This Exotic Hallucinogen Has Everyday Israelis Tripping. But Is It Legal?

Three people face charges for importing the drug ayahuasca, which has been drunk for hundreds of years by traditional practitioners in South America

File photo: A Huni Kui Indian prepares a drink known as nixi pae or ayahuasca to use in a healing ritual in the village of Novo Segredo along the Envira river of Brazil's northwestern Acre state.
REUTERS

On Thursday the Jerusalem District Court will charge three people with importing 7.5 kilograms (16.5 pounds) of a dangerous drug into Israel. If the three – an Israeli, an American and a Colombian – are convicted, they could face heavy prison terms. But the court will first have to determine whether the substance they brought into the country is indeed a dangerous drug.

The substance is called ayahuasca, and it’s used to make a powerful psychotic drink that has been quaffed for hundreds of years by traditional practitioners in South America and has gained a following in recent years in Israel, Europe and the United States.

From the perspective of the police and the prosecution, there’s no doubt that ayahuasca is a dangerous substance, but users see it very differently. “It’s like a hundred hours of psychotherapy in one session,” says one user.

Ayahuasca is consumed as an infusion of two plants – the ayahuasca, a type of wild grape vine from the Amazon rain forests – and a plant from the coffee family. Brewing the two together produces one of strongest narcotic substances known to man. It’s generally used as part of a ceremony that includes spiritual elements and guidance by a shaman or some similar leader. Users say thousands of people in Israel imbibe the substance regularly.

They describe a wide range of hallucinations and sensations during use. Prof. Benny Shanon of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem has studied and used ayahuasca. His conclusions about the substance, which were reported in Haaretz three years ago, raise some disturbing questions about the human mind.

File photo: A man moves a cauldron used for brewing a psychedelic tea locals know as the Holy Daime in Ceu do Mapia, Amazonas state, Brazil.
Eraldo Peres / AP

For example, one unexplained aspect of ayahuasca is that all users, regardless of what culture they come from, experience amazingly similar hallucinations. Shanon says these are largely “animals like snakes, birds, jaguars and panthers, fantastic creations like half-men, half-animals, dragons and angels, castles as well as objets d’art and magic.”

Drinking isn't injecting

The active ingredient in ayahuasca is a chemical called DMT, which is considered a dangerous drug and which no one disputes should not be used or sold. But consuming the substance by drinking it is not the same as injecting it. According to Dr. Nick Kaufman, the lawyer for Allison McGregor, the American suspect, the leaves and the tea are not banned.

“The active ingredient in khat leaves is also a banned substance,” Kaufman says. “But there is no prohibition against using the leaves. The police have erred and have yet to understand the essence of the substance they confiscated.

“Ayahuasca, as an infusion produced from plants and tree bark, is not banned under the Convention on Psychotropic Substances of which Israel is a signatory, and as a result it isn’t included in the appendix to the Drug Ordinance,” Kaufman says. “Use of the substance is a spiritual-ritualistic matter, and that’s what we plan to argue in court.”

The three suspects, McGregor, Acunsa Bareira Kol and Dror Blau, were arrested 10 days ago by the Israeli police in the West Bank shortly after they had started an ayahuasca ceremony. They had allegedly tried to smuggle the large quantity of the drug by preparing the liquid and inserting it into bottles marked as skin cleanser. The suspicious package, which also contained wallets and handbags, was intercepted by customs agents at Ben-Gurion Airport.

On Sunday, Judge Mika Banki upheld the police request to extend their detention until they were charged. Regarding the claim that ayahuasca isn’t a banned substance, the judge wrote, “This must be examined with extreme caution.”

A year ago the prosecution indicted two residents of Pardes Hannah for importing a kilogram of ayahuasca, but the issue of the substance’s legality wasn’t determined because the suspects agreed to a plea bargain under which they did six months of community service.

File photo: A healer (L) starting an Ayahuasca ceremony by offering what they call the medicinal plant to a person taking part of the ritual in Tarapoto, northeastern jungle of Peru.
JAIME RAZURI / AFP PHOTO

A treatment for trauma

R., an accountant and a mother of four, has used ayahuasca dozens of times and is certain that it’s neither addictive nor dangerous. “There are a lot of countries that use the substance to treat trauma; it opens up areas of the brain that usually aren’t active. It’s not a pleasant experience; it’s a difficult experience both physically and emotionally,” she says.

“Every time I go I tremble because I’m so scared. You vomit, you have diarrhea, your stomach hurts. It’s a treatment for trauma . I want to shout from a mountaintop to everyone who’s shell-shocked and everyone who has been a victim of sexual assault that there’s a remedy.”

Incidentally, everyone attending an ayahuasca circle is expected to bring his own vomit pail.

G., an alternative medicine practitioner, has used ayahuasca for 15 years, probably making him one of Israel’s most veteran users. “Legally it’s very gray. Now people know about it but it gets passed around in an intimate fashion by word of mouth. No one comes to a circle for the pleasure; it’s totally different from other hallucinatory drugs because it’s not fun,” he says.

“The first time I tried it I broke out in a big smile and felt – happy is not the word, but I understood what life is. It was a feeling of very deep connection with myself, with nature, with the divine. A sense of deep personal and existential significance,” he adds.

“Some have visual hallucinations. Sometimes you see geometric shapes or animals or symbols. Some people undergo a very strong emotional experience, and some experience it physically, a kind of orgasmic feeling but not sexual.”

L., who says he is “almost 60” and works in education, says that at his age “there’s the sense that the doors are gradually closing and this opens the doors a little.” He says the experience has its good sides and bad sides.

“The bad side is visions that can be very frightening .... Very surprising and unexpected things that I didn’t know I was carrying inside me. It’s a big, scary box of surprises,” he says.

“The good side is the revelations and the discoveries. I remember one night that I looked up at the sky and saw things there . I saw all the wheels of the universe. It was a tremendous experience.”

Still, there are also testimonies about people who suffered psychotic attacks after taking the drug.

Members of the community of ayahuasca users say that if in the past it was a small group of young people using the substance as part of a pseudo-spiritual lifestyle, today it’s a large community that includes all sorts.

“Nowadays I see people in their 70s, like my father, who have no connection at all to the spiritual but come because it does them good,” G. says. “It puts them through a mental and emotional process that’s like 20 years of psychotherapy.”

As R. puts it, “I meet doctors, military people, soldiers suffering from battle trauma, and people seeking relief from depression, stress and migraines.”

L. adds: “To my delight, I find that I’m far from the only older person in the group. This is probably the least criminal gang in the country. There are wonderful and open people there who are living this experience of nature and healing.”