Two Arrested and Charged in Czech Republic for Distributing Ayahuasca
On October 15, Czech police officers and customs officials raided a home on the outskirts of the town of Nový Jičín in the Czech Republic and detained a Polish couple, Jarosław and Karolina Kordys, who were allegedly conducting ayahuasca ceremonies. Dressed in full combat gear, the officers burst into the house with weapons drawn and led the couple off in handcuffs, as is shown in the police video.
According to Lukas Kordys, the brother of Jarosław Kordys, the couple, also known as Karolina and Jarek, have been indicted by Czech prosecutors, but remain in detention and are permitted visits only from their attorney.
“They have been charged for being a criminal group working together, distributing [a] drug called ‘Ayahuasca’ in an enormous amount for many years,” writes Lukas Kordys, who adds that prosecutors are still collecting evidence to build their case. “We have a lot of evidence proving that the accusations are false or exaggerated. Unfortunately, we can’t say more about that for now, but the facts are on our side.”
A statement released by the Czech General Directorate of Customs accused Jarosław and Karolina Kordys, and another Polish citizen not present during the raid, of illegally importing “at least 146 kilograms” of an ayahuasca concentrate into the Czech Republic from Peru since 2015. The group allegedly hid the ayahuasca in packages that were declared to customs as natural dyes and tinctures.
The statement alleges that the group provided ayahuasca for a fee to participants at secret ceremonies and used the proceeds to purchase a home in the Czech Republic. According to the Czech General Directorate of Customs, the group is being prosecuted for “committing a particularly serious crime of illicit manufacture and other handling of narcotic drugs poisons punishable by ten to eighteen years’ imprisonment.”
In a statement posted by Lukas Kordys on the Zrzutka crowdsourced funding campaign organized to raise money from European friends for the couple’s legal costs and spread awareness about their arrest, bail for Jarosław and Karolina Kordys is each estimated at at 100,000 – 200,000 zł per person, equivalent to $26,510 – $53,020. Lukas Kordys says another crowdfunding campaign has been launched on GoFundMe for the couple’s U.S. supporters.
Attorneys for the Ayahuasca Defense Fund (ADF), who are assisting the Kordys’ lawyers with legal strategies for their case, say this police action is part of a larger trend of increasing detentions and prosecution of ayahuasca providers across Europe in recent years. Observers say this case may represent the first time that ayahuasca trafficking, or the performing of ayahuasca ceremonies, have been criminally prosecuted in the Czech Republic.
Use and Legality of Ayahuasca in the Czech Republic
According to Dr. Miroslav Horák, a social and cultural anthropologist and author of the 2019 book Ayahuasca in the Czech Republic, ayahuasca has been used in the Czech Republic since 2001. It is generally consumed in rituals performed by members of Amazonian ethnic groups or non-Czech neo-shamanic groups and in the religious ceremonies of the Santo Daime church. Due to ayahuasca’s complex legal status in the country, these activities are typically performed underground and off the radar.
Like many countries in Europe, Horák notes in a legal analysis that ayahuasca’s status in the Czech Republic is complicated, for reasons of both chemistry and context. In 1971, the United Nations Convention on Psychotropic Substances classified DMT — the psychoactive component of ayahuasca — as a Schedule I drug, making its possession and distribution prohibited in most countries in the world, including the Czech Republic.
But the Czech Republic’s position toward ayahuasca is less clearly defined. Ayahuasca is traditionally prepared by the decoction of the Psychotria viridis and Banisteriopsis caapi plants. The leaves of P. viridis contain DMT. The vine of B. caapi contains β-carboline alkaloids that are monoamine oxidase type A inhibitors. The synergistic effect of these two chemical compounds catalyzes the ayahuasca psychedelic experience.
β-carboline alkaloids are legal in the Czech Republic. So too is the cultivation and possession of plants containing DMT. It is illegal, however, to possess more than 0.6 grams of DMT in crystal or powder form (i.e., synthetic DMT), or to possess more than half a liter of an ayahuasca brew if it contains DMT, according to a 2014 opinion of the Czech Supreme Court.
The distribution of ayahuasca that contains DMT is also considered a crime, as no distinction is made in the Czech penal code between the distribution of ayahuasca and other psychotropic substances. Drug distribution in the Czech Republic is generally punishable by one to five years in prison. Longer sentences of two to ten, eight to 12, or ten to 18 years can be imposed in exceptional cases, such as when minors, significant financial benefits, or international criminal organizations are involved. The fact that Czech Customs presented a possible sentence of ten to 18 years in its statement indicates the seriousness with which they view the alleged offenses committed by Jarosław and Karolina Kordys.
