Since Grob and McKenna’s study in 1993, some limited research had been done on ayahuasca: Scientists had performed brain scans of ayahuasca users and administered freeze-dried ayahuasca in a lab. But no one had followed up on ayahuasca’s therapeutic potential. Thomas and his team were ready to continue the work.

The group set up in the tribe’s longhouse, a spacious wooden structure with a stove in the middle and straw on the floor. Twelve members were participating in the first ceremony, and that night, before they drank, Mate led them in conversation about their addictions.

“When they were talking about trauma, for many of them, that was the first time they ever shared that with anybody,” Mate says. “They were entering into deep pain.”

In a greenhouse at the University of Minnesota, Dennis McKenna tends to one of two key plants used to prepare ayahuasca
Emily Utne
In a greenhouse at the University of Minnesota, Dennis McKenna tends to one of two key plants used to prepare ayahuasca

Before the retreat, Thomas and his team administered psychiatric evaluations to measure the twelve participants on factors such as hope, quality of life, mindfulness and emotional regulation. After the ceremony, researchers repeated the tests -- first two weeks later, then four weeks, then once per month for half a year.

The results, which they published in June in the journal Current Drug Abuse Reviews, came back promising. Alcohol, tobacco and cocaine use decreased among the participants. On the psychological surveys, the subjects’ quality-of-life scores increased, as did the ratings for mindfulness, empowerment, outlook and hopefulness.

At the six-month mark, the team also interviewed eleven of the study participants and asked them to rate the experience on a scale from one to ten. The mean response came back at 7.95. One thirty-year-old man told the researchers, “With my last experience with the ayahuasca, I really faced myself. Like, my fear, my anger. Which, really, I think is a big part of my addictions.... I wish I was introduced to it, like, twenty years ago. It could have saved me a lot of time and trouble.”

The city of Iquitos, Peru, is a boomtown in the Amazon Basin. In 2012, 250,000 visitors traveled through the once-sleepy inland port. One of the main draws: ayahuasca tourism. Today at the Iquitos airport, travelers are as likely to be offered ayahuasca ― or at least canisters of a dubious brown liquid ― as a taxi. The stuff so thoroughly permeates the city that a New York Times travel dispatch from September opens, “Before we begin, a disclaimer: In Iquitos, Peru, your correspondent did not consume the shamanic hallucinogen ayahuasca.” The influx of tourists seeking transcendence has brought with it new problems. When Joshua Wickerham, a sustainability consultant, was invited to a conference on psychedelics in Oakland this past April, he got an earful.

“The people in the ayahuasca community were talking about all of these issues, as ayahuasca is becoming this global phenomenon,” Wickerham recalls. “There were so many people from so many walks of life saying, ‘There is so much good happening here, but there are also real problems.’”

An idea was born: a kind of TripAdvisor for ayahuasca centers. In early November, Wickerham launched the Ethnobotanical Stewardship Council as a nonprofit devoted to assuring the sustainability and safety of traditional plants like ayahuasca. Wickerham envisions the ESC developing, with the community’s input, into a consensus certification model.

“I think the ESC can help educate the seekers,” Wickerham says, “so there’s some way to differentiate when there’s a neophyte who lands at the Iquitos airport and asks the cab driver, ‘Where should I go for ayahuasca?’”

As far as psychedelics go, studies show that ayahuasca is on the relatively safe side. For it to be lethal, a user would have to take about twenty times more than the standard ceremonial dose. (For alcohol, that number is ten times more than a normal serving.) Brain scans of ayahuasca users indicate that the brew doesn’t have a neurotoxic effect.

“The knee-jerk reaction is to say, ‘Oh, it’s a dangerous hallucinogen,’ but look at the actual mortality rate,” says McKenna. “If you look at the number of people who die from adverse reactions to aspirin, ayahuasca is considerably safer.”

The main risks are psychological. “That’s where a good shaman comes in,” says McKenna.

But in the Wild West that is Iquitos, it can be hard to tell which shamans are the real deal. Some serve a counterfeit brew laced with the witchcraft-associated plant known as toé. Others have impure intentions.

In the ayahuasca community, there’s a collection of well-known horror stories: the German woman who returned from Peru with a report of being sexually assaulted by her “shaman.” The two French citizens who died during their trip -- one from a heart attack, the other from a likely interaction with his prescription medications. The worst, though -- the story held up as a warning to those who seek blindly -- is the story of an eighteen-year-old Californian named Kyle Nolan.

Nolan set out for the Shimbre Shamanic Center, a Peruvian ayahuasca lodge run by a shaman calling himself Mancoluto, in August 2011. When Nolan never showed up for his flight home, his worried parents went to Peru to find him. First, Mancoluto claimed that Nolan had taken off in the middle of the night, but his body was later found in a grave on the center’s property.

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15 comments
Sid Quintana
Sid Quintana

It causes mental illnes, cant belive you people promote this bullshit about time to delete westword

Mane Rok
Mane Rok

Ryan InkLine Howell Clint Edwards Matt Deca Kenney Koichi Ichiban Ninomiya

Jordan Snyder
Jordan Snyder

@Sid- you forgot the other half of that nugget of info - only for people who were predisposed already. And that goes for most psychoactive substances including caffeine.

Tianna Crowell
Tianna Crowell

Ibogaine blocks the physical symptoms of withdrawal. It's not a cure... You can only successfully quit if you are mentally ready... But it sure is a damn good starting point. It's a shame these types of medicines aren't mainstream.

Tianna Crowell
Tianna Crowell

Yes.... Ibogaine.. My friend was a heroin addict and he was on methadone for years... Flooded Ibogaine and it was a complete turn around

Jøsh Kåmm
Jøsh Kåmm

Actually it is used among the tribes in South America and another similar substance that has actually successfully cured heroin addiction is ibogaine no first hand experience tho

Oi'Ram Arejan
Oi'Ram Arejan

Ayahuasca has helped millions of people in south Africa nonetheless around the world, it would be dumb not to take it into consideration as a healing medicine in the states. But then again why in the world would our government want a medicine that spiritually awakens and shows hope in this distraught world we live in. O and don't forget all the antidepressant companies, they would no longer be needed. Can't have that happen

Oi'Ram Arejan
Oi'Ram Arejan

Only if people would actually read this with an open mind, makes me happy though the Denver Westword atleast tries to shine a lil light on this subject. Namaste

Rhine
Rhine

Had a bad trip friend ? 

 
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