Amazonian treatment gives answer

Ayahuasca research shows unparalleled addictions support

Ayahuasca research shows unparalleled addictions support

Ayahuasca might just sound like an exotic plant with a tricky name, but one group of researchers and one performer is discovering that the South American substance could have more miraculous properties than science may have realized — namely, as a medicine that can actually coax people out of their addictions.

A new report published this past month by the Journal of Current Drug Abuse Reviews exposes the details of a study on ayahuasca-assisted treatment in a rural First Nations community in B.C. The preliminary observational study, which was completed by researchers affiliated with UVic’s Centre for Addictions Research of British Columbia, looked at the work of world-renowned addictions specialist Dr. Gabor Maté and his use of ayahuasca to treat “problematic substance use and stress” in the rural community.

The big shocker: all participants showed extreme, positive and lasting responses to the treatment, including even those who had experienced long-term resistance to conventional recovery programs.

“This is a really interesting substance when we go back to its original intention of use in a therapeutic setting, and in that setting there is no history of abuse,” says Philippe Lucas of the Centre for Addictions Research. “We’re still trying to catch up to the indigenous understanding of something that modern science is struggling with … but there is a growing interest.”

Historically, ayahuasca has been used in aboriginal and South American shaman-led ceremonies to encourage spiritual awakening. The psychotropic brew is a hallucinogen prepared from the vine and leaves of the Amazonian plant. While the psychedelic has different effects in every body, it has been noted to induce hours of a dream-like altered state of consciousness characterized by intense visual, auditory, ideational and emotional effects — along with the “purging” of what shamans commonly refer to as negative energies; i.e. vomiting.

Researchers observed two of Maté’s “Working with Addiction and Stress” retreats, which combined four days of group counselling with two expert-led ayahuasca ceremonies. In addition to observing the retreats, which occurred in June and September of 2011, pre-treatment and follow-up data was collected from the 12 participants (and four repeat participants) on several psychological and behavioral factors related to problematic substance use. Nearly all participants showed links from substance abuse to some form of childhood trauma.

Researchers also assessed the personal experiences of the participants six months after the retreat, and discovered statistically significant improvements in every life. Participants reported greater levels of hopefulness, empowerment, and quality of life, and self-reported alcohol, tobacco and cocaine use declined.

“What is so key is how we’ve looked at addiction — in the last hundred years, first as a moral failing, then the ‘disease’ model came out, but neither of those tell the whole story,” says Lucas. “What is really behind the addiction, and how are we treating this response to human trauma?”

To illuminate the findings in a way that’s clear to Victorians, Lucas is bringing in performer TJ Dawe to showcase his one-man play, Medicine — an autobiographical act that spawned from the impact a Victoria ayahuasca retreat had on Dawe’s own life in 2011. The play, which is a fundraiser for the Multidisciplinary Association of Psychedelic Studies, has been performed 65 times across Canada and the U.S. This will be the Victoria premier.

“The [ayahuasca] experience is for someone who is ready to find out the truth about themselves, even when those truths don’t seem to be in our best interest,” says Dawe. “And it can shine a light on those parts of our personalities that explain why we keep resorting to our compulsions … These personalities are not who we are, they are survival strategies that, like a stupid friend, only want to help but aren’t effective anymore.”

In Dawe’s experience, Maté led the group in what he calls “psychological detective work” to examine the root causes behind compulsions, like Dawe’s social alienation, instead of just focusing on the symptoms. This level of healing was unparalleled to anything Dawe and other group members had experienced, and has impacted his sense of self to this day.

“Ayahuasca is not commonly understood; a lot of people have trouble just pronouncing it. Psychedelics on a whole are widely misunderstood — they are associated in our culture with indulgence and addiction,” says Dawe. “I hope my performance can give people some insight and open a discussion to realize the therapeutic potential of this plant.”

While the findings may warrant more research, with results appearing after only one or two treatments, Health Canada sent a cease-and-desist order to Maté in the fall of 2011, instructing him to immediately stop retreats and instead go through the clinical process for exploratory research. The B.C. doctor agreed to the conditions, but he still believes the research will find its way.

“A lot of illness doesn’t come accidentally, but is the consequence of our relationship to ourself,” Maté told Monday. “I’d like to see anybody look at the evidence and, if they did, they’d be curious about it. Why are we shutting our eyes to this? No one has to take my word for it. It’s better to come to your own conclusions, to become curious.” M

To read the full report, visit ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23627784. See Medicine Fri., June 14 and Sat., June 15, 7pm at Metro Theatre (1411 Quadra). A panel discussion with guests follows. Tickets $20/$25. MedicineMaps.eventbrite.com.

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