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ayahuasca, a plea for the decolonization of psychedelic studies

“We told people that it was in the name of the Holy Spirit, the Father and the Son, but in reality it is in the name of the Sun, the Moon and the Tiger…”

While the potential benefits of psychedelic plant medicines to society still remain largely unrealised, contemporary psychedelic studies risk replicating harmful colonial practices within the territories and communities in which the use of psychedelic plants originate. 

After decades of prohibition, the so-called “psychedelic renaissance” is undertaking a  state-of-the-art exploration of the psychology, neurology and medical approaches associated with the effects and benefits of psychedelics.  The field runs the risk, however, of privileging the voices of mainstream western male researchers over those of the indigenous practitioners whose ancestral knowledge of psychedelics roots back to their origins (George et al, 2020). 

A decolonial approach is essential to the success of the current psychedelic renaissance, as failing to recognize indigenous perspectives as equally valuable to the discussion in the appropriate use of these substances only contributes to deepening the colonial wound within which usage of the plants is interwoven. As academia reconsiders previously taboo subjects (such as mind-altering substances), it has the duty to reconsider also the re-enactment of colonial epistemicide (the killing off of existing systems of knowledge), and give indigenous expertise the space it deserves in scientific research. 

The very old relationship between humanity and the ritual alteration of consciousness is, in indigenous communities, deeply linked to systems of traditional medicine. Nevertheless, in the West, practices associated with mind-altering substances have faced decades of strong political opposition and, as the renaissance unfolds, there are other, more subtle threats being held at bay, specifically the peril inherent in silencing other voices because of their culturally diverse backgrounds. 

In the upcoming ICPR 2024, leading experts and cutting-edge research around Ayahuasca will be presented.

Ayahuasca’s history and its critical entanglement with colonization: 

Ayahuasca, or yagé, is a traditional brew from the Amazon rainforest that contains the classic psychedelic compound DMT. It has a long history of use by indigenous peoples in the Amazon basin, where it is mainly used for ritual and healing purposes, usually in ceremonial settings led by a shaman or curandero. 

Ayahuasca is a particularly complex substance that relies on two intersecting components to deliver its psychedelic effects. Psychotria viridis, or chacruna, is a shrub, the leaves of which contain the DMT. Banisteriopsis caapi is a vine that contains monoamine oxidase (MAO) inhibitors, which prevent MAO enzymes in the stomach from breaking down the DMT as they’d normally do, thus allowing the body to actively absorb it when it is consumed orally. Taking into account the improbability of discovering the function of this particular combination of a shrub and a vine amongst the the tens of thousands of different plant species in the Amazon, along with the preparatory process needed to coax out its psychoactive properties, ayahuasca can be considered an invention, a piece of technology developed by the Amazonian people.  

The indigenous people of the Amazon relate to their surrounding environment in a way that lends itself to developing a great body of ethnobotanical knowledge. Much of the knowledge that has been produced by indigenous people has, however, been the subject of appropriation and biopiracy, as the history of the rainforest cannot be grasped separately from the history of the colonization of the Americas.

One can go back to Western explorers and botanists to trace historically how ayahuasca came to be known outside the jungle, Richard Spruce and Richard Evans Schultes, for instance, were some of the first outsiders to report on indigenous plant medicines. But, by telling and re-telling the story in such a way, a colonial version of history is reinforced where indigenous peoples and their knowledge are passively discovered by Western institutions, their own contribution, skill, and subjectivity neglected, minimized, or reduced to naturalistic fact. 

The history of the Amazon has been shaped by the way that the Western European imagination has interacted with this territory: from the mythic quests to find rivers of gold in the 16th century as the Spanish conquistadors mapped the Amazon river in the search for El Dorado, to the rubber barons of the 20th century who exploited and enslaved hundreds of thousands of indigenous people as they strove to realize enormous profits. The Amazon is a territory that has been perceived as a well of treasures to be extracted and appropriated. 

Today’s deforestation crisis, related to the extraction of precious timber and the clearing of trees for cattle, are an inheritance of old relationships with this land that still conceives of the Amazon as an uninhabited space full of natural wealth and resources. The rainforest has been historically included in the world’s economy only in terms of exploitation, and indigenous communities as well as their knowledge have been objectified in the same way as their land. 

