Dena Sharrock, Ph.D. (c)

Dena Sharrock, Ph.D. (c)

Dena Sharrock is a PhD candidate in Anthropology from the University of Newcastle, Australia. Her ethnographic research was carried out at the Temple of the Way of Light, Iquitos, Peru.
Dena Sharrock, Ph.D. (c)

Latest posts by Dena Sharrock, Ph.D. (c) (see all)


Public opinion matters; and, when it comes to mind-altering substances such as the Amazonian shamanic brew ayahuasca, moral panic matters. The “drugs” that act to create changes in consciousness are strictly regulated in many societies around the world, and certain factions within these societies seem invested in perpetuating misinformation about them. But what are the drivers or impulses of the collective consciousness that continue to incite this fear and misinformation?

I am writing this article in response the article recently posted by 7 News, Australia, entitled “Twin brothers at the centre of Willunga shooting took the same powerful hallucinogen as Cy Walsh,” which reports the death of Jake Cawte at the hand of his brother, Lucas.1  The depth of this tragedy is immense, clearly involving a diverse range of complex issues and heartfelt emotion. The reductionism and sensationalism of the report in this context is, to my mind, a travesty that can only act to compound the distress and pain of all of those living in the wake of what has happened. As an anthropologist who lived in Peru for a year and has been closely researching the use of the “powerful hallucinogen,” ayahuasca, for the past six years, I continue to feel distressed about articles such as this one which incite moral panic and fear in a situation that so clearly requires the deepest compassion, understanding, and education. It acts to vilify a practice that tens of thousands of people are finding deeply therapeutic while simultaneously encouraging condemnation and rejection: the very practices of disconnection that so many identify as the actual cause of their illnesses.

Ayahuasca is a preparation that has a long history of use throughout South America, used for its purifying, divinatory, and healing effects; it is a central part of the plant medicine technologies utilized by many Indigenous cultures and is itself considered a “medicine” in this context. It is also respected as a sacrament by several syncretic Brazilian religions, imbibed for its ability to facilitate personal communication with the Divine.2 In Western societies, however, these functions are largely overlooked, and ayahuasca is scheduled as a “prohibited substance” based on its ability to alter consciousness.3 Researchers are increasingly insisting, however, that this classification “correlates poorly” with public interest.4 While ayahuasca’s safety margin has been compared to codeine,5 the socially sanctioned substances, alcohol and tobacco, have rated as two of the most harmful drugs used in society today.6 This information is consistently overlooked in media representations.

From the disciplines of biomedicine, pharmacology, psychiatry, and psychology, emerging results indicate that ayahuasca is non-toxic, non-addictive and has no long-term detrimental side effects.7 While it remains important to note that, as with all consciousness-altering substances (including alcohol),8 the presence of serious psychotic disorders is strongly contraindicated, researchers have shown that ayahuasca is particularly beneficial for the treatment of a broad range of addictive and mental health issues such as depression and anxiety.9 Because of its function to allow access to suppressed pain and traumas, and the opportunity to reconceptualize, release, and integrate them, Canadian addiction expert, Dr. Gabor Maté, says, “ayahuasca may achieve in a few sittings what many years of psychotherapy can only aspire to do.”10 It is for these and many more reasons that people are increasingly seeking out ayahuasca as a medicine; and, for many of them, pertinent to the point I hope to make here, it is their own cultures and societies that they often identify as the main cause of their maladies.

A significant number of people I interviewed in Peru felt that many of the ills they experience are a direct result of their cultural environment, which they believe is encouraging an unprecedented disconnection of individuals: from their natural environment—particularly unadulterated medicines and food—from spirituality, and, significantly, from each other. It wasn’t so long ago in human history that banishment from a tribe was tantamount to death. Participants in my research indicate that the increasing disconnection they are experiencing is still having a significant effect on their health and wellbeing.

