Legal status of ayahuasca (Yagé) in Colombia

So far, we have no specialized study on the legal situation related to the consumption and trade of Ayahuasca in Colombia, unlike the Brazilian, European and United States cases. This note aims to introduce three primary sources on the subject, in the hope that they can encourage the realization of research on the subject.

In Colombia, the legislation that is indirectly applied to the consumption and trade of Ayahuasca is related to the legislation applied to indigenous peoples, in the absence of a norm directly intended for Ayahuasca. For this reason, the sources presented here have been produced by indigenous authorities. It is, first of all, a certificate issued by the traditional administration of a community belonging to the Kamëntsá Biyá indigenous people, near the town of Santiago de Sibundoy. Along with Mocoa, Santiago is one of the two urban centers where Colombians and foreigners go in search of the Ayahuasca in the department of Putumayo, the gateway to the Colombian Amazon.

The beneficiary of the certificate is the taita Juan Mutumbajo and Jacanamijoy, who has a healing center and other community projects, called “Wairasacha Community Company of Tamabioy” in Sibundoy, high Putumayo. The authority that issues the certificate is a “cabildo,” an administrative entity imposed by the Spaniards in the “republics of Indians,” which has had a long history since then. Suffice it to say here that this colonial entity was appropriated by indigenous peoples and organizations, and today it is one of the institutional bases that allows the exercise of the right to internal self-determination of indigenous peoples in Colombia.

In the heading of the certificate issued by the council is cited Convention 169 of the ILO, the most binding international instrument in respect of respect for indigenous rights by the states. Also quoted is Law 89 of 1890, which is in force with revisions to this day. This law was part of an assimilating strategy in accordance with the indigenous policies in force during a large part of the 20th century. Despite its problems, this law recognizes the authority of the councils within the indigenous communities, and that is why since the 1970s it has been used by indigenous activists in Colombia to make their rights recognized to this day. Other norms cited in the record are the law 21 of 1991, by means of which the convention 169 of the ILO in the domestic legislation was adopted; article number seven of the National Constitution, which recognizes the pluri-ethnic and multicultural nature of the Colombian national project; finally, Law 291 of 2001, which regulates the participation of “ethnic groups” in the Colombian social security system.

The second and third documents that we present to the research community are two (1 and 2) “traditional doctor’s cards”, also granted by an indigenous authority. In this case, the documents were issued by a more general organization than the cabildo, called “Organization of the Indigenous Peoples of the Colombian Amazon” (OPIAC), which, according to its official website, represents the departments of Amazonas, Caqueta, Guaviare, Guanía, Putumayo and Vaupés, that is, the totality of the Colombian Amazon. Since in this case the issuing authority is not a chapter, there are other rules cited to validate the validity of the card. In the first place, the resolution that gave life to the OPIAC, signed in June 1995 by representatives of various Amazonian organizations, is cited. Secondly, the recognition that the Colombian State granted to OPIAC in September of the same year is cited, through a resolution of the General Division of Indigenous Affairs (DGAI), whose equivalent in Brazil would be the Fundação Nacional do Índio (FUNDI).

These cards belong to a couple of traditional doctors who have a healing center on the outskirts of Mocoa. The healing center is called “Ornoyaco”, which is also the name of an adjoining waterfall, known for some time as a tourist attraction of the region. The waterfall was resignified as a “sacred site”, home of taitas and animals that do not inhabit physical reality, conducive to flight and shamanic healing. The center is run by Taito Gregorio Castro and his wife Carmen Garreta-Chindoy, who also regularly run circuits around Colombia and Venezuela. The peculiarity of these traditional doctors is their teamwork that implies a gender division of work, which we can not develop here. Both Taita Gregorio Castro and his wife Carmen Garreta-Chindoy have these cards as doctors of the Inga people, which is the original town to which Carmen Garreta-Chindoy belongs by birth and her husband by adoption. Gregorio Castro also usually claims a Cofán inheritance, because his main teacher, Queta Tata Queta, comes from this indigenous people.

Both of the documents presented in this note can be requested by a police or military authority when traditional doctors transport ayahuasca from the production centers to the cities of the country. Given that many of the people who offer Ayahuasca in Colombia are not indigenous and do not have close ties with indigenous communities, it is common to observe a division of labor where some individuals produce the beverage (cooks) and others offer it in the cities, without any need of having to pass state controls. Although there is no official regulation in this regard, there are reports of confiscation of medicine by the authorities in the event of not presenting a document from an indigenous council or organization.

To this day, there are no regulations in Colombia that are explicitly dedicated to the medicine of Ayahuasca. Therefore, the issue is wrapped up in the more general question of indigenous peoples. At the moment, there is no actor in Colombia willing to develop a normative of Ayahuasca from the point of view of religious freedom, as is the case in Brazil and internationally. In terms of developing legislation specifically applied to Ayahuasca within an ethnic framework, we can only mention the existence of an indirectly related international instrument. This is the recent declaration, by UNESCO and thanks to the initiative of the Colombian State, the Gaia Amazonas Foundation and the indigenous communities involved, of the traditional knowledge of the jaguar shamans of Yuruparí as an intangible heritage of humanity.

The Yuruparí is a ceremony of the utmost importance among various peoples belonging to the Eastern Tukano linguistic family (Macuna, Barasano, Eduria, Tatuyo, Tuyuca, Itana and Carapana) that inhabit the department of Vaupés. The eminent anthropologist Reichel-Dolmatoff (1996) devoted an entire book to the subject, in addition to mentioning it elsewhere in his work. In 2010, Colombia recognized the Yurupari as the intangible cultural heritage of the nation (see original order here). The following year, in 2011, UNESCO recognized Yuruparí as an intangible heritage of humanity. Now, the Ayahuasca is a central element of the Yuruparí. As such, it is mentioned in the UNESCO text, and also on the website of the Heritage Directorate of the Colombian Ministry of Culture. Since the nomination as intangible heritage is applied to the whole cultural group, the Ayahuasca would be considered within the denomination of intangible heritage. This would approximate the Colombian case of the Peruvian case, where the knowledge of the Ayahuasca is considered as intangible heritage within an ethnic framework. However, there is no explicit desire to make ayahuasca itself an element of intangible heritage in the Colombian nation. It should also be mentioned that Colombia abstained from voting and has not ratified the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples of the UN of 2007, whose articles 24 and 31 deal with medicinal plants.

Consequently, we can affirm that Colombia has a legal vacuum with respect to ayahuasca, which is reflected in an academic vacuum on the same subject. Perhaps a way to start working on this issue is to collect documents and review the practices and initiatives that have been given so far, with respect to the regulation of the distribution and distribution of Ayahuasca. This in order to have materials to support the reflection on this subject in the future. We hope that the available sources can contribute to a similar process, perhaps by inviting researchers to share their findings to constitute a public archive on the network. It is important to emphasize that in Colombia the consumption and distribution of ayahuasca is legal.

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