Longform

Jungle Drug Ayahuasca Could Revolutionize Psychotherapy

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"I think the ESC can help educate the seekers," Wickerham says, "so there's some way to differentiate when there's a neophyte who lands at the Iquitos airport and asks the cabdriver, 'Where should I go for ayahuasca?' "

As far as psychedelics go, studies show that ayahuasca is on the relatively safe side. For it to be lethal, a user would have to take about 20 times more than the standard ceremonial dose. (For alcohol, that number is ten times more than a normal serving.) Brain scans of ayahuasca users indicate that the brew doesn't have a neurotoxic effect.

"The knee-jerk reaction is to say, 'Oh, it's a dangerous hallucinogen,' but look at the actual mortality rate," says Mc­Kenna. "If you look at the number of people who die from adverse reactions to aspirin, ayahuasca is considerably safer."

The main risks are psychological, proponents say. "That's where a good shaman comes in," says McKenna.

But in the Wild West that is Iquitos, it can be hard to tell which shamans are the real deal. Some serve a counterfeit brew laced with the witchcraft-associated plant known as toé. Others have impure intentions.

In the ayahuasca community, there's a collection of well-known horror stories: the German woman who returned from Peru with a report of being sexually assaulted by her "shaman." The two French citizens who died during their trip — one from a heart attack, the other from a likely interaction with his prescription medications. The worst, though — the story held up as a warning to those who seek blindly — is the story of an 18-year-old Californian named Kyle Nolan.

Nolan set out for the Shimbre Shamanic Center, a Peruvian ayahuasca lodge run by a shaman calling himself Mancoluto, in August 2011. When Nolan never showed up for his flight home, his worried parents went to Peru to find him. First, Mancoluto claimed that Nolan had taken off in the middle of the night, but his body was later found in a grave on the center's property. No one has yet been charged.

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.

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.

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Olivia LaVecchia and Kyle Swenson