Collage of Hands in Handcuffs with Ayahuasca Brew in Background

Shamans Are Going to Jail for Ayahuasca Possession

Since 2022, nine shamans have been arrested for possessing ayahuasca, sparking debate on its classification as a drug and the necessity of legal religious protections.

DoubleBlind Mag

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Shaman Claudino Perez has finally returned to Colombia and leading ayahuasca ceremonies again. It’s been at least two years since he was last able to facilitate medicine because he was arrested in Mexico for the possession of the plant brew, AFP reports.

Perez, now 63 years old, is one of nine individuals, primarily from Indigenous backgrounds in Colombia, Peru, and Brazil, who were arrested in Mexico in 2022 on charges linked to ayahuasca possession. Despite the prevalence of retreats offering ceremonies, ayahuasca is technically illegal in the country. Perez spent two years in jail awaiting trial on narcotics charges.

All nine people arrested have since been released. But their arrests have revived a debate over whether shamans (to be clear: real shamans—not social media shamans) who possess ayahuasca are breaking the law or should have protections to carry their sacrament. 

READ: Shipibo Curandero Stabbed Six Times by Westerner Seeking Ayahuasca

In Mexico, Perez explains to AFP, that you’ll go to prison if you’re caught with it, especially if you’re Indigenous. “You are just another criminal… they classify us as traffickers.”

Perez, a member of the Uitoto people, was detained in March 2022 at the Mexico City airport, when drug enforcement agents discovered bottles of ayahuasca in his bags.

Prosecutors tried to give him a 25-year prison sentence for traveling with ayahuasca. But, Colombian President Gustavo Petro intervened. Given his personal experience with ayahuasca, Petro dispatched a team of academics to Mexico to educate the court about the historical and cultural significance of ayahuasca. Perez’s case was ultimately dismissed.

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In September 2023, shaman Lauro Hinostroza, representing the Shipibo-Konibo tribe of the Peruvian Amazon, was arrested upon arrival in Mexico City. He traveled there to participate in an international congress on Indigenous medicine. 

“They arrest us for being poor and for being healers… the crime is being Indigenous,” Hinostroza, who is 71 years old, told AFP. 

Mexican authorities did not respond to AFP’s requests for comment.

Ayahuasca, however, is considered “an especially serious problem for public health” in Mexico, according to court documents. 

Perez and Hinostroza have traveled across the world with ayahuasca, offering ceremonies to those who want healing. Both have visited Mexico numerous times for this very purpose.

But ayahuasca has become a vanity tool among spiritual and wellness influencers in the West who travel to retreats in Colombia, Costa Rica, Peru, and Ecuador—hot spots for psychedelic tourism. There’s also a growing trend of “neo-shamans” hosting ceremonies in Europe and the United States that are often attended by celebrities. 

READ: What is Ayahuasca? Benefits, Risks, Side Effects

Experts caution that while ayahuasca can offer an array of therapeutic benefits, it also carries risks, particularly when combined with other drugs and pharmaceuticals. It has the potential to induce lingering mental health conditions if set and setting is not accounted for properly or if one is pre-disposed to certain mental health issues. 

In the United States, ayahuasca remains illegal—as a Schedule I drug—under the Controlled Substances Act (CSA). There are three churches that have received religious exemption from the CSA to drink ayahuasca legally, however. The Church of the Eagle and the Condor was granted religious exemption at the end of April 2024, marking a monumental legal victory against the DEA, who ultimately settled with the church.

“As counsel for the Church of the Eagle and the Condor, we completely vindicated the religious freedom that the Constitution demands,” Gilbert Carrasco, Esq., told DoubleBlind in an email. “The Church is the paradigmatic ‘prevailing party’ within the meaning of the law. It was truly an honor to represent these honorable people and establish their Church’s dignity.”

The other two churches that have obtained religious exemption from the CSA are Santo Daime and the União do Vegetal (UDV).

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DoubleBlind is a trusted resource for news, evidence-based education, and reporting on psychedelics. We work with leading medical professionals, scientific researchers, journalists, mycologists, indigenous stewards, and cultural pioneers. Read about our editorial policy and fact-checking process here.

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DoubleBlind Magazine does not encourage or condone any illegal activities, including but not limited to the use of illegal substances. We do not provide mental health, clinical, or medical services. We are not a substitute for medical, psychological, or psychiatric diagnosis, treatment, or advice. If you are in a crisis or if you or any other person may be in danger or experiencing a mental health emergency, immediately call 911 or your local emergency resources. If you are considering suicide, please call 988 to connect with the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.

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