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    Sacred Medicine on Trial: The Ongoing Legal Battle for Claude Bauchet and Ayahuasca in France


    ICEERS | 31 May 2024

    Claude Bauchet is a key figure in the Santo Daime community in France. He has faced significant legal challenges since 2005 when ayahuasca was classified as a controlled substance by the French Ministry of Interior. Despite the lack of evidence supporting its classification as a narcotic, Claude Bauchet was arrested again in 2019 and is now facing multiple charges. ICEERS has been offering legal support for his court case to advocate for the recognition of religious freedoms and traditional plant medicine practices. This case not only highlights the complexities of drug policies but also emphasizes the broader issues of human rights and religious freedom in modern society. Natalia Rebollo and Sarah Russo of ICEERS got together to discuss the case and its implications for international law and the plant medicine community.

    This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity. 

    Hello, everyone. I’m Sarah, a writer and herbologist working with ICEERS. I’m here with Natalia, who is the coordinator of the Legal Defense Program at ICEERS. She’s going to tell us a bit about a current case that the organization is working on that is super significant. Natalia, would you provide an overview of the current legal situation of Santo Daime in France?

    Natalia: Back in 2005, ayahuasca was scheduled as a controlled substance, a narcotic drug, by the Ministry of Interior. It was a Santo Daime case that Claude Bauchet was also involved in. And Claude Bauchet was arrested again in 2019. France was the first place in the world where ayahuasca was scheduled as a controlled substance. Now after five years, the court trial has finally been scheduled for June 4, next Tuesday. The charges against Claude Bauchet are, first of all, endangering the life of others with immediate risk of death, unauthorized transport of narcotics, possession of narcotics, offering distribution of narcotics, and the importation and use of narcotics. There are five charges that Claude Bauchet is facing next week. What’s complicated about the situation is that ayahuasca is a controlled substance in France. This is a very different scenario that we’re facing, as opposed to other countries where DMT is scheduled, but not ayahuasca. This is a very complex legal challenge.

    You’ve been working on this case for a long time now and ICEERS has been involved for a while. Can you explain the scientific and regulatory background that led to this classification and how this impacts religious practices involving ayahuasca?

    In 2005, the Ministry of Interior classified ayahuasca as a narcotic. They based this decision on a report made by the Ministry of Interior, where they consider the Santo Daime to be a sect (cult). They also stated ayahuasca poses a danger to public health, without considering all the available scientific evidence — more than 100 research papers that are published in very respected platforms in the scientific arena. This is a perfect example of how often public policy is not based on scientific evidence. ICEERS has supported the Claude Bauchet case with two main arguments. First of all, there’s no risk to public health. The second one is how a state can just consider what is religious freedom or not. This case will be very important because a judge will have the opportunity to discern what is necessary to guarantee freedom of thought, consciousness, and religion as the foundation of a democratic society. And what is considered a danger to public health without any evidence-based decision. So this is the main, crucial point of the Claude Bauchet case.

    It’s important to know that two procedures are going on at this moment. The first one is the Claude Bauchet criminal case and his freedom. The second one is with ICEERS where we demanded that the French state or government have an administrative process saying they need to reconsider and reschedule ayahuasca with the evidence that is available at the international level. The relationship between the principle of equality and non-discrimination is also a very important point and the foundation of this court case. It is, of course, very important at the European and international levels. France scheduled ayahuasca as a controlled substance, being the first country in the world to do it. Then Italy followed the path of prohibitionism without taking into consideration the available evidence. This is the story of how ayahuasca got scheduled in France. It goes back to 2005 but is a perfect example of how states and governments are not basing their decisions on evidence. This is something that as a democratic society, we need to start demanding. It not only involves drug policies but also other human rights.

    You touched on this a bit, but what are some of the key arguments and scientific research that ICEERS will bring to the French Ministry regarding their stance on ayahuasca?

    First of all, ayahuasca does not cause addiction, which is the main concern of the French government. Governments tend to believe that these substances cause addiction. There are a lot of research papers and evidence, in addition to all the ancestral evidence that we have that this substance is safe. Ayahuasca does not cause an addiction, there’s no tolerance. Whenever there’s a safe environment, these substances are quite safe. They can actually help treat addiction. There’s a lot of evidence that we’ve generated from ICEERS and many other colleagues in the scientific field, especially with the Santo Daime. Santo Daime practitioners are demonstrating that they have improved health indicators. This is health in the broader concept, not only health as opposed to illness. But rather how do we affirm ourselves in life. And which spiritual practice do you have and how does that affect the relationship with health. There’s a lot of scientific evidence around this. The legal part that I will be deliberating in the court, is that Brazil has had regulation for Santo Daime as a religious practice since the 90s. It is a cultural practice as well as a religious practice. How we define religion is also something that will be crucial, especially in a state that feels entitled to define what is or isn’t considered a sincere practice. A sectarian argument is very delicate. When a state can arbitrarily consider what is and isn’t a sect, it’s a very dangerous threshold to not determine between human rights and public health. I think the judge will have this opportunity to balance the limits of risk restriction and human rights.

