It wasn’t until relatively recently that the plant medicine known most commonly as ayahuasca attracted the interest of the western world. Used in the Amazon for centuries for its healing and spiritual purposes, as a way of connecting the person drinking the brew to the natural world and much more besides, ayahuasca has offered psychedelic enlightenment to those who visit the centres that have sprung up around South America.
Thousands of foreigners every year now visit retreats in Peru and neighbouring countries that offer the potion. Ayahuasca ceremonies now also occur across Britain (although DMT, the psychoactive drug it contains, is illegal) with all the promises of a hallucinogenic trip: visions both visual and spiritual, a journey that can be deep and profound – and light and giddy.
At the same time, the dangers of ayahuasca – also known as yagé – and other hallucinogens are in the news. In 2014 Henry Miller, a 19-year-old from Bristol, died after taking part in a shamanic ritual in a remote part of the Colombian rainforest. Tragically, he ended up dying after a reaction to yagé and another substance called scopolamine, extracted from plants of the nightshade family. On 29 August, a British coroner recorded a verdict of accidental death and urged guidance over the use of hallucinogenic drugs in tribal rituals. In a statement read during the hearing, Miller’s family said that: “Other young travellers might benefit from being made aware of the small but real dangers inherent in this perfectly lawful practice.”
This statement is both true and admirably measured. As with anything capable of producing powerful experiences, there are dangers. It has been reported that, since September 2015, there have been five ayahuasca-related deaths in Peru. By comparison, in 2016 drug overdoses killed 63,632 Americans. Nearly two-thirds of these deaths involved a prescription or illicit opioid.
The wider issues here relate to culture and experience. There is the now well-established phenomenon of gap-year students and young travellers going abroad and getting involved in practices they may not fully understand, occasionally with tragic results. There is also the thought that as the western world becomes increasingly homogenised, the search for something new and profound will take us to farther flung places in search of further out experiences.
These experiences have to be respected but they are also being commercialised. At its best, the use of ayahuasca is a profound experience. It can have all sorts of positive mind-expanding and indeed life-changing results. “I had two years of psychotherapy which were amazing but it was going to Peru and drinking ayahuasca, which is a class A drug in this country, that got to the root of my depression,” the comedian Simon Amstell has said. He is far from alone. Ayahuasca has, for many, relieved symptoms of trauma and other pain, opened up new directions in life and helped people with their day-to-day crises.
The fact that more and more people are seeking this kind of experience, and the publication of books by, for example, Michael Pollan, can also be seen as a reaction to a world in which spare time is increasingly rare, more and more people struggle with their mental health, and a connection to nature has been destroyed.
This situation has, perhaps inevitably given the way capitalism operates, opened up the commodification of the ayahuasca experience that stretches from the rainforest to social media. Alongside legitimate centres that offer the drug, illegitimate ones have sprung up ready to take advantage of a craze. In the rainforest, often far from medical facilities, this is obviously dangerous.
In the west, ayahuasca can be portrayed as a shortcut to enlightenment, a product you can buy that will make you deep, or an “extreme” tourist experience. It’s become increasingly popular among tech millionaires who are, in the words of one report, looking to “find shortcuts to success in the ultra-competitive tech scene”. It seems unlikely ayahuasca was put on this Earth to help Bay Area tech bros crush the opposition.
What it can do, if approached respectfully and openly, is potentially much more profound. The reaction from Henry Miller’s family to the death of their son does not take away from that, it adds to it. To their credit, rather than denouncing such practices, they have advised a serious approach and a respectful acknowledgment of potential danger. It is an attitude that some of the tech millionaires and trend-surfers trying to profit from the hallucinogen’s popularity would do well to heed.
• Oscar Rickett is a journalist and writer