Devotees claim it will change your life. Doctors say there’s not enough research, and the police have barely started getting to grips with it. Is the South American hallucinogenic brew ayahuasca a way to enlightenment – or a risky new trend?

A dozen weathered single mattresses are splayed out in a circle on the wooden floor at a spiritual retreat centre in Magaliesburg, just outside Johannesburg. There are buckets next to each one and on every mattress, a person. Some are searching for answers; many are desperate for a remedy; a handful are seeking a joyride. All are here to experience ayahuasca – the ‘spirit plant of the Amazon’ – hoping for the cathartic life-changing experience it is renowned for.

Ayahuasca is the name of both the tropical vine and the hallucinogenic drink prepared with it. It’s been used for generations by medicine men and tribes in the Amazon for its supposed healing and divinatory purposes, thanks to the psychedelic compound dimethyltryptamine (DMT) present in the drink. Like many classic hallucinogens, DMT stimulates the serotonin receptors in the brain, says Dr Mike West, a consultant psychiatrist at Groote Schuur Hospital in Cape Town with a special interest in addiction and psychedelics. It became known in the West in the 1950s, when a Harvard ethnobotanist, Richard Evans Schultes, first described its use. Since then, celebrities like Lindsay Lohan, Sting and British indie band the Klaxons have all spoken about their ayahuasca experiences, and its use has been depicted in movies like Jennifer Aniston’s Wanderlust and Ben Stiller’s While We’re Young – and the bitter, tea-like brew is becoming increasingly popular in South Africa.

A quick Google or Facebook search will hook you up with a day or weekend ‘ceremony’ in Gauteng or the Western Cape, with a high-end weekend retreat in Magaliesburg, including four ceremonies and accommodation, costing around R5 600.

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Fabian Piorkowsky – also known as Fabian-ji – left his career as a banker in Germany to become a shaman, and has spent years in the Amazon before settling in Cape Town with his wife, Nicole, to run psychedelic retreats here and abroad. ‘I work with about 5 000 people every year and I don’t think I’ve met one who has done ayahuasca for the same reason as somebody else,’ he says. ‘For some people it’s a very physical, body cleansing experience. Others feel a very strong emotional experience. For others it is visual – almost like an intense dream.’

David* is an executive life coach who assists Fabian-ji in conducting ceremonies. He has taken ayahuasca more than 50 times, he says. The ages of people coming to their ceremonies can vary, he says, with the youngest being in their 20s and the oldest in their 70s. The gender split is usually 60% men and 40% women, mostly white and Indian, with people from all walks of life joining – from executives to waiters and doctors.

Before participating in a ceremony, you have to follow a restrictive diet for a few days, abstaining from sugar, salt, animal products, processed foods, spicy foods and caffeine, David says. This ‘cleanses’ the body, he says, so the ‘medicine works optimally and you can begin a process of awareness’.

What does ayahuasca purportedly do?

Taking it once is, apparently, as an article in Vice pointed out, ‘like 10 years seeing a psychiatrist’. Fabian-ji says, ‘it places your ego in the passenger seat and lets your subconscious take over’. ‘The ego is trying to prevent change; it is concerned with survival. Allowing the subconscious to take over, that alone is healing.’

Dr West explains it in more concrete terms: ‘Ayahuasca ingestion produces a psychedelic experience that can induce an introspective, dreamlike state, coupled with visual and auditory illusions and hallucinations and alterations in awareness of time and space, which can last for six to eight hours.’ It also makes you vomit, an effect event organisers call ‘purging’ (this vomiting is part of what gave ayahuasca its reputation for healing, since purging could help the body get rid of tropical parasites).

The ayahuasca brew is commonly made using the ayahuasca plant and the chacruna shrub. Chacruna contains DMT, but without ayahuasca, the DMT isn’t active (it is destroyed by stomach acids). The tea is prepared with fluoride-free purified water in a stainless steel pot on a stove, David says, and a small cup is drunk at the start of the ceremonies. ‘Generally, people experience a feeling of connectedness and wellbeing,’ he says.

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For most users, the experience is governed by their mental state at the time of the ceremony, as well as the shaman guiding them. This was the case for Nicole Bernhardt, a 37-year-old PA from Johannesburg. ‘For me, the mental sensation was the equivalent of travelling on a roller coaster through a kaleidoscope of images and colour. Sometimes I would see things I would recognise and other times it was just shapes that would come and go. Some people experience vomiting and intense crying; others diarrhoea. Any form of purging is part of the process of releasing that which we have come to let go of.’ As for the benefits she’s gleaned from the experience, Nicole says, ‘I suffered from severe anger and self-value issues and both of these have started to transform significantly.’

Ayahuasca is not a recreational drug, and if you’re looking for a quick fix or an adventure, you might not get it. Such was the case for Melissa*, a 40-year-old mother from Cape Town, who arranged a private ayahuasca ceremony at her home for R4 000. ‘It’s become trendy in Cape Town, but you have to do it with the right shaman,’ she says. ‘I did it once and thought it was a lot of crap. It upsets your stomach and it makes you feel dizzy and nauseous. They want you to vomit up all the impurities. I had no profound experience. There’s not a chance I’d do it again.’

But is ayahuasca even legal in South Africa?

It’s a very grey area, says Neil Kirby, a director at Werksmans Attorneys, who specialises in environmental law and healthcare and life sciences. ‘I am not aware of any specific legal control applying to the practice of ayahuasca in so far as the plant per se is concerned and as it is used traditionally in certain parts of South America. However, the primary ingredient in ayahuasca is DMT. The substance is controlled in terms of the Drugs and Drug Trafficking Act No. 140 of 1992 in so far as it is classified as a dangerous dependence-producing substance, the possession of which and dealing in is unlawful.’ The police are just as stumped: in attempts to gain comment from them, it became clear that due to the unprecedented recent use of ayahuasca in South Africa, they have yet to establish clarity around possession and legality.

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So far, there’s been one reported ayahuasca-related death – that of a 19-year-old British backpacker who died after taking part in a ceremony in Colombia. Dr West says it is difficult to pinpoint the risks due to a lack of research. ‘There appears to be negligible risk for organ toxicity, neurotoxicity and dependence,’ he says. ‘There would, however, be particular considerations for people who have existing medical conditions or who are taking herbal and prescription medications. Extreme caution should be exercised in individuals with a history of a psychotic disorder or bipolar disorder as they may be at an increased risk of adverse psychological reactions.’

Fabian-ji cautions to use the plant with respect and recommends those who want to take part seek out others who have the same approach. ‘It’s definitely nothing fun,’ he says. ‘It is hard work and can be very intense, getting you into contact with things you try not to look at in your daily life. But afterwards you feel grateful that you’ve dealt with them – because they’re gone.’

The little research there is doesn’t point to any negative long-term impact of ayahuasca use, Dr West says. In fact, he says, ‘there is emerging literature suggesting it may be associated with positive long-term impact,’ for example, dealing with addiction and depression. Don’t take ayahuasca if you’re on anti-depressants, he says, and always discuss it with your doctor beforehand to ensure nothing you take counteracts something already in your system. ‘The reality is, “natural” products have just as much propensity for drug-on-drug interactions as pharmaceuticals,’ he says. ‘The bottom line is that there’s a lot about ayahuasca we simply do not know yet.’