Ayahuasca: In search of a legal psychedelic epiphany

by Sergio Casesmeiro

In the last few months two different people from two different European countries have told me that they have taken ayahuasca. Both individuals described to me an intense psychedelic trip in which they had vivid hallucinations that transported them to impossible fantasy worlds. But they also experienced fear and were confronted by unresolved psychological issues. Despite the intense effects, both persons told me that overall it was a positive experience that made them understand themselves better. Both would do it again.

For those who are not familiar, ayahuasca is a hallucinogenic brew of various plants that has been used as a religious sacrament by indigenous people of the Amazon since time immemorial.  The first contact between Europe and ayahuasca happened somewhere in the Amazon during the 16th century, and much has changed since. In an increasingly non-religious materialistic society, many Europeans that yearn for some spiritual experience have been looking for salvation in psychedelic experiences. Others have just been turning on simply by way of curiosity; a desire of experimenting with their consciousness.

Europeans have always been getting high one way or another: Northern European shamans used amanita muscaria for crossing into the spirit world. In southern Europe the Ancient Greeks and Romans were getting drunk out of their minds celebrating the mystery of life in Dionysian and Bacchian rituals. But even though Christ turned water into wine, the Christianisation of Europe put an end to the religious use of drugs in Europe.

But going back to ayahuasca, this is not the first time in recent history that Europeans have been seduced by a foreign psychoactive substance. In the 19th century French authors like Baudelaire experimented with hashish, and for a while Sigmund Freud became fascinated with cocaine. 

But it was in the 1960’s when the psychedelic experience became part of mainstream popular culture thanks to LSD. Lysergic Acid Diethylamide was synthesised by accident in 1938 and used in a psychiatric context during the 40’s and 50’s. But it was in the 1960’s, the advent of the hippy era, when psychiatrist-turned-neo-shaman Timothy Leary – deeply affected by the effects caused by its consumption – decided to embark in a psychedelic crusade of spiritual transformation by getting all the US tripping. By the end of the 60’s, the hippy movement had lost its strength, and with the introduction ad widespread dissemination of cocaine, psychedelics fell out of fashion and became marginalised.

But in the meantime, hallucinogenics were still legally being used in a religious context, like the use of Peyote by the Native American Church in the United States and the use of Ayahuasca by the Santo Daime religion in Brasil. Both of these religious movements are syncretic, incorporating Christian Mythology, traditional beliefs systems, and the use of drugs for achieving religious ecstasy. The Native American Church was officially registered in 1918, Santo Daime practises started only two years later, but both organizations have managed to have their religious use of their sacred plant recognised and tolerated by the state.

It was just a matter of time until curiosity – that dangerous human emotion – started creeping into these religious ceremonies. By the end of the 1990’s, ayahuasca had made its way into Europe. In 2001 a Santo Diame-affiliated church won a case in the Netherlands that allowed them to use ayahuasca in their rituals.  But as more people travelled to South America to experiment with the drug, soon independent non-affiliated retreats started to appear throughout Europe. By 2005 one just had to Google “ayahuasca ritual” plus the name of their country to find a place to experiment with it.

Less than three years ago an article appeared in The Guardian reviewing  an ayahuasca “detox” retreat in Sussex, where by paying 550 British pounds you could experience “the lights on the ceiling become goats' eyes”.  Only a month later the same newspaper reported how a British Shaman had been jailed for 15 months for conducting a “ceremony” in Somerset. Today ayahuasca is becoming so popular that people from different walks of life find themselves trusting self-styled shamans, while tripping out of their heads in some European retreat. Others travel as far as Peru to enjoy the sometimes dangerous ayahuasca tourism industry where rapes, deaths and psychotic episodes have been reported.

In the meantime DMT, the psychedelic compound of the ayahuasca brew, and other hallucinogenics like Magic Mushrooms are classified by the British Authorities as Class A drugs, whose possession carries harsh penalties.  In my opinion here is where lies the danger: more and more people are being seduced by the desire of experimenting or of changing their lives, by engaging in an spiritual experience using ayahuasca, and as the historical evidence shows no law is going to change it. Prohibition will only drive it further underground. Taking ayahuasca is a deeply intense and psychoactive experience, but as with any drug it must be respected. Before trying it one should have a medical check-up or consult with a specialist since not everybody reacts the same to it. Some underlying physical or mental problems can become dangerous under the effects of the drug. Both my colleagues spoke of experiencing the hallucinogenic effect of ayahuasca as much as 5 days after initially taking the substance. Ayahuasca is a highly potent drug that must be treated with respect. Evidence shows that it is becoming increasingly popular in the West and that is why there should be an honest debate about its legal status.