Ayahuasca comes out of the Amazon and into the mainstream.
This Psychedelic Plant May Help You Trip Your Way To A Better Life
Ayahuasca comes out of the Amazon and into the mainstream.
Would you drink a vomit-inducing psychedelic tea that could give you both wild hallucinations and ten years of intense psychotherapy in a single night? Some people claim a South American plant has a potent power that could replace years of treatment — as long as you open your mind to it.
Dubbed by The New Yorker “the drug of choice for the age of kale,” more Americans than ever are experimenting with ayahuasca, a potent psychedelic plant. Some South American cultures have turned to the Peruvian plant’s therapeutic healing powers for generations. But, due to regulation in many nations, its impact has largely gone under the radar in Western countries.
In the US, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) defines scheduled substances in accordance with their potential for abuse or ability to cause physical or psychological dependence. Schedule I substances rank the highest and warrant more severe penalties. While ayahuasca is not technically a scheduled drug under this ranking system, DMT, which users can extract from the plant, is a Schedule I substance, alongside other drugs such as heroin, LSD, ecstasy and marijuana. However, in light of limited legal precedent, many argue that ayahuasca as a spiritually transformative experience is subject to an exemption under the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act.
Ayahuasca users ingest the plant in tea form during ceremonies guided by shamans. Drinking it induces psychotic effects from the plant’s unique combination of DMT, which has no effect on humans when orally ingested by itself, and monoamine oxidase inhibitors, which prevent certain stomach enzymes from immediately breaking down DMT. The introduction of a limitation on the body’s ability to break down the DMT causes hallucinogenic side effects. While some people use the plant solely for the psychedelic trip, most try it only after learning about its powerful medicinal effects.
“When I’ve had ayahuasca experiences, they’ve brought real clarity into what matters and what doesn’t,” said Matt Ruby, a standup comedian and founder of Vooza, a company that makes comedic videos about startup culture. In a blog post about his first ayahuasca experience, Ruby summarizes his relationship with the plant.
“I am not on drugs. I am on medicine,” he wrote. “See, we call our medicine ‘drugs’ and we call our drugs ‘medicine.’”
Ruby recalls that after his first experience, he blew his therapist away with how much progress he suddenly made. He said his ayahuasca experience accelerated their work together.
“I am not on drugs. I am on medicine. See, we call our medicine ‘drugs’ and we call our drugs ‘medicine.’”
“I think that’s outside proof that there was some impact,” Ruby said.
Since trying the plant, Ruby engages in new lifestyle routines including yoga, meditation, healthier eating habits and a newfound relationship with nature, which he nourishes by keeping more plants in his home.
“I think you’re just trying to add a couple of drops of that realization of what matters when you’re on ayahuasca in your day-to-day life,” he said.
Some users find the experience extremely difficult. A quick Google search reveals hundreds of people who’ve tried it and documented their stories. Many throw up, a process some shamans call “getting well.” Some report bad trips. Reputable ayahuasca programs aim to prevent serious mental breakdowns by screening candidates for potential medication interactions and disorders such as schizophrenia. But there’s no foolproof way to ensure positive outcomes.
But not even the possibility of a vomit-fueled psychotic nightmare deters some people.
“Ayahuasca is going to show you what you need to see,” explained Mindy,* a plant facilitator from the church Plants of God. Facilitators typically offer guidance and support alongside the shamans who administer the plant, though in the West it’s becoming increasingly common to drink the tea in the presence of trained facilitators without a shaman’s guidance.
“Sometimes it’s going to show you yourself, and your blind spot or your shadow. So you’re going to be working a lot with your shadow, things that you suppress or you don’t accept. Things like shame, guilt, fear, resistance… everything that you need to see.”
“It opens you up. It’s like psychotherapy. Ten years of psychotherapy in one night,” she said.
Mindy first tried ayahuasca with a friend in Peru. She joined her heroin-addicted companion as he sought help through an ayahuasca ritual. After trying it herself, she became more interested in the plant, which she refers to as “medicine.” She has since become a facilitator of such experiences.
In the three years since that visit to Peru, her friend hasn’t touched heroin.
“It opens you up. It’s like psychotherapy. Ten years of psychotherapy in one night.”
“PTSD, trauma…it’s the first layer. It’s almost like a side effect of taking the medication. It’s going to peel itself out of you,” she said. “Ayahuasca is going to clear the path. It’s going to show you. But after that, it’s up to you if you want to maintain it. You need to manage it.”
Ayahuasca as medicine is a legal gray area in the US. While not strictly forbidden, the substance falls under a religious exemption to drug laws. Though the rules are complex, the law permits people to ingest the plant within religious settings in America. However, a user must belong to a church that has legal protection in order to comply with these regulations. The country’s first ayahuasca church appeared in 2015 but shut down amidst controversy the following year, says Atlas Obscura.
Ayahuasca has been tied to several deaths, but in every case I could find, the death wasn’t conclusively tied to the drug itself. It’s worth noting that, in the US, up to 128,000 people die each year from taking prescription pharmaceutical drugs as prescribed. That number is much higher if you add the number of people who die as a result of prescription drug abuse.
Max,* an IT consultant who runs his own company, had some experience with psychedelics before deciding to try the plant at an event in Miami.
“Overall, I would definitely rate it positively,” he said.
He has struggled with clinical depression for more than 20 years, and said the ayahuasca trip temporarily lifted some of that feeling.
“There’s the recovery day, because the experience takes a lot out of you, but as soon as I caught up on sleep, I noticed a boost in mood and attitude,” he said. “Things were just better.”
While tripping, Max reflected on his relationships. All his life, he said, he’d tended to close himself off from people, but in the weeks following his ayahuasca experience, he made a conscious effort to open up to others. Even now, he thinks back to his ayahuasca experience when he recognizes himself falling back into the same patterns.
Still, he thinks of ayahuasca as one tool in his quest for self-improvement. Max also participates in other personal growth programs such as those offered by Landmark Worldwide (a self-help program some have criticized for being a cult, or “Scientology Light”).
“It’s kind of hard to differentiate that single experience from the other programs and things I’ve tried. It contributed positively, but I haven’t felt a strong need to do it again,” he said. “But I’m not opposed.”
*Names changed to protect users.