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Death in the Amazon Brings Attention to Ayahuasca

A recent tragedy in Peru has brought international attention to the healing and ceremonial ayahuasca communities.

On September 13th, the mother and sister of 18-year-old Kyle Nolan, arrived in the Amazon jungle region of Madre de Dios, Peru, where the town of Puerto Maldonaldo is located, to identify Kyle’s body and find out how he died. They returned home to California without any useful information.

Kyle had come to Peru in mid-August to participate in a 10-day “ayahuasca retreat.” Ayahuasca is the sacred visionary/hallucinogenic tea that has been used by indigenous shamans in the Amazon for at least 4,000 years.

Kyle died during a shamanic ceremony there at the Chimbre center, and no one knows why, at least not yet, because the shaman running the ceremony tried to hide what happened, which is why Kyle’s family went down to Peru.

A donation fund was set up, and $8,223 was raised, which will allow Kyle’s family to bring their son’s body home for an autopsy and a proper burial. 

According to shamanism expert Alan Shoemaker, the shaman at the Chimbre center told the police in Puerto Maldonaldo that the cause of death was from an “ayahuasca overdose.” This makes the death very suspicious because you can not overdose on ayahuasca. 

This tragic event has created massive waves throughout the psychedelic community, and a number of people have been concerned that this incident will reflect negatively on the healing ceremonies that utilize ayahuasca.

I want to bring attention to ayahuasca’s long track record of safety and healing in this context, and it seems to me that tragic events like this could have been prevented if ayahuasca use was legal in the United States. 

Although the Supreme Court ruled in 2006 that ayahuasca can be used in the U.S. as a legal sacrament by the União do Vegetal (UDV) church in New Mexico, and later by the Santo Daime Church in Oregon, but for everyone else it’s a Schedule 1 drug--in the same category as heroin and LSD--because it contains DMT.

DMT, or dimethyltryptamine, is a chemical that’s found naturally in the human body, in many animals and plants, although no biochemist knows what biological function it serves in any of these places.

When smoked, snorted, or injected, DMT is also one of the most powerful psychedelics known, although it’s not active orally because it’s destroyed in the digestive system by an enzyme called “monoamine oxidase” (MAO).

DMT is not physically or psychologically addictive. In fact, few people are eager to do it again any time soon, after having had an experience with it.

In the Amazon, DMT is naturally found in a number of plants, and a shrub which contains it, known as psychotria viridis, is often used in ayahuasca brews.

Although every shaman has his own personal recipe for ayahuasca, that includes different adjunct plants, the mixture always contains plants with two key chemical elements--DMT and a substance known as “harmaline.”

Harmaline, found in the Banisteriopsis caapi vine, is a substance that deactivates the body’s release of MAO, and is known as an MAO inhibitor (MAOI). 

This allows the DMT in ayahuasca brews to become orally active. It also slows down the experience, and renders it much more comprehensible.

However, the sacred jungle juices of the Amazon, known collectively as “ayahuasca,” actually can significantly vary in their chemical properties.

This is because every shaman has his or her own secret ayahuasca recipe, which utilizes different accompanying psychoactive plants, that influence the journey, and some adjunct plants, like datura, can be toxic.

However, from a physiological perspective, the mixture of DMT and harmaline appears to be quite safe, and there are few, if any, serious injuries or death associated with using the traditional ayahuasca brew.

Because ayahuasca contains an MAOI, certain dietary restrictions (i.e., nothing fermented, or with the amino acid “tyramine”) need to be followed for at least 12 hours before the experience, or there can be a lot of physical discomfort and the risk of a hypertensive crisis.

But there are no reported deaths from anyone following the wrong diet (because, pharmacologically, harmaline is a “reversible” MAOI), or from anyone ever fatally overdosing, because one will vomit up the contents.

The only deaths that have been associated with ayahuasca occurred because the person was on contraindicated medications at the time.

So what tragically happened to Kyle is a mystery, but it’s unlikely that he died from the ancient DMT-harmaline blend, that is currently being studied by the Beckley Foundation in England for healing and other beneficial properties.

Incidentally, a study of UDV members by ULCA psychiatric researcher Charles Grob found them to be psychologically and physically healthier than average. Other studies of ayahuasca users have found similar results.

