This interview was originally produced as a podcast episode. We strongly encourage you to listen to the audio, which includes emotion and emphasis that’s not on the page. Transcripts are generated using a combination of speech recognition software and human transcribers, and may contain errors. Please check the corresponding audio before quoting in print.
LL: Hello beautiful tribe of EntheoNation. This is Lorna Liana here and welcome back to another episode. I am here today with Benjamin De Loenen who is the founder and executive director of the International Center for Ethnobotanical Education Research and Service which is a recognized UN consultative charitable organization that is dedicated to working towards a world in which traditional consciousness expanding plants like Ayahuasca and Iboga can be available legally and safely to those who can benefit from using them.
What started off as a graduation project at film school turned into a mission to further legal and human rights matters related to sacred plant medicine. Ben is here today to discuss the importance of legal defense, education, science and psychological support of the communities that use visionary plant medicines.
LL: Thank you so much for joining us today on EntheoNation Benjamin.
BL: Thank you very much for having me on your show.
LL: So I’d love to hear more about your work and what led you to start your organization ICEERS.
BL: So basically, ICEERS, the name says it. It focuses on ethnobotanicals, so traditional plants. We focus on the specific family of traditional plants like Ayahuasca and Iboga and we work in the three areas of education, research, and service. So basically in education, we try to be a source of reliable information for the community for policy makers.
Generally, all the ones that might hear of existence of this plants. We use visual media, the internet, we organize conferences and so forth and then we also do research. So we do our own research so we try to make science understandable and to make science also a tool in the discussion about policy and the risks and potential benefits of these plants.
Then also for the last five, six years, we’ve been involved very much in legal defense and supporting people who got increasingly confronted with the justice system under the drug control system and for the use and importation about specifically Ayahuasca. And then lastly, we also have a service for people who have experienced these plants.
Sometimes, they might have difficulty experiencing it that they didn’t integrate properly or people have questions. They are interested in doing Iboga for addiction or for whatever purpose and they just want more information to be able to take responsible decisions. So we also have a psychologist on our team who kind of interacts with people with questions or in need of support.
LL: So I’ve been noticing an explosion of interest in western cultures around the use of Ayahuasca. So I’ve been working with Ayahuasca probably since 2004 and I feel like back in the day, there’s still very much an underground thing and now I’m seeing celebrities coming out and Ayahuasca being covered in CNN and Vanity Fair and all these major mainstream news channels and media outlets.
So what I’m curious to know from your perspective is, given this increased interest in this traditional plant medicine, what do you see as the road towards legalization or at least decriminalization to look like?
BL: Yeah, it’s a complicated and delicate time I think we’re living in because as you said it’s booming so quickly. Now it’s all over the place and the celebrities, as you say, Hollywood has discover Ayahuasca. So now it’s really appearing in the mainstream media and also the other thing that happens is that we have this whole epidemic of the new psychoactive substances where there’s this generalized fear about it.
So every year, there are probably a hundred new substances that people develop in laboratories. They change molecules a little bit from other drugs that are already available and because these new substance are not illegal. They are sold and then they become illegal but the control system is always behind.
So there are a lot of publications on the European Union as well in the UN. They kind of see this as a big health threat because these are substances where there’s no scientific evidence about what the short, mid, or long term effects or risks are. There’s no human history of use and so increasingly, we see how Ayahuasca has been pushed in that same category. It’s a new psychoactive substance.
Of course, there’s a very long history of traditional use. There’s quite a lot of science, we have now about the fact that it’s not toxic and its safety profile is acceptable. So we see that, in the UK for example, just recently started the blanket ban on anything that influences your emotion or your central nervous system, which is immediately illegal from the very beginning.
So these blanket bans, this paranoia, is kind of a — well drug policy in generally is going towards the direction of being more tolerant and less justice focused. Around these plants and around Ayahuasca specifically, I feel that there’s more and more political pressure and more pressure from law enforcement.
So I think that it’s important that as a community we do something about that. We respond responsibly and with a good strategy to that threat and there are various strategies that I think are important in that quest. One important one is the Ayahuasca Defensee Fund, which we are now launching where with true legal defense you generate the arguments, but then you’re also using the policy reform.
