Are there psychedelics that are stronger than DMT

Everyone is suddenly drinking ayahuasca. The longing for a mindful life has reached drugs

The longing for a mindful life has reached drugs. Ayahuasca is the name of the psychedelic tea from the Amazon region, which is increasingly being consumed in Switzerland. Zurich psychiatry is now also researching the substance.

This summer seemed like one big tea party. Ayahuasca everywhere - a herbal brew from South America with hallucinogenic effects. A «tea» with which one can have mind-expanding experiences.

In a circular mail, a friend announced a tent camp in the Emmental, where the next "ceremony" was to take place. At a party, the person sitting next to him told of the rituals in an old stable in the Jura, in which he took part. Every third yoga teacher now seems to offer the spiritual experience in addition to their courses, you just have to ask around. The lawyer Alexis Kaiser, who advises on legal issues relating to the prohibited consumption of ayahuasca, assumes around ten ayahuasca ceremonies per weekend in Switzerland. Up to 30 people take part in a ceremony.

Even before that, journalists with a tendency to cross borders wrote self-awareness reports about ayahuasca and traveled to the jungle for it. This report is not based on a self-experiment, although during the research I kept hearing: In order to really have a say, you have to have tried ayahuasca. I think the opposite: if you don't want to be distracted by the experience, you might better see how that experience is portrayed. This also allows us to say something about our time, for example: The trend towards an ecological lifestyle and a mindful attitude has expanded to include drugs. Ayahuasca is the drug of the organic generation.

Imported exoticism

The brew is made up of two plants: the liana Banisteriopsis caapi and the leaves of a plant that contains the psychedelic active ingredient dimethyltryptamine (DMT), for example the coffee plant plant Psychotria viridis. Both grow in the Amazon. DMT alone would be broken down by the body immediately; it only has a psychoactive effect in combination with the liana bark: This inhibits the body's own enzyme monoamine oxidase and thus guarantees a trip lasting several hours. "Ayahuasca" means "plant of spirits" or "plant of death" in the indigenous Quechua language, because the drug promises deep spiritual journeys. Amazon peoples use them for religious ceremonies.

If you believe its users, the drug brings clarity and calm. You experience inner peace, a bond with everything, with every living being, nature, the whole universe. However, consumers would never refer to ayahuasca as a drug. You're talking about medicine.

An hour after ingesting the tea, the body begins to react. You vomit, have to go to the toilet, you sweat. The plant supporters talk about purges.

For Mara B. * she is the "teacher plant" who has given her life a new meaning. At our meeting, the educational advisor, who introduces herself as the “Tea Mother of Bern”, lays a woody piece of liana on the table that she took home from a stay in Brazil. Again and again she traveled to South America, where Ayahuasca tourism is booming. What the 45-year-old has learned from the shamans in the jungle, she does herself in Switzerland today. She performs Ayahuasca ceremonies, the last one was two weeks ago: 15 people spent three days in an alpine hut in the Glarus mountains for 420 francs per person.

On two evenings, Mara poured tea for the participants. She brought the red-brown brew to our meeting in a jam jar. It smells earthy, a fingertip tastes bitter. An hour after ingesting the tea, the body begins to react. You vomit, have to go to the toilet, you sweat. The followers of the plant speak of purge, cleaning, so also Mara: «By emptying oneself, entrances are exposed. You detoxify yourself from every negative thought. "

She has already completed 250 ceremonies. She quit her job in the event sector and is now working with children. She says a single ayahuasca ceremony produces more than ten years of psychotherapy. A sentence that you hear so often that it doesn't make it any more believable. Mara worships the "grandmother", as Ayahuasca is also called, as if she were a real female: ancient and wise.

After talking to Mara, you know again why you should never rave about a drug experience, as overwhelming as it may be. Because a lot sounds cheesy, others mundane. To talk about intoxication, the sociologist Günter Amendt said, you have to be sober.

With ayahuasca one hallucinates intensely, as with LSD or psilocybin, the latter a substance that is contained in the so-called magic mushrooms. Everything seems enlightened. A dent in the floor becomes an ornament. Some describe the trip as immersion in an oriental fairy tale world. You can also hear tones that you would not hear without the effect of the DMT. You can “travel through layers” and feel your way into everything, says Mara, who was already a toad or a “rotting dandelion”. Others meet their ancestors, a specialty of the herbal drug. Even if you watch yourself decay, it can later be remembered as a mystical experience. That is why it is also said that one must be ready for anything when taking ayahuasca - even to die symbolically. Under the influence of the substance, even an experience of death becomes meaningful. Many say they are no longer afraid of death.

