Every couple of weeks, Everson do Santos relives the worst day of his life. In 2003, under a crack-induced haze, he shot a man dead in a botched robbery attempt. He served six years in prison but relapsed upon his release and spent two years homeless, wandering the streets in search of his next fix.
Now, three years sober, do Santos coaches 70 recovering crack and cocaine addicts at a rehabilitation center in the heart of Brazil's rainforest using the an unorthodox method he says saved his life. The Caminho da Luz Center gives patients daily doses of ayahuasca, a hallucinogenic brew made from rare vines found in the Amazon.
The center is an offshoot of the União do Vegetal, a religion that meshes Christianity with ayahuasca worship. Every Saturday night, the patients gather together for a four-hour ceremony in a bright blue temple, where they drink ayahuasca to the tune of slow christian chants and the noises of the jungle. When the drink kicks in 20 minutes later, several residents hallucinate, often drifting back in time to observe their own lives and actions from a distance. Some lift their hands in prayer, others tap their feet, a couple start crying.
Global demand has soared for ayahuasca, which has been used in Amazonian tribal rituals for thousands of years. The tea has become the hottest new drug, as celebrities like Lindsay Lohan and Penn Badgley rave about its transcendent properties. Seemingly overnight centers offering ayahuasca have popped up everywhere from Brooklyn to Estonia. Studies show that it helps eliminate drug cravings and is not addictive, but the brew can also bring back traumatic memories in the form of hallucinations.
"When I drink the tea, I go back to that moment. I see him again," said do Santos, 33, of the man he killed. "It helps me process it, and come to terms with what I did."
The center is a colorful mix of wooden shacks just outside of Rio Branco, a city of 300,000 people on the Northwestern edge of Brazil. Hammocks and reclining chairs dot the grounds, encouraging patients to sit back and take stock of their progress.
It claims a 50 percent relapse rate, in line with traditional drug treatment programs. But patients like that ayahuasca helps them make sense of their addictions on their own, through the hallucinations rather than pills or therapy.
"It is totally different here because there is no over-medication. The tea acts as your therapist," said Carlos Eduardo Machado, who relapsed twice after seeking treatment for his cocaine addiction at traditional clinics before discovering Caminho da Luz. "The last time I was treated, I was on so many antidepressants I just slept all day," he said.
Little is known about why Ayahuasca inhibits cravings, in part because the tea is illegal in many parts of the world. But preliminary findings confirm a link. A 2013 study by the University of British Columbia found that ayahuasca therapy decreases cocaine, alcohol and tobacco cravings, and increases mindfulness, quality of life, hopefulness and empowerment.
It's hard to know whether the tea is directly responsible for the success rate at Caminho da Luz, because it offers a mix of traditional and alternative approaches to drug treatment. Patients follow a strict code of conduct that includes scheduled chores, meals and baths. Those with a greater risk of relapse are transferred to a rural camp, to recover away from the temptations of the city.
"We know that religions have a positive impact on drug addiction, independent of ayahuasca. So we need more clarity. We have indirect evidence that is very promising, but needs to be researched," said Luís Fernando Tófoli, a psychiatrist researching Ayahuasca at Brazil's University of Campinas.
Critics also say that while the hallucinations may help some patients process their past, they can be a set back under the wrong conditions. "Re-living an experience is a critical part of healing it, but you want to make sure there is a good setting, a sense of safety…. If not it can just be re-traumatizing," said Richard Furr, a psychologist who treats patients recovering from bad Ayahuasca trips.
But for the families of patients responding well to the treatment, ayahuasca is a game changer.
"I thought I was substituting one vice with another, but things got so bad at home, I gave it a try," said Verlandia Furtade Santos, 38, whose two teenage sons, who were hooked on crack and stealing to fuel their addiction. Weeks later, she barely recognizes her children. "To be honest, I've never seen my boys this well. It's all I want for them."
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