Okay, so my friend Bill Grimes has a blog on dawnoftheamazon.com. He lives in Iquitos, Peru and has a good restaurant there.
Recently someone posted on it about ayahuasca and how ayahuasca has no medical value, is just a placebo, is surrounded by stories about people living thousands of years, etc. It was a naive post by someone who had never done ayahuasca. Nonetheless, it generated a lot of responses, some in agreement, others not, many calling for regulation of the medicine even down in Peru's Amazon.
Someone then wrote asking me to comment. So I did. So here it is. And I think I was asked to comment in light of the apparent death of a young American fellow who went to the jungle to drink ayahuasca. His body was allegedly buried by the curandero and not located until the police were called and he confessed. In his confession he supposedly said the fellow died from drinking ayahuasca. Personally I'm waiting for the autopsy. But I send deep condolences out to the fellow's family and hope they can get through their grief. Losing a child must be the most wretched thing in the world.
This was what I wrote:
Hello: I've been asked to comment here. Not sure what to say. The initial article was essentially a somewhat naive blog post--as evidenced by the longevity claim that in 30 years I've never heard and I get to hear an awful lot down in that part of the world. But somehow that little piece of fluff and fun has taken a serious turn--I think because of the suggestions that a number of people are dying from ayahuasca use. Which does tend to give a conversation a serious turn.
I think ayahuasca is very serious medicine, and I've always treated it that way--well, I'm sure I fell down on the job a few times, but mostly treated it that way. And I think it's wonderful medicine. Anyone who has ever purged know you are not vomiting food; you're vomiting the wretched things in your life that you no longer need to carry around with you. Things we all carry, but can't always explain or even know we carry: Nearly all of us were breastfed, but one day your mother took that away, and left you feeling, though you couldn't put it into words because you had none, abandoned. In truth it may have been that you'd gotten a tooth and it hurt her. Nonetheless, you felt cut off. And you've carried that pain around from that day forward. Now imagine reliving that and throwing it away--how much freer you would be! Or the lies you told your girlfriends or boyfriends over the course of your life: You don't need them. Throw them up and out. Not the memory: Retain that and remember not to do those rotten things to people you say you love anymore. But throw the pain and guilt away.
That's just the beginning of the purge.
Now I think it's a very good medicine for a lot of things. I don't think anyone would make the claim that it cures this or that malady or illness. The curative is when the curandero--if he/she is a real plant doctor--sees what is wrong with you and comes up with a plant decoction that will treat that ailment. That "seeing" is what occurs to the curandero during the session; his or her knowledge of plants that can treat those things are what is key to the healing.
Is everyone who serves ayahuasca a genuine medicinal plant doctor? Absolutely not. Are some? Absolutely. The trick, in a place like Iquitos, is finding someone who really knows the local plants, knows physical illnesses, understands emotional imbalance and such. And the further trick is getting to drink with them on one of their good days--because even wonderful doctors have bad days.
But any discussion of ayahuasca must include this: These people, the curanderos, were the healers in their tribes, and later, they were the healers on the rivers on which they lived. People's lives depended on them. A healer whose patients died of the grippe or snakebite wouldn't last too long.
So these men and women had extraordinary understanding of their part of the jungle and of the medicinal plants therein. And their access, according to them, to the spirits of those plants, was through their ayahuasca use. And that's vital: anybody can boil a carrot, but not everybody can get the best out of it. That best is, just to name it, what curanderos call the "spirit" of that plant.
I'm getting on too deeply here. Just to stay focused, because I could go on, lord knows, the curanderos are healers who traditionally have attributed a great deal of their plant medicine knowledge to what they have learned while under the influence of ayahuasca. That not everyone serving ayahuasca has that knowledge is a given. That no one does is a genuine disrespect for many of the people who have kept the people of the Amazon alive and healthy for hundreds, perhaps thousands of years.
As to the deaths: I have never heard of a case that was authenticated as being from an overdose of ayahuasca. I've heard of people dying who were bitten by snakes after they drank ayahuasca, and I can imagine someone choking on his/her vomit if there were not a good curandero with helpers looking after people; and I can imagine a hypertensive crisis resulting from the bad mix of SSRI's with ayahuasca. Or someone drowning, or climbing a tree and falling. But I've certainly never heard of anyone just dying from ayahuasca by the time the autopsy was done.