By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
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 1 to 10. 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."
The city of Iquitos, Peru, is a boomtown in the Amazon Basin. In 2012, 250,000 visitors traveled through the once-sleepy inland port. One of the main draws: ayahuasca tourism.
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.
"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 cab driver, '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 10 times more than a normal serving.) Brain scans of ayahuasca users indicate that the brew doesn't have a neurotoxic effect.
"The kneejerk 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. "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.
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 retreat center, 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."