Jordan Heath-Rawlings: I’m not a particularly religious person, but I do recognize that everyone worships differently. I think most of us understand that and whether or not we subscribe to a particular faith, we probably have a loose understanding of the world’s major religions. And probably some of the minor ones too. I mean, I’m old enough to remember the movement to get Jedi listed on various national censuses.
I also understand that there are some informal churches and religions out there that I’ve never heard of, and that’s fine too. If it doesn’t harm anyone and they’re not breaking the law, then God bless him. No pun intended. Now, where I get interested is when churches are allowed by the government to do things that if I were to do them would be against the law.
Like say drugs as several churches in Canada are currently permitted to do right now. That’s where my question and start. Why those churches? What kinds of drugs are they permitted that I am not? What do they do with them, and why? What standards does the government require to allow this? And can I apply those standards to myself under what criteria? And mostly what does this mean in the big picture for a federal government that refuses to decriminalize drugs, except for certain organizations and people who ask via the proper channels? Is that hypocrisy at work or is it baby steps towards a more liberal approach to drugs?
I’m Jordan Heath-Rawlings. This is The Big Story. Rachel Browne is a freelance journalist and reporter based in Toronto, and she looked into this for Vice News. Hey Rachel.
Rachel Browne: Hey Jordan.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Can you start by just telling me what is Ayahuasca ,what’s it made from and what do people use it for?
Rachel Browne: Yeah. Ayahuasca is a psychoactive brew or tea, and it’s made from plants native to the Amazon and South America, and it typically contains harmaline and dimethyltryptamine which is otherwise known as DMT. DMT is kind of the main active ingredient in the tea. And it’s also banned in the US and Canada. It’s a banned substance. Ayahuasca has been used for centuries, actually thousands of years in healing ceremonies in central and South America, they’re typically led by shamans and the effects after you take Ayahuasca can last for several hours. You know, a lot of people report hallucinations, visions, vomiting, kind of other bodily functions that we don’t really have to get into, but, not everyone reports having these hallucinations or visions, but these are typically the kinds of things that people go through when they’re kind of experiencing Ayahuasca in a religious based or spiritualistic setting.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Well, speaking of religious based settings then, tell me what the Centre for Universal Illumination Luiz Davina is in Winnipeg, and why are we talking about them in relation to Ayahuasca?
Rachel Browne: Yeah, it’s a bit of a long name for the church, but they’re basically adherence of Santo. Daime which is the religion that’s around Ayahuasca. Daime is another name for Ayahuasca and this church in Winnipeg in particular, from what they tell me, they were founded in the spring of 2019. Like I said, they’re connected to the Santo Daime religion, and this religion originated in Brazil in the 1920s and 30s. This church in particular, in Winnipeg, there’s only a few members at this point. They say they didn’t start fully operating until this year when they got granted a special federal exemption to import and use Ayahuasca legally. So that happened in August. There was no press release from them or from Health Canada, or anything like that. The government doesn’t proactively disclose when they grant special drug exemptions for anyone or any group. I just happened to ask health Canada about that, about what the latest numbers were for these exemptions for Ayahuasca in September. A few weeks after, I guess this group got their exemption. And you know, just the fact that it was a new exemption and that it was based in Winnipeg of all places, kind of jumped out at me and I decided to cover it and write a story about it.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Can you explain, how Ayahuasca is tied into the religion? Like where do they meet and come together?
Rachel Browne: Yeah it’s really interesting. So for thousands of years, Ayahuasca, this brew and these plants, they’ve been used in religious ceremonies in South America in particular. They’re used in Brazil where Ayahuasca has been legal for many decades now, and the tea forms the basis of these religious experiences and beliefs.
So for thousands of years, Shamans in South America would drink this brew as a way to diagnose illnesses, ward off impending disasters, things like that. So it kind of became seen as this healer and very important religious experience that resulted from taking it.Fast forward to the 1920s and 1930s, that’s when the specific religion Santo Daime was formed.
It’s this fusion of Catholicism and indigenous spiritual beliefs and animism, which attributes souls to inanimate objects like plants, and other natural phenomena. So Santo Daime, the specific religious church that started forming. And, and since then these Santo Daime churches, and a couple of other Ayahuasca churches based out of Brazil, have popped up around the world. There’s not really kind of a strict connection or hierarchy among them. Some of them have loose networks to one another and kind of small handfuls. Like the one in Montreal has a kind of a loose connection to the one in Israel, for example. But most of them are pretty independent. They kind of speak to each other on an informal basis, and now we have a few churches here in Canada as well.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: So, what do they do in those churches? Can you describe the ceremony? Did they just sit around and drink the tea and trip out? I’m not trying to be disrespectful, but yeah. I want to know what they actually do.