In researching his book, Horák says he interviewed several facilitators of underground ayahuasca ceremonies in the Czech Republic. “All of the people I interviewed were very, very serious around the questions of how to manage and organize these sessions,” Horák tells Lucid News. “They don’t want to get into any problems [with the authorities].”
Until the night of the October raid, providers of ayahuasca in the Czech Republic had managed to avoid problems with authorities. The question then becomes: why now?
Lack of Discretion
“Personally, I am really surprised by the case,” Horák says. “However, from my informants I know that it was just a question of time when the uncovered activities of those Polish guys will be [prosecuted].”
Horák suspects that this crackdown by the Czech government is due to a lack of discretion on the part of the Kordys’ group, Tribu Nýdek. Horák says the group advertised their sessions publicly on Facebook and on their website.
The Tribu Nýdek website is currently down, but an archived version is accessible on the Wayback Machine. Horák also provided a video that advertises the group’s activities. Horák says other individuals in the Czech Republic’s underground ayahuasca communities told him that they warned the group to be more discreet, as it would probably lead to prosecutions.
“It’s very difficult to exactly say if what they were doing was wrong or not,” Horák says. “I’m just describing the perspective from the outside.”
In a letter written by Jarosław Kordys to his mother while in detention, which is posted on the Zrzutka crowdfunding page, Kordys says he was not aware that ayahuasca is considered by Czech authorities to be a dangerous drug.
“Everything we did was done with an honest intention of helping people and we had absolutely no idea that Ayahuasca is such a huge problem in Czech Republic and that it is considered as hard drugs, which can impose such severe sanctions on you,” writes Kordys. “I hope that soon we will be able to prove some scientific evidence which will acquit us of all charges and will help better understand the impact of the therapy on the lives of people who suffer from traumas or are alcoholics or drug addicts. We have helped so many people and perhaps now they will help us.”
Horák says he was surprised to learn that the individuals he’s been in contact with are not necessarily opposed to the detention of Jarosław and Karolina Kordys. “They were saying, ‘These people should be punished because they are putting a bad image on what we are doing.’ They were saying they’re not interested in taking care of them,” says Horák.
Horák says his sources tell him that coming forward more forcefully in support of the Kordys would put them in danger and potentially put their work in jeopardy.
Beyond the potential negative impacts on the Czech Republic’s underground ayahuasca communities, Horák fears that the prosecution of Jarosław and Karolina Kordys might complicate the efforts of scientists researching psychedelics as therapeutic treatments for mental illness. The Czech media, which has thus far paid little attention to ayahuasca and psychedelics, might “start to talk about it in a negative manner and then everybody would think [the researchers] are doing weird things,” says Horák.
“Czech people in general are not so okay with all of these New Age beliefs, all this esotericism,” Horák adds. “It’s something new here. We lived in totalitarianism for 40 years, until 1989. And then these new religions started to spread around the country. And this is something that also attracts the media.”
A Trend in Ayahuasca Crackdowns Across Europe
The detention of Jarosław and Karolina Kordys is part of a trend of increasing ayahuasca prosecutions across Europe in recent years, according to Natalia Rebollo, a lawyer for ADF, which is a program of the International Center for Ethnobotanical Education, Research, and Service (ICEERS).
In 2017, the Supreme Court of Holland ruled against an Amsterdam branch of the Santo Daime church, on the grounds that the church’s use of ayahuasca as a sacrament posed a danger to public health. Last December, Thomas Lishman, a former British Army Officer, was arrested in Bucharest, Romania, after leading an ayahuasca retreat. He faces 13 years in prison.
ADF attorneys say they are providing legal support in an ongoing case in France, where both P. viridis and B. caapi are prohibited. According to the ADF, Spain has seen the highest concentration of ayahuasca detentions in the last decade, but it is also where the ADF has had the most success getting charges dropped.
“There’s a lot of different outcomes in Europe,” Rebollo says. “But the legal prosecution is on the rise.”
Rebollo says this trend is being driven by the increasing popularity of ayahuasca use in Europe, and more sophisticated technologies that allow authorities to detect the presence of scheduled molecules in packages. “I’m convinced that only a small percentage of the packages are being detained,” says Rebollo. “There’s a whole bunch of packages that are actually free from prosecution.”
