Ayahuasca: Believers call the Amazonian plant a sacrament; the state calls it illegal

On a Saturday night in May, 15 middle-aged teachers, doctors, and artists — dressed in matching white garb — enter a South Miami home. A cloud of sage smoke makes the tidy suburban townhouse smell like a head shop. They pay $96, climb a set of stairs, and sit in a circle in a roomful of pillows. Then they turn off the lights.

In minutes, a Chilean shaman appears with a mystical healing brew. He sits in front of an altar and whistles as each person drinks from an eight-ounce cup. After a half-hour, they launch into a powerful hallucinogenic trip. For these 15 people, the all-night ceremony is a deeply religious experience.

Made from an Amazonian jungle vine, the psychotropic tea is called ayahuasca, or "vine of the dead." Indigenous tribes call it medicine, churches call it a sacrament, but in Miami-Dade — where South American shamans hold sessions at private homes, sweat lodges, and art galleries from Homestead to Overtown — cops call it illegal.

"If you wanted to find ayahuasca five years ago, it was extremely rare," says Florida International University professor Manuel Torres, who teaches a class called Art and Shamanism. "Now it is quite available."

Ayahuasca triggers an eight-hour spiritual vision that is both illuminating and messy: Users vomit, talk to God, scream in terror, and believe they have died and been reborn. Some have clairvoyant visions, feel stripped of ego, and generally walk away with a life-changing epiphany.

Professors at Harvard and UCLA have studied the plant, which is said to cure everything from heroin addiction to breast cancer and psychological trauma.

"One session is worth 20 years of psychotherapy," says Dennis Jon McKenna, director of ethnopharmacology at Heffter Research Institute in Santa Fe, New Mexico, who has spent years researching the biochemical effects of the plant in Brazil.

But as the plant has gained popularity in the States, spiritual leaders and educators fear ceremonies have lost integrity. They compare visiting shamans to "a traveling circus," even drug dealers. "Some of them have made it into a business," says a Colombian-born spiritual guide who hosts ceremonies and goes by the name "the Eagle." "That is not the intention of the plant."

In the wrong hands, ayahuasca can be dangerous, experts warn. If it's not prepared correctly — through a sequence of grinding and boiling two separate plants — users can become ill and, in rare cases, die.

"You have to be careful," the Eagle warns. "It can be your best friend or your worst enemy."

Used for centuries by Amazonian tribes to communicate with ancestors and heal ailments, the vine looks like a large cinnamon stick, grows in spirals, and tastes like dirt. It has no effect unless mixed with shrubs containing a chemical called dimethyltryptamine. Traditional ceremonies involve dancing, singing, and "sucking out the illness" through sound, touch, and verbal vibrations.

The Western world wasn't privy until 1858, when a geographer named Villavicencio mentioned the brew in his book Geography of Equator. He called it "a magic drink," noting tribes used it "to decipher plans of the enemy" and "make sure of the love of their womenfolk."

In the 1950s, as the concept of mind expansion hit academia, researchers began to study the concoction. "It may well represent the most highly evolved narcotic consciousness on Earth," Harvard University ethnobotanist Richard Evan Schultz declared after years of research. (The professor went on to influence Allen Ginsberg, Timothy Leary, and William S. Burroughs.)

In 1993, UCLA professors launched the first in-depth study of the plant's psychological effects during a biomedical investigation called the Hoasca Project (hoasca is the Portuguese transliteration of ayahuasca). A team of researchers traveled to Brazil — where use of the drug is legal — to observe the long-term effects on members of a church called Uniao do Vegetal (UDV), or "Union of the Vegetable." They researched the behavior of users and took biochemical measurements of the heart and brain.

What they found was stunning: Long-term ayahuasca use increases the number of transmitters that feed the brain with serotonin. Those who use the plant, they found, were less likely to experience depression, alcoholism, and violent tendencies.

Heffter Research Institute's McKenna, who worked on the project, says it does wonders for health. "It was something we never expected to find," he says. "It's not a magical cure, but it is certainly a helpful tool."

Not everybody saw it that way. In 2006, U.S. Customs authorities seized a shipment of ayahuasca on its way to a UDV congregation in New Mexico. The church challenged the U.S. government before the Supreme Court — arguing the plant was a religious sacrament — and won.

Soon the church of Santo Daime — a Brazilian sect that believes in a combination of Christianity and Kardecist Spiritism — began pushing for legal use in Florida, where private ceremonies emerged in the Miami area.

