THE NEW POWER TRIP

Devo­tees claim it will change your life. Doc­tors say there’s not enough re­search, and the po­lice have barely started get­ting to grips with it. Is the South Amer­i­can hal­lu­cino­genic ayahuasca brew a way to en­light­en­ment – or a risky new trend?

Marie Claire (South Africa) - - THE MANDY WEINER REPORT - Words MANDY WIENER @MandyWiener

ADOZEN weath­ered sin­gle mat­tresses are splayed out in a cir­cle on the wooden oor at a spir­i­tual re­treat cen­tre in Ma­galies­burg, just out­side Johannesburg. There are buck­ets next to each one and on ev­ery mat­tress, a per­son. Some are search­ing for an­swers; many are des­per­ate for a rem­edy; a hand­ful are seek­ing a joyride. All are here to ex­pe­ri­ence ayahuasca – the ‘spirit plant of the Ama­zon’ – hop­ing for the cathar­tic life-chang­ing ex­pe­ri­ence it is renowned for.

Ayahuasca is the name of both the trop­i­cal vine and the hal­lu­cino­genic drink pre­pared with it. It’s been used for gen­er­a­tions by medicine men and tribes in the Ama­zon for its sup­posed heal­ing and div­ina­tory pur­poses, thanks to the psy­che­delic com­pound dimethyl­tryptamine ( DMT) present in the drink. Like many clas­sic hal­lu­cino­gens, DMT stim­u­lates the sero­tonin re­cep­tors in the brain, says Dr Mike West, a con­sul­tant psy­chi­a­trist at Groote Schuur Hos­pi­tal in Cape Town with a spe­cial in­ter­est in ad­dic­tion and psychedelics. It be­came known in the West in the 1950s, when a Har­vard eth­nob­otanist, Richard Evans Schultes, rst de­scribed its use. Since then, celebri­ties like Lind­say Lo­han, Sting and Bri­tish in­die band

A DOZEN weath­ered sin­gle mat­tresses are splayed out in a cir­cle on the wooden oor at a spir­i­tual re­treat cen­tre in Ma­galies­burg, just out­side Johannesburg. There are buck­ets next to each one and on ev­ery mat­tress, a per­son. Some are search­ing for an­swers; many are des­per­ate for a rem­edy; a hand­ful are seek­ing a joyride. All are here to ex­pe­ri­ence ayahuasca – the ‘spirit plant of the Ama­zon’ – hop­ing for the cathar­tic life-chang­ing ex­pe­ri­ence it is renowned for.

Ayahuasca is the name of both the trop­i­cal vine and the hal­lu­cino­genic drink pre­pared with it. It’s been used for gen­er­a­tions by medicine men and tribes in the Ama­zon for its sup­posed heal­ing and div­ina­tory pur­poses, thanks to the psy­che­delic com­pound dimethyl­tryptamine (DMT) present in the drink. Like many clas­sic hal­lu­cino­gens, DMT stim­u­lates the sero­tonin re­cep­tors in the brain, says Dr Mike West, a con­sul­tant psy­chi­a­trist at Groote Schuur Hos­pi­tal in Cape Town with a spe­cial in­ter­est in ad­dic­tion and psychedelics. It be­came known in the West in the 1950s, when a Har­vard eth­nob­otanist, Richard Evans Schultes, rst de­scribed its use. Since then, celebri­ties like Lind­say Lo­han, Sting and Bri­tish in­die band the Klax­ons have all spo­ken about their ayahuasca ex­pe­ri­ences, and its use has been de­picted in movies like Jen­nifer Anis­ton’s Wan­der­lust and Ben Stiller’s While We’re Young – and the bit­ter, tea-like brew is be­com­ing in­creas­ingly pop­u­lar in South Africa.

A quick Google or Face­book search will hook you up with a day or week­end ‘cer­e­mony’ in Gaut­eng or the Western Cape, with a high-end week­end re­treat in Ma­galies­burg, in­clud­ing four cer­e­monies and ac­com­mo­da­tion, cost­ing around R5 600.

Fabian Piorkowsky – also known as Fabian-ji – left his ca­reer as a banker in Ger­many to be­come a shaman, and has spent years in the Ama­zon be­fore set­tling in Cape Town with his wife, Ni­cole, to run psy­che­delic re­treats here and abroad. ‘I work with about 5 000 peo­ple ev­ery year and I don’t think I’ve met one who has done ayahuasca for the same rea­son as some­body else,’ he says. ‘For some peo­ple it’s a very phys­i­cal, body cleans­ing ex­pe­ri­ence. Oth­ers feel a very strong emo­tional ex­pe­ri­ence. For oth­ers it is vis­ual – al­most like an in­tense dream.’

David* is an ex­ec­u­tive life coach who as­sists Fabian-ji in con­duct­ing cer­e­monies. He has taken ayahuasca more than 50 times, he says. The ages of peo­ple com­ing to their cer­e­monies can vary, he says, with the youngest be­ing in their 20s and the old­est in their 70s. The gen­der split is usu­ally 60% men and 40% women, mostly white and In­dian, with peo­ple from all walks of life join­ing – from ex­ec­u­tives to wait­ers and doc­tors.

Be­fore par­tic­i­pat­ing in a cer­e­mony, you have to fol­low a re­stric­tive diet for a few days, ab­stain­ing from sugar, salt, an­i­mal prod­ucts, pro­cessed foods, spicy foods and caf­feine, David says. This ‘cleanses’ the body, he says, so the ‘medicine works op­ti­mally and you can be­gin a process of aware­ness’.

WHAT DOES AYAHUASCA PUR­PORT­EDLY DO?

