Not All Ayahuasca is Made Equal

By Jasmine Virdi

As the use of ayahuasca becomes increasingly widespread, the Amazonian vine has extended its roots beyond the traditional indigenous and religious contexts of South America, lending itself to a newly evolving field of practice. However, the economic viability of ayahuasca ceremonies combined with the vine’s complicated legal status opens the field to a plurality of malpractice, particularly when it comes to what practitioners actually serve in the cup. 

A Closer Look at the Chemical Composition of Ayahuasca

Ayahuasca, otherwise known as yagé, is perhaps one of the most curious hallucinogenic plants of the Amazon, known for its powerful psychoactive effects and healing capacities. Generally, when we refer to ayahuasca, we refer not only to the woody liana Banisteriopsis caapi, but the visionary decoction made by pounding its stems and boiling them together with various plant admixtures. 

Typically, ayahuasca, as prepared by the syncretic ayahuasca churches of Brazil, the Santo Daime, União do Vegetal, and Barquinha, only contains B. caapi and P. viridis (Psychotria viridis). However, it is increasingly common to encounter additional plants in brews made by the indigenous groups in Peru, Ecuador, and Colombia. For example, Colombian yagé is made with an entirely different DMT-containing admixture plant, Diplopterys cabrerana, which produces mild qualitative differences in terms of effect.

The psychoactive compound DMT is inactive when ingested orally, as it is the enzyme monoamine oxidase (MAO) in the gut that breaks down the vision-inducing ingredient before it is able to cross the blood-brain barrier and make its way into the central nervous system. However, the vine itself contains the beta-carboline alkaloids harmine, harmaline, and tetrahydroharmine (THH), of which harmine and harmaline are monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs). Chemically speaking, the alchemical essence of ayahuasca rests in the mixing of monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs) present in the alkaloids of the B. caapi vine with a DMT-containing admixture plant.

Determined to understand the diversity of ayahuasca brews, Helle Kaasik, a researcher from the University of Tartu, Estonia, in collaboration with researchers from the University of Campinas, Brazil, sought to illuminate the chemical differences in ayahuasca brews across traditions. 

Their study, yet to be published, analyzed changing distributions of DMT, harmine, harmaline, and tetrahydroharmine (THH) across 102 ayahuasca samples. These samples were taken from different locations in Europe and Brazil, spanning across different traditions including indigenous shamanic, Santo Daime, and neo-shamanic. 

Interesting tendencies emerged based on the traditions from which the samples came, with indigenous brews showing a balanced ratio between the concentrations of DMT, THH, and harmine. Samples that came from the ayahuasca religion, Santo Daime, also showed a similar balance between chemical compounds, although some brews tended towards increased concentrations of DMT.

However, when it came to brews received from neo-shamanic facilitators of different backgrounds, there was notably more variation between chemical constituents, and on average, they contained substantially greater concentrations of DMT than indigenous brews.

Of the 102 samples, 39 were further tested for additional additives and contaminants, with several brews from neoshamanic practitioners found to contain Peganum harmala (Syrian rue) and the DMT-containing Mimosa tenuiflora, otherwise known as jurema. Similar to the ayahuasca vine, Syrian rue contains the MAOI, harmaline. The combination of the MAOI in Syrian rue with the DMT-containing M. tenuiflora mimics the chemical composition of ayahuasca, being a well-known ayahuasca analog or “anahuasca.” The substitution of P. viridis with M. tenuiflora contributed to the higher concentrations of DMT found in neoshamanic brews. 

More shockingly, two of the samples obtained from Europe were found to contain no caapi at all. Rather, this counterfeit ayahuasca was found to contain a combination of moclobemide (a pharmaceutical antidepressant and MAOI), psilocin (the active ingredient in magic mushrooms), and high concentrations of DMT from M. tenuiflora.

For years now, well-seasoned psychonauts have been imitating the active ingredients in a similar manner, creating ayahuasca analogs by combining other DMT and MAOI-containing plants. Combinations made of extracted or synthesized ingredients are referred to as “pharmahuasca.” However, there is a distinction to be made between testing anahuasca, pharmahuasca, and other psychonautic cocktails on oneself as opposed to falsely marketing brews as ayahuasca. Hence, using the term “counterfeit.” 

Comparatively, there was no counterfeit ayahuasca found among disciplined ayahuasca traditions such as the Santo Daime and among indigenous practitioners. In South America in general, the raw materials to make ayahuasca are both abundant and affordable, removing any incentive to replace them with other plants or pharmaceuticals.

