Jungle Drug Ayahuasca Could Revolutionize Psychotherapy

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In 2011, a Canadian First Nations community contacted Mate to treat some tribe members with chronic substance-dependence problems. Mate agreed and in June arrived at a remote village for the first of two retreats. A team of researchers, led by addiction specialist Dr. Gerald Thomas, came along.

Since Grob and McKenna's study in 1993, some limited research had been done on ayahuasca: Scientists had performed brain scans of ayahuasca users and administered freeze-dried ayahuasca in a lab. But no one had followed up on ayahuasca's therapeutic potential. Thomas and his team were ready to continue the work.

The group set up in the tribe's longhouse, a spacious wooden structure with a stove in the middle and straw on the floor. Twelve members were participating in the first ceremony, and that night, before they drank, Mate led them in conversation about their addictions.

"When they were talking about trauma, for many of them, that was the first time they ever shared that with anybody," Mate says. "They were entering into deep pain."

Before the retreat, Thomas and his team administered psychiatric evaluations to measure the 12 participants on factors like hope, quality of life, mindfulness, and emotional regulation. After the ceremony, researchers repeated the tests — first two weeks later, then four weeks, then once per month for half a year.

The results, which they published in June of this year in the journal Current Drug Abuse Reviews, came back promising. Alcohol, tobacco, and cocaine use decreased among the participants. On the psychological surveys, the subjects' quality-of-life scores increased, as did the ratings for mindfulness, empowerment, outlook, and hopefulness.

At the six-month mark, the team also interviewed 11 of the study participants and asked them to rate the experience on a scale from one to ten. The mean response came back at 7.95. One 30-year-old man told the researchers, "With my last experience with the ayahuasca, I really faced myself. Like, my fear, my anger. Which really, I think is a big part of my addictions... I wish I was introduced to it like 20 years ago. It could have saved me a lot of time and trouble."

Tracy James' experience with ayahuasca didn't end with that first night in the jungle. The L.A. life coach's retreat lasted another 12 days. She went through multiple ceremonies, punishing repeats of that first gut-churning episode.

However, she also had vivid visions. In one, she went on a quest for a gold ring hidden underwater. In another, a beautiful woman told her she was calling James back home. Once, James imagined she was greeted by a group of elfin-like creatures. There, she felt the comfort of home, of belonging. Still, once the retreat was over, she never wanted to take ayahuasca again.

"I had a lot of ceremonies that were really hard," she says.

But back home, similar dreams filled her head at night. That feeling of belonging, of being home — she began to see it as a signal. When the opportunity came up to study with the same Shipibo shamans, she signed on.

Today, James is based out of Fort Myers. With a business partner, she runs AyaIntegral (ayaintegral.com). Two or three times a year, the pair leads a group down to Peru for 12-day retreats with Shipibo shamans. Customers pay around $2,600 for the total ayahuasca experience. "People say it's like a year of therapy in a night, and it's no joke," she says today.

The increase in such ayahuasca tourism has morphed Iquitos, Peru, into a boomtown on the Amazon Basin. In 2012, 250,000 visitors traveled through the once-sleepy inland port — many searching for the magic drug.

Today at the Iquitos airport, travelers are as likely to be offered ayahuasca — or at least canisters of a dubious brown liquid — as a taxi. The stuff so thoroughly permeates the city that a New York Times travel dispatch from September opens, "Before we begin, a disclaimer: In Iquitos, Peru, your correspondent did not consume the shamanic hallucinogen ayahuasca."

The influx of tourists seeking transcendence has brought with it new problems. When Joshua Wickerham, a sustainability consultant, was invited to a conference on psychedelics in Oakland, California, this April, he got an earful.

"The people in the ayahuasca community were talking about all of these issues, as ayahuasca is becoming this global phenomenon," Wickerham recalls. "There were so many people from so many walks of life saying, 'There is so much good happening here, but there are also real problems.' "

An idea was born: a kind of TripAdvisor for ayahuasca centers. In early November, Wickerham launched the Ethnobotanical Stewardship Council as a nonprofit devoted to assuring the sustainability and safety of traditional plants like ayahuasca. Wickerham envisions the ESC developing, with the community's input, into a consensus certification model.

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Olivia LaVecchia and Kyle Swenson