Ayahuasca fits perfectly in our time, in which one is already considered numb if one does not think about the mindful life.

Because ayahuasca is so potent, because it is strenuous and you can experience disturbing things on the trip, depending on what is on your mind, the substance is not suitable as a party drug. As with any psychedelic drug use, the setting is crucial - believers assure that it is not possible without a ritual, often shamanic framework. "Ayahuasca is not a Sunday stroll", says the yoga teacher Tobias W. *, who organizes one-week retreats in nature. To do this, a shaman from Brazil travels to the Central Plateau. He determines the dosage, accompanies the ceremony with chants and supervises. For Tobias, who makes the tea, where he does it and what he thinks plays a big role. Everything for the «plant spirit».

Tobias also gives me the feeling that I don't belong - especially since I neither do yoga nor meditate, which would be the ideal preparation for ayahuasca: the greater the experience with it, the less substance it needs, says Tobias. In fact, brain scans show that taking ayahuasca leads to changes in the brain, which can also result from years of meditation. The yoga teacher, with rimless glasses and hair tied up in a bun, seems so relaxed that he has something remote. “You have this peace of mind when you've died once and been born again,” he says and smiles. Because he perceives a great deal of skepticism in me, I would probably need a higher dose of the substance "to cross the threshold and to immerse myself fully in deeper levels of the spirit". Because skepticism and doubt strengthened the ego.

Experience the “divine”

Many see world-saving powers in the plant. It helps one to recognize oneself and reveal how bad it is for humanity. Ayahuasca fits perfectly into our time, in which one is already considered numb if one does not worry about the mindful life. Even managers practice mindfulness, this new god. While cocaine drives oneself to achievement and ruthless greed, the new drug embodies the opposite and stands for the good life. Today people drink green tea, eat meatless, go to wellness, do digital detox and yoga to achieve a heightened state of mind. One renounces the superficial enjoyment, which is merely an expression of materialistic needs. But is this preoccupation with oneself less self-related? The journeys in depth also take time. Wasn't it mainly a wealthy middle class at this time? By hallucinating biologically, the world doesn't get any better.

Long-term consumers also criticize the fact that Ayahuasca is degenerating into a lifestyle that is celebrated in urban circles without much knowledge of the culture and history of the substance. The transfiguration of a foreign culture as a form of appropriation. Nevertheless, the fans are not deterred. Stars like actress Susan Sarandon publicly say that they have met everyone with an open heart since the psychedelic experience. No one is surprised that people are also invited to a tea party in Silicon Valley. In New York, “doing ayahuasca” is an alternative to going to the cinema, even during the week. In hipster shops called “Alchemist’s Kitchen”, where you can buy “Holy Smokes” cigarettes, detox soaps and Native American incense sticks, drug connoisseurs give lectures on how Ayahuasca has helped them against depression or in coping with grief.

The more fashionable the substance becomes, the greater the risk that you will end up with false shamans or other providers of ayahuasca ceremonies who only have one vision: money. The German drug researcher and ethnobotanist Markus Berger condemns this hype - but not the plant. For him, ayahuasca is a so-called entheogen: a means to evoke the divine in people. "You shouldn't think that you can empty your cup, see some jungle cinema and find yourself," says Berger. By jungle cinema he means hallucinations. Many consumers do not prepare well enough and do not know what to expect. “A bad trip can be part of the psychedelic experience. Perhaps you will encounter your personal inner hell. " This experience then has to be integrated into everyday life. This is the only way to experience what indigenous peoples have always been looking for in Ayahuasca and to grow beyond oneself. The experience is actually indescribable, says Berger: "Our everyday language cannot express what is unspeakable." That didn't stop him from writing a 400-page book with what for him was three magical letters as the title: "DMT".

There have been fatal incidents because ceremonies were uncontrolled and the herbal tea was possibly given in too high a dose or mixed with other substances. In 2015, a young Briton was stabbed to death by a Canadian in an ayahuasca center in Peru, both of whom were under the influence of ayahuasca. But such stories are rare. Inquiries at Swissmedic, forensic medicine in Zurich and psychiatric clinics show that they are not aware of any death or poisoning or admissions due to ayahuasca consumption.

Ayahuasca is no more addicting than LSD, the experience is too complex for that. In contrast to other psychoactive substances, there is no getting used to. Serious preparation of the ritual, however, includes informing the participants about the risks of consumption as well as asking about the medical history of each individual. Is anyone taking antidepressants or other medications? Or have you already experienced a psychosis? Then you should avoid such substances.