But also you see each case as a potential opportunity for setting legal precedent and basically it’s an opportunity to educate law makers and the judge and everybody involved in those processes about what they really have at hand. The fact that they can really understand what we have at hand is not just another psychoactive substance. It is a very important cultural practice with many dimensions to that.
We are talking about plant preparations that are not illegal according to the UN conventions and just the whole behavior around Ayahuasca is very unique because it’s almost always I could say is used ceremonially. Whether it’s traditional ceremonies or religious rights or some more modern ritualistic settings. Ayahuasca travelled outside of the Amazon within ceremonial context which with also other traditional plants has been very different.
With Salvia divinorum for example, ended up in the smart substance as an extract that people smoke but Ayahuasca in that sense is quite unique. Also, the demographic of people interested in Ayahuasca is quite unique I think, and it’s much more people who are interested in improving something in their life. People interested in conscious living and healthy living that might be an interest as well in meditation or healthy food or yoga or whatever it is that they do.
So we see that very often people are engaging with Ayahuasca are more in search for or to improve something in their life or connect with spirituality and those types of things and not so much seeking for a new, like new sensations or..
LL: A new high.
BL: …thrills. No, exactly.
LL: Yeah, it’s really not a party favor drug at all. You projectile vomit so that means you’re not going to go out most likely or if you did go out, you will just make a nuisance of yourself and then it’s not really something that you feel inclined to do again and again and again in a compulsive way.
Most people when they have their experience, they’re just like, “Okay.” If they had a really full strong experience, it’s like, “I’ve got a lot to process right now. I don’t really need to do this next week or tomorrow or anything.” It’s not addictive in that way. In fact, many people actually turn to Ayahuasca for addiction treatment. For therapy around their addiction to even more detrimental drugs like heroin and crack and cocaine.
So I find it really interesting that law enforcement just really ignores all the information that we have around the safety of Ayahuasca. Its traditional long standing, centuries long traditional usage and its medical benefits which are international drug laws recognized none. So I am curious to know what your take is on why there is such a big disconnect between science and reinforcement?
BL: Well as you know, some people have these theories that the government is not interested in having Ayahuasca available. From the things I see in the court for example, I believe that it is just pure ignorance and judges are very often lost. They see all of these crime, they see cocaine trafficking, a lot of money involved and guns and that type of environment.
Then they arrest now this new person and it’s for Ayahuasca drug trafficking and then the person in front of them talks about subjects they generally never hear. All of a sudden, there is this whole new ceremonial aspect to it, the culture aspect, so very often they are lost in the world. “What the hell is this topic I have here on my desk?”
I see a role to collaborate with them and same with the lawyers to educate them basically and to give them the full spectrum about whether really the health implications of this phenomenon, of the use of Ayahuasca, what does the science saying both about the substance itself and also the plant concoctions and related to the context of use, so more of the observational research so what does all of that show us?
Also very often they don’t understand that even though Ayahuasca contains DMT that according to the UN Ayahuasca is not illegal. So no plant or concoction made out of plants that contain DMT or it could be mescaline or the scheduled psychotropes, the plants or the concoctions not considered illegal according to the conventions. And that for a judge very often is also something that doesn’t make sense to them.
Yeah DMT is illegal so why would Ayahuasca not be illegal because it contains DMT? And so you go into many of the aspects that are around the topic like for example, the percentage of DMT in Ayahuasca is very, very low and it is really not about DMT. It’s a mixture of plants which contain a variety of alkaloids with all have their effects. The context of use is very different, for example, injecting or inhaling DMT would be.
So we really try to educate about the fact that they have something else here and that it actually does make sense that DMT would be something else than Ayahuasca even though there are small proportions of naturally occurring DMT in the plant.
LL: There are a lot of plants that have DMT in it. Mother’s Milk has DMT in it, so you want to make breast milk illegal? Yeah.