Ayahuasca, curiously, was used during colonial times as a way of resisting and contesting the settler invasion. As the conquistador’s culture demonized indigenous ritual and traditional medicine, ayahuasca was used as a way of exercising and preserving indigenous identity, and was perceived as a repository of cultural memory for the peoples of the Amazon (Leyva, 1991).

At ICPR 2020, Olivia Marcus, David Dupuis, Bia Labate and Daniela Peluso discussed the globlisation of ayahuasca

Other versions of history; Ayahuasca/Yagé and its traditional users:

To trace historically the movement of ayahuasca and other plant medicines one need not rely entirely on the Western explorers and botanists who explored the Amazon and taxonomized its species. Ayahuasca traveled outside of the Amazon via old shamanic networks that for centuries wove an exchange of knowledge and ritual technologies (Pinzón et al., 2004). For instance, the Putumayo department, located in southwest Colombia, is divided into three sub regions: The Upper Putumayo (Andes mountain range), Middle Putumayo (Amazon foothills) and Lower Putumayo (Amazon basin). The Sibundoy Valley which is famous for being home of prominent ayahuasca shamans in Colombia, is located in the Upper Putumayo, a geographical node between the Andes and the Amazon. People who inhabit the area are both settlers and indigenous people who belong to two ethnic groups, the Inga and the Kamentsá

Relations – including shamanic ones – have existed for centuries between the Upper Putumayo (Andes) and the Lower Putumayo (Amazon). The Cofán, Siona and Coreguajes, who are known to be powerful shamans, live at lower elevations where rainforest vegetation flourishes. As ayahuasca cannot grow outside of the tropical forest, shamans from the Upper Putumayo have long traveled down to acquire the brew and, in doing so, maintained a cross-pollinating network that exchanges plants, ritual and healing technologies, and cosmological knowledge (Pinzón et al., 2004). 

In their travels to the Amazon basin, Ingas from the Upper Putumayo learnt the uses and powers of shamanic plants and engaged in shamanic apprenticeships (Pinzón et al., 2004) with the help of shamans from this area. They then transported plants and other ritual devices, including ayahuasca, from the low tropical forest to Sibundoy. The memory of the botanical relationship between shamans was retained in their respective gardens, disseminating and preserving thus the interchange of knowledge between the Amazon and the Andes. 

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Such movement helped inform the transformation of indigenous practices which came into contact with Catholic missionaries and the general mestizo culture of the rest of the Colombian territory. As we can read in the next excerpt from an interview with a shaman from the Sibundoy Valley:

When I was born, the first thing they gave me was three drops of yagé (ayahuasca). We told people that it was in the name of the Holy Spirit, the Father and the Son, but in reality it is in the name of the Sun, the Moon and the Tiger. That’s how my blood began to be painted.” (Pinzón et al. 146 )

As the previous passage shows, the ritual use of ayahuasca in this area was influenced by the dominant Catholic religion, while at the same time acting as a mechanism to contest and resist the colonial apparatus. The previous statement beautifully depicts how indigenous ritual practices were disguised using catholic motifs as a way to preserve silently their identity: Giving three drops of ayahuasca in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, to conceal it was really given in the name of the Sun, the Moon and the Tiger.  

“…Two years later Eliseo was back again, by bus all the way across the country to dip once more into what he saw as the Indian well of magical power” – (Taussig, 1986. p 435)

With this sentence Michael Taussig begins chapter 27 of his book “Shamanism, Colonialism and the Wild Man” (1986) where, “The Indian well of magical power,” was, of course, the Amazon. Since the very first stages of colonization, the Amazon was a screen upon which European minds could project fantastical mirages of imaginary geographies populated by noble, primitive, and superstitious savages. The picture of an ‘Indian well of magical power’ is a reflection of this. A well of vast and mysterious treasures, gold, rubber, magic, and endless resources, where indigenous communities were perceived through a lens of intellectual inferiority.  The Amazon consequently epitomizes and condenses several European fantasies surrounding a mysterious, irrational and exotic Other. 