In recent years, an increasing number of studies worldwide have indicated the positive effects of ayahuasca, both for physical and psychological ailments.

Legally, there is a gray area. The individual plants in ayahuasca tea are not prohibited and can be freely imported; Most of the time, the plant stock arrives in Switzerland by post or freight. The psychedelic active ingredient DMT, on the other hand, is subject to the Narcotics Act, as are DMT-containing preparations or plant extracts, although it is not entirely clear what is classified as such. There are also many native plants that contain the molecule DMT, it is even found in the human body. The Federal Customs Administration says on request that ayahuasca is rarely seized at the border. If so, the substance will be confiscated and destroyed.

In such cases, the lawyer Alexis Kaiser advises the accused. The French-speaking region estimates that one in 400 imports will be confiscated. It shows the photo of a shaman adorned with feathers who was detained at Geneva airport and was released. Kaiser is annoyed by the unclear legal situation. Sure, the police see ayahuasca as a drug - but how can they act without a clear legal basis? In order to prevent the substance from falling into the hands of charlatans or naive youngsters, it must be legalized, according to Kaiser. Thanks to ayahuasca, he himself lives even healthier and no longer drinks alcohol, "this drug number one". This is where he sees the potential of ayahuasca: the substance must be released in a controlled manner so that it can be scientifically researched and used therapeutically.

The researcher and the drug

This has been happening with other psychoactive substances for a number of years. MDMA, better known as ecstasy, treats trauma, the hallucinogens LSD and psilocybin enable cancer patients to die more fearlessly or help against depression. The Psychiatric University Clinic Zurich is the first to conduct research worldwide. She will soon also investigate how ayahuasca affects the body and psyche, initially on healthy test subjects. For the ethics committee and the Federal Office of Public Health (FOPH) a few conditions still have to be met before the time has come.

In recent years, an increasing number of studies worldwide indicate positive effects of ayahuasca, both for physical and psychological ailments, including addictions and depression. This is where the Zurich psychiatrist and neuroscientist Milan Scheidegger wants to start with the planned study. He says ayahuasca promotes emotional introspection in patients and can thus make psychotherapy more effective. "You gain a new perspective on personal problems and can thus change your relationship with the world and with yourself."

For Scheidegger, too, it is no coincidence that interest in ayahuasca has grown in recent years. «By trying to make the world more manageable through technology, our civilization has alienated ourselves to a certain extent from nature. That awakens a longing to align our way of life with natural processes such as plant medicine. " As a scientist, does he have no trouble with the spiritual superstructure when, for example, "plant spirits" are mentioned that cure diseases? He answers indirectly: He is primarily interested in whether ayahuasca is also effective in a western setting with supportive psychotherapy. The fact that he uses a standardized clinical test preparation for his study, i.e. not a tea brewed by shamans in the jungle, is likely to some Ayahuasquero doubt its effectiveness.

Scheidegger himself took part in ceremonies as part of ethnomedical field research in South America. In Brazil there are recognized churches that venerate ayahuasca as a sacrament, with offshoots in the Netherlands and the USA, for example. At ceremonies, several hundred participants ritually sing themselves into a collective trance for hours. With ayahuasca you can experience that you are “part of a comprehensive ecosystem for which we are responsible,” says Scheidegger. That is why he does not want to devalue the desire to contribute to a better world.

Consumers say that they were locked in a coffin on their trips or that they gave birth to an imaginary child for hours. Aren't such experiences under ayahuasca tremendously frightening and even traumatizing? Milan Scheidegger says that is why he would definitely advise against taking the substance outside of accompanied settings. For every future patient, careful consideration will be required as to whether ayahuasca is a suitable therapy option. He also sees a psychotherapeutic benefit in confronting such visions. "If you are willing to face your fears, these states of consciousness can be relativized and experienced as less overwhelming." In this way, patients with accompanying psychotherapy learned to move more confidently and with less fear.

Sarah P. *, a woman with a robust personality, drew a similar insight from her ayahuasca experience. On the trip, the 47-year-old psychotherapist was almost vividly conveyed “that a life without love is like death”. After that, she felt awake and alive like never before for a month. "I had the best sex of my life with my husband." She learned: “The fear of losing control is unfounded. What is threatening in life, you are yourself. " But then she fell into an energy hole that lasted all summer and was just as new to her. That's why she decided not to go to the Ayahuasca camp this summer. And instead went on a yoga vacation.

* Name changed.