One night in October in a small town in Utah, a mix of military veterans, corporate executives, thrill seekers, ex-members of a polygamous Mormon sect and a man who supposedly struck it rich on a game show converged for a $900 "healing" weekend. Together, overseen by a Colombian shaman, they drank the psychedelic brew known as ayahuasca—containing an Amazon rainforest shrub with the active ingredient N, N-Dimethyltryptamine, or DMT, and a vine containing harmala alkaloids that prevent the drug from breaking down in the body. Then Lorenzo Gonzales started howling, sobbing, laughing and repeatedly babbling "wah, wah" like a child, reports the AP.
He's one of many turning to ayahuasca in search of spiritual enlightenment and an experience that could bring them closer to God than traditional religious services. Those who drink ayahuasca report seeing shapes and colors and going on wild, sometimes terrifying journeys that can last hours. Many hope to heal physical and mental afflictions—including eating disorders, depression, substance use disorders and PTSD—after conventional medications and therapy failed. Gonzales' wife is convinced the drug helped her 50-year-old husband, who'd long battled drug addiction and had been diagnosed with early-stage dementia. "I feel like a dark force has been taken out of my soul," says the father of four, adding he's stopped taking pills for depression, PTSD, and insomnia.
Celebrities like Aaron Rodgers, Will Smith, and Prince Harry have talked about using ayahuasca and the rising demand for it has led to hundreds of churches like the Hummingbird Church that the Gonazles visited. Advocates say they are protected from prosecution by a 2006 US Supreme Court ruling, which granted a New Mexico branch of a Brazilian-based ayahuasca church the right to use the drug as a sacrament—even though its active ingredient remains illegal under US federal law. But there are concerns that the benefits of ayahuasca haven't been well studied and that unregulated ceremonies might pose a danger for some participants.
Courtney Close, Hummingbird's founder, highlights the potential danger when inexperienced users focused on making money start hosting events. She recounts instances of people at ceremonies being sexually assaulted, ripped off, and sent home without follow-up support. To improve safety, Hummingbird has brought doctors, nurses, and CPR-trained staff to ceremonies, encouraged participants to stop taking certain medications before they arrive, and created an intake process that weeds out those with severe mental illnesses and some heart conditions. Still, Close worries a US government crackdown is coming, given the presumption the largely unregulated movement is "creating a public health crisis." Read more from the AP here. (Read more ayahuasca stories.)