Emily Sinclair, Ph.D (C)

Emily Sinclair, Ph.D (C)

Emily Sinclair is a Ph.D (C) Candidate in anthropology at Durham University, and shamanic apprentice studying ayahuasca shamanism and tourism. She has lived in Loreto, Peru since 2014 where she manages ayahuasca retreat centre Dr. Sanango.
Emily Sinclair, Ph.D (C)

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The ayahuasca tourism industry has been built on and propelled by ayahuasca’s increasing popularity as a spiritual and healing medicine worldwide. Despite thousands of positive experiences, it is the death of an ayahuasca tourist each year that reaches international media headlines. Media reports feed the still-widespread belief that ayahuasca is a dangerous drug. But is ayahuasca really to blame for fatalities? In this piece I will review the most recent ayahuasca tourism deaths announced in the media using first hand ethnographic information.

Case 1. Motorcycle Accident

In 2014, the death of British backpacker, Henry Miller, occurred in Colombia. Henry had paid $50 to partake in an ayahuasca ceremony at a lodge advertised by his hostel. According to witnesses, he had been struggling in ceremony, and fallen in to a semi-unconscious state, and it was reported that those running the ceremony were unable to revive him.1 As I was to discover later upon meeting his friends in Peru, Henry had actually died from a head injury sustained in a motorcycle accident following the ceremony when, panicking and presumably incompetent, the people running the ceremony attempted to take him to hospital. He fell from the motorcycle, hitting his head. The head injuries are clearly visible in pictures.

I live in the hub of ayahuasca tourism, the jungle metropolis of Iquitos, Peru, where I am currently doing anthropological research. Once the Rubber Boom capital, Iquitos is now at the heart of the “ayahuasca boom,”2 with the city thriving on the passing ayahuasca tourist trade.

Iquitos boulevard, 2017. Photo by Emily Sinclair.

You can choose from several “ayahuasca diet” menus in various ex-pat owned cafes, a vast selection of ayahuasca vine jewelry and art sold by local artisans, and even purchase ayahuasca in the local market from vendors who are willing to sell to anyone who will buy.

Tourist cafe, Iquitos, 2017. Photo by Emily Sinclair.
Belen market medicine isle, Iquitos, 2017. Photo by Emily Sinclair.

Most tourists though choose to partake in ceremonies in one of the many ayahuasca retreat centers now established across the region. I have been working in one of these centers for over two years. Along with many positive anecdotal reports, scientific research now supports the claims that ayahuasca has beneficial medicinal and therapeutic qualities, especially for the treatment of depression, addiction, and other mental health problems.3 The brew has been proven to be relatively safe for human consumption under controlled conditions and overdose practically impossible.4 Yet, three ayahuasca tourists have died in ayahuasca centers in the region during my time here. So what really happened?

Case 2. Tobacco Poisoning

In September 2015, 24-year-old New Zealander Matthew Dawson, died in an ayahuasca center in the Iquitos region. Although media headlines worldwide suggested his death was caused by ayahuasca,5 the smaller print revealed he died following a tobacco purge. Although tobacco is widely perceived as a deadly substance in Western countries, it is a master teacher plant in the shamanic traditions of Peru. Tobacco is commonly smoked as mapacho cigarettes in ayahuasca ceremonies to protect the space. It is also used as a purgante (purgative), in which tobacco is soaked in water for several hours and then drunk to induce vomiting as a cleansing ritual. In the retreat center where Matthew was staying, tobacco purges were being offered to all participants at that time. These purges are usually safe. However, according to insiders in Iquitos whom I interviewed, they can lead to nicotine poisoning, which can cause organ failure and can occasionally result in death, as probably in Matthew’s case. Matthew was in great physical discomfort following the ingestion of tobacco. After several hours, during which time he was screaming in pain, he eventually died from a heart attack.

Tobacco purgante, Jenaro Herrera, 2017. Photo by Emily Sinclair.

The proper use of tobacco requires expertise that some of the shamans working within ayahuasca tourism might not possess. In response to “consumer” demand, and in a bid to outdo competitors, some retreat centers in the region have worryingly started to offer various plant medicines during retreats that the shamans working there may not have much experience working with. These include the psychotropic cactus San Pedro, which is not indigenous to the area, and oje (Ficus insipida), another purgative plant that is effective for parasite cleansing but, like tobacco, dangerous and potentially fatal if not handled properly. I spoke with a respected tabaquero in the region about Matthew’s death. She told me it was “gross misconduct” to offer tobacco purges to all retreat participants, as they are unsafe for up to 30% of people. This is controversial, and there are many different views locally, but this case suggests that more scientific research is needed on the potential toxicity of tobacco purges. Locally, a tabaquero can assess a person’s suitability by testing the circulatory function  and “reading their energy.”  If a mistake is made, the tobacco must be removed from the person’s system as quickly as possible through forced purging. This can be achieved by compelling them to drink large amounts of water, by using other purgative plants or substances, or by other medical means. Two inexperienced facilitators attended to Matthew while the shaman reportedly watched TV upstairs. Far too late in the day, they decided to send him to the hospital; he died on the way.

