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.

Informal gatherings, too, are almost always held in controlled settings, which might be why the drug is not on law enforcement's radar. (Miami Police spokesman Det. William Moreno couldn't recall a single arrest related to the plant.)

Explains a Colombian shaman named Nina: "We sit outside around the fire and go on the journey together. Nobody leaves until the plant is done." Shamans often meet with newcomers before the gathering to gauge their "energy" and determine if "intentions are pure."

Before the South Miami townhouse ceremony, an invitation was distributed to select individuals. It read like a flyer for a meditation retreat: "Using the sacred medicinal spirit, we will open the heart space with love and life."

The flyer then noted that reservations were limited to 17 people, and followed up with some unusual rules: You must wear white. No eating red meat beforehand. No wearing deodorant. And women "having their menstrual moon cycle" may not participate.

The flyer also describes the procedure: A healing shaman will "tap afflicted areas rhythmically" and "sing a song to individually cure each person." Everyone stays seated and "concentrated on analyzing and investigating their own visions." Afterward, group members explained they felt "cleansed" and "invigorated."

But not all ceremonies go smoothly. Constantine, a thoughtful 32-year-old from Coral Gables, recently had a horrifying first experience. Three months ago, a friend told him about a small home in Overtown where a ceremony would take place. When he arrived, there was "creepy energy," and a tall shaman banged a drum as guests took turns drinking the brew clockwise in a circle.

"I begged for my life and not to die," he recalls. "I said, 'My family needs me.' And the plant replied, 'Your family does not need you. Nobody does, actually; they will all continue to breathe without you. And the world will continue to spin.'"

Constantine felt as if he'd been confronted by demons, thought he'd been poisoned, and genuinely believed he had died. Afterward, he saw the world in a new light. "It was the scariest thing I have ever done in my life," he says. "But I wouldn't take it back."

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Natalie O'Neill
Contact: Natalie O'Neill