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    Netherlands ayahuasca

    The Netherlands: Is Ayahuasca a Threat to Public Health?

    Carlos Suárez Álvarez and ICEERS | 10 October 2023

    In October 2019, the Dutch Supreme Court enacted a ban on the importation of ayahuasca, citing concerns for public health. During that year, the media highlighted three deaths purportedly linked to ayahuasca. When considering an additional three fatalities reported in previous years (in 2018, 2020, and 2022), the Netherlands emerged as the non-Amazonian nation with the highest number of reported deaths associated with ayahuasca. But to what extent can these deaths be attributed to the plant medicine? And what is the significance of these deaths when considering the total number of people taking ayahuasca within the country?

    Accounting for the Difference Between Ayahuasca and Anahuasca

    In the Netherlands, it is common for ceremonies to offer anahuasca, an ayahuasca analog made from plants sourced outside the Amazon, such as Peganum harmala and Mimosa hostilis. However, participants are often not informed of this difference and the medicine is often referred to as “ayahuasca” anyway. LIAAN (a Dutch association focused on education, harm reduction, and the creation of social cohesion in the ayahuasca field) recommended that our estimates address this important distinction.

    In collaboration with LIAAN, ICEERS estimated that approximately 120 facilitators served ayahuasca or anahuasca in 2019 (the complete survey methodology is detailed in the full report). These facilitators served around 37,000 doses of medicine that year, comprising 25,000 servings of ayahuasca and 12,000 servings of anahuasca. This translates to slightly over 12,000 individuals participating in ayahuasca or anahuasca ceremonies in 2019, constituting 0.08% of the population. Moreover, more than 60,000 individuals (0.42% of the population) had experienced ayahuasca at least once in their lifetime. These percentages closely mirror those observed in the Czech Republic (0.1% in the last year and 0.5% in their lifetime), Colombia (0.15% and 0.8%), and Brazil (0.12% and 0.37%).

    Ayahuasca Attributed Deaths?

    Published studies suggest that ayahuasca is safe for healthy individuals. Risk factors include cardiovascular problems, mixing ayahuasca with certain drugs (especially antidepressants), and a history of serious mental illness. Notably, no autopsy or toxicological analysis anywhere has linked ayahuasca to death by acute intoxication. So, what was the role of ayahuasca in the six deaths reported by the Dutch media?

    The first case, dating back to 2018, involved an individual named Emanuel. The headline that circulated on the digital platform RTL Nieuws read, “Ayahuasca trip leads to suicide: ‘My son thought he was being controlled by aliens.'” However, it’s important to note that there was no concrete evidence that Emanuel had ever tried ayahuasca. Even if he had, it would have been years prior to the suicide. Additionally, Emanuel struggled with severe mental health issues and took other substances. Thus, attributing his death to ayahuasca is purely speculative.

    In 2019, a Hungarian man took his own life a few days after participating in a retreat. According to the organizers at Inner Mastery, the company behind the retreat, the individual had only consumed iboga. In any case, determining the factors contributing to this tragedy requires a deep understanding of the person’s medical history and life circumstances. Another anonymous individual also passed away after attending an Inner Mastery retreat in the same year. However, the limited information available about these cases hinders us from forming any further hypotheses.

    In 2019, a third death occurred involving an individual named J. van de Hoek. He had participated in a retreat where he consumed ayahuasca, kambô, and Incilius alvarius over a span of three days. During this time, a violent struggle transpired between one of the organizers and J. van de Hoek, which could have potentially resulted in fatal injuries. The autopsy revealed the presence of other substances in his bloodstream, including cocaine, psilocin, THC, and benzodiazepines, in addition to ayahuasca. The exact cause of death could not be definitively determined.

    In 2020, a tragic homicide was reported. A man with limited experience with ayahuasca prepared the concoction and took it alone. This led to a psychotic crisis where he killed his roommate. In 2022, a woman named Tinne passed away after consuming a combination of tobacco juice, Banisteriopsis caapi tea (without DMT), and psilocybin mushrooms over several days. Tinne had previously participated in numerous retreats in the years leading up to her death. She also had sleep apnea.

    In conclusion, there is no direct evidence to attribute any of these deaths to ayahuasca. The autopsies did not confirm ayahuasca was the cause of these fatalities. It becomes evident that several of these tragic incidents could potentially have been prevented by upholding basic safety standards for retreat admission, providing adequate supervision during the experience, and offering post-experience integration support. LIAAN is actively advocating for the implementation of these improved practices within the ayahuasca community in the Netherlands.

    Ayahuasca: A Benefit for Public Health?

    Our research identified six deaths associated with ayahuasca consumption as reported by the Dutch media. Simultaneously, our estimates indicate that a significant number, at least 60,000 individuals in the Netherlands, have taken ayahuasca at some point in their lives. A study conducted by ICEERS, overseen by Maja Kohek and published in the Journal of Psychoactive Drugs, revealed that individuals participating in ayahuasca ceremonies in the Netherlands generally exhibit better physical and psychological health compared to the average population. Furthermore, this research did not find any evidence linking ayahuasca to adverse health effects. Quite the opposite, it suggested potential benefits for individuals grappling with substance abuse issues.

    According to the Global Survey of Ayahuasca Drinking (GSAD), an international survey led by the University of Melbourne, the average age of onset for individuals trying ayahuasca for the first time is 36 years. A significant majority (approximately 72%) of ayahuasca drinkers hold a university or postgraduate degree, with 65% occupying managerial positions or having liberal professions. An overwhelming 90% of ayahuasca consumption occurs within a ritual context and is guided by experienced facilitators. These findings illuminate the distinct demographics and contextual aspects of ayahuasca when compared to other psychedelics.

    Despite the positive perceptions of ayahuasca’s health benefits among those who partake in its ceremonies, the Dutch Supreme Court opted to prohibit it despite no epidemiological studies demonstrating its alleged harm. It’s important to recognize that the global “war on drugs” has had devastating consequences. Therefore, we advocate for an open and constructive dialogue between public administrations and organizations to establish educational and regulatory frameworks. This collaborative approach is essential for preventing future incidents and ensuring responsible practices in the Netherlands and beyond.

    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 , Netherlands , The Netherlands , death , consumption