She knew the police would be coming for her. They’d already arrested the woman who had received a bottle of ayahuasca from her curandero in Peru and the individual who was planning to lead a ceremony with the ayahuasca. Thirty people, in total, had been called in for the investigation, including all those who were planning to sit in the ceremony. And while she was not involved with this particular ceremony, she led others and knew many people in the community who were being touched by the case.
When the Israeli police finally got to her – one of the ceremony participants mentioned her name – they were already calling her involvement with ayahuasca “a very serious crime” and threatening her with 10 years of jail time.
Yael Levy, we’ll call her that as she’s asked to remain anonymous, was at a loss for what to do when, out of the blue, she received a call from the Ayahuasca Defense Fund, a legal defense program created by the NGO ICEERS. They had a global network of drug policy experts, lawyers, and scientific experts on ayahuasca at their disposal and they were going to help her – for free.
“It’s really, really hard when you come out of jail and you don’t know where to start,” Levy recalls. “They said ‘don’t worry, everything is under control, you’re not the only one this has happened to.’”
ICEERS had been supporting legal cases since 2010, and due to a noted increase in the number of incidents, organized the first World Ayahuasca Conference, bringing together international legal and policy experts, which led to the creation of the Ayahuasca Defense Fund (ADF). ICEERS has helped on over 110 cases like Levy’s, in countries from Chile to Russia. While they work mostly around ayahuasca, they also support cases around other plants and fungi, such as mushrooms, iboga, and coca leaf. Natalia Rebollo, human rights lawyer and coordinator for the ADF, says the number of these cases is growing as drug authorities around the world become more familiar with what ayahuasca looks like as people try to cross borders with it or ship it from South America. When people do face prosecution, the ADF is helps them navigate what in many countries is a legal grey area.
Strategies for educating law and policy makers on the cultural, religious, and therapeutic uses of ayahuasca will be an important topic covered at the World Ayahuasca Conference this spring, where the global community will come together to talk about how they can leverage their expertise to protect ayahuasca-related practices.
There’s currently a tension, Rebollo says, within the United Nations between the organization’s drug control bodies, based in Vienna, and human rights bodies, based in Geneva, over the legal and human rights issues related to ayahuasca and other traditionally-used plant practices. Drug control bodies tend to pay closer attention to the psychoactive components of these plants – DMT in the case of ayahuasca – and the plant concoctions themselves end up getting caught up in the net of drug control that prohibit these compounds (and interestingly, not the plants themselves). On the other hand, human rights bodies are more sympathetic to the argument that Indigenous peoples have a right to use them as a part of their traditional, sacred practices.
Currently, according to correspondence from the International Narcotics Control Board, a UN expert body that monitors the implementation of the UN’s drug control treaties, the ayahuasca brew as well as the plants used to make it that naturally contain DMT, are is legal. Pure, extracted, or synthesized DMT, however, is not, something which often leads to confusion in court. Most attorneys don’t have this sort of nuanced understanding of how plants or brews like ayahuasca fit into legal frameworks. Depending on who you ask, cases involving ayahuasca and other plants aren’t quite drug cases and they aren’t quite human rights cases, either. And, perhaps most importantly, the majority of courts don’t even know what ayahuasca is or how it’s used so there’s a whole educational element that comes into play with these cases too. That’s where the ADF comes in.
When Levy was initially released on house arrest, after 14 days in jail, she was told by the lawyer provided to her by the state that the case was so complicated and the charges, so severe, that she should hire one of the best criminal lawyers in the country. She started calling around and lawyer after lawyer, unfamiliar with ayahuasca and discouraged by the charges, turned her down.
The charges claimed that she was operating a drug ring in Israel from San Francisco –she had previously been going to school there. In reality, she was a small ceremony leader who, after working with ayahuasca for more than ten years receiving training from curanderos in Peru, came back to Israel to begin serving ayahuasca to her community. She had a vision of using ayahuasca to help people overcome their PTSD, depression and and to improve mental health, but she also aspired to use it as a way to build cohesion among Jews and Arabs. She hoped to do joint ceremonies between them as well as develop a program to help people make sense of and integrate their ayahuasca experiences.
Instead, she spent three years in and out of the courtroom – both anxious about her fate and encouraged by how the global ayahuasca community was coming to her defense. The ADF team advised her on how to hold a fundraiser to pay for her legal fees –people around the globe donated. More than 300 members of her community in Israel gathered for an evening to fundraise, pray and sing. And, the people who were supposed to sit in the ceremony that led to Levy’s arrest took to the stand in court to defend her work.
“It was pretty amazing to see how people were sharing that this is not a harmful drug, how it positively changed their life,” says Levy. “You could just see the judge looking at them and how his face was changing as he was starting to understand.”
Finally, one day, Levy and the lawyers were sitting in court waiting for one of the policemen who was supposed to testify when the judge called them into a room. He had heard enough, he said, and he was done with “the saga.” Through a plea bargain, Levy got six months of community work and a fine.
In retrospect, Levy says, it was “a small price” to pay for helping ayahuasca gain the respect it deserves.
Despite all the challenges Levy faced – three years of stress and uncertainty –she says that this belief is what kept her motivated and strong. Yes, she wanted to be free, but, more importantly, she wanted to “shed some light” on what, she believes, is “one of the most advanced practices on this earth right now.” And she did.
*Shelby Hartman is a journalist who has written about psychedelics and mental health for VICE, Quartz, and Rolling Stone, among others.
Find out about the the World Ayahuasca Conference here