23 JUNE 2011
The United Nations International Narcotics Control Board (INCB) has published on their website their annual report about the world situation on drugs in 2010. In this report, the INCB has included the preoccupying recommendation towards governments to outlaw traditional plants such as Ayahuasca (a decoction made with botanicals like Banisteriopsis Caapi and Psychotria Viridis) and Tabernanthe Iboga among others, neglecting their important role as traditional medicine, as a sacrament and as therapeutic tool. These are the primary uses of these plants found in societies all over the world.
We would like to manifest our serious apprehension about the double role of the United Nations recognizing the value of indigenous practices that incorporate the use of traditional plants (read Article 24 on page 9 of their declaration on the rights of indigenous people), and conducting programs to protect these cultures while simultaneously seeking a ban on these ethnobotanicals in all countries regardless of whether they have a tradition of their use.
The alert generated by the INCB with claims regarding associated health risks lacks any scientific basis and does not correspond to the scientific published literature. The indicated health risks cannot be generalized for a range of plants with completely distinct pharmacological effects -in the report they are all erroneously classified as ‘stimulants or hallucinogens’- unrelated to the context of use. The published literature on the effects of Ayahuasca and Iboga does not conclude ‘serious adverse effects’ related to their use in a professionally adept context.
The INCB claims that per definition all use outside of its original socio-economic context is ‘recreational’ and implies ‘abuse’; a statement which is not at all reflected in the published literature in the case of ethnobotanicals such as Ayahuasca and Iboga, which are primarily used in traditional, religious or therapeutic contexts, and other possible contexts in which ‘abusive’ and ‘recreational’ use are not reported.
By advising governments to outlaw the use of these ethnobotanicals, the fundamental rights of indigenous peoples that live outside their country of origin to use these plants as part of their traditional practice become endangered. Within the last few months, several of these cases have already emerged.
Describing its use as, per definition recreational, the INCB sets the basis for governments and law enforcement to (mis-)interpret all activities associated with the use of these plant species as such.
Wave of repression surrounding Ayahuasca and Iboga
At the close of 2009, arrests occurred for the use of Ayahuasca in traditional ceremonial context in Spain and Chile, which were documented by the media in an extremely demonizing and propagandistic manner. Aware that a fax correspondence to the Dutch Ministry of Health in 2001 indicated that Ayahuasca at that time was not under international control, ICEERS became involved in the defense of the case in Chile, for which we sent an inquiry on March, 4 of 2010 to the INCB, asking for a clarification of the legal status of Ayahuasca according to the 1971 Convention of Psychotropic Substances.
On June 1st of 2010, we received an answer of the INCB, confirming that upon 2010 “no plants or concoctions which contains DMT are currently under international control.” They added that “Some Governments may have decided, however, to apply control measures to Ayahuasca, as the use of this preparation carries serious health risks.”
ICEERS decided to research the scientific literature for which advisory board member José-Carlos Bouso, an expert on this matter, composed a document (1) which includes all publications of clinical and follow up studies with Ayahuasca. These reports indicated a very limited risk for harmful effects in the short, medium and long term under controlled settings. The data even demonstrated long term, therapeutic psycho-social effects in some of the studies. Short comprehensive reviews of ayahuasca safety can be found in the following publications: (2) and (3)
In response to the letter of the INCB a letter was formulated based on the results presented in the scientific dossier to communicate our findings to the INCB. In agreement with several lawyers and Ayahuasca experts, ICEERS decided not to forward the response letter to the Board in order to avoid placing too much attention on the phenomenon of the globalization of the use of Ayahuasca and to prevent potential disproportionate reactions of the INCB against such phenomenon.
In the last months several arrests occurred in different countries throughout Europe, the US and abroad for importation of Ayahuasca and for its religious use found in contexts such as the Santo Daime Church, an internationally recognized religious institution protected by religious laws in countries such as the US, The Netherlands, Spain and Canada. Arrests have also taken place for traditional ceremonial use of the brew. In the last two weeks alone, this has come to a true persecution operation which violates the INCB conventions.
For example, in Spain, at least four new arrests have occurred in only two weeks, and in Peru, where Ayahuasca is recognized as a cultural heritage, arrests have taken place for its exportation to other countries. Arrests include indigenous people practicing their tradition (explicitly protected by the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People, as stated above). Also in the US arrests have taken place of Bwiti initiates practicing traditional West-African Bwiti ceremonies which incorporates the use of Iboga. This repressive wave: The incarceration of people for the use of ethnobotanicals which are not under international or national control (in the countries where arrests are taking place) is alarming and demands an international response.
In collaboration with the scientific community, with organizations defending the rights of the indigenous peoples to practice their traditional practices, with the religious institutions which have incorporated the use of ethnobotanicals in their ceremonial activities, with the organizations that are dedicated to the dissemination of unbiased information about these ethnobotanicals, with the organizations that promote the therapeutic use of such botanical tools responsibly and professionally, and with all citizens who consider that the INCB is not respecting its legal functions, our proposition is to publicly insist that:
the INCB rectifies its recommendation directed towards the member states of the UN, as found in point 287 of the 2010 annual report of the INCB, and upon rectification, to inform the political representatives of the associated countries and their respective agencies responsible for the control of narcotics of these corrections.
the UN recognizes the empirical use of these botanical species as well as the important cultural value of the oral transmission of its ritual preparation, as this knowledge implies a trans-generational cultural heritage. Therefore, we solicit to the UN to protect these ethnobotanical materials and the related trans-cultural practices by considering them World Heritage with the objective to preserve them from eradication.
Ethics & Responsibility
Furthermore, due to the increase of awareness of the therapeutic benefits of ethnobotanicals such as Iboga and Ayahuasca, this phenomenon appears to attract individuals that seek personal profit by offering services that lack professional ethics, professional care and responsibility which is needed for such activities; therefore, we believe that the solution to this problem should be based on the development of a code of ethics and minimal safety standards by associations that represent the people involved in this type of practices, as opposed to repressive regulations. We ask the INCB to invite the governments to stop the arrests that are occurring and, rather than outlawing the use of such ethnobotanicals, to propose them to open dialogue with the groups involved in such activities. Examples of the elaboration of such codes of ethics by associations representing groups that use such botanicals can be found here: (4), and pages 31-37 of (5)
If you share our concern for the future of traditional, religious and therapeutic ethnobotanical practice, please spread this information through your networks. If you would like to join forces with ICEERS, click here.