What Taussig was looking for in that ‘Indian well of magical power’ was ayahuasca shamanism, where the otherness of indigenous knowledge is capable of healing the maladies of the West. It is precisely the same phenomenon seen when the renowned writer William Burroughs went on a journey to find ayahuasca in Colombia, thinking that it might be his ‘final fix’ (Fotiou, 2019).

The same trope is seen with contemporary ayahuasca tourism, where huge numbers of people from all over the world (though predominantly European and American) travel to the Amazon in search of healing through the exotic otherness of ayahuasca (Losonczy & Mesturini, 2010) (Caicedo, 2009). The contemporary medical approaches to ayahuasca and other psychedelic plant medicines follow the same lines, wherein ayahuasca is being researched for its potential to treat some of the most pervasive illnesses of our time, such as depression, anxiety, and addiction (Fotiou 18)(Frecska et al.) (Palhano-Fontes et al.)(Richards) (Watts et al.) (Roseman et al.).

An interdisciplinary future: 

As psychedelic plant medicines re-enter Western culture, researchers in this field must be aware of the colonial history behind these plants and the communities from which they come to avoid perpetuating the same type of intellectual violence that underlies the old notion of the “noble savage” and current practices of biopiracy. As we enter a globalized society, it will be critical to give regard to knowledge that comes from different cultural and ethnic sources, bestowing upon them equal validity in the discussion of the adequate use of these substances. Mainstream psychedelic research will need to encourage and actively include researchers from diverse ethnic backgrounds, as a diversity of voices and perspectives can only contribute to the advancement of science. 

Besides giving credit to indigenous knowledge (which kept this technology alive for at least the past millennium) it is necessary to recognize the contribution of people of color, women, and researchers from Latin American in the development of psychedelic research, as well as to create spaces within which their perspectives can be heard and  included. 

Understanding how to use these substances will, in the end, require an interdisciplinary effort. The cutting-edge research being performed on psychedelics in the fields of neurobiology and psychology will see its most fruitful results by working hand-in-hand with the humanities (anthropology, decolonial studies, religious studies, philosophy, etc.) to avoid the pitfalls inherent in the epistemicide of non-western voices. The task at hand for the humanities is to reflect on the body-politics of knowledge, help give voice to traditional and indigenous ethno-medicine systems, and create the foundation for a renaissance free from harmful colonial appropriation and silencing.

In conclusion, ayahuasca has a lot to offer the world, as current scientific studies continue to prove its therapeutic potential. It, along with other psychedelic plant medicines, have enormous possibilities in the ongoing fight to alleviate psychological and spiritual suffering. The real question, then, is what can we give back, to the Amazon, to the people that inhabit it, to the preservation of their systems of knowledge, to their worldview and culture, to the most diverse ecosystem of the Earth?

What can we give back? 


1. Caicedo, Alhena. Nuevos chamanismos Nueva Era. 2009, p. 18.
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5. Leiva, A., Guerrero, H., Pardo, M., JUNCOSA, J., & AMODIO, E. (1991). Los espíritus aliados: chamanismo y curación en los pueblos indios de Sudamérica. Ediciones Abya Yala, Quito, (31). p. 47
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Psychedelic Future of the Mind: How Entheogens Are Enhancing Cognition, Boosting Intelligence, and Raising Values

Psychedelic Future of the Mind: How Entheogens Are Enhancing Cognition, Boosting Intelligence, and Raising Values. Thomas B. Roberts. Park Street Press. IBSN: 978-1594774591

A look into a future society that embraces psychedelics as tools for cognitive development, personal growth, business, and an experience-based religious reformation. This book is ideal for anyone interested in how psychedelics could change the course of human development.

Buy this book through and support the OPEN Foundation

Risk assessment of ayahuasca use in a religious context: self-reported risk factors and adverse effects


Objective: Whether for spiritual, recreational, or potential therapeutic use, interest in ayahuasca has grown remarkably. Ayahuasca’s main active substances are N,N-dimethyltryptamine and certain monoamine oxidase inhibitor β-carbolines. Possible drug interactions are a major concern, and research is lacking in this area. The objective of this study was to evaluate the safety of ritual ayahuasca use regarding adverse effects and risk factors.

