Canada has been a primary hub for progressive drug policy and research for some years now (cannabis legalization), and with the psychedelic industry in full swing, it’s no surprise to see they are dominating that sector as well. Canada’s federal health agency has the power to exempt people, groups and substances from having to abide by the country’s Controlled Drugs and Substances Act, and over the last few years, they have been granting exemptions to various religious groups for the use of ayahuasca in their ceremonies. Additionally, in March of this year, they granted approval to an R&D company to begin studying ayahuasca and other psychedelics.
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What is Ayahuasca?
Although the history and background of ayahuasca is a bit mysterious, we do know that it has been used both ceremoniously and medicinally for a very long time, and now, it’s experiencing a surge in western culture and has been the topic of quite a bit of research and medical testing as of late. Because it’s naturally occurring, and since it is produced by the human body, it has long had a very significant connection to human culture.
Evidence of ayahuasca use in shamanic ceremonies dates back over 1,000 years – a practice that is still continued to this day. Artwork from the Chavin people of Peru frequently depicted shamans using various psychoactive plants. Today, ayahuasca retreats (most of which still take place in South America) are becoming increasingly sought-after as a way to open one’s mind, treat mental illness, and resolve past trauma.
Ayahuasca is a tea made from combining two specific plants: Psychotria viridis and the Banisteriopsis caapi vine. Both plants have psychoactive effects on their own, but when combined, the DMT content from the Psychotria virdis is activated by the harmala alkaloids found in the Banisteriopsis caapi vine. DMT (chemical name: Dimethyltryptamine) is a powerful, naturally occurring hallucinogenic that is very abundant throughout nature, found in many plants and animals, including humans. DMT is a type of chemical known as a tryptamine, which refers to a family of hallucinogenic compounds. LSD, psilocin and psilocybin, mescaline, and many other psychedelics fall into the tryptamine category.
DMT can also be synthesized, and in countries where less DMT-producing plants are known to grow (much of Europe for instance), synthetic DMT is more common. Whether natural or synthetic, DMT is known to give users a short (roughly 15-30 minutes) but very intense trip that is often spiritual in nature – described by many as life-changing, and the most intense trip of their lives.
Leniency for Religious Use
Over the last few years, Canada has been quietly granting more and more special exemptions to religious groups who want to import the ingredients needed for Ayahuasca brews to use in their ceremonies. The exemptions allow for religious groups and churches to practice their main sacrament without fear of legal repercussions – a right that has been denied to many people for decades.
“These exemptions provide the applicant’s designated members, senior members and registrants with the authority to possess, provide, transport, import, administer and destroy Daime Tea (ayahuasca), as applicable, when carrying out activities related to their religious practice,” Health Canada spokesperson Maryse Durette wrote in an email to Global News. “Details of the exemptions, such as policies and procedures related to the use of Daime tea, are private and confidential to the applicants,” Durette added.
The first two ayahuasca exemptions were granted to Montreal-based religious groups in in 2017. Since then, a handful of other applicants including the Ceu da Divina Luz do Montreal, the Église Santo Daime Céu do Vale de Vida in Val-David, Que., and the Ceu de Toronto, have received their own exemptions. The exempt status lasts for two years and is renewable, but it can take years, and sometimes decades to work through the system. Jessica Rochester, president of Céu do Montreal which was one of the first two applicant approvals, said it took more than 15 years to complete the process due to “a number of hurdles”.
By the end of 2020, Health Canada has granted six federal exemptions for churches in Montreal, Toronto, and Winnipeg to allow them to import and use ayahuasca – and we can certainly expect this number to grow over the coming years. “We were not open to new members until now because without an exemption it was illegal to import, possess and serve the Daime Tea in Canada,” said a spokesperson for Winnipeg Centre for Universal Illumination Luz Divina. “Now things have changed for us, we will begin our calendar of ceremonies again.”
Research on the Horizon
In March of this year, Numinus Wellness became the first company to receive approval from Health Canada to begin studying Ayahusaca brews from the following botanical materials: Banisteriopsis caapi, Psychotria viridis, Diplopterys cabrerana, and Mimosa tenuiflora (as well as San Pedro cactus, a legal source of mescaline), at their licensed, state-of-the-art research facility in British Columbia. Numinous is already working on various psilocybin projects, and they believe this move will position the company as a global leader in psychedelic research.
With their new licensing agreement, Numinus Wellness will be the first company in Canada to receive approval for various activities related to psychedelics including possession, analytical testing, production, assembly, sale, export and delivery.
“Many naturally occurring psychedelic compounds have already been in traditional use for millennia,” Numinus Wellness CEO Payton Nyquvest said in a statement. “These amendments honour and build on those practices while allowing us to do novel clinical research and deepen the body of scientific data for scaled development and greater public access to much-needed therapies,” he added.
Although it’s a step in the right direction, some advocates argue that this is nothing more than a “stopgap measure”. Spencer Hawkswell, the CEO of TheraPsil, a B.C.-based non-profit that helps Canadians access psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy, mentions that “We’ve been yelling in the streets for the last few years that this is too little too late. But it truly is. So as happy as some of us are, we need more, and medical regulations are that answer.”
Regardless, as abysmal as regulations and exemptions have been up until this point, there’s nowhere to go but up. In the United States, the Native American Church has a similar exemption allowing members to cultivate and possess peyote for ceremonial purposes. Aside from that, no other religious, research-based, or end-of-life exemptions have been granted, so it will be interesting to see if we follow suit with Canada and start opening the floodgates for psychedelic research and other practical uses in the states as well.
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