Why are Americans using psychoactive brew ayahuasca to cure mental health issues?

Ayahuasca is typically drunk in tea form
Ayahuasca is typically drunk in tea form Copyright Canva
By Euronews with APTN
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Ayahuasca practices are growing in popularity in the US. Many feel the psychedelic has mental health healing properties not found in conventional medicine.


A growing number of people in the US are turning to ayahuasca to address a range of mental ailments they say conventional medicine has failed to remedy.

Ayahuasca is a psychoactive and entheogenic brewed drink whose roots go back hundreds of years to ceremonial use by Indigenous groups in the Amazon region.

It's widely used in South America where it is legal in several countries, including Peru and Brazil. But in the United States, it remains illegal because the brew contains the psychedelic N,N-Dimethyltryptamine, otherwise known as DMT.

Despite its illegal status, ayahuasca has become increasingly popular in the US, and interest has intensified as celebrities like NFL quarterback Aaron Rodgers and Hollywood star Will Smith have talked about attending ceremonies. 

Supporters have formed churches to hold their ceremonies, which are largely held underground in homes, at rented facilities, or in remote locations like deserts.

What happens when you drink the tea?

Those who drink ayahuasca report seeing shapes and colours and going on dream-like journeys that can last several hours. Some say they can encounter dead relatives, as well as friends and an assortment of spirits who talk to them.

Surveys of tea drinkers have reported that most experience a range of physical and mental effects after drinking ayahuasca. 

The most common physical reaction, according to a study in PLOS Global Health, was vomiting or nausea while other lesser side effects include abdominal pain and headaches. A majority of participants also reported seeing and hearing things, feeling alone or having nightmares — though almost all those reporting mental effects felt they were beneficial to their growth. 

According to the study, 2.3% of those surveyed reported needing medical attention after taking ayahuasca.

Why do people take ayahuasca?

So why are more and more people in the US looking to ayahuasca as a solution to mental health issues?

Many turn to the ceremonies to help with eating disorders, depression, substance use disorders and post-traumatic stress. One study, using data from the Global Ayahuasca Project, reported that 78% of people with depression felt it had “very much improved” or “completely resolved,” while 70% of those with anxiety reported that their symptoms were “very much improved” or “completely resolved.” 

Another study found a link between taking ayahuasca and a lower consumption of alcohol and other drugs.

Jessie Wardarski/Copyright 2023 AP. All rights reserved
A pitcher of ayahuasca, right, sits on an altar covered by a bundle of leaves called a “wayra” used in a spiritual ceremony hosted by Hummingbird Church in Hildale, UtahJessie Wardarski/Copyright 2023 AP. All rights reserved

But medical experts caution that not enough research has been done in the US to confirm these findings — though smaller studies have been done in Brazil and other countries.

“There aren’t really the same kinds of studies that have been done above ground in the US that allow us to know how well does it really work, who does it really work the best for, what are the real side effects of it,” says Anthony Back, a professor of medicine at the University of Washington School of Medicine in Seattle. 

Professor Back is leading a study using psilocybin, a hallucinogen found in some mushrooms, to help doctors and nurses with symptoms of depression and burnout linked to their work during the pandemic.

“Our knowledge (of ayahuasca) is kind of limited,” he says. “There is not as much information about safety as the regular other medical treatments that you might get if you went to a regular doctor in the US. It’s kind of in the early stages I would say — interesting, intriguing, promising.”

Where is the movement going?

Some supporters worry the popularity of ayahuasca could prompt a federal government crackdown. 

Some advocates have reported ayahuasca shipments from South America being seized and churches closing for fear of legal trouble. Others worry reports of sexual assaults at ceremonies, sickened participants or organizers ripping off people could prompt the federal government to act.


Several groups have formed churches in the hopes of being protected from prosecution by a 2006 US Supreme Court ruling. Citing the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, a New Mexico church won the right to use ayahuasca as a sacrament. A subsequent lower court decision ruled Oregon branches of a different ayahuasca church could use it.

Jessie Wardarski/Copyright 2023 AP. All rights reserved
Participants lay face down on the grass during an integration circle at an ayahuasca retreat in Hildale, UtahJessie Wardarski/Copyright 2023 AP. All rights reserved

The US Drug Enforcement Administration, which declined to comment for this story, set up a system in 2009 for churches to be recognised as having an exception to the Controlled Substances Act. 

But Sean McAllister, who represents an Arizona church in a lawsuit against the federal government after its ayahuasca from Peru was seized at the Port of Los Angeles, said no churches have been approved. Most people in the movement, he said, view that option as “a complete waste of time."

“The government wants to keep a lid on this thing. They want to keep it as small as they can,” said McAllister, adding that the DEA would be sceptical of people claiming ayahuasca connects them to God.

The road to decriminalisation

Some supporters hope moves to decriminalise ayahuasca and other psychedelics in several states will reduce the risk of prosecution. 


Decriminalisation efforts have succeeded in Colorado and Oregon and a bill is pending in California. More than a dozen cities — mostly in California, Massachusetts and Washington — have passed resolutions that deemphasise the prosecution of various drugs including ayahuasca.

Martin Mejia/Copyright 2018 The AP. All rights reserved.
Shaman Pablo Flores blows tobacco smoke at Pamela Moronci during an ayahuasca session in Nuevo Egipto, a remote village in the Peruvian Amazon.Martin Mejia/Copyright 2018 The AP. All rights reserved.

“Part of what we are trying to do is get the word out and change the laws in the United States so this is 100% legal and you never have to worry about it,” Brian Cantalupi, a lead facilitator with the California-based Hummingbird Church, told participants at a recent ayahuasca ceremony. 

The church, which once largely operated underground, now holds ceremonies in the open. But it’s unclear if the new laws sanction ayahuasca ceremonies. Even if they did, participants could still face federal prosecution.

“From the perspective of Colorado, it does seem under the new law that people can get together and share ayahuasca but the question is how much are they allowed to have. That is not clear,” says Mason Marks, the senior fellow of a psychedelics project at the Petrie-Flom Center at Harvard Law School. 

“It doesn’t mean that it’s a free for all and people can do what they want. There are still a lot of restrictions.”


Video editor • Theo Farrant

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