Towards an Ethos of Transparency 

Within the psychedelic community, the pressing issue of counterfeit ayahuasca is either often neglected or largely unknown. Thus, without pointing fingers, it is important that we as a community work to develop self-regulating mechanisms that foster and encourage transparent practices.

According to ayahuasca researcher and co-author of this paper, Helle Kaasik, the complicated legal situation surrounding ayahuasca combined with its lucrative viability as a business “attracts risk-prone and overconfident people who often do not understand the level of responsibility of giving a strong psychedelic to people in need of healing.” As a result of these bad actors, disciplined ayahuasca traditions should not be persecuted or forced to go underground.

“What the community can do,” Kaasik explains, “is to expect clear information about [the] composition of whatever ‘medicine’ is offered to them and avoid drinking with facilitators who don’t tell the full truth about the constituents or act offended when asked.”

Ayahuasca religions such as Santo Daime have their own self-regulating mechanisms built into the tradition. For example, amongst Daimistas, the brewing of the sacrament is a ritual in which the whole community participates, making it almost impossible for contaminants to be added while cooking.

In line with Chacruna.net’s “Ayahuasca Community Guide for the Awareness of Sexual Abuse,” we should also seek to establish guidelines for transparency among ayahuasca practitioners when it comes to informing participants about a brew’s origin and composition. Practitioners should take it upon themselves to communicate truthfully and proactively to participants what is in the brew before they decide to participate in a ceremony.

Building a culture around transparency is especially important in the case of adverse reactions. “Imagine someone ‘enrich[es]’ your ayahuasca with dissociatives, mushrooms or synthetic chemicals without your knowledge?” Kaasik adds. “This would be ethically unacceptable and unsafe, but sadly, sometimes it happens.” In such cases, knowing what was in the brew could make adverse reactions more easily remedied and avoided. 

In many circles, ayahuasca is reverently referred to as “the medicine,” but would we ingest a medicine without first knowing what we were taking? To uphold the sanctity of this beautiful sacrament, it is critical that individuals keep themselves actively informed about what they are ingesting. Given the choice, people don’t want to take suspicious substances with questionable facilitators when they have access to safe communities. If we are to call ayahuasca a medicine, we should also treat it like one.


Jasmine Virdi  

Jasmine Virdi is a freelance writer, editor, and proofreader. Since 2018, she has been working as a writer, editor, and social media coordinator for the fiercely independent publishing company Synergetic Press, where her passions for ecology, ethnobotany and psychoactive substances converge. Jasmine’s goal as an advocate for psychoactive substances is to raise awareness of the socio-historical context in which these substances emerged in order to help integrate them into our modern-day lives in a safe, grounded and meaningful way.

Black Lives Matter: A Note from our Team on a Matter of Oppression

Psychedelics Today stands in solidarity. 

As a media company at the forefront of many tough psychedelic conversations, we are looking to speak up for those who need to be heard and to provide a platform for oppressed people. Working in the psychedelic renaissance, in a space that typically favors the voices of white privilege, we yearn to bring the unheard voices of women, color, and indigenous roots to the conversation. 

We can all agree that African Americans have been systemically and horrifically oppressed for hundreds of years. Countless innocent black people have been murdered by law enforcement with near-zero accountability or sent to jail for decades for crimes that white people may serve no time for. 

The drug war has produced horrific outcomes for people domestically and around the world (Colombia, Honduras, Philippines, Singapore, and more). One of the worst parts of the drug war in the US is highly unequal profiling, consequences, and sentencing for non-violent drug offenses. 

We try to understand every day by bringing unheard voices into the spotlight to have tough conversations. That said, we know that we will never understand. We are committed to listening deeply to better understand these issues so that we can become stronger allies. 

As conversationalists and educators, we like to dig deep and uncover individual truths of what we think is the right way to behave in this world. Our goal is to help bring justice to many causes: ending the drug war, opening eyes to climate change, protecting threatened psychedelic plants and animals, helping indigenous communities, healing minds and bodies through sacred plant medicines and psychedelic drugs, and ending racial inequality in the drug world and beyond.

Psychedelics can inspire a deeper connection to nature, relationships, love, equality and peace. What we learn from these qualities can be applied to fix many issues, such as racist policies and violence. While acting as journalists to help people form their own opinion, we try to embody these qualities in our decision making.

We will never truly understand what it feels like to be an oppressed black person in America, but we stand with solidarity for those who do know what it feels like. We want to help make the conversation loud, to make the silenced voices heard. 

Many other groups and individuals are far better suited to help you protest, donate, or get involved politically. Of the many groups doing great work, a few to start with are: Students for Sensible Drug Policy, M4BL, or Extinction Rebellion.

