Every year thousands of climbers risk their lives trying to summit Mount Rainier. But if altitude isn’t your thing, now you can confront your fear of death from the apparent safety of a cabin near the mountain — by taking Peruvian hallucinogen ayahuasca.
A 160-acre plot near Elbe, Washington is home to Ayahuasca Healings, a first-of-its-kind organization whose mission is to make ayahuasca, a medicinal and hallucinogenic tea, publicly accessible in the United States. The tea, a plant-based brew that includes Dimethyltryptamine (DMT) is nicknamed “the vine of the dead.”
“We have launched the first public and legal ayahuasca church in America,” said Trinity de Guzman, co-founder of Ayahuasca Healings. “There are other churches that have been doing this for decades, but they have been very underground and the information about them has been very sparse.”
The organization began offering ayahuasca retreats as of January 1st. Less than a month into providing the service, de Guzman said Ayahuasca Healings’ inboxes have been flooded with hundreds of applications for the retreats.
According to a federally issued National Survey on Drug Use and Health report, the number of Americans who reported using DMT in the last year rose from about 140,000 in 2006 to 325,000 in 2012. Since few churches like de Guzman’s exist across the country, ayahuasca and other forms of DMT are often consumed in clandestine circles.
The ayahuasca tea is traditionally brewed by curanderos or shamans in Latin America and has long required people interested in using the medicine to take expensive flights to countries like Peru for access to traditional ceremonies.
De Guzman, whose first ayahuasca retreat in Peru cost him about $5,000, including travel, said he firmly believes that cost shouldn’t be a barrier to accessing the medicine in a safe environment.
For a suggested $1,500 donation to Ayahuasca Healings, visitors can participate in a four-day retreat at the organization’s property near the foot of Mount Rainier. The retreat, led by de Guzman’s business partner Marc Shackman, includes four ayahuasca ceremonies, lodging in a tipi, and food.
Can’t afford to spend a month’s rent on an ayahuasca trip? Ayahuasca Healings offers a scholarship program to cover some of the costs of the retreat for participants with financial limitations.
The Ayahuasca Healings video blog shows progress developing the property near Elbe, Washington for upcoming retreats
So how do they get away with essentially selling a Schedule I drug to the public?
To host the retreats without fear of the DEA showing up, de Guzman and Shackman had their retreat center become a non-denominational branch of the Oklevueha Native American Church (ONAC). According to the ONAC’s website, the organization, founded in 2007, merges the spiritual traditions of the Lakota Sioux Nation and Okelvueha Seminole, members of which use peyote, a cactus plant with psychedelic properties, as a sacrament in their traditional ceremonies.
The ONAC is federally protected under legal precedents like the Religious Freedom Restoration Act and the American Indian Religious Freedom Act, which was passed to preserve the traditional religious rights and cultural practices of Native Americans.
According to de Guzman, the laws protecting the Native American Church and its traditional ceremonies would also extend to Ayahuasca Healings and prevent intervention by law enforcement.
Others are skeptical about de Guzman’s claims that the retreats are legally protected, and say Ayahuasca Healings’ clients are putting themselves at risk of prosecution.
Although de Guzman isn’t of Peruvian or Native American descent, he believes ayahuasca is integral to the person he is now. After his first retreat, de Guzman studied traditional ayahuasca ceremonies in Peru for two years and says he has since dedicated his life to making ayahuasca and its benefits accessible to the masses.
But taking ayahuasca is still not necessarily for the casual Seattle stoner, said de Guzman.
“When I went to Peru for my first ceremony, it was one of the most powerful and transformational stages in my entire life,” said de Guzman. “The ayahuasca experience isn’t something that’s easy. I say again and again that this is only for people who are really serious about their inner work, about their healing, the transformation of their lives.”
So what’s taking ayahuasca really like?
Sixty-eight-year-old Seattle resident Susan was invited to attended her first ayahuasca retreat this past December.
She went with one of the more clandestine groups offering ayahuasca ceremonies in the Seattle area (not Ayahuasca Healings). She asked that her last name not be included in this article out of concerns it would impact her professionally.
Susan said a mix of people of different ages and backgrounds attended the retreat — though she said was the oldest person there.
“I had the experience of confronting my own mind, and that was terrifying.”
She said the hallucinogenic visions from the tea were both terrifying and cleansing.
According to popular drug lore, drinking the hallucinogenic tea allowed some ayahuasca drinkers to confront their fear of death. And ayahuasca has some support from clinicians, too:
“Dr. Josep Fábregas, a psychiatrist and addiction expert based in Spain, believes ayahuasca can heal a number of mental disturbances, from addiction to sexual trauma,” the The Daily Beast reported.
Vancouver family practitioner Dr. Gabor Maté used it to treat hundreds of his patients, mostly for addictions to other drugs, until the Canadian government intervened.
“At my age, I’m not afraid of death,” Susan said. “I had the experience of confronting my own mind, and that was terrifying.”
Reaping the spiritual benefits of ayahuasca is a process, said de Guzman.
At the beginning of the Ayahuasca Healings retreat, visitors go through a purge, which often includes vomiting. To regular Ayahuasca drinkers, the purge means letting go of negativity, resentment, and other emotional baggage, said de Guzman.
“Other than childbirth, I never felt like I was not in control or in charge of my own system. I was on this ride and there was no turning back,” said Susan. “There were amazing, beautiful insights and learnings. A lot of it, for me, was to get out of my head and try not to [overthink] everything.”
Ultimately, de Guzman believes that his church is something American city-dwellers like Susan can benefit from on a spiritual level.
“We grow up in a society that teaches us a lot of negative ways of thinking,” he said. “The society we live in is very fear-based. We’re bombarded with media that’s often about the fear and what could go wrong.”
The Ayahuasca Healings website takes questions of cultural appropriation in using the drug head on, saying the issue of race shouldn’t be used “as an excuse to block and limit the sacred, sincere use of Plant Medicines in a religious context.”
“The people in South America and in Peru, they work with the medicine in a very traditional way. They don’t understand that we as North Americans have different stresses, different challenges that you know, people who live in the jungle don’t have,” de Guzman said.
To ensure Americans have access to ayahuasca, de Guzman and Stackman plan to expand outside of Washington. Their goal, said de Guzman, is to open two churches a year with a total of 30 churches across the nation by 2032.
So would an ayahuasca newbie like Susan even want to try taking it again?
“It’s not a trivial experience, at least it wasn’t for me. … I’m very glad I did it,” she said. “Six weeks ago, I never wanted to take it again. And now… I’m not saying that.”
This post has been updated to reflect questions about the legality of the retreats offered by Ayahuasca Healings. More in the comments below.