ORLANDO, Fla. (WTSP) – As America deals with epidemics in opioid addiction and veteran post-traumatic stress disorder, an ancient medicine has found a resurgence as a powerful weapon in helping people fight their personal demons.
Ayahuasca, a vine that grows in the Amazon, has been used by South American shamans for centuries. The plant contains a high concentration of the psychedelic substance dimethyltryptamine (DMT) and is considered an illegal Schedule 1 drug by the Drug Enforcement Agency, but under a U.S. Supreme Court decision (Gonzales v. UDV, 2006) the vine can be used legally as a religious sacrament.
That’s why Chris Young founded the Soul Quest Ayahuasca Church of Mother Earth in Orlando.
“I knew nothing about opening up a church, as a matter of fact, I was the person most against opening up a church, I did not believe in that route,” said Young.
But, ultimately, opening the church was a way of working with the government and operating within the law
“We received a letter from the DEA stating that they would like for us to become exempt and file an exemption letter to the DEA and we agreed,” he said. “We feel we do not need the DEA exemption, we’re only doing it because we’ve been asked, but we feel that the 2006 Supreme Court ruling stating that ayahuasca can be used as a spiritual sacrament is the law of the land.”
That exemption allows Young and his church to do the work they are passionate about - teaching and healing people through the use of ayahuasca.
In less than two years the church has grown to include more than three thousand members from all over the world, all of whom have traveled to Orlando to experience ayahuasca for themselves.
“Ayahuasca is not meant for everyone, people have a hard time with it and sometimes we get members that come here one day and they get scared and they never come back,” added Young. “It is definitely not for fun and enjoyment. People who come here and want to have that experience of a party or fun, they’re not going to have that. You will violently get sick, we call it purge or getting well, you will go to the bathroom and cleanse out.”
And the effects can be even more severe if proper precautions aren’t taken. If people with certain medical conditions or on certain medications take ayahuasca the effects can be dangerous and even lethal.
“You can’t fault people for being curious but, at the same time, this has a very dangerous component to it,” said Dr. Kimberly Hartney, an Assistant Professor of Psychiatry at USF’s Morsani College of Medicine. “What I’m concerned about is the need for medical attention at the time of administration of the medication because they do get that experience where you can have a hypertensive crisis and die.”
In addition, ayahuasca can be extremely dangerous when used in conjunction with monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs) or selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), or when taken by someone with a history of high blood pressure, schizophrenia or epilepsy.
Nonetheless, thousands of people continue to use ayahuasca and many of them credit it for helping save their lives. They include veterans who have returned from the battlefield suffering from severe PTSD.
“It was just this balance that put me back into a balanced place and it was beautiful,” said Ryan LeCompte, a Marine Corps infantry veteran in the documentary film “From Shock to Awe”. “If ayahuasca can do anything for veterans it’s that it shows them that there is a peace that you have within you and you can cultivate that peace and you can find it, and it is possible. It’s a glimpse of that, and to me, that’s all the hope somebody needs.”
“They’ve had to witness unbelievable trauma and some of these guys were psychologically traumatized before they even got into the military. Now they’re coming home and can’t get the proper care, they’re just getting tons of pills and hopefully, they’re turned into a zombie, but now they’re done, they’re fed up with it and I feel blessed to help our veterans come back from these spiritual injuries,” said Young. “They’re losing their wives, they’re losing their children, they’re losing their mind, but when they came here they were able to get it all back.”
“From military veterans suffering from PTSD to drug addicts to people that are just lost,” he added. “They’re doing it because they want a new life, a new way, everything they have tried has not worked but now they’ve finally found something that does.”