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Death in the Amazon Brings Attention to Ayahuasca

A recent tragedy in Peru has brought international attention to the healing and ceremonial ayahuasca communities.

Death in the Amazon Brings Attention to Ayahuasca

On September 13th, the mother and sister of 18-year-old Kyle Nolan, arrived in the Amazon jungle region of Madre de Dios, Peru, where the town of Puerto Maldonaldo is located, to identify Kyle’s body and find out how he died. They returned home to California without any useful information.

Kyle had come to Peru in mid-August to participate in a 10-day “ayahuasca retreat.” Ayahuasca is the sacred visionary/hallucinogenic tea that has been used by indigenous shamans in the Amazon for at least 4,000 years.

Kyle died during a shamanic ceremony there at the Chimbre center, and no one knows why, at least not yet, because the shaman running the ceremony tried to hide what happened, which is why Kyle’s family went down to Peru.

A donation fund was set up, and $8,223 was raised, which will allow Kyle’s family to bring their son’s body home for an autopsy and a proper burial. 

According to shamanism expert Alan Shoemaker, the shaman at the Chimbre center told the police in Puerto Maldonaldo that the cause of death was from an “ayahuasca overdose.” This makes the death very suspicious because you can not overdose on ayahuasca. 

This tragic event has created massive waves throughout the psychedelic community, and a number of people have been concerned that this incident will reflect negatively on the healing ceremonies that utilize ayahuasca.

I want to bring attention to ayahuasca’s long track record of safety and healing in this context, and it seems to me that tragic events like this could have been prevented if ayahuasca use was legal in the United States. 

Although the Supreme Court ruled in 2006 that ayahuasca can be used in the U.S. as a legal sacrament by the União do Vegetal (UDV) church in New Mexico, and later by the Santo Daime Church in Oregon, but for everyone else it’s a Schedule 1 drug--in the same category as heroin and LSD--because it contains DMT.

DMT, or dimethyltryptamine, is a chemical that’s found naturally in the human body, in many animals and plants, although no biochemist knows what biological function it serves in any of these places.

When smoked, snorted, or injected, DMT is also one of the most powerful psychedelics known, although it’s not active orally because it’s destroyed in the digestive system by an enzyme called “monoamine oxidase” (MAO).

DMT is not physically or psychologically addictive. In fact, few people are eager to do it again any time soon, after having had an experience with it.

In the Amazon, DMT is naturally found in a number of plants, and a shrub which contains it, known as psychotria viridis, is often used in ayahuasca brews.

Although every shaman has his own personal recipe for ayahuasca, that includes different adjunct plants, the mixture always contains plants with two key chemical elements--DMT and a substance known as “harmaline.”

Harmaline, found in the Banisteriopsis caapi vine, is a substance that deactivates the body’s release of MAO, and is known as an MAO inhibitor (MAOI). 

This allows the DMT in ayahuasca brews to become orally active. It also slows down the experience, and renders it much more comprehensible.

However, the sacred jungle juices of the Amazon, known collectively as “ayahuasca,” actually can significantly vary in their chemical properties.

This is because every shaman has his or her own secret ayahuasca recipe, which utilizes different accompanying psychoactive plants, that influence the journey, and some adjunct plants, like datura, can be toxic.

However, from a physiological perspective, the mixture of DMT and harmaline appears to be quite safe, and there are few, if any, serious injuries or death associated with using the traditional ayahuasca brew.

Because ayahuasca contains an MAOI, certain dietary restrictions (i.e., nothing fermented, or with the amino acid “tyramine”) need to be followed for at least 12 hours before the experience, or there can be a lot of physical discomfort and the risk of a hypertensive crisis.

But there are no reported deaths from anyone following the wrong diet (because, pharmacologically, harmaline is a “reversible” MAOI), or from anyone ever fatally overdosing, because one will vomit up the contents.

The only deaths that have been associated with ayahuasca occurred because the person was on contraindicated medications at the time.

So what tragically happened to Kyle is a mystery, but it’s unlikely that he died from the ancient DMT-harmaline blend, that is currently being studied by the Beckley Foundation in England for healing and other beneficial properties.

Incidentally, a study of UDV members by ULCA psychiatric researcher Charles Grob found them to be psychologically and physically healthier than average. Other studies of ayahuasca users have found similar results.

To find out about the 2013 9th annual International Shamanism Conference--July 21st through 27th--in Iquitos, Peru, where ayahuasca is legal, and where I’ll be speaking, see: www.soga-del-alma.org 

Want to learn more about psychedelics? Check out my new book on the subject, The New Science of Psychedelics: At the Nexus of Culture, Consciousness, and Spirituality. To find out more see: http://store.innertraditions.com/isbn/978-1-59477-492-8?id=4350&displayZoom=1

If you enjoy my column, and want to stay in touch with what’s happening in psychedelic and cannabis culture, “like” my Facebook page:

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