While the harsh regime dealing with psychoactive substances is slowly making space for a more sensitive and health-oriented approach, alarm bells went off when new psychoactive substances started to become popular as attractive legal alternatives to the classical psychoactives. As little or nothing is known about the short and long-term health risks involved in the use of these new drugs, the phenomenon quickly became a serious concern for national and international policymakers and regulatory bodies. Countries started to outlaw these new compounds and blends, and monitoring systems were put in place.
The simultaneous growing interest in ancient plant materials and preparations like ayahuasca (which has more than a decade of scientific research behind it and centuries of use in indigenous traditions) became part of this debate, often framed as part of this growing trend of seeking out “exotic” ways to get high, leading to an upsurge in repression and legal prosecution of its use and distribution.
Since 2010, the International Center for Ethnobotanical Education, Research, and Service (ICEERS) Foundation has been contacted on many occasions by ayahuasqueros, ayahuasca churches, and individuals whose interest in ayahuasca led them to have an unexpected encounter with law enforcement, and has assisted in the defense of a significant number of these cases in Europe and abroad. As an object of litigation, ayahuasca is a relatively new issue for judges and lawyers accustomed to dealing with drug trafficking cases involving more “traditional” illicit substances, produced and distributed in black markets and sold on the street, in clubs, and so on. We believe that many ayahuasca-related lawsuits resulting in convictions or fines have been the consequence of a lack of understanding of the cultural, pharmacological, social, and legal aspects of ayahuasca.
The following (fictional, but based on real life) story sketches the experience of a judge who is confronted with this rather peculiar subject matter, finding himself in the abyss between prohibition on one hand and human rights and scientific evidence on the other. By stepping into the shoes of a criminal judge, we can see how difficult it is to disentangle the legal threads surrounding ayahuasca, and to understand the political complexity and value of the Amazonian brew.
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