How safe are ceremonies with ayahuasca

Miracle drug ayahuasca?

Between horror trips and real healing: How doctors, freaks and charlatans struggle for the legal use of drugs like ayahuasca

They usually come in the early evening, sometimes four, sometimes 40 people, all with a sleeping bag and a bucket. Together they disappear overnight in private apartments, practice rooms, on properties in the surrounding area. There they drink a vegetable stock, then the puke bucket comes, the next stop is the sleeping bag. At the ayahuasca ceremonies that take place almost every week in and around Berlin, the psychedelic trip goes inside. The participants hope for inspiration for their life: a new direction, the solution of a problem, a creative boost. But among them there are also people in great psychological distress who see no other way out.

The origin of Ayahuasca

The traditional Ayahuasca ceremony comes from the Amazon region and is mainly used for self-awareness. The possession of the plants used, the liana species Banisteriopsis caapi and the coffee plant plant Psychotria viridis, is not forbidden in Germany - but the preparation of the brew is. Nevertheless, some providers dare to advertise their events openly online. Their clientele is part of a growing movement of people who see great therapeutic potential in illegal drugs. Scientists are also examining LSD, the ecstasy ingredient MDMA, the narcotic ketamine and psilocybin from hallucinogenic mushrooms for their psychotherapeutic benefits.

That these substances can act as highly potent supporters in the treatment of depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, fear of dying and addiction diseases - this idea has been around in medical research for a long time. But the bans on the substances halted research for decades. Only now are they returning to large-scale studies, especially in the USA, Switzerland, Great Britain, and also in the Czech Republic.

Two dead in Reinickendorf

The official return of the active ingredients is made more difficult by negligent illegal treatments, which can be fatal, especially in dangerous mixing experiments. Like in 2009 in an MDMA session in Reinickendorf. The doctor and therapist Garri R. had administered ten times the dose and also combined it with another amphetamine preparation. Two men, aged 28 and 58, died.

Such experiments are “human experiments at a high level,” says Henrik Jungaberle, chairman of the Berlin initiative MIND - European Foundation for Psychedelic Science. Since the beginning of the year, the organization has been committed to creating legal and therefore safe contexts for experiences with psychoactive substances. This means first of all that it networks scientists - medical professionals and neuroscientists, psychologists as well as social scientists and anthropologists - and initiates joint research projects. Jungaberle says: “In the scientific field everything that has to do with psychoactive substances is negotiated under the heading of addiction and illness and psychosis. We would like to change this naive picture with factual information. "

The MIND chairman, in jeans and a shirt, does not seem spiritually aloof or cerebral. More like a determined startup entrepreneur. For 15 years he has been researching the effects of psychoactive substances as a drug and prevention researcher. He says: “The psychedelic experience is human culture that we should shape instead of forbid.” The institute for prevention research that he heads is located in the Betahaus, the hip co-working space on Moritzplatz.

Jungaberle distinguishes three areas for which the active ingredients are relevant. On the one hand, there is use in psychotherapy, embedded in long-term therapeutic support. Jungaberle estimates the number of people in Germany who have made such treatment illegal at several tens of thousands. There is also the large self-awareness scene in which individuals process their psychedelic experiences without professional help. Thirdly, he differentiates between use in the party scene - where there is often unreflected consumption and mixed consumption. Anyone who campaigns for the legalization of psychoactive substances must take care of all three areas, says the MIND founder.

Tamara, name changed, is on the way in the self-awareness scene. There is a therapeutic intention behind their regular use of ayahuasca. The 42-year-old suggests a park in Schöneberg as a meeting point. As far away as possible from other listeners, she describes, sitting in the sun, how she experiences her trips, which she calls "journeys". Once she met her late father while doing it. “There was such a communication. Where are you? I'm sure. Are you doing well? Yes I'm fine. Somehow it had such a peaceful end. ”This peaceful feeling stayed with her and replaced the constant brooding about her relationship with her father. “The fighting has stopped,” she says.