The specific technology of disconnection I want to speak about here relates to the perpetrators of moral panic, the reporters responsible for providing the proliferation of “news” media, such as the article I refer to here, that continues to encourage ignorance, judgment, and vilification, and the insidious effects of a culture that continues to thus be encouraged to be far more comfortable in the face of deviance and violence than with love, affection, and open-mindedness. Let’s take a look at Mooney’s article as a pertinent example.

ayahuasca propaganda

The heading and leading sentence directly linking the Cawte shooting to “the same drug as Cy Walsh used before he stabbed his father to death” set the tone for an article filled with misleading innuendo. In the cited case of Cy Walsh, ABC reported that he “had a complex history of drug use—including the South American hallucinogen ayahuasca—and psychotic delusions and a fractured relationship with his father.”11 Another report states that: “The court found … that his psychosis was not drug induced.”12 To insinuate causation between these murders and a substance that was taken several years before the events in each case reflects deceptive, lazy, and shallow reporting in the extreme.

The use of word “experimented” in relation to drug use, itself, insinuates connotations that do not match with the data I have collected over the years. Far from being impetuous thrill-seekers willfully engaging in dubious practices with unknown outcomes (as the chosen photos of the Cawte boys in Mooney’s article suggest), the vast majority of people I have known throughout the duration of my research have spent a considerable amount of time and resources, researching and seeking out ayahuasca. They are generally well-educated, well-respected members of their communities—far more in line with the photo of the Cawte boys proffered by ABC News13—many of them holding responsible positions across the fields of medicine, science, education, business, technology, and healing. Ayahuasca is not usually a substance that is taken lightly. It can involve intense physical discomfort and often confronting aspects of self-exploration. Most people who drink it do so with no small amount of respect and courage.

Mooney then quotes forensic toxicologist, Andrew Leibie, who seemingly states that the Cawte boys “changed their outlook on life completely” after their ayahuasca experience. The video that accompanies the article, however, reveals that Leibie was speaking about psychedelics in general, and did not know the Cawte family at all. The insinuation that changes are necessarily negative is also grossly misleading. When people report significantly altered life views after experiences with ayahuasca, it is far more common that they incorporate insights that lead them to increased empathy, self-respect, self-reliance, sense of connection, and feelings akin to unconditional love.

Temple of the way of light

The article finishes with a “warning about the dangers of hallucinogenic substances,” and these, indeed, need to be heeded. In the burgeoning market for ayahuasca in Peru, there are increasing numbers of charlatans offering ceremonies who have little experience and questionable morals. Research and, where possible, personal recommendations are strongly advised if people choose to explore these avenues, as there are also respectable, responsible and highly experienced practitioners who are helping many thousands of people.

For all of this, there remain two concerns that I have over and above all others that arise from this article, both of which pertain to the sensationalist approach that acts to illicit moral fear in the community. Firstly, while tendering ayahuasca as a dangerous drug, as if to provide a plausible explanation for the tragedy that has occurred here, the journalist fails to acknowledge that these situations are anything but simple. The article suggests that the twins used ayahuasca several years ago, and nothing has been revealed about their lives since that time. To suggest causation is both reductionist and ignorant in the extreme.

“Where disconnection is so often cited for the ills that so many people are valiantly seeking to heal, attempts to incite fear, judgment, and rejection for the sake of ratings and popularity are reckless.”

The second concern I have pertains to the dangers of moral panic itself. The rhetoric around “illicit drugs” is embedded in our culture, and fear is a very natural and understandable response for those who are close to people who become involved in illicit activities. Research indicates, however, that the people who seek out ayahuasca use an “illicit drug” only by (misleading) representation. Far from being a drug that they “experiment” with, most consumers engage in a significant amount of research in their search for healing, often from ills that they perceive are a direct result of the disconnection that is encouraged in the cultures they come from. To return to those same cultures—which, ironically, appear to be so much more at ease with expressions of deviance and violence than with those of love and open-mindedness (thanks in no small part to the tenor of the news they are fed daily)—has the potential, to my mind, to create far more damage than ayahuasca could. Many children are being raised within communities in which people have little issue with exposing them to combative contact sports, drunken celebrations, violent news stories, and war movies, but who express embarrassment over an on-screen kiss, and moral objections to public expressions of love and intimacy. This has a real effect on real life.

