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Ayahuasca Arrests on the Rise in Spain

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Ayahuasca Arrests on the Rise in Spain

In the last three months, Spanish law enforcement agencies have intervened in four ayahuasca and other psychedelic plant ceremonies, arresting the facilitators, who now await trial. The arrests and seizures have been widely reported in the Spanish media, which have echoed the press releases issued by the police departments. 

Is the Spanish government planning to ban ayahuasca, as Italy and France have done in recent years? The consumption of ayahuasca by neo-shamanic groups and ayahuasca churches (the União do Vegetal and Santo Daime) has been happening discreetly and without interruption in Spain since the 1990s. ​​However, only recently has this practice begun to attract media attention, often in a sensationalist manner.

To date, the Spanish authorities have not enacted specific legislation regarding ayahuasca and other psychedelic plants, perhaps because they have been under the radar and there are no reports of serious accidents or complaints about the practice.

Francisco Azorín, a lawyer who advocates for the right to use plants as entheogens, believes that the latest police operations against ayahuasca can be explained by a statistical issue. “This [practice] has always been done underground until, suddenly, ayahuasca associations and retreats started to emerge and the complaints began,” he says.

Azorín has been involved in defending Spanish cannabis clubs for years, and in 2021 he obtained a historic acquittal in an ayahuasca case. The court recognized that the tea cannot be considered a “toxic drug, narcotic or psychotropic substance.” In this context, it is significant that out of about a hundred complaints related to ayahuasca – almost all of them for seizures by customs officials– all but one ended in acquittal.

Legal Regime

Spain is a party to the 1971 United Nations Convention on Psychotropic Substances. In this convention, which regulates psychotropic substances, “there is no direct reference to ayahuasca, nor to the plants that make up ayahuasca: Banisteriopsis caapi, Psychotria viridis or Diplopterys cabrerana,” according to lawyer Antonio Martín Pardo.

Pardo attributes the seizures of ayahuasca at customs to the ambiguous interpretation of international legislation, which explicitly prohibits extracted DMT but not the DMT contained in the drink. In addition, many ayahuasca consignments have been seized at customs for prohibited substances such as methamphetamine, which appear as false positives during testing.

Cults and Ayahuasca

Following two of the arrests at ayahuasca and yopo ceremonies, the Spanish police have described the groups involved as “sects.” The press release issued by the police about one of the operations says,”[Ayahuasca is used] for spiritual and healing purposes, and rituals are led in a messianic way by the superior capacities of their spiritual leader.”

The police action was preceded by several other reports made to an email address managed by the General Commissioner of Information .

However, the legal meaning of a sect is not defined under Spanish law. Mexican lawyer Natalia Rebollo, coordinator of the Ayahuasca Defense Fund, which provides legal support for facilitators internationally, says that the police have been making “very vague” accusations that represent “a flagrant violation of human rights, because freedom of religion and conscience are protected by Spanish legislation, even more so when in Spain there are dozens of court rulings stating that ayahuasca is not a controlled substance.”

Anthropologist Santiago López-Pavillard, president of Asociación Eleusis, agrees, “It is plausible to think that the government is trying to find a way to prohibit the growing use of ayahuasca and other entheogens, which are currently outside any administrative control, to later develop a regulation that limits their use solely to the medical and pharmaceutical sphere. This is exactly what is happening in the field of cannabis”.

The French and Italian Cases

Legal experts are concerned that the current situation of ayahuasca in Spain could lead to prohibition, following in the footsteps of neighboring Italy in 2021, which in turn emulated the French ban on the Amazonian tea in 2005.

The prohibition on ayahuasca in France can be understood as part of the country’s relentless defense of secularism, which marginalizes activities that are religious or considered “sectarian.” Several anti-sectarian organizations operate in France, such as Miviludes (an acronym for Interministerial Mission of Vigilance and Combat against Sectarian Drifts), which was behind the prohibition of ayahuasca and whose model may have inspired the creation of the Anti-Sect Group of the Policía Nacional in Spain.

In March 2022, Italy banned ayahuasca by decree, inspired by the French example. As in Spain, ayahuasca use had been proliferating throughout Italy and the government decided to cut it off at the root. Since then, the Santo Daime church has been using water in their ceremonies instead of ayahuasca as a form of protest.

Biomedical vs. Shamanic Use of Ayahuasca

A schism is emerging between two visions of healing in the psychedelics movement. One group is embracing the dominant biomedical vision. Its perspective is reflected in the actions of companies like COMPASS Pathways, which has patented its synthetic version of psilocybin, and by the recent announcement of the first-ever ayahuasca preparations in pill form. The other group holds the traditional shamanic vision of “a non-religious spirituality in which spirituality and healing are two sides of the same coin,” in the words of López-Pavillard, author of the book La vida como proceso de sanación” (which translates as “Life as a Healing Process”).

Francisco Azorín, the lawyer, even speaks of a “war” between the two approaches to the use of psychedelics for mental health. “The pharmaceutical industry is behind the molecules of these psychedelics, and there is going to be a war in which they will try to destroy the shamanic ceremonial model so that the public only sees the biomedical practices in a positive light,” he says.

Some see this tension as an ontological confrontation that pits a focus on the health of the individual against traditional approaches to the health of the community. A community focus has long been at the center of indigenous cultures. But powerful economic interests are now deciding who is qualified to administer psychedelic plants.

Manuel Villaescusa, a psychologist and ayahuasca facilitator, suggests that scientists should pay heed to the traditional practitioners. “The first to be allowed are the taitas, healers, shamans, vegetalistas… who are the true experts in these substances and have a knowledge that psychiatrists do not have. There is much to learn from them”.

But Villaescusa also points out that “these substances are not limited to the field of drugs, because they also have religious and spiritual uses… all of which go beyond the field of action of pharmaceutical companies…. They are not what we normally consider drugs, but they are substances that have efficacy and use in ceremonial contexts.”

Indigenous vs. Pharmaceutical Companies

Indigenous peoples of the Amazon are increasingly concerned about the interest of pharmaceutical companies in what the companies call “psychedelics” and what they refer to as “sacred plants.” The 4th Indigenous Ayahuasca Conference, which took place in Acre, Brazil, last September, culminated with a declaration in which the indigenous custodians of ayahuasca express their “concern about the commercialization of biodiversity and the expansion of ayahuasca and medicines associated with it among non-indigenous people, now and in the future.”

For the people of the Amazon, ayahuasca is much more than a tea – and definitely more than a “psychedelic.” As Ben de Loenen, founder and president of ICEERS, explains: “Ayahuasca is the pillar of indigenous spirituality and the first line of defense of their territories …. When we say ‘ayahuasca’ in the indigenous world we’re talking about maintaining a healthy connection with life, which we have broken into a thousand pieces in our Western medical system, where physical, mental and environmental health go separately.”

This tension between two opposing, if not contradictory, epistemologies is being expressed in Spain and around the world, according to De Loenen. “Labeling traditional practices as pseudoscience, which is the dominant attitude in Spain, is a colonialist perspective that does not recognize the diversity of medical systems. This is combined with the entry of the psychedelic industry, where there is a growing interest in ‘psychedelic’ plants, a term to refer to the sacred plants that is unknown by indigenous people, and whose intention is to remove them from the cultural context and place them into a biomedical system.” 

An ayahuasca ban in Spain would “only increase the problem because it prevents constructive dialogue between institutions and civil society, and this is what is needed. If the goal is to protect public health, they are completely wrong in prohibiting and pursuing ayahuasca,” says De Loenen.

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