Scientific Research on Ayahuasca and Health

Bia Labate

Tuesday, January 31, 2012, 4-6pm

Engineering 2, 599

Beatriz Labate has studied the scientific and social features of psychoactive substances for over 15 years. In this meeting we will discuss the situation surrounding the compound ayahuasca, a psychedelic used in both medical and spiritual contexts throughout the Americas. By exploring the frontiers and limits between “therapeutic” and “religious” uses of ayahuasca (and their complicated legal implications) we will better understand the relationship between diverse forms of knowledge production associated with what have been called “sacred technologies.”

Bia Labate, "Scientific Research on Ayahuasca and Health"
SJWG Rapporteur Report
31 January 2012
Rapporteur: Martha Kenney, History of Consciousness
Bia Labate, PhD Candiate in Social Anthropology at the University of Campinas, spoke to us
about the public debate and competing discourses around Ayahuasca, a psychoactive brew of two
plant extracts used around the world in shamanism, healing, sorcery, divination, warfare, and
hunting. Because one of the plants, psychotria viridis, contains the Schedule I narcotic DMT,
Ayahuasca (the bush, the extract from the bush, and the preparation) has been subjected to a
number of diverse regulations worldwide. Labate showed how these regulations are embedded
in different local and global discourses, producing new meanings and uses for Ayahuasca. In
Brazil it is allowed for ritual and religious use, though not therapeutic use. Whereas in Peru it is
considered the “traditional medicine of the indigenous people” and protected as cultural heritage.
In the U.S. the regulation of Ayahuasca created tensions between religious freedom and drug
laws; for the moment religious freedom has prevailed. While in France Ayahuasca was
connected to brainwashing by cults and sects, creating a total ban that includes not just the
extract but the bush as well. Through these examples, Labate showed how Ayahuasca became
entangled in discourses of religious liberty, traditional medicine, personal use, and religious

In the second half of her talk Labate discussed competing narratives of therapeutic vs. religious
use and harm vs. healing. She showed how these categories were difficult to define and took on
different contours based on national and cultural specificities. These categories raise important
and difficult questions: How do you define a religion? How do you insert traditional medicine
into a public health system? Is scientific legitimization the only route to prove therapeutic
properties? How can we define and police cultural authenticity? As different groups try to
answer these questions, Labate argues that there is a reciprocal appropriation of legal,
anthropological, biomedical discourses. For example, the anthropological category of
“ceremony” is taken up by shamans who prepare Ayahuasca. As a sacred ceremony rather than a
practice of everyday life, “the Ayahuasca ceremony” is something that can be marketed at panindigenous
festivals. Labate concluded her talk by arguing for the space of the social sciences in
this debate; she believes that if Ayahuasca is studied only in a biomedical framework that we lose
important insights into cross-pollination of discourses and identities that happens in this collision
of legal, biomedical, and religious categories.

In the Q&A members of the audience were interested in categories that betrayed the simple
equation of Ayahuasca with DMT. Andrew Matthews, drawing from his fieldwork on forestry in
Mexico, suggested that defining Ayahuasca as more than just the drug could be important for
these questions of regulation. Guillermo Delgado suggested that it was necessary to use specific
indigenous terms for Ayahuasca use rather than use anthropological or pan-indigenous terms like
“shamanism.” Martha Kenney asked if the term “sacred technology” that appeared in the
newsletter description of the talk was a useful term in Labate’s work. Craig Reinerman asked
about the value of the sociological categories of “set and setting” for understanding how “the
same drug” can have different effects in different cultures.

As Labate answered these and other questions, she provided a greater sense of the complexity of
Ayahuasca worlds. She explained, for example, how psychotria viridis was introduced to Hawaii
(and the crisis of regulation that ensued), how she tried to understanding Ayahuasca as inducing
the experience of “becoming plant,” how “shamanism” is a term that is embraced by many
indigenous Ayahuasca preparers, and how environmental regulations were taking the place of
drug regulations in some contexts. By illustrating the complexities involved in the global
understanding and regulation Ayahuasca, Labate illustrated how the skills of social scientists can
contribute to the ongoing dialogue.

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