BL: Yeah, I mean some believe that there’s DMT in the pineal gland and that’s just a theory and it’s not proven but they have found DMT in the body, and we have no idea what the function is of that DMT but that is a fact that DMT is in many things in nature and so it doesn’t make sense that they’d start prohibiting all of that plant life and animal life and maybe with human life.
So in that sense of course, the whole drug control system is totally flawed and I think it’s unproductive to deal with drug use from a criminal point of view. It is a human right point of view and of course, it is important to focus much more on the health. So that for me is central with all substances.
Of course, particularly with these traditional plants and the practices that surround them, we are talking here about a practice that is much more ancient than the drug control system and the drug control system was not established because all of these people are having difficulties with Ayahuasca in the Amazon for example, or with Iboga and the Bwiti. It’s just a system that came out of generalized fear which is not rational. It’s not focused on scientific evidence or it’s very much focused on moral judgment of drug users.
So yeah, that in itself is a whole complexity and we also believe that things need to change and luckily, things are changing bit by bit on a national level. The governments are understanding that people shouldn’t go to jail for using substances. But yeah, here we have this very important cultural practice which gives us plants that are potentially the tools that we need to integrate to address problems that we have difficulties to address like depression, like addiction, like complicated grief processes, and PTSD.
But even more so than that but this could be seen as preventive medicine in a way as well. Where healthy growth of course avoids problems like depression or like addiction. So these are in a way a catalyst for personal growth or spirituality. To many it’s a sacrament. So we have this whole thing of the right for religion, the freedom of religion. So all of that needs to be taken into account when an Ayahuasca case comes on the desk of a judge but we see a lot of cases nowadays.
LL: Yeah, it’s incredibly difficult to demonstrate medical benefit and use if the substance itself is prohibited. I am curious to know, based on your research, what is a substantial medical information do we have around Ayahuasca? What kind of scientific research has already been performed that could stand up in the court of law?
BL: Well the science that in the court of law is used is on one hand about the effects of Ayahuasca and the risks involved to talk about is this a threat to public health? For people who use this does it harm them? That’s one side of the story and then you have the other story, which is one does it even have therapeutic potential or can help people with certain conditions?
The first type of research, we have a lot. There have been laboratory studies with humans, with animals and there’s been done a lot to demonstrate that Ayahuasca is not toxic, that it doesn’t create the addiction or it doesn’t create tolerance so you don’t need more to have the same effect. People who use it for a long time, there was a study for users that have been doing it for 15 years. Every two months, as is part of their Santo Daime rituals and it didn’t show that they all have brain damage or whatever problems they have.
So we know quite sure that there’s a lot of science to underscore that Ayahuasca is not a threat to public health in that sense. On the other side when you tried to demonstrate that it has a lot of therapeutic potential, that’s very limited. So we still have limited scientific evidence to say it’s an efficient tool in the treatment of addiction even though there is some which suggest it might be, so for sure more research should be done in that field and those evidence shows that people can moderate or improve their unhealthy relationships with certain drugs or other behavior.
So we have some stuff there, there’s some about grief as well has come out for depression now, there’s first studies but they are all small sample sizes generally and so more needs to be done to really be able to demonstrate with certainty that this is really very efficient in all of these fields but science is advancing and there is science to make a case out of that.
What you said before, it’s not really true that the fact that these plants might be illegal in certain countries, that that doesn’t allow you to do research with them because even with scheduled drugs, you can do research. There’s research into heroin and cocaine and whatever it is, and it can also be done with this.
The problem is that there is a stigma on it so when an ethics committee gets to approve this, it’s always going to be more difficult when it’s a psychoactive than when it is something they really know so that is an issue and of course, when something is scheduled one, the definition suggest it has a high potential for abuse and though accepted in medical treatment.
So to then say that we actually have to investigate this for potential therapeutic uses, that can be problematic or they could say, “Well it’s schedule one, so why would we bother to further investigate?” So the legal position of these plants makes it more difficult to make science but it’s not really a legal thing. It’s more of a stigma.
LL: Like bureaucratic hurdles.