During Santo Daime's ceremonies held at an undisclosed location in the Design District (which New Times agreed not to name), men and women are separated into two groups. They wear black and white uniforms with bow ties, drink the brew, and dance around an altar. Nobody is allowed to go outside.

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18 comments
Cubanpete
Cubanpete

So Ive taken acid and meskaline when I was younger, i remember always using it whenever i needed to make decissions, i had noticed after alot of use that i could do that, you enter a different stage, i remember thinking at that time that everyone had to try it at least once. I kind of dont feel that way anymore, i have kids now, i wouldnt want them to do it. So i have a question for those people who have done both... Is it a similar trip, is it the same?

Scars Are Stories
Scars Are Stories

I traveled to Peru last February in hope of finding a shaman to take me through the journey I tried at home myself once, that made me discover things about myself and my family I never would have otherwise! Unfortunately, I found that in Peru, it's become another tourist industry dominated by "white" entrepreneurs that exploit Native Peruvians. I wrote an ethnography about it, complete with a lot of pictures - check it out if you're interested! http://www.practiceofmadness.c...

I am also a very strong believer in the healing powers of plants - ethnobotanicals that have been used for many centuries!

All Best,scars

Lana
Lana

All I know is that it'd be nice if the "land of the free" really was.

Eric Stewart
Eric Stewart

Hello,My name is Eric Stewart. I Live in Tampa Florida and would like to come to a plant teaching seminar. I've been looking for a long time. I have been studying permaculture and have had a vision about a year ago in my dreams which has sent me towards ayahuasca. Please contact me at zetazhan@gmail.com if you have information for a plant teaching in Florida.

Jeff
Jeff

In the title of this article there is a claim that the the state of Florida holds Ayahuasca as being illegal. I would like to know what the source for this information is. I have not been able to find any source that Ayuhuasca is illegal in the state of Florida. I also find it odd that an article making this claim in the headline would have no information at all in the article about the claim it makes in its headline !!! Perhaps this is because the headline is a fictional title and is designed to use sensationalism to grab the attention of readers ? I hope the author will read my comment and be moved to seek truth in her writing or at least change her career from journalism to writing fiction. Journalism like Ayahuasca functions on sincerity and truth. Ayahuasca and Journalism should be working together for a better world and not in opposition to each other. Amen

Nicole
Nicole

I started my journey of Ayahuasca exactly a year ago thanks to a friend who introduced me to a spectacular new family of friends and I can only say that it has been an amazing learning experience and a wonderful spiritual expansion in the most truest sense.

In none of our ceremonies did anyone have an awful experience. Everyone who participated always came out of it with a renewed sense of self and many of us have relieved our fears, our pain and to add, our spiritual connection has been reinforced.

Ayahuasca, when used correctly and within a safe environment of a sacred and blessed circle by your shaman, will inevitably be a wonderful experience.

I cannot thank all the wonderful shamans I have met enough for having helped lift so much pain from past grief from my life. I will always be thankful for that and i respect all the ceremonies as they are not to be taken lightly. Everyone goes for their own reasons and some cannot take the experience as they might not be ready for it. But for those who are, it is unforgettable.

Maya
Maya

Constantine,BTW: my email is MayaNYCity@aol.com. Thank you and I hope you read this.

