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    The United States: the Ayahuasca Giant

    Carlos Suárez Álvarez and ICEERS | 11 October 2023

    Could Richard Evans Schultes, the esteemed Harvard botanist and pioneer in ayahuasca research, have ever envisioned that the descendants of the Amazonian shamans he collaborated with would one day be conducting shamanic tours akin to pop stars across North America? Could Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs, two iconic figures of the Beat Generation counterculture, have fathomed that their book The Yage Letters would inspire hundreds of thousands to embark on a profound pilgrimage to the Amazon, ultimately birthing the phenomenon we now know as “ayahuasca tourism”?

    Contemplating these scenarios, one cannot help but wonder how these historical figures would react to the Brazilian ayahuasca churches obtaining authorization to import and administer their sacrament, known as daime, amid the “war on drugs” era. How would they respond upon discovering approximately 1.3 million of their fellow citizens have already partaken in the Amazonian brew more than 50 years after their explorations?

    Ayahuasca Consumption in the United States

    The National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), a federal survey tracking drug consumption in the United States, does not explicitly ask about ayahuasca. However, through a meticulous examination of the codebooks (which contain a wealth of data excluded from the full report), we managed to estimate the number of individuals who had experienced ayahuasca at least once in their lives. According to our calculations, approximately 0.5% of the U.S. population aged 14 and older (which equates to roughly 1.3 million people) would have tried ayahuasca at some point in their lives in 2019. This percentage closely aligns with other countries that have available ayahuasca consumption statistics, such as Colombia (0.8%), the Czech Republic (at least 0.5%), Brazil (0.37%), and Spain (0.2%).

    Furthermore, our estimates suggest that in the year 2019 alone, approximately 200,000 individuals in the USA took ayahuasca. In other words, 15% of those who had previously experienced ayahuasca did so within the year leading up to the survey.

    The Intriguing Demographics of Ayahuasca Drinkers

    To delineate the socioeconomic profile of ayahuasca drinkers in the United States, we turned to the Global Survey of Ayahuasca Drinking (GSAD), a comprehensive international survey spearheaded by the University of Melbourne. This extensive survey garnered responses from over 11,000 individuals, including more than 1,000 people from the United States.

    According to the GSAD findings, the consumption of ayahuasca in the United States is remarkably balanced in terms of gender, with 49.2% identifying as male, 50.4% as female, and 0.4% as other genders. Notably, two out of three ayahuasca drinkers in the USA hold at least a college degree, reflecting a highly educated demographic. Over 60% of respondents reported having managerial positions or working in liberal professions.

    The GSAD survey also sheds light on the age at which people in the USA first experiment with ayahuasca, revealing that nearly 70% tried it for the first time after the age of 30. This indicates a later age of onset compared to substances. Additionally, almost half of the respondents reported consuming ayahuasca fewer than five times in their lifetime, suggesting that ayahuasca does not lead to dependency. This socioeconomic profile aligns with other research conducted in various countries, including studies conducted by ICEERS in Spain and the Netherlands.

    Deaths in the Media

    As of the time of this writing, no definitive autopsy or toxicological analysis has been able to definitively attribute any individual’s death to acute ayahuasca intoxication (for a more in-depth exploration of deaths linked to ayahuasca, please refer to the full report on this subject). Within the period from 1994 to 2022, the media has associated 58 deaths worldwide with ayahuasca consumption, with 10 of these cases involving U.S. citizens. Among these 10 cases, four occurred in the United States.

    The first case in 2015 involved an anonymous man who likely died from synthetic 5-MeO-DMT intoxication. In 2012, Garth Dickson drowned in a California lake shortly after participating in an ayahuasca ceremony. Lindsay Poole passed away in 2016 after an ayahuasca ceremony. While an autopsy was conducted, the results were not publicly disclosed. News reports indicated that Poole experienced a fainting spell during the ceremony and died of unknown causes. In 2018, Brandon Begley died from hyponatremia, a condition resulting from excessive water consumption during an ayahuasca session.

    Six other deaths of U.S. citizens were reported outside the country. In 2007, Kevin Furnas committed suicide in his apartment in Peru. Although his death was associated with ayahuasca due to his role as a facilitator in retreat centers, there is no information indicating that he had consumed the brew before his death. In 2012, Kyle Nolan passed away under unclear circumstances after consuming ayahuasca at a retreat center without a facilitator’s supervision. Two autopsies yielded inconclusive results.

    In 2016, Alfonso Geovani D’Rose was found dead in his room at a retreat center the morning after a ceremony. The local media suggested that he collapsed and hit his head. That same year, Christina Melissa Jenkins was found dead hours after a ceremony ended at a retreat center in the Sacred Valley. The cause of death remains undetermined. Also in 2016, Lesley Allison died in Ecuador due to a cervical fracture resulting from convulsions induced by ayahuasca. Matthew Mellon, a cryptocurrency tycoon with substance abuse issues, died in 2018 under unclear circumstances in a hotel room in Mexico. Autopsy results were not disclosed. It was not confirmed whether or not he had consumed ayahuasca in the hours leading up to his death.

    The prevention of these 10 deaths could have been possible if the ayahuasca ceremonies had adhered to minimum safety standards. As interest in ayahuasca continues to grow, with nearly one and a half million people partaking in this plant medicine, the adoption of safety standards is crucial in the United States. Numerous groups conduct ayahuasca ceremonies under the justification of religious freedom, and several “ayahuasca churches” have emerged based on legal exemptions similar to those of the União do Vegetal and Santo Daime.

    Regardless of how individuals participate in ayahuasca sessions, irresponsible practices pose risks to public safety and can impact the ayahuasca movement, which offers spiritual and healing benefits to the community at large. ICEERS advocates for improved ayahuasca practices on an international scale.

    Read more about the findings in the Executive Summary of Ayahuasca, Global Consumption & Reported Deaths in the Media. You can request the full 196-page report (available only in Spanish) here

    Further Reading

    Four Million People Have Taken Ayahuasca Worldwide
    Ayahuasca Tourism In-Depth: Revealing the Who, How, and Where Ayahuasca, Global Consumption & Reported Deaths in the Media
    Health Status of Ayahuasca-Ceremony Participants in the Netherlands


    Photo by U.S. Government on RawPixel.

    Categories: Ayadeath Report
    Tags: ayahuasca , USA , death , consumption