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    Colombia yagé

    Colombia: Yagé Territory

    Carlos Suárez Álvarez and ICEERS | 11 October 2023

    Colombia, where the Amazonian medicine is known as yagé, has the highest prevalence of ayahuasca consumption among all countries with official surveys providing specific statistics. This heightened popularity is attributed to the ayahuasca practices within Indigenous communities and the support they have received at the institutional level. There is no specific legislation either permitting or prohibiting yagé in Colombia, but it has special cultural recognition.

    Other Amazonian countries such as Peru and Ecuador have established a small but thriving ayahuasca tourism industry.  The complex public safety issues in Colombia have given rise to the phenomenon of itinerant taitas (shamans) in traditional ayahuasca regions since the 1970s. These taitas travel across the country’s major cities to offer healing ceremonies.

    The Country with the Highest Prevalence of Ayahuasqueros in the World

    In Colombia, the prevalence of people taking ayahuasca (yagé) amounts to 0.8% of the general population, as reported by the 2019 National Survey on Psychoactive Substance Consumption (ENCSPA). This figure translates to eight out of every 1,000 people having experienced yagé at some point in their lives, which means approximately 300,000 Colombians have tried it. Notably, this consumption rate of 0.8% is the highest we observed in any country worldwide. For context, official surveys in Brazil indicate a rate of 0.37% of the population having tried ayahuasca at some point in their lives, while in Spain, it stands at 0.2% according to official data. In the Czech Republic, the rate is at least 0.5%. Please refer to the full report for a more in-depth analysis of these statistics.

    Furthermore, the ENCSPA data revealed that in 2019, 0.15% of Colombians (nearly 60,000 individuals) consumed yagé. It’s noteworthy that in the Putumayo department of Colombia, this figure is even more striking, with close to 20% of the population having tried it at least once. In Amazonian areas, this rate stands at 3%, significantly higher than the national average. The elevated prevalence in Putumayo can be attributed to the fact that many Indigenous communities in this department do not traditionally incorporate yagé into their medical practices or rituals.

    Socioeconomic Profile

    There generally exists a relatively balanced gender distribution among ayahuasca ceremony participants. Approximately 0.9% of the male population and 0.6% of the female population in Colombia have experienced yagé. In contrast, when it comes to other substances, 12.3% of males and 4.6% of females in Colombia have experimented with cannabis, while 3.4% of men and 0.9% of women have consumed cocaine. According to ENCSPA data, the average age that individuals of all genders first try yagé is 27 years. This age is notably higher than the onset of trying cannabis (18 years), cocaine (19 years), or ecstasy (20 years).

    The Global Survey of Ayahuasca Drinking (GSAD), an international survey led by the University of Melbourne, also provided specific insights into the demographics of people who consume yagé in Colombia. It’s important to note that we approached this information with caution because the sample in the survey is not entirely representative of the general population. This limitation stems from the way the survey was distributed, as it primarily reached individuals living in urban environments who were more accustomed to the internet and social networks. It was more challenging to reach rural populations where yagé originates and qualifies as a “traditional” practice. Nevertheless, the statistics indicated that around 70% of the surveyed individuals in Colombia held a university degree, and more than 60% had managerial positions or worked in liberal professions.

    Deaths Attributed to Yagé in Colombia

    As detailed in our comprehensive report, Colombia ranks third among countries with deaths attributed to ayahuasca in the media. Colombia has reported seven cases, trailing behind Peru with 17 cases and Brazil with nine. These deaths span the period from 2008 to 2021. However, it is crucial to highlight that, to date, no forensic examination or toxicological analysis has conclusively determined that ayahuasca caused death by acute intoxication. In the following analysis, we will explore whether ayahuasca played any role, even indirectly, in these deaths.

    Among the cases, the most extensively discussed and documented is that of the young British tourist, Henry Miller. In 2015, at the age of 19, he tragically passed away in the Kamentsá Biyá reservation near Mocoa after consuming yagé under the guidance of shaman Guillermo Mavisoy. Additionally, Miller reportedly ingested an infusion of Borrachero (Brugmansia sp.), which contains the toxic compound scopolamine, in an attempt to induce visions that had eluded him the previous night. Forensic information disclosed by the media attributed his death to scopolamine intoxication.

    In the cases of an anonymous woman (in Bogotá, 2008) and Jhon Willian Rangel Cano (in Buenaventura, 2014), both individuals had preexisting health issues. They experienced convulsions after taking yagé and subsequently passed away. José Alberto Renoga and Aldemar Mendoza died on the same night in 2011 after partaking in an ayahuasca ceremony with 150 other individuals in a rural location in the Santander region. Unfortunately, there is limited available information regarding the deaths of Juan Fredy Ruiz (2010, in Bogotá) and Armando Hurtado (2021, in Pasto).

    With the exception of the Henry Miller case, where the autopsy attributed the death to scopolamine intoxication, none of the other fatalities have been definitively explained by forensic examinations. Existing scientific studies suggest that yagé is generally safe when consumed by healthy individuals. Risk factors such as cardiovascular issues and the interaction with certain drugs have been identified. However, it remains unknown whether these factors played a role in any of these six deaths or if the yagé in these ceremonies contained additional ingredients beyond the traditional recipe of Banisteriopsis caapi and Psychotria viridis or Diplopterys cabrerana. It is possible that ceremony organizers were not adequately trained to work with these medicines or did not adhere to minimum safety standards during participant admission and care.

    Colombian taitas have been conducting ceremonies in major cities for several decades. These gatherings have attracted hundreds of thousands of participants from diverse social backgrounds. In a paradoxical twist, the Colombian government has never prohibited yagé despite being one of the most active countries in the “war on drugs.” Instead, it has provided considerable institutional support for ayahuasca’s cultural significance and role in traditional practices. The decision by the Dutch Supreme Court to ban ayahuasca in 2019, citing it as a “threat to public health,” appears unfounded as it has not been substantiated by scientific research or the experiences of traditional ayahuasca countries like Colombia.

    Read more about the findings in the Executive Summary of Ayahuasca, Global Consumption & Reported Deaths in the Media. You can request the full 196-page report (available only in Spanish) here

    Further Reading

    Four Million People Have Taken Ayahuasca Worldwide
    Ayahuasca Tourism In-Depth: Revealing the Who, How, and Where Ayahuasca, Global Consumption & Reported Deaths in the Media
    Health Status of Ayahuasca-Ceremony Participants in the Netherlands

    Photo by Wikimedia Commons.

    Categories: Ayadeath Report
    Tags: ayahuasca , death , consumption , Colombia