We believe that the positive lessons that can be learned from psychedelics have the power to change many deeply rooted issues. Our message to everyone right now is to educate yourself and others so you can make the best possible decisions, fight for justice, and hopefully end oppression and racist violence for good.

Let’s rewrite the narrative together, through conversation, education, sharing, and peace.

Resources: 

Please take the time to check out these resources to learn how to donate, help, and educate yourself on the situation better. 

Psychedelics and People of Color

Please let us know if there are any other important resources, groups, and organizations that we should share here!

Mystical Experience and Psychedelic-Assisted Psychotherapy: Insights from Guided-Imagery Therapy with Cancer Patients

By Jerry B. Brown and Julie M. Brown

“There is something about the core of this experience that opens people up to the great mystery of what it is that we don’t know.”
-Roland R. Griffiths, Johns Hopkins School of Medicine

It is well-established that mystical experiences have historically played a pivotal role in indigenous shamanism and world religions (the miracles surrounding Moses’ burning bush and Jesus’ baptism). What is less well-known and quite unexpected is the discovery that mystical experiences are the catalyst for healing in contemporary psychedelic research.

Both the Johns Hopkins and NYU studies of the impact of psilocybin on cancer patients found that “In both trials, the intensity of the mystical experience described by patients correlated with the degree to which their depression and anxiety decreased.”

In other words, research scientists have consistently occasioned mystical experiences ̶ “flights of the soul” traditionally thought to be beyond the scope of empirical science ̶ in clinical settings by administering high-dose synthetic psilocybin. Furthermore, it turns out that these experiences hold the key to positive patient outcomes in psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy. Let this enigma sink in for a moment.

Three Seminal Studies

In the 1960s urban legends began circulating, claiming that psychedelics could allow intrepid trippers to meet spirit guides, to travel to other dimensions, and even to know God. In fact, the new science of psychedelics was in part inspired by the mystical experiences of early psychonauts: Grof’s cosmic consciousness revelations on LSD in Prague; Harner’s near-death journey on ayahuasca in the Amazon; and Leary’s mind-expanding awakening on psilocybin mushrooms in Cuernavaca, Mexico, to name but a few. Over time, the ability of psychedelics to generate authentic mystical experiences was confirmed in three seminal studies.

Stanislav Grof, MD, PhD

The first, the Miracle of Marsh Chapel (also called the “Good Friday Experiment”), was a psychedelic research experiment carried out by Walter N. Pahnke under the auspices of Leary’s Harvard Psilocybin Project. On Good Friday 1962, Pahnke randomly divided twenty volunteer Protestant divinity students into two groups assembled in a small room in the basement of Marsh Chapel. In this controlled double-blind study, half the students received capsules containing thirty milligrams of psilocybin and the other half received a large dose of niacin (vitamin B3) as a placebo. The results were compelling. Almost all members of the group receiving psilocybin reported profound mystical experiences. 

As Pahnke reports, “the persons who received psilocybin experienced to a greater extent than did the controls the phenomena described by our typology of mysticism.” He built a follow-up survey into the research design, which found that six months after the experiment the psilocybin subjects reported persistent positive, and virtually no negative, changes in their attitude and behavior. 

The second study showed that the Good Friday Experiment would withstand the test of time and scrutiny by independent reviewers. A 25-year follow-up investigation conducted in 1987 by then-graduate student Rick Doblin, founder of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies, documented that “all seven psilocybin subjects participating in the long-term follow-up, but none of the controls, still considered their original experience to have had genuinely mystical elements and to have made a valuable contribution to their personal lives.” Doblin concluded that Pahnke’s research on synthetic psilocybin “cast considerable doubt on the assertion that mystical experiences catalyzed by drugs are in any way inferior to nondrug mystical experiences.” 

In assessing Pahnke’s research, Walter H. Clark, recipient of the American Psychological Association’s Award for contributions to the psychology of religion, writes “There are no experiments known to me in the history of the scientific study of religion better designed or clearer in their conclusion than this one.”

A third round of studies initiated more than 40 years after the Good Friday Experiment was conducted at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine under the direction of psychopharmacologist Roland R. Griffiths. In two papers, published in 2006 and 2008, Griffiths empirically demonstrated that psilocybin could regularly result in mystical experiences with lasting benefits for participants. These double-blind studies found that: psilocybin was safe in structured, clinical settings; generated one of the five most meaningful experiences for most participants; and produced improvements in mood and quality of life that lasted more than one year (up to 14 months) after the sessions.

