Ayahuasca is a hallucinogenic beverage made from a tropical vine that forms an important component of Amazonian Indian shamanism.
It is legal for use by these natives in Brazil, but the active ingredient in the tea is classified as a Schedule I substance in the United States, making the hallucinogenic component of ayahuasca illegal to possess.
Many of these drugs are popular in religious ceremonies, including drugs like peyote, and others develop an almost cult-like status (e.g., LSD) because they are believed to be capable of expanding one’s consciousness. Some individuals experience extreme alterations of reality, such as synesthesia, which is a mixed sensory experience where the individual perceives that they can see sounds or hear color.
Other distortions of reality are also experienced with these drugs.
Individuals often have dissociative experiences where they feel that they are detached from their bodies or that things are not real, perceive that time is either sped up or slowed down, or that they can better sense another person’s feelings.
This designation is not without error because some classic hallucinogens may produce dissociative effects in individuals, and dissociative hallucinogens often mimic the effects of classic hallucinogens. The major active ingredient in ayahuasca falls under the classic hallucinogen category.
Hallucinogens are not major drugs of abuse in the same way that prescription medications, heroin, methamphetamine, cocaine, etc., are considered to be major drugs of abuse. Nonetheless, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration estimated that in 2014 approximately 1.2 million individuals over the age of 12 years old reported some type of hallucinogen use. Since these substances are generally classified as Schedule I controlled substances, the figure suggests that hallucinogens represent substances that are of concern.
Individuals often use ayahuasca for its perceptual-enhancing effects. However, there are some potentially dangerous effects of using hallucinogens that include potential cardiovascular issues due to the cardiovascular stimulant effects these drugs produce and negative emotional experiences as a result of the hallucinations and other perceptual alterations that the drugs induce. Because the perception of reality is altered, individuals under the influence of these drugs are more likely to make poor decisions and engage in self-destructive behavior, and in rare cases, some hallucinogens are associated with the development of hallucinogen-induced persistent perception disorder. This disorder occurs when the individual experiences the effects of taking the drug (e.g. sudden changes in perceptual experiences, hallucinations, etc.) without having taken the drug (sometimes these experiences are referred to as drug “flashbacks”).
There is no cure for this disorder, and individuals who have these experiences find them very discomforting.
Despite many of these claims, it is important to understand that whenever any substance is labeled as being some form of panacea or cure-all, targeted clinical investigations typically uncover the presence of and the contribution of significant placebo effects. Thus, at this time, many of the claims being made for the substance warrant further investigation.
Nonetheless, an individual does not need to develop physical dependence to a substance in order to develop a substance use disorder. Substance use disorders (substance abuse and addiction) occur in individuals who use drugs for nonmedical reasons, experience issues with controlling their use of the drug, and continue to use the drug in spite of experiencing a number of negative ramifications associated with use. The American Psychiatric Association specifies formal diagnostic criteria that are used in the diagnosis of a hallucinogen use disorder that would be appropriate for individuals who use ayahuasca and satisfy these criteria. As a group, hallucinogens are not considered to be significant drugs of abuse; however, some individuals may develop substance use disorders as a result of using them.