Amazonian Plant Teacher or Public Health Risk? 

Ayahuasca is shedding its veil of obscurity as researchers investigate the ancient folk medicine’s efficacy and therapeutic uses.

Ayahuasca is gradually shedding its veil of obscurity globally as researchers investigate the medicinal and therapeutic uses of the herbal concoction. Initial reports are optimistic, as the folk medicine traditionally used by South American spiritual healers seem to effectively treat a  wide array of mental health and neurological disorders.  However, the vague legal status of the herbal brew and its ingredients are still controversial. 

Primal Ingredients

Although there are various recipes available, each with a wide variety of plants found in the Amazon and Orinoco basins, it is generally accepted that the two main active ingredients are the leaves of the Psychotria viridis shrub and stems of the Banisteriopsis caapi vine, both plants that are native to the South American rainforests. The leaves of P. viridis contain DMT, which is orally inactive in humans under normal circumstances. However, when combined with monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs) found in the B. caapi vine, it becomes a strong psychedelic substance. 

Plant roots used in Ayahuasca ceremony. Source: iStockPhoto.com.

The dynamic relationship between these two plants and the human brain has long been known and put into practice for religious and healing purposes in South American indigenous cultures. In these cultures, ayahuasca plants are considered to be plant teachers that convey knowledge about the true nature of the universe; capable of sharing deep insights, but also used for alleviating mental or physical diseases. As such, they make an excellent candidate for further research, as the plant brew could contribute to the healing process of a wide variety of illnesses that are currently faced by many populations around the world: addiction, depression, PTSD, and burn-out, etc., to name but a few. 

Current Legality and Regulation

However, ayahuasca is still under scrutiny by regulatory agencies, such as the United States’ Drug Enforcement Agency DEA, which seems to be reluctant to review its current schedule 1 status. A status that is given to substances that are believed to hold no medicinal value and are considered a danger to public safety due to their potential for abuse. In 2020, the agency issued a report titled “Ayahuasca: Risks to Public Health and Safety” in which they summarise, amongst others, that:

“the lack of a reliable and standard definition of Ayahuasca, the variability in both the manufacturing technique and composition, and the differences in the routes of administration of ayahuasca brews all lead to the only logical conclusion that can be drawn: Ayahuasca is not safe and is a threat to human health.”

The report was released in 2023 after the Chacruna Institute for Plant Medicines CIPM submitted two Freedom of Information Act FOIA requests to the DEA and the Department of Justice for disclosure of ayahuasca related reports. 

The most recent guidance from the DEA regarding Ayahuasca/DMT legality.

On the other hand, scientists, such as  those at the CIPM, are not convinced by the DEA stance on ayahuasca 2, and think the brew could be a very significant addition to modern medicine. In traditional ways, the application of the brew is twofold; there is the obtaining of the ingredients, extracting the compounds, brewing and administering 

The Ritual Effect

The tea in ceremony, which is a long process, is enveloped in ritual and done by highly respected and knowledgeable individuals in the community. Also, there is the medicinal effect of the brew itself. It is this combination of ritual ceremony and chemical efficacy that  providesayahuasca its power to heal. Where Western medicine seems to be more focused on clearly defined diseases and symptoms, with well-defined treatments, which more often than not disregard the underlying cause, the ayahuasca ceremony can be seen as a more holistic approach to medicine; one where the entire process becomes part of the medicine, not only the chemical compound itself.

Ayahuasca during the brewing process. Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ayahuasca.

This contradictory methodology could be seen as one of the main reasons why a regulatory agency such as the DEA sees so many potential risks in the ayahuasca ceremony; there is no clear definition of what ayahuasca is, and what ayahuasca can do. 

That said, increasing evidence from the science community is shedding light on the positive effects of long-term ayahuasca ceremony participants. In their study, “Ayahuasca and Public Health II: Health Status in a Large Sample of Ayahuasca-Ceremony Participants in the Netherlands”, Dutch researchers revealed the staggering health benefits that ayahuasca consumers reported after continuous use.

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Active Substance and Analogs

The legal status of ayahuasca is situated in a grey zone from a global perspective. Many countries classify the main psychoactive compound DMT as a schedule 1 drug, but not the plant in which it is found. The 1971 Convention on Psychotropic Substances 3 for example, is a United Nations treaty wherein the plant-derived chemicals are controlled, but not the plants themselves. This makes it legal to grow, own and distribute the plants. Seeing as these plants, or fungi for that matter, grow wild in their respective native lands, it would be hard to enforce an absolute ban, or to eradicate them for that matter. Especially considering the sheer amount of plants containing DMT. Many species in the Mimosa and Acacia family contain relatively high amounts, and even Common Reed Phragmites australis) contains trace amounts 4. Not to mention naturally produced DMT found in animals, even humans 5. 

DMT molecular structure. Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/N,N-Dimethyltryptamine#/media/File:DMT.svg

Other plants containing similar substances, such as the opium poppy Papaver somniferum), cannabis Cannabis sativa and C. indica) and coca Erythroxylum coca var. coca and other species) share a similar path of worldwide legal ambiguousness. Each of these plants has a long history of human cultivation, and is known to have many applications other than their psychotropic constituents, such as food, medicine and construction materials. That, or they are simply valued for their ornamental advantage. 

DMT in freebase/extract (vape) form. Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/N,N-Dimethyltryptamine#/media/File:N,N-DMT_Freebase_and_Vape_cartridge.jpg

One avenue through which ayahuasca seems to find its way to legality, in some cases, is that of religion. Seeing as the brew is often used in religious contexts, it makes a candidate to fall under legal exemption by rights of religious freedom. Brazil, Canada and the USA all have made exemptions from for usage of ayahuasca in religious rites, but only after an active pursuit by the churches or religious institutions involved, either through court cases or official inquiries. 

Time will tell if ayahuasca legalization will soon become a reality; in the interim, the plants that contain it have great potential for medicinal use, but are still under severe scrutiny by government organizations for their perceived risks to human health and the vague legal status of plant and plant constituents.

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