Ayahuasca: a shamanic miracle or 'crazy tea'?

By her own admission there aren't many recreational substances that Courtney Love hasn't tried. In a candid interview with the latest issue of the American magazine Fix, the former Hole singer and widow of Kurt Cobain rattled off a long list of her past addictions. But there was one high that even a committed connoisseur like Love hadn't hit.

"The one drug I'd like to try one day is ayahuasca, which should be mandatory for everybody," she said. "It's apparently this crazy tea that gives you these intense hallucinations."

Crazy tea is one way of putting it. A powerful hallucinogenic brew made from rainforest plants, ayahuasca has been used for centuries by indigenous communities in the Amazon in shamanic medicine. The viscous brown liquid is made from a boiled-down mixture of psychotropic plants and is treated with deep reverence by Amazon natives.

But over the years, an increasing number of Westerners have begun to use variations of ayahuasca, either for recreational highs or in therapy centres which offer their own versions of traditional Amazonian medicine.

The ingredient which makes the drink hallucinogenic is dimethyltryptamine (DMT), a naturally occurring psychedelic compound that, in synthesised form, is a Class-A substance. But while DMT itself is banned in Britain, ayahuasca is not, and there has never been a prosecution for its possession or use.

Bags of banisteriopsis caapi vines, the main ingredient for the potion, are freely available for sale on eBay, and a handful of healthcare centres across Europe have sprung up offering ayahuasca treatments openly. The vines themselves contain no DMT. It is only if they are boiled with the leaves of one of two psychotropic plants (also widely available online) that an orally active variant of DMT is produced.

Adherents of ayahuasca credit shamanic medicine for helping them work through emotional traumas and depression which conventional medicine has failed to cure.

In his autobiography Broken Music, the musician Sting recalled how during a tour of Latin America in 1987 he sought out a traditional shaman who helped him grapple with troubling childhood memories.

Writing about his resultant trip, he said: "Closing your eyes transports you to this other world, as real as any other, where sound becomes light and light becomes colour and colour turns into geometry... I am either dreaming awake or I am dead."

But there is concern among health workers that repeated use of ayahuasca could be dangerous, particularly for anyone with mental health issues. The television presenter Bruce Parry, who tried ayahuasca during the filming of his 2008 series Amazon, was shown throwing up in a bucket as he "battled with his ego" during a trip that he described as "at once disappointing, telling and humbling".

The images made compelling viewing, but Parry stressed that Amazonian cultures didn't take hallucinogens in the same way as recreational drug users in the West.

"Ayahuasca is not a recreational pastime," he said. "[It's] a medicine and a spiritual lesson."

The Herbal and Wellbeing Sanctuary in Ticehurst, East Sussex, is one of a handful of health centres in Britain to offer ayahuasca therapies. A spokesperson for the centre said shamanic medicine helped "people extract years of emotional, energetic, psychological and spiritual junk ... as well as to remove all kinds of toxins from their body".

There is no suggestion that any of the centre's therapies are illegal – the spokesperson said it did not boil the vines with psychotropic leaves and had asked both the Department of Health and local police before starting up the business.

The centre, like Parry, was keen to warn against recreational use of ayahuasca. "Our centre attracts people who don't want to go all the way to the Amazon to experience ayahuasca and also people who have come back from the Amazon and have found that they did not really get the healing that they wanted," the spokesperson said.

Celebrity users

Sting The former Police frontman said, "It's not a frivolous pursuit... There's a certain amount of dread attached to taking it – you have a hallucinogenic trip that deals with death and your mortality. It's not something you're going to score and have a great time on."



Paul Simon His song "Spirit Voices" is based on his experiences taking the drug. He said: "We went to see a [shaman] in a shack in a jungle. He chanted these beautiful melodies and then they made up this brew, and they said the anaconda will appear to you ... but no anaconda appeared."



Bruce Parry He took ayahuasca during the filming of the series Amazon. "I was presented with a myriad of spiralling colours and possible wormholes and intriguing places to explore, but as soon as my mind tried to reason with them they receded to a black-and-white untuned TV signal."

Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookA delicious collection of 50 meaty main courses
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Recruitment Genius: UX Consultant

    £35000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: You will be working with a 8 st...

    Recruitment Genius: Part-time Editor

    £8000 - £12000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A unique opportunity has arisen ...

    Recruitment Genius: Field Sales Executive

    Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: An exceptional opportunity has arisen for a pa...

    Recruitment Genius: Kitchen and Bathroom Installers

    £18000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This provider of designer kitch...

    Day In a Page

    Orthorexia nervosa: How becoming obsessed with healthy eating can lead to malnutrition

    Orthorexia nervosa

    How becoming obsessed with healthy eating can lead to malnutrition
    Lady Chatterley is not obscene, says TV director

    Lady Chatterley’s Lover

    Director Jed Mercurio on why DH Lawrence's novel 'is not an obscene story'
    Farmers in tropical forests are training ants to kill off bigger pests

    Set a pest to catch a pest

    Farmers in tropical forests are training ants to kill off bigger pests
    Mexico: A culture that celebrates darkness as an essential part of life

    The dark side of Mexico

    A culture that celebrates darkness as an essential part of life
    Being sexually assaulted was not your fault, Chrissie Hynde. Don't tell other victims it was theirs

    Being sexually assaulted was not your fault, Chrissie Hynde

    Please don't tell other victims it was theirs
    A nap a day could save your life - and here's why

    A nap a day could save your life

    A midday nap is 'associated with reduced blood pressure'
    If men are so obsessed by sex, why do they clam up when confronted with the grisly realities?

    If men are so obsessed by sex...

    ...why do they clam up when confronted with the grisly realities?
    The comedy titans of Avalon on their attempt to save BBC3

    Jon Thoday and Richard Allen-Turner

    The comedy titans of Avalon on their attempt to save BBC3
    The bathing machine is back... but with a difference

    Rolling in the deep

    The bathing machine is back but with a difference
    Part-privatised tests, new age limits, driverless cars: Tories plot motoring revolution

    Conservatives plot a motoring revolution

    Draft report reveals biggest reform to regulations since driving test introduced in 1935
    The Silk Roads that trace civilisation: Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places

    The Silk Roads that trace civilisation

    Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places
    House of Lords: Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled

    The honours that shame Britain

    Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled
    When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race

    'When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race'

    Why are black men living the stereotypes and why are we letting them get away with it?
    International Tap Festival: Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic

    International Tap Festival comes to the UK

    Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic
    War with Isis: Is Turkey's buffer zone in Syria a matter of self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

    Turkey's buffer zone in Syria: self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

    Ankara accused of exacerbating racial division by allowing Turkmen minority to cross the border