Tak­ing it once is, ap­par­ently, as an ar­ti­cle in Vice pointed out, ‘like 10 years see­ing a psy­chi­a­trist’. Fabian-ji says, ‘it places your ego in the pas­sen­ger seat and lets your sub­con­scious take

‘FOR SOME PEO­PLE IT’S A VERY PHYS­I­CAL, BODY CLEANS­ING EX­PE­RI­ENCE. OTHER PEO­PLE FEEL A VERY STRONG EMO­TIONAL EX­PE­RI­ENCE’

For most users, the ex­pe­ri­ence is gov­erned by their men­tal state at the time of the cer­e­mony, as well as the shaman guid­ing them. This was the case for Ni­cole Bern­hardt, a 37-year-old PA from Johannesburg. ‘For me, the men­tal sen­sa­tion was the equiv­a­lent of trav­el­ling on a roller coaster through a kalei­do­scope of im­ages and colour. Some­times I would see things I would recog­nise and other times it was just shapes that would come and go. Some peo­ple ex­pe­ri­ence vom­it­ing and in­tense cry­ing; oth­ers di­ar­rhoea. Any form of purg­ing is part of the process of re­leas­ing that which we have come to let go of.’ As for the ben­e­fits she’s gleaned from the ex­pe­ri­ence, Ni­cole says, ‘I suf­fered from se­vere anger and self-value is­sues and both of th­ese have started to trans­form sig­nif­i­cantly.’

Ayahuasca is not a recre­ational drug, and if you’re look­ing for a quick x or an ad­ven­ture, you might not get it. Such was the case for Melissa*, a 40-year-old mother from Cape Town, who ar­ranged a pri­vate ayahuasca cer­e­mony at her home for R4 000. ‘It’s be­come trendy in Cape Town, but you have to do it with the right shaman,’ she says. ‘I did it once and thought it was a lot of crap. It up­sets your stom­ach and it makes you feel dizzy and nau­seous. They want you to vomit up all the im­pu­ri­ties. I had no pro­found ex­pe­ri­ence. There’s not a chance I’d do it again.’

BUT IS AYAHUASCA EVEN LE­GAL IN SOUTH AFRICA?

It’s a very grey area, says Neil Kirby, a di­rec­tor at Werks­mans At­tor­neys, who spe­cialises in en­vi­ron­men­tal law and health­care and life sci­ences. ‘I am not aware of any speci c le­gal con­trol ap­ply­ing to the prac­tice of ayahuasca in so far as the plant per se is con­cerned and as it is used tra­di­tion­ally in cer­tain parts of South Amer­ica. How­ever, the pri­mary in­gre­di­ent in ayahuasca is DMT. The sub­stance is con­trolled in terms of the Drugs and Drug Traf­fick­ing Act No. 140 of 1992 in so far as it is clas­si­fied as a dan­ger­ous de­pen­dence-pro­duc­ing sub­stance, the pos­ses­sion of which and deal­ing in is un­law­ful.’ The po­lice are just as stumped: in at­tempts to gain com­ment from them, it be­came clear that due to the un­prece­dented re­cent use of ayahuasca in South Africa, they have yet to es­tab­lish clar­ity around pos­ses­sion and le­gal­ity.

So far, there’s been one re­ported ayahuasca-re­lated death – that of a 19-year-old Bri­tish back­packer who died af­ter tak­ing part in a cer­e­mony in Colom­bia. Dr West says it is di cult to pin­point the risks due to a lack of re­search. ‘There ap­pears to be neg­li­gi­ble risk for or­gan tox­i­c­ity, neu­ro­tox­i­c­ity and de­pen­dence,’ he says. ‘There would, how­ever, be par­tic­u­lar con­sid­er­a­tions for peo­ple who have ex­ist­ing med­i­cal con­di­tions or who are tak­ing herbal and prescription med­i­ca­tions. Ex­treme cau­tion should be ex­er­cised in in­di­vid­u­als with a history of a psy­chotic dis­or­der or bipo­lar dis­or­der as they may be at an in­creased risk of ad­verse psy­cho­log­i­cal re­ac­tions.’

Fabian-ji cau­tions to use the plant with re­spect and rec­om­mends those who want to take part seek out oth­ers who have the same ap­proach. ‘It’s de nitely noth­ing fun,’ he says. ‘It is hard work and can be very in­tense, get­ting you into con­tact with things you try not to look at in your daily life. But af­ter­wards you feel grate­ful that you’ve dealt with them – be­cause they’re gone.’

The lit­tle re­search there is doesn’t point to any neg­a­tive longterm im­pact of ayahuasca use, Dr West says. In fact, he says, ‘there is emerg­ing lit­er­a­ture suggest­ing it may be as­so­ci­ated with pos­i­tive long-term im­pact,’ for ex­am­ple, deal­ing with ad­dic­tion and de­pres­sion. Don’t take ayahuasca if you’re on anti-de­pres­sants, he says, and al­ways dis­cuss it with your doc­tor be­fore­hand to en­sure noth­ing you take coun­ter­acts some­thing al­ready in your sys­tem. ‘The re­al­ity is, “nat­u­ral” prod­ucts have just as much propen­sity for drug-on-drug in­ter­ac­tions as phar­ma­ceu­ti­cals,’ he says. ‘The bot­tom line is that there’s a lot about ayahuasca we sim­ply do not know yet.’

The Nine Day Trans­for­ma­tion Re­treat in the Western Cape, where 25 peo­ple

came to­gether for a ayahuasca cer­e­mony led by shaman Fabian-ji (top right)

TOP

Lind­say Lo­han; Sting took part in a ayahuasca cer­e­mony in

FAR LEFT the Ama­zon A sec­tion of ayahuasca

LEFT vine The ayahuasca brew be­ing pre­pared with chacruna

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