Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Entheogens: Ayahuasca et al.

(From my last entry)
The next set of plant medicines I would like to discuss is the ayahuasca/yagé/daime/hoasca/caapi plant medicine family.  All of these substances are more or less chemically the same.  They contain a woody vine, usually called the ayahuasca vine or banisteriopsis caapi, which contains an ingredient which makes it possible for humans to digest DMT, or dimethlytryptamine.  (For more information about the associated chemistry, go to (1).)  The other ingredient, the admixture plant, contains DMT, and varies due to region.  In Peru, and for the Santo Daime and the UDV, the admixture plant is chacrona; or psychotria viridis. (2)  The yagé brew uses another DMT-containing plant called chacropanga.  These brews are made in extended prayer ceremonies, with some cultural distinctions giving rise to the different branches of this particular spiritual family.  However, the belief that the medicine is a holy sacrament is universal - within the cultures that use it (words in italics added for clarification).

History of Ayahuasca, "Vine of the Souls" or "Vine of Death"
No one knows for how long humans have used the plant brew known as ayahuasca in Peru, yagé in the Colombian Amazon, and daime, hoasca or caapi in Brazil.  Although there are no archeological records to verify its origin, researchers posit that humans have been drinking this brew since prehistoric times.  Archeological evidence of other types of hallucinogenic plant use exists dating back to between 1500-2000 BC; however no evidence of the prehistoric use of the ayahuasca brew has been found.  The first Western documentation of its use was in 1861, and by this time use of the brew had spread throughout the indigenous peoples of the Amazon basin, causing researchers to propose its prehistoric origin.  What is most interesting to me about the brew is that the neither of the two main components, the plant carrying the reversible MAO inhibitor and the plant carrying the DMT, are food plants.   Was it random chance when the first shamans mixed them together?  The elders say it was not chance at all - it was the plants themselves that 'showed' them how to make the brew.  The first shaman I ever sat with in ceremony claimed that tobacco, who he said was the 'first plant teacher," taught the people what the ayahuasca component plants looked like, where to find them, and the involved process by which the raw materials are turned into the brew. (4) 
(For a very comprehensive review of the history of ayahuasca, see (3))

The important part of this subject for me is the longevity of ayahuasca's use, and the fact that in many indigenous cultures today, drinking this medicine is a normal part of weekly life in the village and has been for more generations than can be counted, with NO ill effects.  This is true with my own spiritual elders, although I am not at liberty to give specific details about the source of the particular yagé tradition I follow.  I believe their request for privacy is in part to ensure that their village does not become overrun with spiritual seekers, such as what is currently happening in Iquitos in Peru and other places where ayahuasca tourism has skyrocketed in the past decade or so.  What I can say is that their culture and tradition is one with a very long history, and they view the yagé they brew, serve and drink as a sacrament and as a teacher.  

Hoasca Project
One aspect of this research that really stands out for me comes from the 1993 Hoasca Project, an international study of the long-term effects of drinking hoasca, the name of the sacrament of the União do Vegetal (UDV) Church from Brazil..  As early as the mid-eighties, researcher Dennis McKenna and anthropologist Luis Eduardo Luna, while working together in the Amazon, talked about the possibility of holding a biomedical investigation of ayahuasca.  In 1991, they attended a conference sponsored by the Medical Studies section of the UDV: 

      " Following the 1991 conference, McKenna returned to the United States and drafted a proposal describing
      the objectives of the study that was to become known as the Hoasca Project. Initially, the objective was to
      submit the proposal to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, but as the proposal took shape it became clear
      that funding for the study would be unlikely to originate from any government agency. Not only were there
      legal, logistical, and political problems with securing NIH funds for a study to be carried out in Brazil, it was
      also clear that given the nature of government drug policy, the NIH would not look favorably on a proposal that
      was not aimed at demonstrating serious harmful consequences resulting from the use of a psychedelic
      drug." (5) 

This is of course one of the main points I am trying to make with this blog/book - that due to the extreme taboo our western culture has placed on mind-altering plants (note I do not use the term drug here!), the ability to objectively and scientifically analyze their use and the effects of their use has been difficult at best.  Luckily (for scientific inquiry if nothing else), McKenna and Luna persevered and found funding elsewhere, and the Hoasca Project began in 1993.  The results were very positive:

     "Among the key findings were that long-time members of the UDV commonly underwent experiences that
     changed their lives and behavior in positive and profound ways; and that there was a persistent elevation in
     serotonin uptake receptors in platelets, possibly indicative of similar long-term serotonergic modulation
     occurring in the central nervous system that may reflect long-term adaptive changes in brain functions. The
     study did establish that the regular use of hoasca, at least within the ritual context and supportive social
     environment that exists within the UDV, is safe and without adverse long-term toxicity, and, moreover,
     apparently has lasting, positive influences on physical and mental health." (6)