BL: Yeah, exactly. It’s more a stigma around them and the ethics committee might not want to approve and study like that and the other thing which is important is of course to do research, you need money. So for example some of the biggest institutions like Naida for example in the US that gives funding to research, they generally don’t give funding to this type of research. So the financial aspect is equally difficult to do research in this field.
LL: Those are very excellent points that you’ve made. I’m curious to know, do you have a list of the countries where Ayahuasca use is legal or at least not considered to be a criminal activity?
BL: Yeah, so it’s a very complex situation around the legality of Ayahuasca. On one hand, so we have the international conventions which the UN at some point agreed with all the member states. So all of the UN member states follow those conventions. In the 1971 convention, DMT is one of the illegal psychotropes but they themselves say that Ayahuasca or the plants are not illegal.
But anyway, all the countries follow that. So DMT is illegal everywhere in every country on the planet that signed the convention of 1971 and so that creates a grey zone in the whole world. So DMT is illegal but according to UN Ayahuasca is not, but does that make sense? There is no legal protection in most countries.
It’s a grey zone but it’s not really illegal so Ayahuasca is not illegal but it contains something that’s illegal and that’s why it’s a difficult grey zone where arrests could take place and then it’s in court where you really have to convince them the DMT and Ayahuasca is something different. In few countries there is legal protection.
One is Brazil where the churches, so it’s only for religious purposes. They have legal stages there so they’re recognized to be able to legally import or produce and use Ayahuasca. In the US as well, you have the one of the churches that achieved after a the long 10 year process to get the DEA license to legally import Ayahuasca and use it everywhere in the United States.
You have then the Santo Daime, which got more of an exemption or in one state where they can use Ayahuasca. In the Netherlands, the same happens only religious use is recognized there. There are a few illegal churches that are operating in Holland, that’s basically it and maybe I am forgetting a country but I think that’s about it where Ayahuasca can really be used legally in a legally protected way.
So then if you look at the traditional countries for example Columbia or Peru, some of them didn’t made an exemption of the jury conventions where they specifically said that Ayahuasca will not prosecute it in their country and Peru is one of them but there’s no law within Peru that clearly says that Ayahuasca is legal and the other countries either.
But it’s of course, it’s not legally prosecuted there because it’s considered part of the culture and then also in Peru it’s culturally protected. So it’s the only country where Ayahuasca is by UNESCO recognizes a national cultural heritage.
LL: So how many active court cases are there around the illegal use of Ayahuasca right now and what happens to people?
BL: So we looked a bit at the cases and until 2009, there have probably been a few cases. I may not be aware of all of them but I think it is around the corner in the order of five to six cases maybe and around the world and then they started to increase very much and I have seen almost 70 cases since then. Since the beginning of 2010 until now, there are now over 70 cases. That’s quite a lot.
Spain is responsible for 44 of those cases. It’s in a peculiar situation which has to do more of the fact that at some point, they installed a liquid scanner in the airport of Madrid to detect cocaine, which was smuggled in liquid form and then of course, they have found bottles with the brown liquid and then they tested positive to DMT.
Then always the police would appear. The postman would hand in a package when people would sign for it, the police would jump out of the car and arrest them but we’ve seen this spread. Right now, for example we are helping people in about seven or eight countries. Israel is one of them, Canada, Germany, France, Spain, Belgium, Malta, and Poland.
So it is quite spread out, quite a lot happening in Europe but also in the US there is case. It’s everywhere and of course these practices are now more and more popular so it’s more of all over the place. So we don’t know exactly how that increase relates to the increase in arrest but with this importance is that all of a sudden, the increase has gone quite abrupt and not so gradual as I think Ayahuasca movement has grown and so generally these cases, a number of cases hasn’t gone to court so we don’t know what’s going to happen with some.
Generally the accusations are about four to five years of imprisonment. In the US, this could be much more in some other cases as well. In Spain, we have luck that drug use, personal use is decriminalized of any substance so that people can demonstrate that the Ayahuasca is for personal use then in the end, it’s not a criminal case anymore.
LL: Of any substance like LSD or cocaine?
BL: Exactly, yes anything like that.