To find out about the 2013 9th annual International Shamanism Conference--July 21st through 27th--in Iquitos, Peru, where ayahuasca is legal, and where I’ll be speaking, see: www.soga-del-alma.org 

Want to learn more about psychedelics? Check out my new book on the subject, The New Science of Psychedelics: At the Nexus of Culture, Consciousness, and Spirituality. To find out more see: http://store.innertraditions.com/isbn/978-1-59477-492-8?id=4350&displayZoom=1

If you enjoy my column, and want to stay in touch with what’s happening in psychedelic and cannabis culture, “like” my Facebook page:

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Michael Eugene Brown September 29, 2012 at 12:45 AM
The only known cause of death is birth. May Kyle's spirit be free of confusion and fear. May his consciousness discover true life in eternal flow.
Billy Sweeney September 30, 2012 at 03:34 PM
The problem is, more and more North American youth are heading to these retreats and in countries such as Peru ANYTHING can happen. Making proper Ayahuasca is a tedious and time consuming process. So who knows what the hell he took? Not to mention any health related issues he may have had. Scare Tactic at work but we also must remember in the end we are all responsible for our own actions.
Tracy J September 30, 2012 at 04:12 PM
I spent weeks living in the jungle outside Iquitos researching shamanic practice for a novel. http://www.amazon.com/And-Then-Magic-Began-ebook/dp/B007X65CRU/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1349021417&sr=8-1&keywords=and+then+the+magic+began There are plenty of sham shamans in the area catering to acid trip tourists. Ayahuasca needs to be respected for what it is - a powerful healer with potent attributes. The purge is not a side effect - it is a part of the journey and a real shaman like any doctor, guages the correct dosage and inflicts a rigid diet. I lost a ton of weight. As everywhere in life - buyer beware
Max Engleman September 30, 2012 at 04:21 PM
Michael Brown, I am bothered by your comment. This kid should not have died (he did, but it should have been prevented). It seems quite out of character of Chimbre, Why would the family be coming to Peru and raising money, if Chimbre had not hidden something? But no, it's okay, everyone dies, so it doesn't really matter since he's gone on to the next plane and he does not really care one way or the other.
Billy Sweeney October 01, 2012 at 02:49 PM
Well said Max. Maybe one trip too many? Again the pollution process begins with greed at the forefront. I want to take my daughter to the Amazon after Graduation. I will be sure to do my research.
Billy Sweeney October 01, 2012 at 03:08 PM
I would love to take my daughter to The Amazon after graduation. She is a talented artist and BEAUTIFUL spirit. Her wall is shyness. Any info you can send me about sage traveling would be much appreciated. Thank You sweendog67@verizon.net
Billy Sweeney October 01, 2012 at 03:08 PM
saFe
Michael Eugene Brown October 01, 2012 at 04:32 PM
I am not dismissing the need for people who care for Kyle and people involved to illuminate the truth through careful investigation of the situation. I am dismissing the fear of death. This situation brings to light the need for us all to be more discerning in our seeking of insight, spiritual healing, and awakening. Everyone must take responsibility for their own safety and be careful along the path. Without much more information, this article simply highlights fear and shadow around what is obviously a powerful and hard-to-explain spiritual tradition. As Ayahuasca and Peruvian cultural expressions of Ayahuasca ceremony spread in popularity, I am certain charlatans, thieves, and dark sorcerers seeking power will come forth to teach the lessons of discernment and careful seeking. In fact, from what I understand, darkness is always present and has been a part of the Ayahuasca culture for thousands of years. So as Westerners come to this culture as outsiders, they must understand the dangers and risks that come with being naive and vulnerable. Outsiders must be extra careful, in all ways, always. How can you have enough knowledge of this situation to say that this 'kid' should not have died? How do you know this? Perhaps he willingly left his body? Perhaps he unknowingly left his body by mistake? Who knows what happened? Who knows... and so we look to what we do know: death is nothing to fear and the truest 'cause' of death is being born. They are intimately related.
Bjorn (aka) Viking October 19, 2012 at 10:16 PM
I've done Ayahuasca plenty of times from home with lots of people. People had fear of death and I wonder if it could of been a heart attack. But otherwise Ayahuasca is safe if it is made the right way and people eat right . Also the medications your on also has a major part for some people. I have eaten foods that are not to be taken with Ayahuasca and nothing happened to me. Also taken SSRI meds which nothing happend either. Some people are not strong enough , so those are the one's who need to find out before they take Ayahuasca. Don't let this scare you and just follow directions before you do Ayahuasca. Got Ayahuasca? Long Island Viking :)
Ne H February 10, 2013 at 04:04 PM
Has anyone ever taken Ayahuasca while on asthma medication? (inhalers)
jimmy b. fretch March 14, 2013 at 06:12 PM
This Merck Drug (discontinued in 2004) killed only 60,000 people. SIXTY THOUSAND PEOPLE. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rofecoxib -- Ayahuasca "killed" 2 people. Look, they give ayahuasca to children and seniors for thousands of years, if it killed even a fraction of the people that BIG PHARMA kills on a yearly basis, no one would use it anymore. 22,134 people died in the USA in 2010 due to prescription drug overdoses. End of story.

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