🫠 Psychonaut POV

[5-min read] Q&A with Bia Labate, Anthropologist & Director

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Bia Labate is psychedelic researcher—but not the kind that studies neurons or receptors. As an anthropologist, she just wants to understand people and their culture. Today, she and her non-profit, Chacruna Institute, advocate for “psychedelic justice” and religious freedom to keep that culture alive.

We asked Bia about protecting sacred plants and traditions, how to gauge the integrity of an ayahuasca center, and recommendations for anyone thinking about starting a psychedelic church.

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Bia Labate Psychonaut POV
How did you first get involved in plant medicine and social justice, and what led you to found the Chacruna Institute?

My interest in plant medicines goes back to my personal experiences with psychedelics when I was young and backpacking around the world. I tried mushrooms and peyote in Mexico, and then LSD, and eventually ayahuasca, which became a huge passion. I've always been curious about different cultures and ways of being.

One thing led to another through my travels, research, and bringing people together. In 1997, I organized a pioneering conference in Brazil on the ritual use of ayahuasca. The event led to the creation of an influential book that became a sort of Bible on the topic.

Years later, the Chacruna Institute started as a blog making academic knowledge more accessible through shorter, catchier articles. But it grew into a non-profit with different programs continuing my lifelong interests in sacred plants, drug policy, and indigenous shamanism. Social justice took on new importance when I moved to the US.

We started creating discussions around gender, race, and psychedelics, or what we call “psychedelic justice.” Our trilogy of books—Psychedelic Justice, Queering Psychedelics, and Women in Psychedelics—was published to elevate the voices of minorities and reshape mainstream narratives.

Today, Chacruna has programs focused on psychedelic justice, indigenous reciprocity through small grants, and protecting sacred plants and traditions. We also provide harm reduction education as these medicines globalize, as well as resources on religious freedom and best practices for psychedelic churches.

As an anthropologist and a Brazilian, what concerns do you have around the increasing global demand for ayahuasca?

One major concern around the increasing global demand for ayahuasca is safety. There are many practitioners who aren't properly trained, don't come from legitimate lineages, and are basically opportunists without real connections to grounded communities. This opens the door for issues like sexual abuse, which unfortunately has propagated across ayahuasca circles as we've seen.

Legality is another big concern, as ayahuasca is regulated differently in various countries. Practitioners sometimes misrepresent the legal status to sell their services more eagerly. People, especially those who don’t speak English well, can get caught at airports, have sacrament shipments seized, and face legal troubles.

Conservation of the ayahuasca vine itself is a challenge, too. There’s overharvesting in some areas and uncontrolled growth becoming invasive in others. There's real predation of the species happening.

Then you have the broader issue of commodification, turning ayahuasca into an objectified product and disconnecting it from its roots. A lot of inequality emerges, like Western entrepreneurs charging in dollars but paying locals in cheap local currency. Indigenous people end up as the "maids" at these foreign-run retreats, having no power over their own rituals.

Then, the rituals themselves get bastardized to suit those consumer appetites. Ayahuasca becomes just another flashy internet icon, banalizing something sacred and rich with meaning.

Now I don't mean to sound totally negative. There is incredible potential for healing in ayahuasca's globalization, too. But those are some of my biggest concerns from an anthropological perspective.

What steps can people take before sitting with ayahuasca to avoid contributing to these issues?

When choosing an ayahuasca retreat, ask questions to ensure ethical and sustainable practices. For example, what are the local customs for compensating the ayahuasca providers? Is the wellbeing of participants prioritized over financial motivations? How are retreats advertised? Do they make unrealistic promises or engage in aggressive marketing? Is there a sliding scale or scholarships to ensure accessibility?

Ask about the relationships with local indigenous communities. Are they in positions of power and have a real voice, or just tokenized? While it's difficult to know if they are being paid fairly, you can also ask about the training, experience, and lineages of the facilitators, as well as the sourcing and sustainability of the ayahuasca itself. Are they supporting environmental projects or giving back to local communities?

When it comes to the ayahuasca supply chain, I like to know who cooked it and its origins, as ayahuasca is a form of relationship. However, the real threat is larger-scale environmental destruction and deforestation in the Amazon. Interestingly, areas with indigenous presence can have higher biodiversity than untouched areas, as they practice sustainable management. We have much to learn from their worldviews that don't see humans as superior to nature.

You’ve defended the religious use of ayahuasca in some high-profile legal battles. Where do psychedelic churches stand today in the eyes of the US government?

The landscape of psychedelic churches in the US is rapidly evolving and hard to keep track of. The US system of federal, state, and local governments adds complexity because different rules can emerge in each state. But so far, there have been at least five notable legal cases involving ayahuasca churches challenging the DEA, with mixed success.

A core issue is the circularity in gaining legal religious status for psychedelic use. You're legal if you're a recognized religion, but mentioning Schedule I substances in your IRS application leads to denial. Two ayahuasca churches, Santo Daime and União do Vegetal, have secured limited rights federally due to their well-established history in Brazil. But it's harder for practices like shamanism that don't fit mainstream religious criteria.

The Church of the Eagle and the Condor case could set an important precedent for non-Christian syncretic contemporary ayahuasca expressions. Chacruna has supported their efforts through awareness-raising, network-building, and fundraising. Meanwhile, all sorts of dubious "psychedelic churches" are popping up, prompting legitimate concerns about charlatanism and abuse.

[Editor’s note: Since this conversation, the CEC settled its lawsuit with several federal agencies and secured the right to import and serve ayahuasca as a sacrament.]

Fundamentally, there's a clash between drug laws aimed at protecting public health and safety, and the constitutional right to religious freedom. Regulators treat psychedelics as dangerous hazards, completely at odds with the reverence held by those who use them sacramentally.

Groups like Chacruna are fighting to shift these antiquated attitudes through public education, legal analysis, and collaborative efforts like the Sacred Plant Alliance, an organization Chacruna incubated. But much more well-funded infrastructure is needed to properly support this burgeoning psychedelic ecosystem. We've got a lot of work ahead of us.

Would you offer any advice to our readers who might be considering either starting or joining a church?

My key advice for those starting or joining a psychedelic church is to be grounded in community. Don't go solo. Build your organization slowly with solid foundations. Work within the current systems to create proper legal and operational structures. Have a lawyer, clear ethics and boundaries, and ways for members to give feedback and report issues.

Connect with the originating traditions and lineages of your practices. Engage in reciprocity and get the blessings of your teachers. Prioritize safety, best practices, and sensitivity to medicine interactions. Invest in conservation and environmentally-mindful projects. Document your beliefs and practices, and consider it a rich opportunity, not just a bureaucratic burden.

But beyond the legal and logistical considerations, I believe the most important thing is culture. Everybody wants to donate to medicine or legal defense, but cultural awareness is the big gap. We need to cultivate our roots for real change.

These sacred plants and fungi must be understood as legitimate parts of our culture, not just something exotic and remote. They are integral to our land, people, identity, art, medicine, celebration, and the transmission of knowledge. We have to create space for them in society and stop the stigma, criminalization, and shallow reductionism. So let's bring these practices into our communities with respect, humility, gratitude and a deep sense of service.

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DISCLAIMER: This newsletter is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as a substitute for professional medical advice. The use, possession, and distribution of psychedelic drugs are illegal in most countries and may result in criminal prosecution.

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