Case 3. Murder

The death in Iquitos that perhaps received the most publicity in the international press was the murder of 26-year-old Briton, Unais Gomez, by Canadian Joshua Stevens, a fellow participant in an ayahuasca retreat, in December 2015. Much of the press ran with the story that Stevens had stabbed Gomez during a “bad trip” in which he experienced visions of Gomez having sex with his wife.6 Toxicology reports revealed Stevens did not have ayahuasca in his blood when he stabbed Gomez. He pleaded self-defense, and witnesses confirmed his story, which was as follows:

Stevens had been allowed to do a private ceremony with ayahuasca in his room that night. At around nine pm, Gomez left the group ceremony and went to Stevens’ room where he attacked him. According to Stevens and other witnesses, Gomez had appeared “possessed” and could not be calmed. Their confrontation ended in the center’s kitchen where, fearing for his life, Stevens eventually stabbed Gomez with a kitchen knife, killing him.

Firstly, it seems the group were not being responsibly cared for. It is quite shocking to me that a tourist was allowed to do a ceremony alone, and unsafe for participants to leave the group ceremony house unsupervised by a shaman or facilitator. From the perspective of many insiders in Iquitos, a demonic spirit had possessed Gomez. The ability to keep out evil spirits and deal with spiritual attacks is understood as an essential aspect of shamanic power, so the ability of the shaman leading the ceremony was called in to question. One could also understand this “possessed” state as a sort of psychotic episode. I have since learned that this was a likely possibility in Gomez’s case. I was visited by a friend who began drinking ayahuasca at the center where I work three years ago, and has since worked in several healing centers in Costa Rica and Peru. “I met him,” he explained, in a center in Cusco where they were working with San Pedro, “just a few months before his death.” According to my friend, previously an occupational therapist, it was clear that Gomez was “not sound of mind” at the time, and it would not have been safe for him to drink ayahuasca in the first place, or indeed any psychoactive plant medicines. As far as I could investigate, the center owners in Cusco did not obtain medical histories from participants in their retreats or make efforts to assess the suitability of participants for psychoactive plant work on arrival, just as some center owners in Iquitos also do not. This is a worrying fact, considering the potential for psychotic breaks in people who are mentally unstable and consume psychedelics.

Case 4. Post-Ceremony Fatality7

In December 2016, 38-year-old Californian traveler Alfonso Geovanni D’Rose was found dead the morning after an ayahuasca ceremony in his individual lodging at a small retreat center near Iquitos. According to the shaman there, D’Rose had not felt the effects, and had been allowed, with their permission, to go back to his house at the end of ceremony. There is very little information about the particulars of this incident. What is known is that he was found in his bathroom curled up beside the toilet. It is possible that the effects of the ayahuasca came on late and he aspirated on his vomit, or that he had ingested another substance, such as a sleeping pill. It is also possible that there was an unforeseen medical event that caused his death. Whatever the truth, this case highlights the dangers of allowing participants to be left unsupervised at any point during ceremony nights.

The Reality of Ayahuasca Tourism

It is important to emphasize that there have only been a handful of fatalities from among thousands of ayahuasca tourists who have been traveling to South America since the 1990s. As I have witnessed and experienced myself, the vast majority of ayahuasca tourists have positively life-changing and life-affirming experiences.

So, if you are seeking an ayahuasca experience in an Amazonian retreat center, don’t let this article put you off. Just have discernment and care about where you choose to go. Fatalities in ayahuasca centers are extreme examples of incompetency and irresponsible practice in the ayahuasca tourism industry that, gladly, are not representative of it as a whole, and, unfortunately, happen in other fields as well. There are many people with good intentions working in the Iquitos region who have a high level of knowledge about plant medicine work, years of experience, and who provide a good level of care for tourists who partake in their ceremonies and retreats. In response to these tragic incidences and other problems, several center owners have recently come together to form the Ayahuasca Safety Association, which will spread the word to the wider community about safe practice in ayahuasca ceremonies and centers; a positive move in the right direction, I feel. Journalists, on the other hand, should stop publishing unverified news without proper investigation, which causes misinformation to spread, and further stigmatizes what are legitimate cultural and medicinal practices.

Acknowledgments
Thanks to Bia Labate for her assistance with editing this article.

References

  1. Tracy McVeigh, “British Backpacker Dies After Taking Hallucinogenic Brew in Colombia,” The Guardian, (American edition), April 26, 2014. https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2014/apr/27/british-backpacker-dies-hallucinogenic-drug-colombia
  2. Joshua Homan, “Disentangling the Ayahuasca Boom: Local Impacts in Western Peruvian Amazonia,” in The World Ayahuasca Diaspora: Reinventions and Controversies, ed. Beatriz C. Labate, Clancy Cavnar and Alex K. Gearin (London and New York: Routledge, 2016).
  3. Beatriz C. Labate and Clancy Cavnar, eds. The Therapeutic Use of Ayahuasca, (New York: Springer, 2014).
  4. Dennis J. McKenna, J. C. Callaway, and Charles S. Grob, “The Scientific Investigation of Ayahuasca: A Review of Past and Current Research,” The Heffter Review of Psychedelic Research, 1:65–77 (1998).
  5. Hamish McDonald, “Death of Matthew Dawson-Clarke a Stark Warning About Dangers of Hallucinogenic Drug Ayahuasca,” The Sydney Morning Herald (Australia), March 12, 2017. http://www.smh.com.au/national/death-of-matthew-dawsonclarke-a-warning-about-dangers-of-psychedelic-drug-ayahuasca-20170310-guvmsb.html
  6. Lali Houghton, “A Story of Drugs, Darkness and Death in the Amazon,” Dazed (London, UK), February 3, 2016.
  7. Noticias Loreto, “Muere Turista,” (Loreto, Mexico), December 9, 2016