Now, here in the US, ayahuasca itself is not actually against the law.  But it is, sort of.   Recently the DEA has been making the argument that since DMT is a Schedule 1 Drug, anything that contains DMT should also be considered in this category, and therefore illegal. The exception is for the two groups who are legally recognized churches in the US, the UDV and the Santo Daime.  Use of the sacrament is "more or less legal" to registered members of these churches.  (7).  In case you aren't familiar: "Schedule 1 drugs, substances, or chemicals are defined as drugs with no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse. Schedule I drugs are the most dangerous drugs of all the drug schedules with potentially severe psychological or physical dependence."(8)

Nothing in the Hoasca study, nor in any of the literature on the subject, nor in my personal experience, suggests that anyone has, or will, or even can become dependent on this medicine, severly or otherwise.   While it is true that there is 'no currently accepted medical use,' highlight the word 'accepted' in that phrase and you come a bit closer to the truth.  If you ask an elder from my spiritual tradition, or a curandero (healer) from Peru or Brazil, they would tell you that many ailments can be cured by drinking the medicine.  I do not understand how this medicine can be considered dangerous, when used in the proper context within a legitimate tradition.  I refute every aspect of the DEA's classification of this medicine, which HAS medical use, HAS NO potential for abuse (again, to be clear, when used in the proper way), and does NOT CAUSE dependence, either psychological or physical.  Unfortunately, there are people who misuse this medicine, either by taking it without supervision,  in settings that aren't safe, or taking on the role of serving it without the proper training,

The bigger application of this medicine, in my perspective as a Westerner and as an extreme case study, has been in its therapeutic use.  I will save my personal story for a future blog, but suffice it to say that when people claim that one night of drinking yagé can be the equivalent of attending ten years of psychotherapy, they are NOT exaggerating!  You can go online and find hundreds if not thousands of personal testimonies, crediting the medicine with everything from curing addictions (by allowing one to delve into the root causes of them, and then consciously clearing these), to increasing one's capacity for joy and for present-moment consciousness, to inspiring new purpose, creativity and vision to one's work, to healing familial dysfunction and fostering healthier relationships... and this list is just the tip of the iceberg.   If not for the cultural taboos and incredibly prejudiced light in which our culture views psychoactive substances, anything with this many reported positive benefits would be the subject of numerous scientific studies by now.   As stated in the ICEERS website, "the increasing personal accounts of Ayahuasca’s role in therapeutic and personal growth practices emphasize the need for thorough clinical studies."  

And so, my prayer today is just this: may we - collectively - bring about a new age in thought around these important medicines and stop believing the propaganda and smear/fear campaigns which are so blatantly obvious to those of us who have direct experience of these sacraments.  They are NOT what our government tells us they are!   They do not cause psychosis, or create abuse or addiction in users.  Believe me, it is WORK to go stay up all night and drink yagé, to see so clearly the things I need to work on, to feel the emotions I have suppressed in my body, to allow and acknowledge my shadow side to be seen, and in doing so, to bring light to those darkest and scariest of places in my being.   Not to mention the purging!   What I am saying is I do not drink medicine for fun.  I do so to heal my being, to "...be better so I can live better," as one of my teachers likes to say.  In Brazil, religious use of the brew, "...was (finally) legalized after two inquiries in the mid-1980's, which concluded that ayahuasca is not a recreational drug and has valid spiritual use."   What a refreshing perspective!  I pray to see the day when this country can be so open-minded, and when the benefits of this medicine can be experienced in safety and with the assurance of freedom in the sovereign choice to alter one's consciousness for greater health and happiness.

(1) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ayahuasca 
(2) ibid.
(3) http://realitysandwich.com/219531/ayahuasca-an-ethnopharmacologic-history/; see also https://www.erowid.org/chemicals/ayahuasca/ayahuasca_timeline.php
(4) Conversations with DJ, 11/07/07 and 11/08/07.  (His name is kept anonymous to protect DJ's privacy.)
(5) http://realitysandwich.com/219531/ayahuasca-an-ethnopharmacologic-history/
(6) ibid; see also McKenna et al.1998 for more complete findings of the study
(7) https://www.erowid.org/chemicals/ayahuasca/ayahuasca_law.shtml
(8) http://www.dea.gov/druginfo/ds.shtml
(9) http://iceers.org/science-interest-ayahuasca.php#.VYCKGkaYVqU
(10) https://en.wikipedia.org/?title=Ayahuasca

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