LL: That’s really progressive.
BL: This is like Portugal as well. Portugal has been known for this because it was the change about 15 years ago. Spain has always been like that so that’s the luck that some of these people have had in the court cases. Some ended up very positively where the judge recognized that basically that according to the UN this is not clearly illegal. So it’s difficult to then say that in Spain Ayahuasca is legal.
So until now in Spain, only person is convicted but she declared guilty out of fear. She didn’t have any expert advice or nobody was really helping her. She didn’t reach out to us either so she out of fear just declared guilty which was a big mistake.
Some of the cases now happening, we really don’t know what’s going to happen. The penalties for example in Israel they can be quite high as well. Each case really needs to be defended properly and this is in a way is a threat because when in one country, a case is improperly handled and lost then it can send a precedent and then that basically closes the door in that country for some legal protection at some point or at some level for the people working with Ayahuasca.
On the other hand, if you manage to really have a good outcome even though it’s not a supreme court situation, it kind of opens the door a little bit and there’s now a precedent and in a future court case this could be used as well to say that the prior case where the judge has looked into all of the aspects and the risk and the effects and the legality and all of that they conclude that it’s not illegal.
That’s something that we have been doing increasingly. In the beginning of 2010, it was when we the first time got notice of a court case of Ayahuasca which was in Chile. Three different people contacted us so I decided to help. We started to align our scientific knowledge with the lawyers there and that was our first experience and they won.
The judges even recognized that the Ayahuasca had been beneficial for the participants. They recognized it was not illegal. I got a letter from the international narcotics control board, which is the UN body that controls these substances where they said that Ayahuasca is not illegal under the international conventions.
That we have to ask the Chilean authorities if they had the specific law for Ayahuasca, which they didn’t and so all of that was used in the case and then that experience, we then start using for our other cases in other places of the world and we saw that very often even the lawyers, they don’t believe that there is space to really fight and that it’s really not clear that this is an illegal practice.
They always think, “Well, this is DMT and we can arrest” and we can do what we can to rely on technical mistakes in the process or negotiate with the authorities to come to a settlement and they generally don’t believe at first hand that it is actually much more complex and there’s actually something to say based on the international conventions and the type of practice that Ayahuasca is that it is actually something that should not be considered illegal.
LL: So what are you hoping to achieve with the Ayahuasca defense fund that you are currently raising money for?
BL: Yeah, so the Ayahuasca defense fund really came out of on one hand, our experience over the last six years with helping people with legal problems and we were helping them the best way that we could. We get to this experience in Chile and then we made it available to somewhere else and it was just responding to a social need for so long.
We saw that there was a growing need each time there are more and more arrest. It was more and more widespread, that’s when we organized the first World Ayahuasca Conference in Ibiza and we decided to get all of these lawyers who had successfully defended Ayahuasca cases all in the same room. Not only them to also people who are very knowledgeable.
In policy reform and engaging with policy makers to get in that same room even though at first some of them didn’t really have big interest in this topic thinking that it was a bit marginal small community a crazy thing from the Amazon and we managed to get them all in the same room and that’s when we established a committee.
Some of them have been very actively involved as well with legal defense. Some have won very complex cases over many years and so now, we have this expert committee and so with the ideas and what we hope to achieve with Ayahuasca defense fund is through centralizing all of that expertise worldwide.
Expertise in the international conventions and expertise in the legal defense more in national realities and then in the scientific and technical knowledge about Ayahuasca to centralize that and be able to use that for defense so that each case can turn into a positive precedent and even a step before that, to make sure that the community have access to reliable information.
Because it’s such a complex subject, the legality of Ayahuasca and there’s a lot of misinformation out there that people don’t really know until what level they are protected or not so I think it’s completely illegal, some don’t. So we really try to also provide reliable information to the communities so that they can take responsible decisions.
Then in terms of legal defense, that experience or all of the evidence that we accumulate and develop for those cases to then put that in the service of engaging with policy makers and ultimately, the goal we have is to the work of the Ayahuasca defense fund to work toward a world where there can be a legal framework for the use.
