Ayahuasca: Coroner warns against tribal rituals involving hallucinogenic drug after teenager's death in Colombia

Henry Miller dumped on roadside by shaman's son after being poisoned by psychoactive drink

Tom Barnes
Thursday 30 August 2018 16:17 BST
Henry Miller had already taken part in another tribal ceremony two days before his death
Henry Miller had already taken part in another tribal ceremony two days before his death

Tourists should be wary of taking part in South American tribal rituals, a coroner has warned after a British teenager was killed by a hallucinogenic drug in Columbia.

Henry Miller, 19, died after drinking ayahuasca, or yage, a combination of brewed plants with psychoactive and supposedly spiritual qualities, during a ceremony in a remote rainforest.

The backpacker’s body was later found dumped on a roadside outside Mocoa, the capital of the Putumayo region, in April 2014, Avon Coroners Court heard.

Miller, of Kingsdown, Bristol, had left the UK two months earlier to travel to South America and was due to begin his studies at the University of Brighton in September 2014.

The hearing was told the teenager took part in two ceremonies within three days of each other led by Shaman Guillermo and his wife, Mama Concha.

Christopher Deardon, who was also travelling in Colombia, met Miller while the student was staying at a nearby hostel run by a retired Belgian police officer.

Mr Deardon told the coroner he had accompanied Miller to the ceremonies, which each cost 50,000 Colombian pesos (£13) to take part in.

“The second ceremony started around 10pm at night and was meant to last until 4am at the latest,” he said in a statement.

“After introductions Mama Concha asked Henry to step forward and drink from a small cup with herbs. None of us knew what this was but I assumed it was to facilitate a response to the ayahuasca.

“After 15 minutes I threw up and I remember seeing Henry get up to do the same. When he came back he seemed to be feeling the effects straight away.”

After taking the psychedelic mixture, which is illegal in Britain, Miller fell ill and Shaman Guillermo told his son and a friend to take him on a motorcycle to find medical help.

The pair realised the tourist was already dead en route to hospital and left his body on the roadside, the coroner was told.

Miller’s father, David, said his son told him in a phone call the day before his death he had drunk three cups of yage at a ceremony the previous evening, but felt nothing.

Ayahuasca is a brewed, halluinogenic drink used in shamanic ceremonies in South America

The next his family heard from Columbia was a message to contact staff at the hostel where their son had been staying, who informed them he had been found dead.

A post-mortem examination carried out in the UK by Dr Russell Delaney agreed with prior Colombian tests, giving a cause of death as intoxication by ayahuasca and anti-nausea drug hyoscine.

The coroner was told that in July of this year Shaman Guillermo, Mama Concha, their son and his friend were put on trial by the local indigenous community and ordered to undergo punishment over the death.

Foreign Office official Emily Brown told the court the shaman had offered his condolences to Miller’s relatives and said a tourist had never died before at one of their ceremonies.

Ignatius Hughes QC, representing the Miller family, said they wanted other travellers to be aware of the dangers of taking part in these tribal rituals.

“Any anxiety generally is that I should alert the court to their concern that other young travellers might benefit from being made aware of the small but real dangers inherent in this perfectly lawful practice,” he said.

“We understand from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office that consideration is being given to a standard message to travellers when they visit the FCO website for that part of the world.”

Senior Avon coroner, Maria Voisin, recorded a verdict of accidental death and said she would be writing to the Foreign Office highlighting the findings of the inquest.

“We know there are a lot of students and young people travelling in that part of the world and I will be making such a report,” she added.

“I will be phrasing it in such a way to encourage some standard message warning about this ceremony.”

Additional reporting by PA

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