Health Canada has granted three more special exemptions to religious groups to allow them to import ayahuasca, a tea that contains hallucinogens that are banned in Canada and the U.S., Global News has learned.
That brings the total number of ayahuasca exemptions to five, according to Health Canada.
The exemptions allow the religious groups to freely practise their main sacrament without legal infringement. They will also pave the way for researchers to study the effects — and potential benefits — of ayahuasca.
The first two ayahuasca exemptions were granted to groups in Montreal in 2017, as reported by VICE last year.
Since then, three new applicants have received their own exemptions, which last for two years and are renewable. The three new exemptions were granted to 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.
Canada’s federal health agency has the ability to exempt people and substances from aspects of the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act for medical, scientific or public interest purposes. Ayahuasca is brewed from plants that contain the prohibited hallucinogens harmaline and dimethyltryptamine, otherwise known as DMT.
Jessica Rochester, president of Céu do Montreal, which obtained one of the first two ayahuasca exemptions in 2017, told Global News it was the first time such an exemption was granted for religious purposes. She said it took more than 15 years to complete the process due to a number of hurdles.
In spiritualistic settings, a shaman will typically provide ayahuasca, which can induce vomiting and hallucinations. These types of rituals have been carried out in the Amazon for centuries by Indigenous peoples. The Santo Daime church was founded in the Brazilian Amazon in the 1930s. It combines different religious traditions, including aspects of shamanism and Christianity.
“These exemptions provide the aforementioned 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.
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Rochester said she has formed a medical and scientific advisory committee to support local and international research into ayahuasca use.
She said that she would encourage any group offering unregulated ayahuasca to go through the exemption process to become legitimate and that she is wary of groups that have not done so.
“Many of us in the field are concerned about ‘ayahuasca tourism,’” Rochester told Global News. “The main problem is that the human species wants to feel better now.”
“People grab onto what looks like the nearest fix,” she said.
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Brian Rush, an addictions researcher at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto, has been evaluating a treatment program in Peru that uses ayahuasca, which is legal there. He said there’s robust research that shows how ayahuasca can help people deal with health concerns such as depression and addiction.
“It opens that window into repressed emotions and feelings and memories,” Rush told Global News. “The therapeutic benefits seem to be there.”
However, Rush is concerned about the unregulated ceremonies that he said are “all over the place” and warns that people who have a history with mental health issues such as psychosis should avoid it. But overall, he is hopeful about its effectiveness.
“This is not like people doing acid at a rave. Something helpful is going on,” Rush said. “People are getting benefits, and we don’t exactly understand how or why. We need to do more.”