Methods: In this cross-sectional study, ayahuasca users from a religious institution answered an online questionnaire about its safety. Adverse effects, safety measures, and possible risk factors (psychiatric diagnosis and medications) were investigated.

Results: The most frequent adverse effects among the 614 participants were transient gastrointestinal effects (nausea and vomiting). Fifty participants self-reported a psychiatric diagnosis (depression and anxiety were the most prevalent), and these participants experienced adverse effects more frequently. Psychiatric medication use was reported by 31 participants. No indication of increased adverse effects due to drug-drug interactions was found.

Conclusion: A minority of participants reported being very negatively affected by persistent adverse effects. Psychiatric medication use while participating in ayahuasca rituals was not associated with increased adverse effects. For the most part, the institution’s practices seem sufficient to prevent exacerbated reactions. Future studies may focus on negatively affected users.

Durante, Í., Dos Santos, R. G., Bouso, J. C., & Hallak, J. E. (2021). Risk assessment of ayahuasca use in a religious context: self-reported risk factors and adverse effects. Revista brasileira de psiquiatria (Sao Paulo, Brazil : 1999), 43(4), 362–369.

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Psychedelics in Western culture: unnecessary psychiatrisation of visionary experiences


Historical research about the use of psychedelics in specific religious contexts can provide rational explanations for visionary experiences that could otherwise be cause to question the mental health of religious actors. Reversely, if historians ignore or overlook empirical evidence for the use of psychedelics, the result can be that normal and even predictable reactions of healthy subjects to the effects of psychedelic substances are arbitrarily interpreted as ‘irrational’.

AIM: To describe the meaning of the psychedelic factor in historical visionary experiences.

METHOD: Discussion based on three examples of selective use of historical sources on psychedelics.

RESULTS: This theme is of broader relevance to cultural history and scientific theory because we are typically dealing with religious practices that have traditionally been categorized as ‘magic’ and thereby classified in advance as irrational and potentially pathological. The article discusses three historical examples: the so-called Mithras Liturgy from Roman Egypt, early modern witches’ ointments, and spiritual use of hashish in the nineteenth century.

CONCLUSION: Established academics often deny the significance of psychedelics in visionary experiences. Discussion of pre-Enlightenment source material appears to be of considerable importance for the correct interpretation of important religious and cultural traditions. Critical empirical source research without prejudices or implicit agendas is the appropriate method.

Hanegraaff, W. J. (2020). Psychedelics in Western culture: unnecessary psychiatrisation of visionary experiences. Tijdschrift Voor Psychiatrie62(8), 713-720.
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Neurochemical models of near-death experiences: A large-scalestudy based on the semantic similarity of written reports


The real or perceived proximity to death often results in a non-ordinary state of consciousness characterized by phenomenological features such as the perception of leaving the body boundaries, feelings of peace, bliss and timelessness, life review, the sensation of traveling through a tunnel and an irreversible threshold. Near-death experiences (NDEs) are comparable among individuals of different cultures, suggesting an underlying neurobiological mechanism. Anecdotal accounts of the similarity between NDEs and certain drug-induced altered states of consciousness prompted us to perform a large-scale comparative analysis of these experiences. After assessing the semantic similarity between 15,000 reports linked to the use of 165 psychoactive substances and 625 NDE narratives, we determined that the N-methyl-D-aspartate (NMDA) receptor antagonist ketamine consistently resulted in reports most similar to those associated with NDEs. Ketamine was followed by Salvia divinorum (a plant containing a potent and selective κ receptor agonist) and a series of serotonergic psychedelics, including the endogenous serotonin 2A receptor agonist N,N-Dimethyltryptamine (DMT). This similarity was driven by semantic concepts related to consciousness of the self and the environment, but also by those associated with the therapeutic, ceremonial and religious aspects of drug use. Our analysis sheds light on the long-standing link between certain drugs and the experience of “dying“, suggests that ketamine could be used as a safe and reversible experimental model for NDE phenomenology, and supports the speculation that endogenous NMDA antagonists with neuroprotective properties may be released in the proximity of death.

