Vegetative value: promissory horizons of therapeutic innovation in the global circulation of ayahuasca

Abstract

Ayahuasca is a herbal brew that is widespread in Indigenous Upper Amazon and has undergone global expansion in the last decade. As it is taken up in an ever-growing range of ritual or experimental practices questions of authority, authenticity, propriety or safety become acute. This case allows us to interrogate contemporary processes of value-making as radically different and highly stratified values encounter each other, on the brink of a possible pharmaceuticalization of ayahuasca. I argue that ayahuasca is not fully captured by the value logics of capital and examine the ways in which its promissory dimensions, global circulation and entry into practices of biomedical evidence-making position it in an ambiguous space that is nevertheless not entirely outside the logics of capital. The circuits of ayahuasca’s valorization reveal a complex coproduction of value that makes strategic use of various scales, sites and situations. The article examines the promissory horizon of extra-pharmacological value identified as key to understanding the efficacy of psychedelic substances such as ayahuasca. It then attends to the extraction of value from plants before closing with a reflexion on the politics of inclusion in the discussions that frame ayahuasca’s value globally.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    The first (2014) and third (2019) of these events were held in Spain while the second (2016) brought together some 600 Indigenous leaders, ritual specialists, anthropologists, historians, psychologists, legal scholars, clinicians, artists, and enthusiasts gathered in the Amazonian city of Rio Branco, Brazil.

  2. 2.

    Conference program and recordings available at https://chacruna.net/psychedelic-liberty-summit/ (accessed 8th July 2020).

  3. 3.

    For reasons of space, and in consideration of ethical questions regarding the uncertain legal status of these market operations, I do not engage an analysis of how the markets for plant materials themselves engage or disrupt the value logics of capital.

  4. 4.

    http://www.theonion.com/article/ayahuasca-shaman-dreading-another-week-guiding-tec-52941 (accessed 6th April 2017).

  5. 5.

    Further details available here: https://maps.org/research/mdma/ptsd/phase3 (accessed 8th July 2020).

  6. 6.

    The study is a neuropharmacological experiment into changes in the brain blood flow, electrical activity and network communication patterns of research subjects under the influence of the psychedelic compound LSD. It revealed, experimentally, a series of patterns in subjects’ brain structure that account for the therapeutic potential of psychedelic compounds which are understood to trigger hyper-emotional and imaginative states conducive to a “re-setting”.

  7. 7.

    Source: https://investingnews.com/daily/life-science-investing/psychedelics-investing/ways-to-invest-in-psychedelics/ other examples: https://www.fool.com/investing/2020/02/29/forget-cannabis-psychedelic-medicine-is-the-better.aspx (both accessed 8th July 2020).

  8. 8.

    33% of the patients in placebo arm believed they were in the active arm of the trial, two even vomited and one had diarrhoea.

  9. 9.

    For a study on the variability of the chemical composition of ayahuasca brews see Kaasik et al. (2020).

  10. 10.

    These are translations from my hand written notes, not exact transcripts as recording in this vast auditorium was near impossible.

  11. 11.

    Interestingly, the Third World Ayahuasca Conference was held in Spain and although the conference organizers opened space for an autonomous Indigenous delegation, this had the unwitting effect of positioning Indigenous questions outside the main conference stages. The Indigenous declaration is accessible here: https://www.ayaconference.com/declaration-by-the-indigenous-peoples-and-nations-of-the-amazon-basin/

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Acknowledgements

This research was made possible by generous support from the ERC Starting Grant no. 757589 “HealingEncounters” based at CERMES3 (Université de Paris, EHESS, CNRS). I am grateful to the participants of the Making of Pharmaceutical Value: Drugs, Diseases and the Political Economies of Global Health workshop held in Paris in June 2016, in particular Thomas Cousins, Jean-Paul Gaudillière, Kristin Peterson and Kaushik Sunder Rajan. Special thanks to Piera Talin and Clayton França for the discussions that took root in Rio Branco, and to Joseph Dumit for the all the inspiring conversations that have shaped my thinking; as well as to the three anonymous reviewers who provided valuable—no pun intended—feedback on earlier versions of the argument.

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Sanabria, E. Vegetative value: promissory horizons of therapeutic innovation in the global circulation of ayahuasca. BioSocieties (2021). https://doi.org/10.1057/s41292-020-00222-4

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Keywords

  • Ayahuasca
  • Value
  • Brazil
  • Mental health
  • Evidence
  • RCT
  • Pharmaceuticalization