Roland R. Griffiths, PhD

Mystical Experience Questionnaire 

Our understanding of the common elements in mystical experience is largely based on the insights of William James (The Varieties of Religious Experience, 1902) and Walter T. Stace (Mysticism and Philosophy, 1960). These elements were refined, validated, and incorporated into a 30-question operational definition of mysticism, the Mystical Experience Questionnaire (MEQ30) utilized in the Johns Hopkins psilocybin studies. 

The five common elements of mystical experience are:

  • Unity/Sacredness – deep sense of unity with all of existence; knowledge that “all is one”; profound sense of reverence.
  • Positive Mood/Ecstasy – deeply felt sense of well-being; experience of ultimate peace and tranquility; irrepressible feelings of joy and amazement.
  • Transcendence of Time and Space/Eternity – loss of usual sense of time and space; existing beyond past, present and future; entering in a liminal, mythical dimension.
  • Authoritative/True Self – ability to know reality beyond the illusion of the senses; encounter with all-knowing divine presence; understanding one’s authentic or true self. 
  • Ineffable/Indescribable – difficulty describing the experience in words; impossibility of adequately communicating it to others.

Psychedelic-Assisted Psychotherapy

Since 2006, Johns Hopkins School of Medicine has been conducting the first research since the 1970s administering psilocybin to human subjects, including studies of personality changes and of psychedelic therapy for treating tobacco/nicotine addiction and cancer-related distress.

In 2016, Johns Hopkins undertook the largest ever study of psilocybin in treating chronic depression and anxiety among patients with life-threatening cancer. In this randomized, double-blind, cross-over trial, 51 patients were given a low placebo-like dose (1-3 mg/70 kg weight) vs. a high dose (22 or 30 mg/kg) in two sessions with a six-month follow-up.

In a Journal of Psychopharmacology article, Roland R. Griffiths, Matthew W. Johnson, and colleagues report that “High-dose psilocybin produced large decreases in clinician- and self-rated measures of depressed mood and anxiety, along with increases in quality of life, life meaning, and optimism, and decreases in death anxiety.” A six-month follow-up study showed that these results were sustained in most of the participants.

Some 70% of the cancer patients rated the high-dose psilocybin sessions as among the top five “most meaningful” and “spiritually significant” life experiences. In addition, their post-session mystical experience scores served as statistically significant predictors of therapeutic efficiency in reducing anxiety and depression.

Source: Matthew W. Johnson, “Psilocybin in the treatment of cancer-associated depression and anxiety,” Powerpoint presentation, Ottawa, 2018

The daughter of one study participant noted that “This opportunity allowed my dad to have vigor in his last couple of weeks of life ̶ vigor that one would think a dying man could not possibly demonstrate.  His experience gave my father peace. His peace gives me strength.”  These outcomes prompted Griffiths to observe that “It’s very common for people who have profound mystical-type experiences to report very positive changes in attitudes about themselves, their lives, and their relationships with others.” And to exclaim that “As a scientific phenomena, if you can create a condition in which 70 percent of the subjects achieve positive, lasting results…in one or two sessions!”

Guided Imagery-Assisted Psychotherapy

Julie M. Brown, coauthor of this article, is a psychotherapist who for thirty years worked with women’s issues and cancer patients. In her private practice, she utilized a variety of therapeutic modalities, including guided imagery which she studied under her mentor in psychosynthesis.

Guided imagery, also known as visualization, is a technique in which psychotherapists help clients focus on mental images in order to facilitate relaxation, healing, and resolution of life issues. In guided imagery-assisted psychotherapy, a person can call on mental images to improve both emotional and physical health.  

Typically, Brown’s cancer patients turned to psychotherapy after conventional treatments (chemotherapy, radiation, pharmaceuticals) failed to reduce or eliminate tumors. By combining guided imagery with a complementary cancer approach, Brown found clients could enter states of mystical experience that empowered both emotional (anxiety, depression) and physical (cancer) self-healing. The profiles and outcomes for three clients are summarized in this table.

Client Profiles and Guided Imagery Therapy Outcomes

Unlike the controlled Johns Hopkins study involving 51 participants, these three case studies were not validated by independent observers nor subjected to methodological controls. Nevertheless, the seminal role of mystical experience in both psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy and guided imagery psychotherapy raises important questions.

Comparative Questions for Future Research

In the case of Brown’s guided imagery outcomes with cancer patients, significant questions are:

  • Can success in healing cancer via guided imagery be validated?  Beyond Brown’s anecdotal cancer outcomes have other therapists been able to reduce or eliminate tumors utilizing guided imagery? Could healing have taken place in this context without a strict sugar-free diet, or was it the combination of diet and guided imagery that facilitated remission? 
  • Can psychedelic therapy protocols be integrated into guided imagery therapy?  As an experienced psychonaut, Brown recognizes that the ability to administer psilocybin to clients could have significantly shortened the therapeutic healing process, possibly from years to months. Given that clinical trials on psilocybin for treating depression have been given “breakthrough therapy” status by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, what changes in state and federal policies and professional regulations would have to take place so that psychiatrists and psychotherapists could legally integrate psychedelics into more conventional treatment modalities?

