Vancouver physician Gabor Maté – the subject of a recent CBC documentary on his use of the Amazonian plant medicine ayahuasca to treat addicts – has drawn the wrath of Health Canada. Facing threats of criminal prosecution if he didn't stop immediately, Dr. Maté has complied, of course. But he has said he will seek an exemption to continue with his treatments.
Putting aside for the moment all the legal and public policy issues that surround the use of a psychotropic medicine, we shouldn't lose sight of the larger context. We have to ask ourselves how open we are as a society to other modes of healing – especially from cultures so far from our own.
Ayahuasca is a sacred shamanic medicine from the Amazon, used for centuries by indigenous and mestizo peoples to heal all manner of psychological and spiritual ills. It has, in the past few decades, found its way out of the Amazon into ceremonial use throughout the Western world. Used in the right context and guided by experienced practitioners, it is achieving impressive success in alleviating suffering from addictions, depression and several other psycho-spiritual afflictions.
We know that many of our most sophisticated medicines in the West have their origins in the indigenous knowledge of plants. We have no trouble with that.
In fact, pharmaceutical companies are always scouring the rain forests for new plant medicines that, with a genetic twist, they can turn into patented products. Nature's cornucopia is vast, but it's the knowledge of how to use these plant medicines that is the wisdom and strength of the indigenous shaman. It would be the height of arrogance and ignorance on our part not to recognize the scientific knowledge accumulated over millenniums from people who are not Western.
Ayahuasca is an astonishing brew made from two different plants that don't even grow anywhere near one another. Its creation is a feat of extraordinary pharmacological inventiveness – especially when you consider there are more than 80,000 different plant species to choose from. The knowledge of how to use ayahuasca is passed down through apprentices, and some of these apprentices are now from the West. With the arrival of ayahuasca, the Western medicine cabinet has just expanded, and we shouldn't lose the opportunity to learn more about its benefits.
In fact, the vast majority of Westerners who drink ayahuasca either in the Amazon or abroad are not going for addiction treatments: They are seeking self-knowledge. They are more spiritual pilgrims than medical patients. Traditional ayahuasca ceremonies provide the safe and guided context to enter into an expanded state of awareness where participants lift the veil on ordinary reality – freed temporarily from the ceaseless chatter of the busy mind – and experience a deeper connection to the world around them. For many, this leads to a spiritual epiphany, a state of being described as "ineffable," what religious people would call a mystical experience.
Well, that's powerful medicine, by anyone's standards.
At the core of all Twelve-Step programs for any addiction, it is the spiritual connection to a "higher power" that is the ultimate key to sobriety. Ayahuasca is ultimately a plant-based technology of the sacred and must be used with great care and respect because it allows people to access the most vulnerable and precious part of themselves – their true natures. Historically, we have always seen this as an area of religious inquiry, and we find it hard to imagine it could be available through indigenous knowledge of nature's own pharmacy.
To be fair to Health Canada, they have opened the door a crack in this regard.
They have already granted a conditional exemption for the "sacramental" use of ayahuasca for a Montreal chapter of the Brazilian religion called Santo Daime. But that's because the burden of proof for a religious exemption is lower than that required for "medical" use – years of scientific testing, double-blind studies etc.
So I wonder, just wonder, if Dr. Maté and his shamanic practitioners were to present their case to Health Canada as a sacramental use of ayahuasca, might they have a better chance of receiving an exemption? The centuries of shamanic use of ayahuasca within the Vegetalismo tradition has been recognized by the Peruvian government as part of the national heritage.
But that could put Dr. Maté in a tricky position, since he could no longer be the medical doctor offering therapeutic help, but more of a priestly figure offering spiritual guidance. That, of course, is what shamans and good doctors are supposed to be – healers of body, mind and spirit, the whole person. I notice Dr. Maté always wears black.
Richard Meech is an award-winning documentary filmmaker whose film, Vine of the Soul: Encounters with Ayahuasca , was released in 2010.