Legal Strategies in Defense of Ayahuasca Use
Rebollo says the prosecution of Jarosław and Karolina Kordys by Czech authorities will likely follow a pattern seen in other ayahuasca cases in Europe. “This case is very similar to other cases we’ve had in the past where all the cultural richness and all of the pharmacological properties of ayahuasca are totally reduced to just the molecule, which is DMT,” Rebollo says.
According to Rebollo, educating judges and prosecutors about the differences between synthetic DMT, which is normally the substance that is scheduled in these countries, and ayahuasca, which typically exists in a state of legal limbo, is the first component in a three-pronged legal strategy that the ADF argues in cases such as this.
The second component is asking for evidence that describes the percentage of DMT contained in the ayahuasca, which is typically low. “So low,” Rebollo adds, “that continuing with the criminal process is nonsense.”
“Even if there’s, let’s say, 146 kilograms of ayahuasca, we still need to know the exact percentage of DMT,” Rebollo says. “DMT is an endogenous substance as well. And DMT is naturally contained in a lot of vegetal substances in different countries. If you’re considering this vegetal substance as 146 kilograms of DMT, then you need to consider taking out of the market a lot of citrus fruits that contain DMT, a lot of animals that contain DMT. There’s a difference between synthetic DMT […] and vegetal DMT. It is crucial for judges and prosecutors to understand that this is just a confusion or a misunderstanding.”
The third component is arguing that ayahuasca is not a danger to public health. “On the contrary,” Rebollo says, “scientific evidence has shown it is everything but a danger to public health.”
Rebollo says the human rights dimension of the Kordys’ detention also needs to be taken into account, given that it appears that the couple was surveilled without their knowledge, based on the examination by authorities of intercepted packages.
A Tale of Two Ayahuascas
Regardless of whether the detention of Jarosław and Karolina Kordys is a cautionary tale about the risks of being too forthright about underground psychedelic use, or is simply the latest casualty of a continental trend in ayahuasca crackdowns, the fact remains that the two human beings at the heart of this story have been detained for more than a month awaiting formal charges, without access to bail, or visitors except for their lawyer. As of this writing, the Zrzutka crowdsourced funding campaign organized for the couple has raised 62,455 zł, equivalent to $16,565 and the GoFundMe campaign has raised $704 or 2,654 zł.
“Everyone who has had an opportunity to meet Karolina and Jarek knows that they are two wonderful, good and kind souls who gave up the traditional way of life to help and develop the lives of other people,” reads a statement on the Zrzutka crowdfunding page. “With their wonderful music, presence, experience and willingness to provide holistic cure of both body and soul, many people have observed multiple times the wonders that happened! The sick, the addicted and people suffering from depression – they all got a second chance for a wonderful life.”
The statement released by the Czech General Directorate of Customs portrays conflicting views on the value of ayahuasca from the perspective of Czech authorities. “Under the influence of ayahuasca, the mind may be capable of deeper introspection, and long-standing memories may appear in it. It is a drug, when used it has negative effects and effects on human health,” reads the statement.
The detention of Jarosław and Karolina Kordys has been covered in the Czech Press and has drawn the attention of the Czech Psychedelic Society (CZEPS) which published an open letter in response to their arrest. “As a society of experts with knowledge of the subject, the nature of the group of substances cited and the context in which it is used, we must express our deep concern at the misleading rhetoric of the Customs Administration,” reads the letter. The authors add that, “So far, no negative effects of the substance on human health have been identified – studies suggest the opposite.”
The signers of the letter from the Czech Psychedelic Society argue that while DMT is not legal in the Czech Republic, they oppose the imposition of long prison terms for Jarosław and Karolina Kordys and note that research into the use of ayahuasca is being sponsored by Czech National Institute of Mental Health (NÚDZ).
“The substance has been repeatedly shown to have no addictive potential or side effects on health, and research on its use in mental health and self-development environments is currently being supported worldwide,” write the signers of the letter who call for revisions to the UN Convention on Narcotic Drugs and Czech laws regarding the use of ayahuasca.
“The trend of decriminalization of harmless psychedelic substances in the world has already begun, so we hope that our court will take this into account when deciding on the amount of punishment for detainees,” write the authors.
The tension between the many emerging psychedelic communities that see ayahuasca as a healing medicine, and the perspective of some authorities that ayahuasca is a dangerous drug, will continue to play out in the courts as ayahuasca’s popularity surges in regions of the world far removed from its traditional context.
The case against Jarosław and Karolina Kordys, like other recent legal actions targeting ayahuasca providers, may present an opportunity to reconcile that tension.