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There’s a Worldwide Spike in Arrests of Plant Medicine Practitioners

From Mexico to the Czech Republic, facilitators are currently being held for transporting ayahuasca, peyote, and other ancestral medicines

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Updated November 23, 2022

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When Eric Rosas, from the Katukina Amazonian tribe, entered Mexico with ayahuasca in June, he became one of an unprecedented number of people transporting plant medicines to be arrested and detained by authorities in the country this year.

At least nine people have been charged for bringing narcotic drugs to the country in 2022 by Mexican officials after the marines were made responsible for custom and border checks with a brief “to neutralize the trafficking of weapons, drugs, foreign exchange and prevent human trafficking.” The last known such arrest prior to this year was in 2010: the man was released within hours.

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The cases this year generally involve large amounts of psychoactive ancestral plants which could suffice for more than a year’s community use. The spike, though seemingly down to the changing of the customs guard, reflects a global trend as more and more people transport ayahuasca, peyote, iboga, psilocybin mushrooms, and other entheogens across the world to cater to the growing demand.

In June, Rosas was with two Mexicans who were carrying Peruvian ayahuasca, but his supporters suggest that, since he does not speak Spanish or Portuguese, he was unaware of exactly what was unfolding. In any case, they say, ayahuasca is not a controlled substance under Mexican law and has been used for millennia.

Read: People Are Facing Legal Repercussions for Serving Plant Medicine — Here’s What’s Being Done to Help Them

“We are very sorry to see our brother in jail,” says Pinar Varinawa, an elder of the Katukina tribe in Brazil. “For my people, this medicine is not a drug. This natural medicine of ayahuasca is not a composition that has chemicals like other medicines sold by mainstream pharmacies. We use this medicine to heal ourselves and others, not to harm people.”

Ayahuasca is not specifically prohibited in Mexico, but contains DMT, which is internationally scheduled. However, ceremonies take place all across the country and are sometimes openly advertised.

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There is growing condemnation of an increasingly blunt approach at airports which sees authorities “confuse fundamental components of ancient spiritual traditions with drugs that, without scientific evidence, allegedly pose a danger to public health,” Natalia Rebollo, a human rights lawyer from the International Centre for Ethnobotanical Education and Research, who is supporting those held, tells DoubleBlind. “The illegal detention of at least four indigenous people and four Mexicans for importing ayahuasca is a violation of countless human rights. No one should be in prison for ayahuasca. The failed War on Drugs treats ancestral knowledge keepers as drug traffickers.”

Green party senator Alejandra Lagunes, a former national digital strategy head who is campaigning to reschedule psilocybin, adds: “The war on drugs cannot be a war against nature and against those who have historically communed with it and defended it. We have a historical debt with our native peoples.”

Rosas, also known as Aku, has also found support from El Universal columnist and activist Saskia Niño de Rivera Cover. Shortly after his arrest, she called for the decriminalization of indigenous medicines and named two other indigenous men, Claudino and José, from the Shipibo-Conibo and Murui Huitoco tribes respectively, who are also being held after attempting to travel with ayahuasca.

“On 5 July, the president [Andres Manuel] Lopez Obrador affirmed that traditional medicines and ancestral treatments must be preserved as long as they respond to indigenous health systems,” Niño de Rivera Cover wrote, adding that the president’s national development plan declared the drug prohibition regime unsustainable several years ago. 

Read: Inside the Psychedelic Exceptionalism Debate

Lawmakers face a reality, much like with cannabis and cocaine, in which the ceremonial use of what the global North calls “psychedelics” have become increasingly popular across the world and campaigners say that attempts to intercept plant medicines only punish those in need, who are generally not wealthy and are seeking to be in service for others. The lack of a legal framework to transport plant medicines whose benefits are increasingly being detailed in scientific studies in multiple countries is leaving dozens in jeopardy even while the vast majority of people go under the radar unscathed.

According to the Ayahuasca Defense Fund, a program of ICEERS that provides legal support to those criminalized for ayahuasca and other teacher plants, another 31 people across the world (including seven in the US) are facing criminal charges for transporting or importing entheogens, with some being held in jail ahead of trial. “There has been an increase in arrests for importing or traveling with plant medicines, including ceremony raids in Spain and Italy [which this year placed ayahuasca in the most restrictive drug schedule],” it said in a recent update to supporters.

In the Czech Republic, a Polish couple, Karolina and Jaroslaw Kordys, were last month sentenced to eight years in prison after importing ayahuasca over six years and staging rituals in which people would pay to attend. “We were detained in our house while we were sleeping by a special force unit with weapons,” the couple say of their October 2020 arrest in a joint statement. “We were taken into custody and from that time we are dealing with big injustice, incomprehension, and ignorance.”

She was released after five months pending sentencing and is awaiting a summons to begin her jail term, while her husband was never let out. “We are good and honest people who were compared by the prosecutor to the worst ever mafia, the Cosa Nostra, and Hitler,” they add. “We helped many to overcome addictions, and showed them a better life. We saved the life of a woman who wanted to commit suicide.”

At the Indigenous Ayahuasca Conference last month in Brazil, a declaration supported by 35 native communities across the Americas said indigenous people should have the freedom to handle their traditional medicines as they wish. “We demand the immediate release of people arrested for transporting and using ayahuasca in countries like Mexico and Spain, in cases where our leaders are being denounced as criminals and traffickers of illicit substances,” it said.

In Spain, two indigenous men from the Wixarika people in Mexico were arrested in Barcelona earlier this year with their sacrament peyote but have since been released, although not free of potential charges. 

Over the last decade in the country, at least a dozen Andean migrants have also been taken to trial for possession of supplies of coca leaves and four received criminal records. The mild plants have been consumed socially and during work for centuries in Bolivia and neighboring countries for their benefits and, in 2013, the UN permitted legal growing and use within the landlocked nation.

“To suspect someone of bringing coca leaves from their country of origin in order to extract cocaine in Spain is preposterous. Their consumption is for social purposes,” said ICEERS in a report earlier this year. “The political response to the traditional use of coca outside of the Andean region requires less criminalization and should focus on a more social and rights-based mindset.”

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