Maya
Maya

Hi Constantine. 8 year ago I traveled to Peru to an Ayahuasca retreat and I went through a series of rituals and purgings involving Ayahuasca and San Pedro. I had 3 Ayahuasca ceremonies within a two week time period. The purpose of that was to take you though different aspects of your being to heal the traumas you have experienced in this life. I had the most incredible and amazing visions. However, during my first ayahuasca experience I had terrifying visions and a lot of pain as I experienced my fears and my traumas, but as Mother Ayahuasca started the purging and cleansing process the visions turned into beautiful scenarios with the Goddesses signing and much much more...By the end of my first Ayahuasca ceremony I was so drained and ecstatic at the same time that I knew something incredible had just taken place. Two days later it was time for the second ceremony. I was a bit nervous and scared and I wasn't sure if I had the courage to relive more terrifying experiences, but I had gone to the Amazon to heal with Shamans for a reasons and I needed to follow through. The Shamans were very loving and understanding and knew it could be a very frightening process so they didn't push. Needless to say, after my third ayahuasca ceremony during the second week in Peru my visions had changed completely from the first ceremony. They were more clear, more bright, more powerful. The process unfolded as we were told it would...The first ceremony could possibly be a bit terrifying since we were reaching to deep and hidden parts of our psyche to heal the traumas in our life, as the second ceremony progressed the cleansing and healing had begun and the visions were more pleasant and beautiful and healing and the third ceremony would be more healing yet and provide strong glimpses of my future and what I would be called to do. I remember VERY Cleary on top of seeing many beautiful visions that I kept on seeing a vision of an "Eagle" and the "United States" over and over. In those moments we were freshly at war with Iraq, so at the time I thought the visions had to do with that and that we were going to prevail. However, as I walked into "Steve's Pizzeria" in North Miami Beach this past Saturday, I picked up a copy of the New Times (something I rarely ever do..sorry) and as I walk back from picking up my slices of pizza my boyfriend is reading this article and he was like "look..,these people are doing something similar than what you did in Peru" my heart skipped and I mentioned to him "The Eagle" again and he said "look...in this article it mentions a Shaman by the name of "The Eagle" here in Miami!, I went to pick up my own copy of the new times and read the article and then it "hit" me...This is what my visions that I kept seeing over and over again possibly meant by "The Eagle" in the "USA". I don't know if that is the case but it was like a light bulb turned on inside of me and I "felt" like I needed to explore this more. I have been searching for "Authentic Shamans or Spiritual Guides" in Miami for quite a while. ANY and ALL help I could get so that I may be able to contact "The Eagle Shaman" would be greatly appreciated. BTW: yes, your account of the details sounds pretty much right. Thank you so much... Maya C.

Constantine
Constantine

I am Constantine, the person mentioned in this article. I just have one clarification: the description of my experience in this article, embraces *only* the first 10 minutes of a long, long night. Yes, there was that "negotiation for life" but that was only a lesson; the token necessary to pass into the world of mother Ayahuasca. After that "negotiation" happened, the most beautiful visions and understanding of the self "without" the self came about. Ayahuasca does not provide a terrifying experience but rather it makes us confront the most terrifying scenarios in our subconscious mind. Regardless of our race, background and life experience, one of the most terrifying experiences of life is to loose control. Ayahuasca teaches us to surrender such illusion and to realize that the Universe is in control of everything, even our breaths and that by all means, the Universe is a much better manager of circumstance than any of us alive could ever dream to be.

daimista
daimista

There is a small error in this story. Santo Daime participants do NOT wear black and white, rather they wear blue and white. Also, no bowties - normal straight blue ties. And the idea that no one is allowed to go outside is silly. People can go get fresh air and all rules are only requests - no one is going to physically stop you from doing anything. People are asked to stay in the circle as much as possible, that's all.

Why cant reporters get simple facts right?!

Matthew Meyer
Matthew Meyer

Thanks for the interesting article. A correction: the seizure of the UDV shipment of ayahuasca took place in 1999.

thr33to16
thr33to16

I can not speak for the aya brew because personally I have not taken it myself. However I have taken something similar, a pharmacuetical version of the aya brew that lasts 3 hrs vs 8. I have done it several timea and encourage everyone to try it at least once before death. Of course when you die, the chemical in aya floods your brain, but it would be nice to come back from. Which is why it's good to try now.

wetiko8
wetiko8

same here im interested and have had the calling for a long time aurelious8@gmail.com

wetiko8
wetiko8

same here im interested and have had the calling for a long time aurelious8@gmail.com

Oliass
Oliass

Well, I don't think you should be looking to see if "Ayahuasca" is illegal in FL, but instead look for DMT (which is what Ayahuasca contains) being illegal...because DMT is illegal in the entire USA, unfortunately, unless specific religious groups have won the right to use it. That hasn't happened in FL...yet.

Toaster Waffles
Toaster Waffles

Can you email me? boinkmeister@gmail.com thanks in advance

wetiko8
wetiko8

I have been called to ayahuasca for a long time please if you could point me to a udv group in florida or be of any help my email is aurelious8@gmail.com

zengold747
zengold747

@daimista 

I had my first experience with the plant in Brazil. It was a very pleasant one. I live in Florida and I am looking for gentle soul to tell me where can I find the Santo Daime being practiced in South Florida. I know that my request will be fulfilled because I believe in the power of the universe connecting things at will. May the Creator bless you all. My email is jrk747@aol.com 

 
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