For those who have never tried ayahuasca, imagine yourself seated on a floor cushion in a dark room; your eyes could be open or closed, it doesn't matter. You might see kaleidoscopic patterns and feel absolute euphoria throughout your entire being. Or maybe you're clutching a plastic bucket hurling your brains out, surrounded by a group of people you’ve probably never met before.
Beyond any crying, vomiting, or laughing, everyone is silent except for the group leader—a shaman, medicine man, or whatever you'd like to call this person—who's singing icaros, traditional South American melodies with a healing focus, designed specifically to accompany an ayahuasca ceremony and help guide you through the journey. Sometimes referred to as ‘grandmother’ or ‘yage’, unlike other psychedelics such as LSD or psilocybin mushrooms, ayahuasca is in not a single substance, but a concoction brewed from the ayahuasca vine (Banisteriopsis caapi) and the chacruna shrub (Psycotria viridis), which contains the powerful hallucinogen DMT (dimethyltryptamine).
Because ayahuasca contains DMT, it’s illegal in the US and many other countries. And yet, that seems to have done little to curb the rate at which people try the medicine. Alongside communities in California, Hawaii, and New York, where you’d find the likely candidates going for ayahuasca ceremonies, the medicine is gaining popularity among a growing population around the country in need of healing, including in Michigan, parts of the midwest, and Kentucky. This is happening underground, either in tight-knit friend groups, by word of mouth, or among internet communities where shamans can share information.
"Every major city in the country has some kind of scene, it's really been an explosion over the last couple years in places like New York, San Francisco, and LA. There's absolutely ayahuasca being poured every night in some apartment or yoga studio everywhere," says drug writer Lex Pelger, who focuses on biochemistry and sociology. "All the states have people quietly doing this in the underground."
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Why the boom? “[Because] it works,” he says. "It's an amazing medicine for mental health and for clarity, and it can be really excellent for the body I think because of the purging. It's like no other psychoactive medicine that we have."
With an estimated 16.2 million American adults, or 6.7 percent of the population, suffering from depression, the need for healing extends beyond bearers of the counterculture. Apart from all the testimonies that have created such a buzz about ayahuasca, there is a growing body of evidence to show it has potential in treating addiction and PTSD.
Though classified as a psychedelic, ayahuasca offers a much different experience than popping a tab of acid. To call it “fun” would be oversimplified, if not at times altogether misleading. Those who take the medicine do so in small “ceremonies” led by a shaman. To lead a ceremony, “a shaman needs years of training, and must be supervised by an older shaman, as well as direct inspiration from the plants,” says Bia Labate, executive director at the Chacruna Institute for Psychedelic Plant Medicines. Many descend from a legacy of shamans, such as families like the Shipibo or Quechua from Peru, Brazil, and so forth.
However, with the rising popularity of ayahuasca, we’ve seen the rising trend of unqualified “shamans,” who may be appropriating the culture and practice from indigenous South American tribes. Stories of sexual assault and abuse by these faux-shamans undermine the healing potential of the brew, and can put people in a highly dangerous position, while under a vulnerable mental and physical state.
To become a shaman, you need to have a deep and intimate relationship with the medicine, and to have experienced all realms of the mind on account of it, says Pelger. "A good shaman has gone through those experiences and can hold space for others doing it. There are so many lousy shamans operating to take advantage of people in places like New York, San Francisco, or Seattle."
While “purging” during ceremony is thought to help people grapple with and heal from what’s ailing them, ayahuasca is contextualized within a spiritual practice. It’s no magical pill, or in this case, magical brew. Instead it offers a window into the daily work that needs to be done thereafter in order to maintain healing.
Ayahuasca’s different components can be shipped or smuggled into the US, sometimes in the form of powders, or are labelled as other substances like aloe vera. In other cases, they’re grown in remote, tropical corners within the country itself. Then they’re brewed locally before a ceremony.
Globally, thousands of people have embraced the traditional medicine as an alternative to western psychological or psychiatric solutions, turning to ayahuasca to heal from trauma, depression, anxious tendencies, and as a tool for general wellness. In the region surrounding Iquitos, the largest city in the Peruvian Amazon, up to 100 centers offer ayahuasca ceremony services catering to locals, and now drawing in visitors from around the world.
As an ancient tradition experiencing a contemporary renaissance, ayahuasca spirituality has recently been recognized by the Parliament of World Religions—a gathering of 10,000 people of 200 faiths—which until 2018, had never had indigenous Amazonians in attendance. As such, a few groups do have protection, including the Brazil-based Santo Daime and União de Vegetal (“union of the plant”) churches (with outposts in Portland, Ashland, Bend, Los Angeles, Seattle, and western Massachusetts) which enjoy religious exemption to consume the brew as a sacrament.
Very few people within America actually have this kind of legal protection to use ayahuasca and so therefore cannot advertise openly without putting themselves at risk. Yet despite its illegality and lack of clinical back-up, ayahuasca is a psychoactive medicine that is gaining traction, as people hunt out new ways, away from the mainstream, to tackle what is a mounting global problem with mental and spiritual distress.
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