Rachel Browne: Yeah. So sitting around and drinking the tea is certainly part of the ceremonies and the ceremonies, which they also refer to as quote unquote works, will probably look a bit different depending on where you are, the location for the churches, who’s leading it, maybe what the specific cultural senses in each given place. But in general, the ceremonies are focused around meditation, celebration and of course, consuming Ayahuasca. These ceremonies from the couple of churches that I’ve spoken to here in Canada, they can take place a couple of times a month, so on a biweekly basis. And they often last for several hours. The church in Winnipeg that I mentioned told me that their services can last for around six hours. So what would it typically looks like is they’ll start the day with a fast and prayer. And after that they’ll consume the Ayahuasca ,the sacrament. So I think it’s important to think about the way that they consume Ayahuasca kind of the same way in the same kind of meaning that the Eucharist and communion has for Catholics and other Christians. So it’s a very important ritual for them. So they’ll drink the Ayahuasca and a lot of people describe what the after effects feel like is experiencing a kind of a expanded state of awareness or consciousness as a way to kind of get closer to the divine. In their case it’s God sort of the Judeo Christian God, as we think of it typically. And that’s their way of aligning themselves with God. So after they take the Ayahuasca, they’ll carry out maybe silent meditation for a few hours, followed by singing hymns. And then later on in the day, they’ll take us another smaller amount of Ayahuasca followed by more singing, more hymns. And then at the end of the day, there’ll be closing prayers. And perhaps depending if it’s a festive holiday, maybe like Christmas or another high holiday in the Christian tradition, the day will end with a potluck meal. So that’s kind of typically how the structure of the ceremonies works.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: It’s a normal day at church, except for the psychedelics.
Rachel Browne: Exactly.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: How many churches like this are there in Canada? You mentioned the Winnipeg one was a new one and there’s one in Montreal. How common are they?
Rachel Browne: So there was the first Santo Daime religion and also another Iowasca based church in Quebec. They’re kind of the first official ones that we know of. And over, I would say maybe since the nineties that’s expanded to Toronto and then most recently is the church that we know about in Winnipeg. And in terms of how popular it is, these churches have, I mean, the Winnipeg one has a handful of members that I know of at this point. Maybe that’s expanded since they got their exemption in August, but the church in Montreal has about 50 members. So I would say there’s a couple of hundred core members among all of the five or six Santo Daime churches in Canada, but they do get visitors from time to time. So they welcome outsiders to partake in the ceremonies. So in terms of who’s consuming it in these settings, it kind of fluctuates depending on who’s welcomed into participate
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: So theoretically, if this were, if this were not a pandemic and somebody listening to this program wanted to try this, they could perhaps go to one of these churches and partake.
Rachel Browne: Yeah. They could, they would reach out to the church leaders and express their interest in going and they could go. And actually they are still operating even during the pandemic. It depends on where they are and what the restrictions are for worship ceremonies, but they are still doing it in the pandemic. I think they had to shut down earlier this year completely, but they’re back at it as far as I know in adherence to the local pandemic rules.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Well, the religious aspect of this is pretty fascinating, but I’m also more interested in the policy behind these exemptions. So when one of these churches forms, what kind of process do they have to follow to get one of these?
Rachel Browne: It’s a really intense, lengthy process for people who, in groups who are serious about doing this. It takes a lot of work and a lot of, you know, reading of the legislation and understanding the policy and understanding exactly what they need to prove in order to get the exemptions. So people in groups can apply to Health Canada for special exemptions to the controlled drugs and substances act. It’s called a section 56 exemption. And what groups can apply to do is get a permission to import possess or, or use the controlled substances in questions. So in the case of these churches, they’re applying for a section 56 exemption from Health Canada to allow them to import, use, and consume Ayahuasca, or daime tea, which is the controlled substance. So it’s an application process that involves laying out exactly why you need to get access to the substance you’re trying to get, what it means to you on a religious basis. If you’re applying for say, another psychedelic or controlled substance for medical or scientific purposes, then you have to prove why you need the substance for each of those reasons. And these churches also have to outline exactly how the substance will be handled and administered. So they have to prove that they’re going to adhere to a very strict regimented protocol when it comes to getting access to the substance, which for these groups involves importing it from a centre in Brazil and Health Canada will then review that application. They might go back and forth with the applicant to kind of ask for further clarification, more documents and other types of proof to support the application and then Health Canada will decide whether they’re going to grant or deny that application. It’s a really opaque process in the sense that Health Canada won’t say how many people are in the queue or have pending applications with health Canada for section 56 exemption. So they really only will say when a group or a person gets the exemption and then they won’t go into any further details than that. They don’t put out press releases or anything like that. So it’s kind of, if journalists ask health Canada for information on who’s been granted the exemptions, then they’ll tell you, but otherwise we don’t really know the success rate of getting these kinds of exemptions. Granted, we just know basically that there’s a handful of these Ayahuasca churches that have been granted permission to use and import Ayahuasca legally. And then we know of a couple of other people who’ve been granted special exemptions to use other psychedelics like psilocybin mushrooms.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: I’m going to ask you about the other ones in a second, but first, just from a scientific point of view, you mentioned that this is legal in Brazil and probably some other places around the world. What do we know about this drug? What are the benefits? What are the potential risks? Do we have studies that kind of give us the impact of it? That kind of thing.
