2015 – The Ayahuasca Defense Fund Begins to Support Legal Cases around the Globe
During the last decade, the drinking of the ayahuasca brew has increased rapidly around the world while pushing up against legal systems with many dozens of legal problems, arrests, fines, and incarceration for ayahuasca service providers.
At the 2014 World Ayahuasca Conference, a group of lawyers and policy-makers came together to discuss this challenge and following this, the Ayahuasca Defense Fund (ADF) was officially launched in 2015.
This program is operated by the International Center for Ethnobotanical Education, Research and Service (ICEERS), a non-profit that aims to transform society’s relationship with psychoactive plants. ICEERS envisions a world where psychoactive plants are integrated and valued aspects of society. Part of this mission involves the ADF, which tackles the criminalization of the use of ayahuasca and other psychoactive plants and mushrooms.
The ADF’s work is supported by drug policy experts, lawyers, legal strategists, and academics. Notable experts in support of the ADF include Rick Doblin, the founder and executive director of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelics Studies (MAPS), and Amanda Feilding, the founder and director of the Beckley Foundation. Meanwhile, long-standing psychedelic researchers backing the ADF include Dennis McKenna and Charles Grob, who both pioneered ayahuasca research in the 1990s.
In most countries around the world, ayahuasca is prohibited. This is because the psychedelic brew contains DMT, usually a highly illegal substance in most countries. For instance, in the USA, DMT is a schedule I drug, meaning that the law views it as posing a serious risk to public health and as having no recognized medical benefits. Countries where ayahuasca is legal for possession, transportation, and consumption (sometimes only in special circumstances) include Brazil, Colombia, Peru, and Costa Rica.
Some religious groups have fought legal battles to be allowed to legally use ayahuasca, arguing that it is an essential part of their religion and so deserves legal exemption. In the US, this would include the Native American Church (NAC) who use peyote as a religious sacrament and the União do Vegetal (UDV) and Santo Daime, syncretic religions that include ayahuasca as its sacrament.
But outside of a strictly religious context, many individuals want to use ayahuasca for spiritual and therapeutic purposes. The problem is that when individuals do so, they are putting themselves at risk of prosecution. For example, psychotherapist Tal Arnon was arrested for bringing ayahuasca ceremonies to Israel. After training in psychotherapy in Israel, Arnon travelled to Peru and engaged in a number of ayahuasca ceremonies. Following this, she wanted to research ayahuasca in Israel as a treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Knowing the benefits of ayahuasca, Arnon organized ayahuasca ceremonies to take place in January 2015. She invited her Peruvian teacher to lead the sessions. But a week before the teacher was due to arrive, eight people involved in organizing the ceremonies were arrested and put in jail. Six were released after a week, while Arnon and one other woman were released after two weeks and put under house arrest for a month following that. Arnon faced a possible sentence of five to 10 years in prison. At this point, she realized she needed legal help, which is where the ADF came in.
ICEERS director Benjamine De Loenen and ADF steering committee member Jeffrey Bronfman helped guide Arnon on how best to proceed with her case, while MAPS helped raise money for the case. Arnon hired one of the best lawyers in Israel, who was supported by the strategic and scientific support of ICEERS. The ADF helped Arnon’s case by showing the benefits of ayahuasca through testimony.
The Ayahuasca Defense Fund has supported 115 legal cases (mainly for ayahuasca related legal issues, but also concerning San Pedro, peyote, iboga, and psilocybin mushrooms). The support provided by the ADF has helped defendants in countries all over the world, including the US, Canada, Israel, across Europe, South Africa, and a few Latin American countries. Progress has also been made, as in several court sentences involving the ADF, judges have ruled that ayahuasca is not illegal. These rulings were due, in large part, to the scientific evidence presented by the ADF. This includes the fact that ayahuasca is not toxic, lacks the potential for abuse and addiction, and does not threaten public health. In one case, a judge concluded that ayahuasca had benefited the ceremony participants that testified.
The ADF uses its knowledge base and expertise to immediately help individuals caught up with the law as a result of ayahuasca transportation and possession. They first conduct an initial assessment and then draw up a defense plan. The ADF considers the severity and significance of the case, such as the charges alleged. Experts working in the ADF then work out whether a legal precedent can be set, such as changes to the law that allow ayahuasca use. The ADF also examines the priority of the case and examines its funds to see what can likely be achieved with the resources available.
The ADF can provide three levels of support. Level 1 is legal counselling and involves information about the legal and policy framework of the jurisdiction in question, guidance on possible defense lines, provision of relevant documents (e.g. case histories and legislation), help identifying and contacting a lawyer, and help contacting relevant people from those lawyers’ previous cases.
Level 2 includes all the support of level 1, plus the design of the legal strategy, counselling from ADF’s legal experts, and provision of expert witness testimonies. Level 3 is the most comprehensive form of support available; it includes the support provided by level 1 and 2, plus help with obtaining high-level legal representation in the country, full monitoring by ADF’s experts, and partial financial support of the defense process.
The ADF also publishes annual reports on legal trends concerning ayahuasca all over the world, the number of legal cases, new cases involving other psychedelic plants and mushrooms, the accomplishments of the ADF, testimonials from those who have benefited from the ADF’s services, and what the ADF’s plans are for the future. The ADF will continue to do everything its power to change the legal and cultural landscape of ayahuasca, ensuring that this traditional psychedelic receives the sanction for use that it deserves.