By Ross Crockford, September 2011
Can a hallucinogenic tea help people overcome addictions?
This medicine changed my life,” says Gabrielle. “It changed the way I experience life, every single day, for the better.”
A slim, enthusiastic woman, Gabrielle tells me in her Cedar Hill apartment that she’s been living with chronic pain since 1993. For years she managed the pain with exercise, and focused on her job as a municipal administrative assistant. But in 2008, the pain got so bad that she could barely get out of bed. She tried conventional therapy without success, took disability leave, and became dependent on prescription morphine.
Then she attended a “stress and addiction” retreat overseen by Dr Gabor Maté, the Vancouver addiction specialist and author of In The Realm of Hungry Ghosts. She spent five days in group therapy with 15 others, many of them Maté’s clients from the Downtown East Side, together in a remote cabin. And on two nights, a Peruvian-trained shaman held ceremonies where they drank ayahuasca—a tea brewed from Amazonian plants containing dimethyltryptamine (DMT), a powerful psychedelic compound.
Visions spiralled through Gabrielle’s mind, “like a serpent,” she recalls. She relived terrible memories, including the two times she had been raped. But the ayahuasca also flooded her with compassion—Amazon natives say the tea evokes a female spirit, a Mother Ayahuasca—and enabled Gabrielle to see those bad moments differently.
“When you’ve had a traumatic experience, it’s part of you,” she explains. “But that’s OK, because you can no longer have an emotional attachment to it, if you’re willing to do the work.” The retreat showed her the psychological baggage she’d carried for decades—and once she saw it as baggage, that she could choose to put it down. “I stopped telling myself sad stories. I stopped saying, ‘That shouldn’t have happened to me,’ and blaming them for future outcomes.”
Today, after 10 ceremonies, including several in Victoria, Gabrielle’s on a program to discontinue morphine. “I’m almost there,” she says, crediting Maté’s team, and ayahuasca, for the improvement. “It’s powerful stuff.”
Maté first experienced ayahuasca in 2008, soon after Hungry Ghosts was published, and immediately saw its therapeutic potential. Ayahuasca isn’t a “drug” in the conventional sense, he says: “People use drugs to lower their level of consciousness. They don’t want to be aware of pain or negativity in themselves, so they use drugs to escape. These plants elevate your level of consciousness. You don’t get to escape your pain—you see your pain. You can see what it’s about.”
As Maté made plain in his book, he considers mainstream treatments for addiction to be woefully inadequate—“in fact, they’re almost total failures,” he says. So last year he travelled to the Takiwasi centre in Peru, where a French doctor has claimed remarkable success with addicts by using ayahuasca. And as he learned, the traditional rituals around the tea—fasting, mental preparation, isolation in the forest, shamanic chants to inspire visions—were as necessary as the tea itself.
Takiwasi is a dedicated facility, where clients spend months in recovery, so it’s impossible to reproduce that environment here. Instead, Maté’s team creates an “intentional community,” where participants can learn to support one another. “In those five days, there’s intense preparation and intense debriefing and processing and integration of the experience,” he says. “Everybody there is on a shared journey.”
So far, the results have been mixed. Some clients have had major breakthroughs, Maté says, but others drift back to their bad habits once they return to the city. “So it’s an ongoing project, to develop a process so people can move forward from these retreats, to bring the psychological and spiritual essence of the experience into their lives, on a regular and ongoing basis.”
Maté will speak about this work on September 13 at Alix Goolden Hall. The event is a fundraiser for the Canadian branch of the Multidisciplinary Association of Psychedelic Studies, a California-based nonprofit that assists scientific research using mind-altering compounds. (Last year, MAPS contributed $10,040 to Maté’s project.) MAPS founder Rick Doblin will also speak at the event, about a Vancouver project using MDMA (Ecstasy) to treat post-traumatic stress disorder.
Obviously, such research is legally complicated, and MAPS has to jump through numerous regulatory hoops to get permits for its work. Ayahuasca falls into a grey area: although DMT is illegal in Canada, the plants for the tea are not. Authorities have also permitted use of the tea as a sacrament: Health Canada recently granted a Montreal chapter of Santo Daime, a Brazilian ayahuasca church, permission to import the tea into this country.
But ayahuasca’s quasi-legal status is beside the point, says Victoria city councillor Philippe Lucas, who is also the research coordinator of Maté’s project. “A lot of people we’re seeing treated with ayahuasca-assisted therapy have addictions to alcohol, a legal substance, or pharmaceuticals.” Ayahuasca is used safely by thousands of churchgoers in Brazil, and it hasn’t become a popular drug of abuse. (The tea often induces vomiting, which tends not to impress at nightclubs.)
Lucas, a research affiliate with the Centre for Addictions Research of BC, says a study team will observe the retreats, and follow up with 20 participants for six months to see if the combination of ceremony and psychotherapy improves their lives. As he notes, the best rate of success for current addiction treatment is only 30 percent, and that’s with costly long-term residential care.“If you can find substances which create experiences that within a few days change these longstanding patterns of addiction, that’s something that’s not only beneficial to individuals, but to society.”
At least one early participant is already convinced. “I’m so grateful for ayahuasca, what I’ve learned about myself, and what she’s shown me,” says Gabrielle. “I don’t think I would’ve made the gains I have, had I not done these ceremonies.”
“Out of Mind: The Therapeutic Application of Psychedelics” takes place Tuesday, September 13 at 7:30 pm at Alix Goolden Hall (907 Pandora). Advance $20 tickets at Sacred Herb (561 Johnson) and Indoor Jungle (2624 Quadra). $25 at the door.
Ross Crockford is the author of Victoria: The Unknown City.