Jungle Drug Ayahuasca Could Revolutionize Psychotherapy

Jungle Drug Ayahuasca Could Revolutionize Psychotherapy
Illustration by Anderson Debernardi

Tracy James knew the drug she'd just swallowed was working when her old injuries from high school started twitching with new life. Pressure throbbed from a forgotten busted knee. Her ankle tingled. The fingers she'd sprained roller-skating decades back began to ache. Whatever the 37-year-old had just taken, it shot feeling back into the long-gone ailments.

"When I did vomit, it was one of the most amazing moments of my life."

For the past 45 minutes, the hut had been dark and silent, the air dripping with jungle moisture. James and nearly 20 others were sitting cross-legged on ornate rugs. One by one, a pair of Shipibo shamans peered into the face of each visitor, ceremonial chants slipping from their lips.

It was June 2009. James, a pretty, curly-haired Jamaican-American woman, was then calling Los Angeles home. As a life coach, she was interested in rewiring the mind-body split. A friend had suggested she make the trip to the Peruvian jungle, where the indigenous tribes had a powerful liquid that could radically shake up one's consciousness. Now, James was miles into the bush surrounding the town of Iquitos. Her first dose of the nasty, rust-colored liquid was blasting through her system.

Dennis McKenna has taken ayahuasca hundreds of times since 1981.
Emily Utne
Dennis McKenna has taken ayahuasca hundreds of times since 1981.
For ayahuasca ceremonies, users typically gather in a hut at night, when visions are more intense.
Courtesy of Dennis McKenna
For ayahuasca ceremonies, users typically gather in a hut at night, when visions are more intense.

Waves of nausea began crashing over James. Strange geometric shapes filled her vision. Around her, some people sobbed. Others threw up into buckets. James left the wooden hut topped with a thatched roof for the outhouse. The diarrhea hit so frequently, she just sat outside in a chair, feeling weak and terrible. Oh my gosh, she cringed, waiting for the next bout.

Two Shipibo women — tiny people with sun-cured faces wearing the tribe's traditional sky-blue shirts — approached. As one chanted, the other woman placed her mouth against the alarmed James' stomach. The shaman began sucking out the bad energy, a practice known as chupa. After 20 minutes, James was amazed to feel great. She walked back into the hut, was hit with another wall of nausea, and puked.

"When I did vomit, it was one of the most amazing moments of my life," she says today. "After all that purging, I just had this amazing feeling of peace."

The psychoactive brew goes by many names. William S. Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg called it yagé. In Brazil, it's known as hoasca. Other aliases include the Spirit Vine, the Vine of the Soul, and the Vine of the Dead.

Its most common name is ayahuasca. The indigenous cultures of the Amazon have brewed the plant concoction, with its naturally occurring dose of the hallucinogen DMT (N,N-Dimethyltryptamine), for centuries. It is generally prepared in a brew made from the vine of a species called Banisteriopsis caapi.

In recent years, the West has caught on. The tea cropped up in the Jennifer Aniston flick Wanderlust and the Showtime series Weeds; proponents include everyone from Sting to The Howard Stern Show's Robin Quivers. This, despite the fact that it's mostly illegal here. Possessing the plants is OK, but concoctions made from it are banned, except in religious ceremonies, because DMT is a Schedule I drug. Still, one ayahuasca expert estimates that on any given night, 50 to 100 ayahuasca groups are in session in New York City alone, and a new, burgeoning business in the States is organizing drug excursions to Peru, where the substance is legal.

Some of the same doctors and researchers who have, in recent years, gotten FDA approval for breakthrough studies involving MDMA and psilocybin mushrooms are now turning their attention to ayahuasca. Preliminary work suggests the brew could help treat depression, chronic addiction, and fears of mortality. People with less-defined diagnoses but a hunger for something missing say ayahuasca offers something ineffable: compassion, connectedness, spirituality.

"Ayahuasca is penetrating American society, and its highly successful people, way more than any other psychedelic," says Rick Doblin, head of MAPS, the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies, a nonprofit research association based in Santa Cruz, California. "The number of people who have had incredible experiences with ayahuasca, if they could all surface in the public sphere at the same time, it would be absolutely astonishing."


In a greenhouse at the University of Minnesota, Dennis McKenna walks past the cacao (chocolate) and the Punica (pomegranate) and strides straight to the back corner, where the vines of the plant Banisteriopsis have twisted around each other — and nearby electrical cords — to reach the room's rafters.

McKenna, a white-bearded professor wearing wire glasses and a denim shirt tucked into his jeans, points at one of the younger vines, a supple green stem the width of a pencil.

"This is nothing," he says, explaining that mature plants can reach 1,500 feet and weigh several tons. "Usually, the part you use is the thickness of a finger."

McKenna would know: He has drunk ayahuasca several hundred times since 1981. An ethnobotanist and ethnopharmacologist by trade, McKenna first tangled with psychedelics as a teen coming of age in the '60s. He tried everything from LSD to jimsonweed but never ayahuasca: There was none.

"It was this rare, legendary thing," McKenna remembers.

The first record of ayahuasca arrived in the West in 1908, thanks to British botanist Richard Spruce, who mostly described lots of vomiting. Harvard ethnobotanist Richard Evan Schultes followed up a half-century later with the first academic account. Around the same time, Beat author William Burroughs wrote letters depicting his quest for the tea to Allen Ginsberg, collected in 1963 as The Yage Letters. But in Western literature, there wasn't much more than that.

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