Ayahuasca: Believers call the Amazonian plant a sacrament; the state calls it illegal

(Miami New Times)   On a Saturday night in May, 15 middle-aged teachers, doctors, and artists — dressed in matching white garb — enter a South Miami home. A cloud of sage smoke makes the tidy suburban townhouse smell like a head shop. They pay $96, climb a set of stairs, and sit in a circle in a roomful of pillows. Then they turn off the lights.

By Natalie O’Neill Thursday, Jun 10 2010

In minutes, a Chilean shaman appears with a mystical healing brew. He sits in front of an altar and whistles as each person drinks from an eight-ounce cup. After a half-hour, they launch into a powerful hallucinogenic trip. For these 15 people, the all-night ceremony is a deeply religious experience.

Made from an Amazonian jungle vine, the psychotropic tea is called ayahuasca, or “vine of the dead.” Indigenous tribes call it medicine, churches call it a sacrament, but in Miami-Dade — where South American shamans hold sessions at private homes, sweat lodges, and art galleries from Homestead to Overtown — cops call it illegal.

“If you wanted to find ayahuasca five years ago, it was extremely rare,” says Florida International University professor Manuel Torres, who teaches a class called Art and Shamanism. “Now it is quite available.”

Ayahuasca triggers an eight-hour spiritual vision that is both illuminating and messy: Users vomit, talk to God, scream in terror, and believe they have died and been reborn. Some have clairvoyant visions, feel stripped of ego, and generally walk away with a life-changing epiphany.

Professors at Harvard and UCLA have studied the plant, which is said to cure everything from heroin addiction to breast cancer and psychological trauma.

“One session is worth 20 years of psychotherapy,” says Dennis Jon McKenna, director of ethnopharmacology at Heffter Research Institute in Santa Fe, New Mexico, who has spent years researching the biochemical effects of the plant in Brazil.

But as the plant has gained popularity in the States, spiritual leaders and educators fear ceremonies have lost integrity. They compare visiting shamans to “a traveling circus,” even drug dealers. “Some of them have made it into a business,” says a Colombian-born spiritual guide who hosts ceremonies and goes by the name “the Eagle.” “That is not the intention of the plant.”

In the wrong hands, ayahuasca can be dangerous, experts warn. If it’s not prepared correctly — through a sequence of grinding and boiling two separate plants — users can become ill and, in rare cases, die.

“You have to be careful,” the Eagle warns. “It can be your best friend or your worst enemy.”

Used for centuries by Amazonian tribes to communicate with ancestors and heal ailments, the vine looks like a large cinnamon stick, grows in spirals, and tastes like dirt. It has no effect unless mixed with shrubs containing a chemical called dimethyltryptamine. Traditional ceremonies involve dancing, singing, and “sucking out the illness” through sound, touch, and verbal vibrations.

The Western world wasn’t privy until 1858, when a geographer named Villavicenciomentioned the brew in his book Geography of Equator. He called it “a magic drink,” noting tribes used it “to decipher plans of the enemy” and “make sure of the love of their womenfolk.”

In the 1950s, as the concept of mind expansion hit academia, researchers began to study the concoction. “It may well represent the most highly evolved narcotic consciousness on Earth,” Harvard University ethnobotanist Richard Evan Schultz declared after years of research. (The professor went on to influence Allen GinsbergTimothy Leary, and William S. Burroughs.)

In 1993, UCLA professors launched the first in-depth study of the plant’s psychological effects during a biomedical investigation called the Hoasca Project (hoasca is the Portuguese transliteration of ayahuasca). A team of researchers traveled to Brazil — where use of the drug is legal — to observe the long-term effects on members of a church called Uniao do Vegetal (UDV), or “Union of the Vegetable.” They researched the behavior of users and took biochemical measurements of the heart and brain.

What they found was stunning: Long-term ayahuasca use increases the number of transmitters that feed the brain with serotonin. Those who use the plant, they found, were less likely to experience depression, alcoholism, and violent tendencies.

Heffter Research Institute’s McKenna, who worked on the project, says it does wonders for health. “It was something we never expected to find,” he says. “It’s not a magical cure, but it is certainly a helpful tool.”

Not everybody saw it that way. In 2006, U.S. Customs authorities seized a shipment of ayahuasca on its way to a UDV congregation in New Mexico. The church challenged the U.S. government before the Supreme Court — arguing the plant was a religious sacrament — and won.

Soon the church of Santo Daime — a Brazilian sect that believes in a combination of Christianity and Kardecist Spiritism — began pushing for legal use in Florida, where private ceremonies emerged in the Miami area.

During Santo Daime’s ceremonies held at an undisclosed location in the Design District (which New Times agreed not to name), men and women are separated into two groups. They wear black and white uniforms with bow ties, drink the brew, and dance around an altar. Nobody is allowed to go outside.\

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