Ayahuasca: The Conquest Is Not over

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Ayahuasca is a preparation of at least two plants: from the ayahuasca liana (banisteriopsis caapi [Spruce ex Grieb.] monton, syn. banisteria caapi Spruce) and the chacruna leaves (Psychotria viridis R. et P.). This drink represents the most significant shamanic medicine in the Amazons (Reichel-Dolmatoff, 1996). The actual active compound of the ayahuasca drink is N,N-Dimethyltriptamine (DMT), a substance that functions as a neuro-transmitter. Because this substance is outlawed by the drug laws (Korner, 1994: 39), every living person is illegal!

During archaeological digs in Ecuador finds have been made that have been entered into the literature as "witches' jugs." Even scientists have fallen for this. The objects are actually very simple, large ceramic vessels that were used for making ayahuasca and are attributed to the Milagro Quevedo culture (500 B.C.E.-1500 C.E.) (Andritzky, 1989: 133).

Ayahuasca was never persecuted by the Inquisition, it is likely that the drink was overlooked within the abundance of Indian preparations. The use of ayahuasca was only forbidden as "devil's work" in the 1950s by a Swiss missionary (Andritzky, 1989: 133). The repression of the use of ayahuasca subsequently led to an uprooting and neglect of the culture.

The cultural inheritance of the Shipibo was also greatly destroyed by the modern missionaries. The Shipibo had a kind of writing that decoded and communicated certain experiences of the visionary world (ayahuasca patterns). "Earlier the designs were also drawn in books -- presumably put together by the missionaries, the last of which was burned in 1978 by a man from Camito because it contained 'things of the devil'" (Andritzky, 1989: 190).

When the chemistry and the pharmacology of ayahuasca were established by Western scientists (Bo Holmstedt, Dennis Mckenna, James Callaway, Jonathan Ott, and so on), the amazement was great. The Amazon Indians have developed their own chemical science, one that is highly effective.

The active psychedelic substance N,N-Dimethyltryptamine, known as DMT for short, not only is made in the human body but is also present in countless plants and animals that are taken in as food. However, DMT does not go to the brain; before it gets there it is broken down by the enzyme monoamine oxidase, MAO for short. If the MAO fallout is prevented, then the DMT is able to pass through the blood-brain barrier without restriction, where it can then bind to the corresponding receptors and send the nervous system into an extraordinary state. This nervous system effect is expressed as lavish and overwhelming visions-- and this is exactly what happens when one drinks ayahuasca. The beta carbolines harmaline and harmine are contained in liana; these are the MAO inhibitors that prevent the fallout of the monoamine oxidase. In this way the DMT found in the drink can penetrate the brain unhindered; there it releases an effect that lasts approximately one and a half hours. Ayahuasca represents a brilliant example of the "chemical engineering" of consciousness.

Now the American pharmaceutical companies want to have this for themselves . Patent number 5752 in the United States Marks and Patents Office, which was registered in June 1996 by the International Medicine Corporation (represented by Loren Miller), is rather perverse. In the patent the firm seeks to secure the chemical and pharmacological principles of ayahuasca as its trademark; in other words, it wants to monopolize the biochemistry of ayahuasca. If the patent is actually allowed, the native South Americans, the discoverers and guardians of the ayahuasca preparation, will be forbidden to cook their drink or it will only be permitted with a payment to the company as a licensing fee.

In an open letter to U.S. President Bill Clinton the cheifs of approximately four hundred Amazonian tribes protested this unsurpassed impudence. "To patent our medicine which we have inherited over many generations is an attack on the culture of our people and the entire humanity," declared Valerio Grefa, the speaker of the confederation of the Indian organization of the Amazon basin.

Fortunately, the patent was rejected in 1999. But certainly the conquest is not over yet.

Text: Witchcraft Medicine: Healing Arts, Shamanic Practices, And Forbidden Plants. Claudia Muller-Ebeling, Christian Ratsch, and Wolf-Dieter Storl.