom of religion and expression, or just another way for tech dudes and "woke" white girls to skirt the law and appropriate another culture in order to trip? 
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. 

One such participant is Brandon, 32, from Washington, D.C., an American who works in the tech sector. He attended a ceremony in 2012, one that required a rigorous approval process by his expert, who prefers not to be called a shaman; a Spanish national who runs a well-known podcast on plant medicine.Brandon believes that while his ceremony was authentic and respectful, there is a risk for appropriation. “It would feel more like appropriation to attempt a ceremony that pulls from the rituals of a specific group without first seeking that group’s tutelage,” he says. He believes it’s a missed opportunity to skip the tradition and just go for the trip, but says that he does think technically anyone has the right to do it and that those with knowledge should take the opportunity to try to educate rather than judge.
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.
In Brandon's opinion, there are other options for users who just want the trip that are far more pleasurable than ayahuasca, which rendered him violently ill and fatigued—at the same time, it did show him “worlds filled with mountains, rocks, waterfalls, trees made of crystal candy and animals that were unfamiliar but the most beautiful I’d ever seen.”And Brandon's belief roughly mirrors the opinion of experts in the field, including Javier Regueiro, an ayahuasca practitioner (or ayahuasquero), in Pisac, Peru. He moved there in 2004 to learn about shamanism and Amazonian plant medicine, studying under indigenous ayahuasqueros in the Amazon. He studied for 10 years under a plant medicine expert who descends from the Capanahua tribe of Peru and has written several books on ayahuasca. Regueiro has led ayahuasca ceremonies for the past 10 years and is now in the process of taking over leadership of the Sachamama Ethnobotanical Garden in Iquitos, in the eastern Amazon. 
“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.”

Regueiro does believe, however, that hosting a ceremony in a non-traditional, Westerner-focused way can lead to serious problems, and that many ceremonies removed from tradition result in a poor and potentially painful, bastardized experiences. “For me, this is a very powerful process and I strongly rely on a native tradition and a traditional approach that has proved to be safe and effective over centuries, if not longer. It is just another expression of our western, modern attitude that prefers quantity to quality.” While he notes that catering to Westerners is certainly not isolated to just the world of ayahuasca, the stakes are higher for ayahuasca, and can result in dilettante shamen offering perfunctory, tourist-centric experiences that are too dangerous, intense, and irresponsible for them to ever offer to their own families. 

So if that’s the answer—ayahuasca use in the United States by non-natives is okay, as long as it stays true to tradition and users are respectful—does that extend to churches that allow anyone to join online and, for a fee, claim their ayahuasca experience as “freedom of religion” to cover their asses when it comes to legality?“I believe that Ayahuasca is a medicine and not a religion, so the use existing American law that protects the freedom of religion is a bit of a sham,” says Regueiro. He doesn’t think that ayahuasca should be withheld from non-Amazonians, but does think trying to classify it as part of a religion is a misuse of the experience.
Such a religious classification is exactly what is happening at the Soul Quest Ayahuasca Church Of Mother Earth in Florida. It’s one of only two places in the US where ayahuasca can be done legally, or at least can make a very strong case for legality should a participant find themselves in legal hot water. The church was founded just two years ago by Chris Young, a Louisiana-born student of plant medicine. In order to attend an ayahuasca ceremony, a participant must pay a fee around $600 to cover the accommodation, meals, supervision and facilitators; the Church is very clear that there’s no charge for the “medicine.” 

 Young says that most of his guests are Americans; only about 10 percent visit him from outside the US thanks to his proximity near Orlando International Airport.While he knows the Church could be seen to outsiders as just a way to legally trip, he’s confident that’s not the actual experience.“I’ve had a couple young people try it who just wanted to trip and they quickly found out this isn’t it,” says Young, referring to the vomiting and anxiety common with the four-to-six hour experience. He feels that nearly all of the 4,000 people they’ve welcomed into ceremonies are there because they’re “sick,” as he says, often looking for an alternative to modern medicine that hasn’t produced results. At least 10 percent of his guests are veterans seeking a way to manage mental issues, primarily Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

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.
Of the claim that he’s making money off someone else’s culture ( Louisiana is indeed a bit removed from the Amazon) he’s quick to point out one fact: “We don’t make profit. It costs around $32,000 a month to run the place. We are non-profit. Every bit of money we make goes to improvements.” And as far as culture, he states that he tries to avoid being dogmatic and doesn’t purport to offer the same experience as one might find in the Amazon. “I tell people, ‘We’re not trying to be Colombia or Peru or Brazil. We’re trying to be Soul Quest.’” 
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.

Casey does, however, say that his personal preference is to drink with an indigenous tribe whenever possible, citing the challenges for someone from a western culture to learn hundreds of years of knowledge in a brief period of study. He also encourages users to be aware of the impact their ayahuasca use has on any local cultures—specifically, how it’s impacting the rising cost of the ayahuasca plants, making it difficult for indigenous Amazonian people to afford it themselves. More seriously, Casey feels that Westerners need to be aware that poorly trained and reckless “shamen” may be entering the market as a result of the demand to make a quick buck, resulting in a potentially dangerous situation for the person partaking.
It seems experts and users alike agree that American ayahuasca use isn’t cultural appropriation, and that paying to attend a ceremony isn’t just a sneaky way to try to dose themselves. But to say that’s the answer, or that there even is an answer would be speaking for hundreds of thousand of people based on the extremely personal experiences of a few; it’d be grossly irresponsible. 

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.”

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