Martial, C., Cassol, H., Charland-Verville, V., Pallavicini, C., Sanz, C., Zamberlan, F., … & Tagliazucchi, E. (2019). Neurochemical models of near-death experiences: A large-scale study based on the semantic similarity of written reports. Consciousness and cognition69, 52-69.,
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A Jamesian Response to Reductionism in the Neuropsychology of Religious Experience


The neuroscience revolution has revived interpretations of religious experiences as wholly dependent on biological conditions. William James cautioned against allowing such neurological reductionism to overwhelm other useful perspectives. Contemporary psychologists of religion have raised similar cautions, but have failed to engage James as a full conversation partner. In this article, we present a contemporary, applied version of James’s perspective. We clarify the problem by reviewing specific James-like contemporary concerns about reductionism in the neuropsychological study of religion. Then, most centrally, we employ three of James’s conceptual tools—pragmatism, pluralism, and radical empiricism—to moderate contemporary reductionism. Finally, we point to a constructive approach through which neuroscientists might collaborate with scholars in the humanities and psychosocial sciences, which is consistent with our conclusion that it is often no longer fruitful to separate neurobiological studies from studies that are psychosocial or sociocultural.

Kime, K. G., & Snarey, J. R. (2018). A Jamesian Response to Reductionism in the Neuropsychology of Religious Experience. Archive for the Psychology of Religion40(2-3), 307-325., 10.1163/15736121-12341357
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Classic Psychedelics: An integrative review of epidemiology, mystical experience, brain network function, and therapeutics


The purpose of this paper is to provide an integrative review and offer novel insights regarding human research with classic psychedelics (classic hallucinogens), which are 5HT2AR agonists such as lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD), mescaline, and psilocybin. Classic psychedelics have been administered as sacraments since ancient times. They were of prominent interest within psychiatry and neuroscience in the 1950s to 1960s, and during this time contributed to the emergence of the field of molecular neuroscience. Promising results were reported for treatment of both end-of-life psychological distress and addiction, and classic psychedelics served as tools for studying the neurobiological bases of psychological disorders. Moreover, classic psychedelics were shown to occasion mystical experiences, which are subjective experiences reported throughout different cultures and religions involving a strong sense of unity, among other characteristics. However, the recreational use of classic psychedelics and their association with the counterculture prompted an end to human research with classic psychedelics in the early 1970s. We review recent therapeutic studies suggesting efficacy in treating psychological distress associated with life-threatening diseases, treating depression, and treating nicotine and alcohol addictions. We also describe the construct of mystical experience, and provide a comprehensive review of modern studies investigating classic psychedelic-occasioned mystical experiences and their consequences. These studies have shown classic psychedelics to fairly reliably occasion mystical experiences. Moreover, classic psychedelic-occasioned mystical experiences are associated with improved psychological outcomes in both healthy volunteer and patient populations. We also review neuroimaging studies that suggest neurobiological mechanisms of psychedelics. These studies have also broadened our understanding of the brain, the serotonin system, and the neurobiological basis of consciousness. Finally, we provide the most comprehensive review of epidemiological studies of classic psychedelics to date. Notable among these are a number of studies which have suggested the possibility that nonmedical naturalistic (non-laboratory) use of classic psychedelics is associated with positive mental health and prosocial outcomes, although it is clear that some individuals are harmed by classic psychedelics in non-supervised settings. Overall, these various lines of research suggest that classic psychedelics might hold strong potential as therapeutics, and as tools for experimentally investigating mystical experiences and behavioral-brain function more generally.

Johnson, M. W., Hendricks, P. S., Barrett, F. S., & Griffiths, R. R. (2018). Classic Psychedelics: An integrative review of epidemiology, mystical experience, brain network function, and therapeutics. Pharmacology & therapeutics., 10.1016/j.pharmthera.2018.11.010

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An exploratory study of experiences with conventional eating disorder treatment and ceremonial ayahuasca for the healing of eating disorders



Ayahuasca is a traditional Amazonian medicine that is currently being researched for its potential in treating a variety of mental disorders. This article reports on exploratory qualitative research relating to participant experiences with ceremonial ayahuasca drinking and conventional treatment for eating disorders (EDs). It also explores the potential for ayahuasca as an adjunctive ED treatment.