Rachel Browne: Yeah, in general, there’s a growing body of scientific research that’s starting to show the efficacy and possible benefits of Ayahuasca as well as other psychedelic substances when it comes to treating PTSD and other mental health issues like addiction and depression. We’re kind of in this really interesting time where psychedelics more broadly are having a bit of a Renaissance and they’re being used by researchers, scientists, and experiments in therapeutic settings to treat depression, like I mentioned, and also for patients with terminal cancer, like psilocybin mushrooms are being used to help patients with their end of life care. In recent decades, there’s been researchers who’ve explored the effects of Ayahuasca on the brain, on the function of the brain, as well as the potential use of Ayahuasca assisted treatments for substance use and other mental health issues. The problem with studying Ayahuasca is that it’s brewed in a tea. So it’s very difficult to dose it and control the dose if you’re going to study it in a clinical setting.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Right.
Rachel Browne: And also because the fact that it’s taken in these specific religious based spiritualistic settings so it’s hard to kind of do that in a clinical setting, and also the effects can last for several hours as opposed to other types of substances like cannabis or even psilocybin mushrooms on a microdose basis, but what we do you know, and I’ll point you to a couple of studies. There was a small observational study in 2011 out of BC where a dozen members of a first nation community participated in guided Ayahuasca ceremonies and these participants for people who had been struggling with substance use disorder and weren’t really having success in treating their addictions. But what the researchers found based on observing the participants as they underwent these two Ayahuasca ceremonies is that the participants reported a reduction in harmful cocaine use. And they also reported improvements in their general outlook on life, kind of their sense of hopefulness ,their mindfulness. And for the researchers, these results suggested that perhaps there could be positive, psychological or behavioural changes as a result of using Ayahuasca and the therapeutic guided setting. And then more recently, there was this 2018 study involving patients in Brazil, and it was the first controlled trial to test Ayahuasca for patients with treatment resistant depression. And there were, it was a double blind, randomized controlled trial with 29 patients, they received a single dose of either Ayahuasca or a placebo. And in the end, what the researchers concluded was that their finding supported evidence to suggest that Ayahuasca could be used potentially safely, and that it could also help treat depression. And, here in Toronto at CAMH, the centre for addiction and mental health, there’s a researcher, Brian Rush, who’s been evaluating another treatment program in Peru where Ayahuasca is legal and people are using it there. And he’s finding kind of promising evidence that suggests that people dealing with addiction and depression are showing, positive outcomes after they use Ayahuasca. So, yeah, there’s, you know, studies here and there that have been done, but in general it is difficult to kind of get a sense of, to make a blanket statement about the efficacy of Ayahuasca. And I guess last thing I will note is that because of the nature of Ayahuasca, the pharmacology around it is not really completely understood, and of course, like with any substance, there are potential risks associated with using it. So a lot of experts and researchers say that people should certainly look into the potential risks and how they weigh against any kind of potential benefit that could come with Ayahuasca.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: That makes sense. And those are still some, some really interesting results, especially around depression. And so I guess I’m going to try to ask this question in as least a loaded way as possible, though it might come across this way. If we’re finding that there are positive impacts from Ayahuasca and even sometimes from psilocybin on people who struggle with depression and other mental health problems, why I guess do I need to be a member of a church to get this drug and try to use it? And I can’t take psilocybin or DMT at home myself on the weekend when I’m depressed?
Rachel Browne: Well, I think I would split that up. So first when we’re talking about, Ayahuasca, I mean, it’s still illegal here in Canada. It’s still on the controlled drugs and substances act where it’s illegal to use ,it’s illegal to import.
So, I mean, it’s a question in general as to why substances are still prohibited, in general, but there are these exemptions that do exist for people. I mean, if you wanted to try to get an exemption, you could certainly go for it. But I think given the existing regime that we’re in, where drugs are criminalized, I mean we have
legalized cannabis now, but in this context where drugs are criminalized, without getting special permission as part of a medical exemption or part of a scientific study, then it’s going to be really difficult to just get access to Ayahuasca legally. You won’t be able to do it, but in terms of psilocybin mushrooms, there slowly is, like I said, we’re in a bit of a psychedelics Renaissance right now. And there, there is ongoing research in Canada and even here in Toronto as well, looking into the possible benefits of microdosing psilocybin mushrooms for depression and other mental health issues. So I think in time, we’re going to see attitudes around psychedelics begin to change. Certainly attitudes among scientists and healthcare experts, those are changing when it comes to psychedelics and their possible benefit. And once that starts to happen, certainly politicians will start to have to pay attention to this. And then perhaps we’ll see drug policy change when it comes to psychedelics and then maybe one day you’ll be able to access psychedelics if you would like.
