Ayahuasca is the entheogen attracting the most interest in non-clinical settings. Used for centuries by tribal Amazonian societies, it's consumed as a bitter tea, made from the vine and the leaf of two separate plants. Peru has become a thriving centre of ayahuasca tourism. Brazil is home to three, state-sanctioned syncretic churches based on ayahuasca ceremonies.
Ayahuasca is legal for religious purposes in the United States as the result of a Supreme Court case (as is peyote-derived mescalin, among Native Americans). In Canada, it's in legal limbo – not on the banned-substances list, but without formal permits for import, though it is available for purchase in certain botanical enterprises. Ayahuasca groups have formed in major U.S. cities, as well as in Vancouver, Toronto, and Montreal.
“People are feeling deeply disconnected from their selves, from the natural world and the cosmos,” says Toronto filmmaker Richard Meech, whose documentary on the subject, Vine of the Soul, airs on Vision TV in November. “Neither traditional religion nor traditional medicine are answering that call. So why not see what these psychoactive substances have to offer?”
Serious disciples never take ayahuasca recreationally.
“To hallucinate denotes seeing or hearing something not there,” says Vancouver's Tim Molloy, a crack-cocaine addict for 15 years until he took ayahuasca 15 months ago. “What is presented to you [with ayahuasca]is real – seeing, hearing, smelling, feeling. It's like a mirror; you're getting a reflection back of what is really there.
“I can't say for sure how it all worked, but the obsession to use drugs left me. … I could give myself credit for all of the things I'd been through, all the things I'd accomplished. I understood why I engaged in addictive behaviours and self-destructive patterns. I felt so completely open and unconditional about everything. I was able to receive love, and to love myself.”
Another new documentary, The Spirit Molecule, examines the pioneering work of American psychiatrist Rick Strassman. Between 1990 and 1995, Dr. Strassman injected 400 doses of DMT, a component in ayahuasca, into 53 subjects at the University of New Mexico – the first U.S. clinical trial with hallucinogens since 1970. The results were shocking.
“I expected certain effects, near-death and unitary, Zen-type enlightenment experiences,” Dr. Strassman said. “These were rare. Instead, volunteers saw their bodies separate from their consciousness. They beheld an environment in which they interacted with overwhelmingly powerful beings – reptilian, insect-like, plant-like, machine-like, quite strange stuff. They held thought conversations with them.
“And all of them described the effects as more real than real, not products of their imagination.”
‘Respect, awe and fear'
This needs to be said: There are no Timothy Learys here. No one is advocating a return to the reckless hedonism that often marked LSD voyages of the 1960s, and that helped to invite the statutory crackdown.
Today's most ardent proselytizers of psychedelics as therapy acknowledge its risks.
“As with any powerful tool,” cautions Matthew Johnson, a Johns Hopkins pharmacologist, “there are real dangers here. Lots of people should never take these kinds of drugs.”
Psychedelics, notes Dr. Guss, the psilocybin-testing psychiatrist, “are just part of the broad menu of healing practices that includes meditation, fasting, prayer, rhythmic drumming, and ecstatic dance.
“For many people, the wiser, more acceptable path is the less intense path. There will always be a certain kind of respect, awe and fear around these substances, as there should be.”
And no one is promising instant panaceas or nirvanas. “I'm not sure it's true that psychedelics usher in transformational change,” says Dr. Goldsmith, the conference organizer. “Insights are easy. Change is hard.”
Nevertheless, a renewed interest in the creative, healing, spirit-awakening potential of the psychedelic medicine cabinet doesn't appear ex nihilo.
Maybe it's a harbinger of the notion that, at some level, we're trying to repair the mind-body disconnect – the materialist, Cartesian worldview – that has governed Western life for centuries.
Maybe, in short, we are beginning to wake up. High time, indeed.
Michael Posner is a feature writer for The Globe and Mail.