Thirteen individuals previously diagnosed with an ED participated in a semi-structured interview contrasting their experiences with conventional ED treatment with experiences from ceremonial ayahuasca. The interviews were analyzed using thematic analysis.


Participant reports were organized with key themes including that ayahuasca: led to rapid reductions in ED thoughts and symptoms; allowed for the healing of the perceived root of the ED; helped to process painful feelings and memories; supported the internalization of greater self-love and self-acceptance; and catalyzed spiritual elements of healing.


The results suggest that ayahuasca may have potential as a valuable therapeutic tool, and further research—including carefully controlled clinical trials—is warranted.

Renelli, M., Fletcher, J., Tupper, K. W., Files, N., Loizaga-Velder, A., & Lafrance, A. (2018). An exploratory study of experiences with conventional eating disorder treatment and ceremonial ayahuasca for the healing of eating disorders. Eating and Weight Disorders-Studies on Anorexia, Bulimia and Obesity, 1-8., 10.1007/s40519-018-0619-6
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Plant Knowledges: Indigenous Approaches and Interspecies Listening Toward Decolonizing Ayahuasca Research


The ayahuasca research community is familiar with the concept of plant intelligences; however, they have yet to be adequately accounted for by commonly used research practices. This chapter is a call to examine the ontological and epistemological assumptions that underlie research practices and how these practices and assumptions may reinforce hierarchies of knowledge and animacy. The first part of this chapter describes some absences created by following a “methods as usual” approach when researching ayahuasca, based on ethnographic fieldwork at the World Ayahuasca Conference in 2016 (AYA2016). This highlights the need for researchers to acknowledge the methodological, disciplinary, and identity-based limitations on our abilities to produce and represent certain knowledges. Secondly, this chapter is a call to seriously and humbly engage with Indigenous sciences and epistemologies. This requires an honest reckoning with how research has contributed to colonial appropriation and marginalization of Indigenous knowledges. Indigenous ways of knowing have precedent for collaborating with teacher plants in producing knowledge and have much to contribute to discourse on multispecies perspectives. Lastly, I discuss possibilities for including multispecies sensibilities and Indigenous standpoints in research practices to create more collaborative and decolonial knowledges.

Dev, L. (2018). Plant Knowledges: Indigenous Approaches and Interspecies Listening Toward Decolonizing Ayahuasca Research. Plant Medicines, Healing and Psychedelic Science: Cultural Perspectives, 185-204. 10.1007/978-3-319-76720-8_11
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Bubbling with Controversy: Legal Challenges for Ceremonial Ayahuasca Circles in the United States


The use of ayahuasca has been spreading rapidly worldwide; however, no current statistics are available to provide a comprehensive understanding of the scope or pace of this expansion. In the United States, the expansion has included the appearance of the Brazilian ayahuasca religions Santo Daime and União do Vegetal (UDV), underground ceremonial circles, workshops with itinerant Amazonian shamans, and spiritual retreat centers. This trend has included the recent emergence of groups and organizations that publicly advertise “legal” ayahuasca ceremonies and retreats. This chapter maps the existence of a series of organizations and actors who have controversially claimed legal protection through incorporation as “branches” of the Native American Church (NAC). The legality, religious character, and sincerity of these churches are reviewed in light of governing law, such as the First Amendment of the US Constitution, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), the Controlled Substances Act (CSA), and pertinent court cases involving the UDV and the Santo Daime, as well as ethnographic accounts of the historical Native American Church. Finally, it examines a petition for a religious exemption from the CSA from Ayahuasca Healings and speculates on the possibilities of the future of ayahuasca legality in the United States.

Feeney, K., Labate, B. C., & Hudson, J. H. (2018). Bubbling with Controversy: Legal Challenges for Ceremonial Ayahuasca Circles in the United States. Plant Medicines, Healing and Psychedelic Science: Cultural Perspectives, 87-111. 10.1007/978-3-319-76720-8_6
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