She had nothing more to lose

With the help of the substance, Tamara wants to overcome a childhood trauma. She used to only talk to her therapist about it, she says. She can now describe it without any noticeable tension: When Tamara was 14 years old, her mother died after a short illness. The father was no longer able to maintain a regular daily routine. Tamara ended up on the drug scene, taking cocaine and dealing. “Between the ages of 20 and 23, I spent most of the time in some gutter.” She got rid of the coke, but the psychological suffering persisted. Today she knows: a post-traumatic stress disorder. “You have flashbacks all the time. Every day between 30 and 40, when it was particularly bad, ”she says. When she first heard of ayahuasca after various therapies, it seemed worth a try. She had nothing to lose.
The psychedelic experience can be described in many ways. Imaging methods show that the control of the neocortex temporarily sinks - and fears that affect the human ego also disappear. MIND founder Jungaberle describes the experience as follows: “I am not this lonely little human being who crouches on the eighth floor of an apartment in Berlin and finds it so difficult to cope with life. Rather, the world can be in order, I belong to it. ”The neurophysiological changes over time are by no means pathological, but a different way of functioning of the brain. Similar to sex.

The search for the psychedelic experience seems to be ancient human desire. It is firmly anchored in many cultural traditions - and not just through the ingestion of substances. Meditation, dances, breathing and other trance techniques all aim at the state freed from the everyday ego, which can become a life-changing experience.

Tamara has achieved the alleviation of her suffering that she had hoped for. She says: “In relation to before I am really happy, sometimes even blissful, even with myself alone. I discovered humor for myself. And I got a completely different approach to people. ”Because, from her point of view, the promise of salvation has been fulfilled so far, Tamara also wants to inform others about the supposed miracle herb. “That's not in the pharmacy shop.” In her work as a body therapist, she also mediates her clients in ceremonies if they get stuck with her problems. So far, 100 to 150 people, she estimates - everyone would have benefited from the experience.

Even she herself is not finished with the substance. She wants to continue using it to work off her trauma. When asked how often she took ayahuasca, she laughs. “I stopped counting when I was 40.” But she only started two and a half years ago. She herself sees this as unproblematic: other people also went to the therapist once a week.

Research shows how quickly it can get into a ceremony. Looking for a session, the leader of a ceremony that is to take place on the same evening writes by SMS: “Yes you can join. It's a private session. So the price is a bit more… “Depending on the size of the group, the costs are usually between 100 and 250 euros per night. The provider does not seem to have read the request carefully, which states that it is only about research. She still seems to be interested in who actually wants to take part in the ceremony. No question of who comes with what intention. And in what state of health. Also, there is no question as to whether the diet recommended for taking ayahuasca has been observed - a few days before and after coffee and alcohol, for example, but also certain foods and spices, should be avoided. Pay seems to be most important to her. Tamara also knows from her experience with the ceremonies: "Sometimes in Berlin there is a tendency to be a bit casual."

Risk of psychosis that may persist

The previous studies show how crucial the so-called integration is for the psychedelic experience: to process what has been experienced and to implement it in everyday life. Many do not succeed in this without accompaniment. Often friends and family are asked if there is sheer confusion afterwards. The greatest danger is psychosis - delusions that can be temporary but often persist in predisposed people. Jungaberle says, “The fact that so many people use these substances without guidance and with little information is just a shame. Let's put it in very traditional terms: consumer protection is absolutely not guaranteed here. "
In addition to the initial psychological situation, there are also physical risks that are often ignored. Jungaberle describes an example: A request from a man who wanted to treat a long-term mental illness with MDMA-based therapy. He wanted to know if an eye disease he was diagnosed with spoke against it. Jungaberle passed the inquiries on to colleagues. Two hours later, he had three references to scientific studies that show: If the man had taken MDMA, he would have risked his eyesight. Jungaberle says: “You only get such information when you have experts at the start - and not when Lieschen Müller, who has a discontinued medical practitioner training course, gives people MDMA because she thinks it will lead people into a sacred space. "

Conspiracy with the guru

Jungaberle is also skeptical about the therapeutic effects of ayahuasca ceremonies with shamans from completely different cultures. "With the many patients with their crazy disorders, with their difficult pathological problems that arise here, the indigenous shamans are sometimes completely overwhelmed." What works in the indigenous context does not seem necessarily suitable for people with a completely different living environment. In addition, an appropriate trip companion often fails due to the language barrier. “There is a huge esoteric naivete going on here. An inappropriate trust in the always beneficial effects of these substances, ”says Jungaberle.