But I think it’s more likely to happen is that we’ll see kind of these medical breakthroughs when it comes to psilicyben mushrooms. And perhaps that will be more mainstream and widespread when it comes to their use to treat certain mental health issues.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: All of that makes sense. I guess the other thing I’m getting at is the nature of religious organization being able to access these kinds of things with more ease than ,say, an atheist organization, or even just a regular person. And, you know, I wonder what options are available to people who would like to try this beyond a religious setting?
Rachel Browne: I mean, not that I’m advocating for any kind of criminal, or illegal.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: We don’t do that here.
Rachel Browne: Not that I’m advocating for that, but I mean, these churches will say that there’s tons of underground, unregulated, illegal Ayahuasca ceremonies happening all the time. People try it.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Right.
Rachel Browne: All the time in Canada, you can also travel to other parts of the world like Brazil and Peru where it is not, I mean, certainly not now in the pandemic, but you can ostensibly try to other parts of the world where it is legal to test out Ayahuasca. But in terms of, I mean, if an atheist group or another religious group was able to enhance the desire to apply for an exemption and to get access to Ayahuasca or another psychedelic on medical grounds or on religious grounds, they could certainly try. There’s really nothing stopping people from applying for these things.
It takes, I mean, in the case of this church, like I said, Ayahuasca is central to their religious belief and their religious worldview and their practice. And when it comes to the church in Montreal, I mean, they were one of two churches. Santo Daime churches that got the exemption from health Canada in 2017.
And it took them almost 17 years to get that exemption in the first place. So they’re really serious about going through the process to get this done. And they were the first ones to, to have it happen. So I think, like I said, it’s these people who believe that Ayahuasca is central to their life and their customs and their belief. And if other people feel the same way, there’s, there’s a way to try to access it as well. So until the laws change, it’s really kind of the only option that people have at this point, if they’re going to go the legal route.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Well, that’s the last thing that I wanted to ask you about anew.
You touched on it earlier when you mentioned kind of we’re in a period of, of criminalization of a lot of these drugs right now. And there are a lot of advocates, and groups pushing for the decriminalization of drugs in Canada. And I wonder what they think about these exemptions. Are they in their eyes, you know, kind of an example of hypocrisy. Like I was trying to point out, you know, some for you, but, but not for all. Or are they steps in the right direction?
Rachel Browne: Yeah. I spoke to a couple of drug policy advocates and researchers on this topic on this specific issue of religious groups getting these exemptions and they’re really supportive of any movement or step forward in people or groups getting access, getting legal access to any kind of controlled substance and particular when it comes to psychedelics. They’re excited when anyone’s kind of granted access or granted the ability to use it because in their mind it just inches things closer and closer towards decriminalization or de-stigmatizing drugs use and sort of demystifying maybe in the case of Ayahuasca what it could mean and what it could be used for. So when you have these kinds of exemptions, granted, it kind of helps the cause in their minds because it can bring about better public awareness of the issues. And then that kind of can feed back into their push for a decriminalization of these substances, because especially when it comes to these plant-based substances, in their minds. You know, and research has shown that the safety profile file of certainly psilicyben mushrooms, is there, we’ve seen it with cannabis, so it’s all part and parcel of what they’re kind of advocating for. A rethinking of what these substances are and what they can achieve.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Rachel, thank you for walking us through this. I’m far too old and lame to ever take these things when they become available, but it’s fascinating to talk about the policy around them and especially where religion comes into it.
Rachel Browne: Yeah, I think it’s a really exciting time and it’s a really interesting topic. Thanks so much, Jordan.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: That was Rachel Browne. And this was The Big Story. We have more big stories at the big story podcast.ca ,naturally. We’re always here to talk to at the big story podcast, all one word, all lowercase @rci.rogers.com. You can like us and retweet us and talk to us and whatever you want to do on Twitter at the big story FPN. And of course you can find us on your podcast player, whichever one you prefer Apple, Google, Stitcher, Spotify, doesn’t matter. While you’re there, take a look for The Hopeful, which is our new series on Frequency Podcast Network. You can find it same place you find this one. Thanks for listening. I’m Jordan Heath-Rawlings. We’ll talk tomorrow.
Back to top of page