At least the legality in our legal situation is clear where there’s an understanding of the cultural value and the religious value of a lot of these practices, that’s what we are trying to achieve and what we hope is that we can also centralize community resources, financial resources, and establish a network of lawyers in the whole world. So that with all of that combined, we really have a very strong body or mechanism to deal with this situation currently.
LL: So what do you think needs to happen for there to be legal Ayahuasca?
BL: It depends on the country of course. In some countries, the good route to go is to try to achieve recognition of religious freedom like UDV and the Santo Daime achieved in the US. In other countries, that’s really not the way to go because they might be very paranoid for cult and even small religious groups using psychoactive substances.
In some countries, that’s not the most efficient growth. In Spain, there is a social club model which is a private non-profit user association model which might be also a good framework for the use of these plants where some money groups can establish such association. It depends on the countries so within the experience that we’re accumulating in legal defense and engaging with policy, those are things that can be defined.
In the outcome of a legal case in a specific country can really give more insight on what steps can we take in that particular country to get to a situation where people could be certified to work with it or at least people could have a situation where they can engage in these practices without having to fear the legal prosecution.
Of course, there’s difficulty because sometimes we see the tin the community, I guess to some people need to clarify the way that the Ayahuasca defense funds will work and is working because there is of course, people who are into this for the whole wrong reasons, there’s opportunism, there’s problematic providers of Ayahuasca ceremonies.
Are we going to invest community resources in those people? And the answer is no but then how do you distinguish one from the other? What we developed is we defined three levels of support one is more of the consultancy of people are in trouble or they might feel that they might get in trouble soon and they need some advice.
What do I say and what can I do when they confiscate my Ayahuasca and so we give them initial information about the legal status and what they can do so that’s one thing. From there, when people get into legal problems, really what we do is we start working with them. We start accompanying them in that process.
Within that process, we start to learn how they work, who they are, what they’re training is, we’re looking for basically the whole environment around that person or group and establish that relationship and then through that relationship we can base on a set of criteria that we set which is available on the website and also the available funds and the complexity of the case, really define and to what extent are we going to help?
Are we going to really put in also financial resources in that case, are we writing technical report for them or going as expert witness, testimonies like all of that is really defined within the process and sometimes people might be working in a very responsible way with Ayahuasca but really not very collaborative with us, not giving us the information we need.
Not basically giving an open dialogue in continuously within the process which makes it difficult also to help so if that’s the relationship that’s established then it’s also more difficult to help and then probably we won’t really invest so much in that case. It’s really a case by case situation where we always take into account the ethics and responsibility of the person and the group, the legal situation nationally and then basically the working relationship we established.
LL: Okay great, thank you so much for this extensive conversation and all the information that you provided around the complexities of Ayahuasca and the legal system. I’d love to ask you, how can our audience best stay in touch with you and get involved in your initiative?
BL: Yeah, there’s a website which is defendayahuasca.org. I would invite people to go there, all of the information is there about the three different levels of support, the support criteria, the way defend works and also there’s a lot of information there which we just started but we want to expand and continues basis, which is about the legal peculiarities on the international level and also per country.
I think now we have information about countries like the US, Holland, Peru, Spain, the UK and we are going to expand, we really want to build a world map where we can say, “For every country people can have access to information like what does the law say in my country, if they have been arrests in the past, if so, how did they end, what is really the legal situation in my country.
All of that is also on that website, we have a Facebook group as well which is Facebook.com/defendayahuasca. Twitter as well and then also if you go now to the website, defendayauhaska.org, if you click on the donate button, it base you to the crowd fund campaign we are doing right now and so there’s also a video there where we explain more what we are doing, there’s a whole text, I would invite people to research more about this initiative and getting involved and contribute if they can.
LL: Well I’m very happy to support your work Benjamin, I think it is deeply needed in this world and thank you so much for doing this.
BL: Okay, thank you so much.
LL: Yeah, thanks for joining us for this episode and I want to wish you a beautiful rest of your evening.
BL: All right, thank you so much for having me. Bye -bye.