Hal­lu­cino­genic plant gains foothold in US

‘They con­sider it anti-par­a­sitic in the jun­gle’

Kuwait Times - - HEALTH & SCIENCE -

Do­minique was hooked on co­caine and smoked two packs of cig­a­rettes a day un­til she stum­bled onto ayahuasca, a hal­lu­cino­genic con­coc­tion that she says has changed her life. The French-Amer­i­can woman, who lives in Los An­ge­les and did not want her real name used, is among thou­sands of peo­ple across the United States who are in­creas­ingly turn­ing to the pow­er­ful psy­che­delic brew from the Ama­zon to over­come ad­dic­tion, de­pres­sion or psy­cho­log­i­cal trauma. The potion, pre­pared and con­sumed as part of a shamanic rit­ual, is es­pe­cially gain­ing a fol­low­ing in Hol­ly­wood and Sil­i­con Val­ley.

Thou­sands are flock­ing to sam­ple the elixir and swear by its ther­a­peu­tic prop­er­ties, de­spite warn­ings from sci­en­tists and users that ayahuasca can be dan­ger­ous and even prove fa­tal, es­pe­cially when mixed with other drugs. Ayahuasca’s pro­po­nents, who in­clude celebri­ties such as Sting, Paul Si­mon, Tori Amos and Lind­sey Lo­han, say the plant offers a spir­i­tual ex­pe­ri­ence like no other. Many also say it has al­lowed them to over­come trau­mas that no other con­ven­tional ther­apy can tackle.

“There’s been this mis­con­cep­tion that it’s the hip­pies that come with feathers in their hair, but it’s pretty much the op­po­site,” says Jeff, who or­ga­nizes ayahuasca cer­e­monies in the Los An­ge­les area and who did not want his real name used. “In a time de­fined by con­sumerism and en­ter­tain­ment, peo­ple want to have strong ex­pe­ri­ences, one might con­sider spir­i­tual ex­pe­ri­ences, some­thing sa­cred.” Ac­cord­ing to Den­nis McKenna, as­sis­tant pro­fes­sor at the Univer­sity of Min­nesota’s Cen­ter for Spir­i­tu­al­ity and Heal­ing, some 100 clan­des­tine ayahuasca cer­e­monies are held nightly in New York and other cities like Los An­ge­les and San Fran­cisco.

McKenna said it is dif­fi­cult to get a firm count on the num­ber of cer­e­monies held across the coun­try as ayahuasca con­tains the hal­lu­cino­genic drug dimethyl­tryptamine (DMT), which is il­le­gal in the United States and is in the same cat­e­gory as Ec­stasy and heroin. Two Brazil­ian churches in the western United States that use ayahuasca as a sacra­ment are ex­empt from the ban. Firm believ­ers in ayahuasca say they drink the foul-tast­ing tea only at in­ter­vals of sev­eral months and must ob­serve a strict diet be­fore sam­pling the brew.

‘Pink swal­lows’

The cer­e­monies are of­ten held out­doors and are usu­ally ac­com­pa­nied by med­i­ta­tion and spir­i­tual songs called icaros. Users of ayahuasca de­scribe a sort of out-of-body ex­pe­ri­ence that al­lows them to con­front some of their worst fears. “I saw pink and vi­o­let swal­lows, and green geo­met­ric shapes,” re­called Leonard. Such vi­sions, how­ever, are of­ten ac­com­pa­nied by darker ones that are de­scribed as ter­ri­fy­ing. Users also ex­pe­ri­ence lots of vom­it­ing, de­scribed as purg­ing. “The purg­ing as­pect is very cathar­tic,” says Jeff. “They con­sider it an­tipar­a­sitic in the jun­gle.”

Some say they come out of the ex­pe­ri­ence with no dis­tinct rev­e­la­tion while others de­scribe a rad­i­cal trans­for­ma­tion. “I stopped smok­ing, started med­i­tat­ing and re­con­nect­ing with na­ture,” says Leonard. “And I made peace with my par­ents.” The ef­fects of the brew have prompted grow­ing in­ter­est among sci­en­tists and re­searchers like Jes­sica Niel­son, a Univer­sity of Cal­i­for­nia, San Fran­cisco, neu­ro­sci­en­tist who is study­ing ayahuasca. Niel­son said she be­came in­ter­ested in the potion af­ter trying it her­self while on a trip to Peru. “Two peo­ple I was with in Peru who had se­vere PTSD seemed to­tally healed just af­ter,” she said.

Charles Grob, a psy­chi­a­trist at Har­borUCLA Med­i­cal Cen­ter who stud­ied ayahuasca’s use in a Brazil­ian church, said he is see­ing a shift in at­ti­tude to­ward the brew and grow­ing ac­cep­tance that it may be worth study­ing. “Western medicine and psy­chi­a­try of­ten strug­gle in treat­ing sub­stance abusers and al­co­hol abusers,” Grob said. “So it’s cer­tainly worth look­ing at it.” While sci­en­tists in the United States con­front le­gal ob­sta­cles in study­ing the brew, much re­search is be­ing con­ducted in other coun­tries, no­tably Spain and Brazil, where ayahuasca is le­gal. Grob cited a pi­lot study in Brazil in­volv­ing peo­ple suf­fer­ing from chronic de­pres­sion and who didn’t re­spond well to anti-de­pres­sants.

“The pre­lim­i­nary re­sults are pos­i­tive,” he said. Still, sci­en­tists cau­tion that the brew can be dan­ger­ous, es­pe­cially if mixed with other drugs and should be avoided by those who have asthma, suf­fer from epilepsy and are bipo­lar or schiz­o­phrenic, as the con­coc­tion can trig­ger psy­chotic episodes. “You have to screen peo­ple to make sure ev­ery­body is men­tally up for the ex­pe­ri­ence,” said Jeff. “The worst I’ve had is some­body who was scream­ing for a cou­ple hours,” he added. “But he was fine the next day and came back.” —AFP

COLOM­BIA: A healer pre­pares a mix­ture of the Ayahuasca hal­lu­cino­genic liana and a psy­choac­tive bush dur­ing a tra­di­tional in­dige­nous rit­ual in Colom­bia. —AFP

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