Tens of thousands of people around the world are experiencing profound healing through the responsible use of ayahuasca. Yes, there are potential dangers that must be considered; but what of the dangers that lie in the continuing encouragement of communities to shame and shun its members who are seeking alternative ways to heal, as most people who drink ayahuasca are? Yes, ayahuasca is a “powerful hallucinogen.” Used respectfully and carefully, its power lies in its potential to heal in ways Western medicine cannot. The journey is not always easy, and, as such, I feel that it is important to recognize the power of communities to hurt and also to heal those who undertake it. The Cawte family’s lives have undoubtedly been indelibly changed by the events of March 3, and I can’t see how representing their boys as irresponsible thrill-seekers and encouraging judgment and vilification within their communities can do anything but bring them more harm. The way they are represented in this story does not fit the profile of the vast majority of intelligent, deeply feeling people who seek healing through ayahuasca. To suggest direct causation between the historical use of ayahuasca and the tragic events in South Australia, however, is an example of reductionism in the extreme. Where disconnection is so often cited for the ills that so many people are valiantly seeking to heal, attempts to incite fear, judgment, and rejection for the sake of ratings and popularity are reckless. I wonder what it might take for journalists to take some responsibility for their own potential to perpetrate harm?

References

  1. Mark Mooney, “Twin Brothers at the Centre of Willunga Shooting Took the Same Powerful Hallucinogen as Cy Walsh,” Yahoo! 7 News (Adelaide, Australia), March 4, 2017,  https://au.news.yahoo.com/sa/a/34563936/twin-brothers-at-the-centre-of-willunga-shooting-took-the-same-powerful-hallucinogen-as-cy-walsh/#page1
  2. Beatriz Caiuby Labate, “Ayahuasca Religions in Acre: Cultural Heritage in the Brazilian Borderlands,” Anthropology of Consciousness 23, no.1 (2012): 87–102
  3. Australian Government, “Poisons Standard February 2017,”  https://www.legislation.gov.au/Details/F2017L00057/Html/Text#_Toc471222279
  4. David J. Nutt, Leslie A. King, and Lawrence D. Phillips, “Drug harms in the UK: A Multicriteria Decision Analysis,” Lancet 376, no. 9752 (2010): 1
  5. Robert S. Gable, “Risk assessment of ritual use of oral dimethyltryptamine (DMT) and harmala alkaloids,” Addiction 102 (2007): 31
  6. Nutt, King, and Phillips
  7. Tania Re, Joao Palma, Jorge Emanuel Martins, and Mario Simões, “Transcultural Perspective on Consciousness: Traditional Use of Ayahuasca in Psychotherapy in the 21st Century Western World,” Cosmos and History: The Journal of Natural and Social Philosophy 12, no. 2, (2016): 237–250
  8. Andrea Gordon, “Psychosis (Schizophrenia and Bipolar Disorder) and Substance Use,” in Comorbidity of Mental Disorders and Substance Use: A Brief Guide for the Primary Care Clinician,  (Adelaide, South Australia: Drug and Alcohol Services South Australia  2009), accessed June 22, 2017, http://www.nationaldrugstrategy.gov.au/internet/drugstrategy/publishing.nsf/Content/mono71-toc
  9. Ede Frecska, Petra Bokor, and Michael Winkelman, “The Therapeutic Potentials of Ayahuasca: Possible Effects Against Various Diseases of Civilization,” Frontiers in Pharmacology 7 (2016): 35
  10.  Gabor Maté, “The Medicinal and Spiritual Powers of an Amazonian brew,” December 26, 2016, http://chacruna.net/medicinal-spiritual-powers-amazonian-brew
  11. Candace Prosser, “Cy Walsh had Complex History of Drug Use, Court Documents Show,” ABC News, September 28, 2016, accessed March, 10, 2017, http://www.abc.net.au/news/2016-09-28/cy-walsh-had-complex-history-of-drug-use-court-documents-show/7425104
  12. Candace Prosser, “What is Hallucinogen Ayahuasca?,” ABC News (South Australia), September 28, 2016, accessed March 10, 2017, http://www.abc.net.au/news/2016-09-28/what-is-hallucinogen-ayahuasca/7442714
  13. Rebecca Opie, “Alleged Killer Lucas Cawte and Twin Brother Victim ‘best Friends,’ Accused Makes No Bail Application” ABC News, March 6, 2017, accessed March 10, 2017, http://www.abc.net.au/news/2017-03-06/cawte-twins-best-friends-family-says-after-murder/8329566

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