To Wickerham, stories like this illustrate why the ESC is necessary. He hopes to work with the governments of countries like Peru and Ecuador to show them that they don't have to resort to heavy-handed regulatory legislation — that the community can monitor itself.

"I hope we can prevent another tragedy."

When Dr. Brian Rush started a crowdfunding campaign for ayahuasca research, he didn't know what to expect.

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.

The campaign for ATOP — the Ayahuasca Treatment Outcomes Project — launched on Indiegogo in August 2013. By the time it closed in October, Rush and his team had raised $34,000 from 450 people. Some of them, Rush says, had personal experiences with ayahuasca; others had been touched by addiction; still more were simply intrigued.

Most interesting of all was the support from doctors.

"I got notes from physicians and psychiatrists in the U.S. and Canada who have been using ayahuasca under the table in clinical practice and really support this work," says Rush. "I don't think I expected that."

Rush, an addiction researcher with a doctorate in public health, first heard of ayahuasca in 2011 and decided to travel to Peru to learn more. He checked into an ayahuasca center called Takiwasi and, during a ceremony, confronted his 20-year addiction to nicotine.

"I was laid flat out in a coffin, and my three children were standing around me," says Rush. "Then I started purging, and it felt like I was purging the tobacco poison."

Not long after Rush returned home, he gave up smoking for good.

"I had quit before, but this time was different," he says. "It's like I have no memory of smoking. I don't have any tactile memory in my hands. That was a year and a half ago, and I haven't had a cigarette."

Having studied addiction science for 30 years, Rush asked the Takiwasi center what data it had. The answer was: not much. When he realized that other, similar programs also lacked decent evaluation data, he decided to change that.

"I said, 'I am in your service,' " he recalls.

The Indiegogo campaign funded the project team's first planning meeting, the kickoff of a study that will be several years long. The meeting took place in Peru at the end of October and brought together 40 international researchers to help design the project.

They decided that ATOP will be an umbrella over studies in several South American countries, each looking at ayahuasca in the treatment of drug and alcohol abuse. By the end, the researchers hope to have definite answers on whether addicts treated with ayahuasca see a verifiable reduction in alcohol- and drug-related harms.

"It's real clear that all we have now is kind of anecdotal evidence and small studies with short-term follow-up," says Rush. "This is a potential approach that a lot of people have some confidence in, and at least enough confidence to say, 'We need more studies. We need to know more.' "

Kyle.Swenson@BrowardPalmBeach.com
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