    It’s interesting how much this case is reflective of the issues that we’re facing with the globalization of plant medicine and how one culture might consider and respect it as sacred. And in other cultures, it’s a dangerous drug, as is the case in France. In what ways does Claude Bauchet’s situation highlight the broader issues of religious freedom and human rights?

    The broader right is freedom of consciousness, and religious freedom is part of this consciousness. I think this case crystallizes the colonial thinking of just imposing what is and isn’t considered a sincere religion. It’s what Vandana Shiva would call the “monoculture of the mind.” Where can we fit under the umbrella of multiculturalism or pluralism in consciousness? Where does that fit in the state where professionalism is the general rule? In drug policy, we were able to revert this colonial thinking with court cases. It’s through the judicial system that we’re able to challenge colonial thinking. This case illustrates how states and governments are normally bringing this monoculture of the mind into how one should behave. This is a perfect opportunity to show the colonial and paternalistic approach and that we’re being forced into monoculture. Pluralism is crucial in the pyramid of a democratic society.

    I love the expression “monoculture of the mind.” As anybody who wants to support the decolonization of these structures, and move towards a different, more evolved mindset — what challenges do you see in the process of reevaluating the legal status of ayahuasca?

    It’s always about the monoculture of the mind and imposing what a state considers normal, or how one should behave, and not respecting the frontier of the skin. It is what Michel Foucault would call “life cultures” or “life policies.” Even when we put all of our efforts into the scientific, legal, cultural, religious, and consciousness fields, there’s always this barrier whenever we’re confronting the state. I think it creates public policies that are not evidence-based. This is the most important challenge that we will face. Sometimes we put in all of our efforts. We demonstrate the scientific evidence and bring a legal piece. But very often, public policies come from this monoculture and colonial thinking. This is the main challenge. Sometimes even with our efforts, we’re not able to revert this. It’s a process, a human process. We need to trust that we’re in the process of bringing back this pluralism of the mind. And that the states are complying with our international obligations to respect freedom of religion and consciousness and opening the mind to what is considered sincere practice.

    Thanks for your insights, I hold that vision. Is there anything else that you’d like to share?

    This legal case will be very important, and not only at the European level. It’s the first court case where we’re facing that ayahuasca is a controlled substance where Psychotria viridis and Banisteriopsis caapi (ayahuasca) are in the law. This will be a very important court case at the international level because we know these drug policy strategies are always interconnected. States find inspiration in other court case decisions, not only for prohibitionism, but also maybe opening to the possibility of bringing a new way of understanding law, religion, and culture. This invites the government to leave behind this suspicious argument of substances where plant medicines have been used ancestrally. But we’re here in 2024 with the same challenge. We have evidence. We have all the legal parts. We have international legal instruments, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and the European Covenant of Human Rights. We have a lot of jurisprudence around religious freedom. And once again, we’re stuck in prohibitionism and this illusion of how the states feel entitled to regulate or bring prohibitionism to our consciousness. This is a very important court case and an opportunity for the collective to hold space, not only for Claude but also for the collective and international movement.

    We’ll be sharing updates on how things go. And good luck in the court case coming up.

    Thank you so much. Also, Claude has a platform if you want to support his legal challenge. He’s an elder. He’s been fighting this with his life since 2005. Claude has been a teacher for me and also in the legal field. He says, “Whenever a law doesn’t make sense in the heart, we are obliged to disobey.” That’s her [ayahuasca]. That’s her integrity. That’s our impeccability in how we relate to laws. Sometimes laws have been passed through a parliamentary process and so on. But that doesn’t mean they are fair. Claude has been a man that I look up to and admire so much. He’s been called to civil disobedience. Claude is not only an elder in the religious and consciousness field but also in the legal field. He’s been standing very much in his integrity. He invites us to question the laws. Just because they’re written and passed through the parliamentary process doesn’t mean that we’re obliged to comply. This is honoring Claude’s process as a human being and how he stands in integrity with his medicine.

    May this work in the process help bring ease to more compassionate laws for people in all parts of the world. There are also various resources on the ICEERS website about the legal defense program that we have going and Natalia’s work in Mexico. You may learn more via the links below:

    Further Resources


    Categories: NEWS , ADF
    Tags: ayahuasca , Santo Daime , Ayahuasca Defense Fund , interview , France