In the case of Johns Hopkins psychedelic therapy outcomes with cancer patients, significant questions are:

  • Can psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy be used not only to alleviate psychological anxiety and depression in terminal cancer patients but also to facilitate physiological healing in cancer patients? 

Given the pivotal role of mystical experience in both short-term psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy and long-term guided imagery psychotherapy, could psychedelic therapy combined with guided imagery possibly reduce or eliminate tumors in cancer patients, if integrated into a mid-term treatment protocol?

Will long-term, costly psychotherapy eventually be replaced by short-term, more affordable psychedelic psychotherapy?  Since short-term psychedelic therapy has achieved positive and sustained outcomes in 70% of the participants, based on one or two high-dose psilocybin sessions administered over several weeks, will it eventually replace long-term psychiatric and psychotherapeutic modalities which require years of treatment and cost thousands of dollars?

How Does Mystical Experience Facilitate Healing?

These rigorous psychedelic therapy studies of psychological stress reduction and anecdotal guided imagery therapy cases of physiological cancer remission suggest that mystical experience can facilitate both mental and physical healing. “How” this healing takes place is the theoretical Holy Grail of the new science of psychedelics. 

Our quest to unravel this mystery begins with the insights of four mind explorers: Roland R. Griffiths, grandfather of the psychedelic renaissance; Robin Carhart-Harris, pioneer of psychedelic brain imaging; Stanislav Grof, founder of LSD psychotherapy; and Carl G. Jung, who with Sigmund Freud laid the foundations of modern psychotherapy.

In essence, Griffiths concludes that “the psilocybin experience enables a sense of deeper meaning and an understanding that in the largest frame everything is fine and that there is nothing to be fearful of.” How the brain expands from normal consciousness to encompass this “largest frame” is visually revealed in Carhart-Harris’s magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) of the brain’s neural pathways before and after ingesting psilocybin mushrooms. Psychedelics allow us to leave the “brain’s default-mode network,” the brain’s everyday information highways, and travel into areas of the mind only available in expanded states of consciousness, clearing the way for mystical experience.

Carhart-Harris: Brain’s Neural Pathways:
Before and After Magic Mushrooms

Source: G. Petri, P. Expert, et. al., “Homological scaffolds of brain functional networks,” Journal of the Royal Society, December 2014

What is the source of this expanded consciousness?  Based on guiding thousands of psychedelic sessions, in The Holotropic Mind, Grof reaches this paradigm-shifting conclusion: “I see consciousness and the human psyche as expressions and reflections of a cosmic intelligence that permeates the entire universe and all of existence. We are not just highly evolved animals with biological computers embedded inside our skulls; we are also fields of consciousness without limits transcending time, space, matter, and linear causality.”

Jung’s concept of the “spiritual self” (also called “spiritual consciousness”) embodies knowledge that emerges from these transcendent “fields of consciousness.” Beyond Freud’s three-fold model of the self, comprised of the body, emotions, and intellect, Jung proposes the existence of a “spiritual self.” Through dreams, messages from the spiritual self are brought into awareness. This paper shows that, in addition to appearing in dreams, the authentic spiritual self may emerge through mystical experiences occasioned by psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy and guided imagery.

Mystical experiences arise when the doors of perception are flung wide open so that the spiritual self can emerge from the depths of the psyche, empowering us to heal and understand that in the cosmic scheme of things “all is well.”

Grof suggests that “the potential significance of LSD and other psychedelics for psychiatry and psychology was comparable to the value the microscope has for biology or the telescope has for astronomy.” We propose that, just as in astrophysics “dark matter” cannot be directly “detected” but only “implied” by gravitational effects, so in psychology, mystical experience cannot be easily “accessed” but can be regularly “occasioned” through psychedelics. Hidden from ordinary consciousness, mystical experience manifests from the dark matter of the mind.

Hopefully, these reflections on the role of mystical experience in psychotherapy will inspire further exploration of this unique phenomena that holds a key to health and well-being.

About the Authors

Author website: www.psychedelicgospels.com
Facebook Page:  https://www.facebook.com/psygospels/

Jerry B. Brown, Ph.D., is an anthropologist and Julie M. Brown, M.A., LMHC, is a psychotherapist. They are coauthors of The Psychedelic Gospels: The Secret History of Hallucinogens in Christianity, 2016.