The illegality of most psychoactive substances makes it difficult to deal with them in a thoughtful manner. The patient enters into a kind of conspiracy relationship with the therapist. This creates space for self-proclaimed gurus with practices that would otherwise not go through with any therapist - such as sexual relationships with those involved. In the worst case, there are deaths, as in 2009 in Reinickendorf.

This does not affect the illegal therapy scene. Anne, also her name has changed, works in Berlin as a therapist with psychoactive substances. She says: “It is terrible that something like this should happen. That throws us back 20 years in our endeavors to be able to cure many diseases and problems with the support of the substances. ”Anne describes herself as a body and conversation therapist with a lot of life experience. For about 15 years she has been doing sessions with clients on demand using LSD, psilocybin or MDMA. She says, “I trust I'm doing a good thing. I know that I am not a criminal. "

Anne has the charisma of a guru as she sits upright at her living room table, sometimes laughing uproariously. But that's not what it's about. Anne has long been a member of MAPS, the organization that has campaigned for the legalization of psychoactive substances in the USA since the 1980s. She worked for organizations that take care of people with drug-induced limit states at parties and festivals. She closely follows neurophysiological research on the psychedelic experience. The idea of ​​using the substances for her own work, however, only occurred to her when a client asked her for a session, says Anne. In preparation, the knowledge she had gathered in private and a manual from MAPS for accompanying trips had to suffice.

If MIND had its way, the future scenario would look like this: There are trained and certified therapists in clinics for use. For the self-awareness scene, the organization introduces itself to psychedelic centers, where those interested can get information and be medically examined. The trips also take place there, accompanied by multi-professional teams - if necessary also from the spiritual area.

The long road to legality

In this scenario, up to five of the most harmless substances of each drug class would be available in drug stores and pharmacies. The pharmacies carried substances with a high potential for addiction such as opiates. In the specialty shops, drug checking would also be offered to check the composition if necessary. When it comes to questions of detail, you have to try systematically, says Henrik Jungaberle. “This is where an area begins in which we know very little.” For example, how effective a drug driver's license would be. But all of this is a dream of the future decades away, he has no illusions about that.

The demand remains. Anne says she only ends up with those who would take the substances anyway - then rather with her company. However, only clients who had previously been with her for months, and only if they were willing to process the experience in further sessions with her, would be considered.

Anne makes the trip companion in her apartment or at the client's home. She has already seen all sorts of things. Calm sessions as well as buried memories that come up and extremely physical experiences with lots of tears, including outbursts of violence. “It is very important to stay with this person for a long time. That is exhausting alone. I would like to have people with me to assist me. But that's difficult, also because of the illegality. ”Another difficulty in the illegal context is to determine the dose of the active ingredient. You have to test all substances on yourself beforehand before passing them on to the clients. Anne says: “The most dangerous thing about drugs is their illegality.” She sees herself as an activist.

One argument that is often made in support of legalization is that the illegal drug trade is being undermined. Opponents fear a permanent high in society. Jungaberle thinks this is absurd. "Legalization would not change the fact that there are still people who show addictive behavior or who practice mixed consumption," he says. But the group would be significantly smaller due to the better information and support offered. Completely educated and safe from adulterated substances, everyone could decide for themselves where to go.


Web addresses

This website is still under development: the "Altered States Database" describes which states of consciousness can be reached by which methods.


In cooperation with the Charité, MIND is starting a study this autumn on altered states of consciousness through breathing techniques. Interested parties with previous experience can register via the website:

The research project "Global Ayahuasca Project“Examines the use of Ayahuasca in different contexts around the world. People with ayahuasca experience can take an anonymous online survey:


Henrik Jungaberle advises: When to avoid the psychedelic experience

  • if you consider yourself to be mentally unstable
  • in previous psychotic episodes
  • when taking psychiatric medication
  • if you have no people around you to discuss your experience with afterwards
  • if you are already under the influence of other intoxicants - including and especially alcohol
  • if the offer comes without risk information
  • unless providers advise that MAOIs or similar antidepressants should be discontinued
  • when the providers advertise the substance as a spiritual panacea
  • if the offer is advertised too aggressively, without an offer of follow-up care
  • if the providers do not provide any information about their training and suitability as trip companions
  • with providers who make a religion out of experience and build it into hierarchical, sect-like structures
  • when the providers work with new psychoactive substances whose mode of action and side effects they cannot describe and dose accordingly