Ayahuasca may help fight addiction...
Ayahuasca may help fight addiction ...
... but Canada is forcing doctor to stop testing
Junkies, addicts and alcoholics can be seen all over the world, but in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside, there is a site with the highest rates of drug abuse, Hepatitis C and AIDS/HIV in the Western world. It has been like that for now 20 or even 40 years and a large percentage of the damaged, traumatized and miserably living individuals are Indians. There are alcoholics detoxification programs, 12 step AA meetings, residential treatment centers, methadone clinics and other help available for addicts, but most treatments for addiction offer only short-term relief; no miracle when you look at those devastated people living in poverty and persistent and pervasive pain. So, what makes the junkies, the addicts and the alcoholics fail to quit their self-destructive habits? A sheer lack of will or a deeper, more severe cause?
Dr. Gabor Maté, a physician who works intensively with addicts and mainstream treatments for addiction, thinks differently - he says that "If we don't get to the cause of an addiction, we will never be able to treat and cure it effectively," because "the modern medicine only treats the effects and not the cause of an addiction." He believes that the answer is a drug from the Amazon region - it is called Ayahuasca and is a brew made from plants that contain hallucinogenic substances.
Maté had been conducting Ayahuasca ceremonies for 150 to 200 addicts, but the media stir and a documentary about it, called The Jungle Prescription, which was aired on CBC in November, caught the attention of authorities at Health Canada and consequently made them send a letter to Maté in which he was ordered to stop his testings or he would face a loss of his license and prosecution. This clearly shows that the Canadian national drug policy is congruent with the policy in the United States where three of the ingredients in Ayahuasca are considered dangerous, although Ayahuasca has been used in the Amazon region for millenia - without any evidence of a addictive potential.
Although Maté complied with the order, he surely was not happy with the decision and wondered why "Health Canada agreed that the plant was not addictive or toxic only to restrict its use to a particular religion when it could be used to help many other people?" A question hard to answer ...
In the late 1990s, Maté was in his mid-50s when he began to work with addicts and he admits that in the beginning he barely understood this part of the population, but he saw that the people were in desperate need for (medical) help. Over the years he got successively frustrated at the mainstream treatments that totally ignore the cause or root of an addiction. He mentions that every single person he works with, has been traumatized or abandoned in his childhood. Particularly female patients have all been sexually abused or suffered from severe adversity and the lack of cause-addressing and compassionate treatment is typical in the war on drugs and addicts are not being helped, but only marginalized and criminalize, making no exception what caused their addiction. This keeps the addict in a spiral of childhood trauma and being trapped, either in prison or a place like Downtown Eastside in Vancouver and this only consolidates the addiction.
After exploring the shaman-led ceremonies, Maté was convinced that the Ayahuasca experiences can lead the addict out of the emotional emptiness that causes the addiction. He estimates that he has helped as many as 200 people to explore the roots of their addiction over the past few years and in 2011 he seeked to obtain permission from a coastal British Columbia First Nations band to conduct a study among their members. The participants of the study and name of the band were supposed to remain unnamed to protect the integrity of the study, but the director of the band's health department spoke freely about the study. Center for Addictions Research of British Columbia researchers Lucas and Thomas signed on as co-investigators.
Lucas said that he has been looking at the use of alternative treatments such as cannabis or Ibogaine and just recently, Ayahuasca. Having heard of the Shipibo tribe and their millenia-long use of it, he coordinated a research project to be able to observe the process and then follow up with 20 participants.
In February 2011, one of the best-known Shipibo shamans, Guillermo Arrévalo, met with Maté, the band’s chief, leadership council, council of elders and health administrators and was able to convince the First Nations band executives to grant permission for the ceremonies, when he expressed his respect for their culture an pointed out the parallels of his culture and theirs. Maté was allowed to conduct the ceremonies in their longhouse, virtually the heart of the First Nations band. About 20 band members with different addictions attended and were put on special diets after they had their resolve and general health tested. Many of the experimentee had been through drug withdrawal, some of them six or even more times, unsuccessfully.
Two four-days seminars were scheduled, one in summer and one in autumn. On the whole first day, Dr. Gabor Maté would talk about the peoples' addiction, asking what positive it is they seek in their addiction. It turned out that they wanted to filled an emotional hole in their heart and to stop their (emotional) pain, which is, according to Dr. Maté, very normal after the trauma these people had suffered and that they should not be ashamed about themselves. When he asked about the negative aspects of their addiction they would reply that it actually made them feel even more emotionally lost and in pain. They spend a whole day working on their intention, working to get to the core of their addiction and making clear what they were hoping to get out of their Ayahuasca experience. On the second day the entire group would be together in a darkened room, with the shaman, two or three of his apprentices and two or three other helpers from the band health office to provide a high safety level. The experimentee would then drink the Ayahuasca brew and spend an hour in silence, before the shaman and his apprentices started chanting the ritual songs which call in the healing spirits while the effects of the brew come on and some of the participants vomit. Others lie very still and don't purge. Thomas, who took part in a seminar and said that he didn't have visions, but a feeling of a feminine apparition walking around to each of the people, talking gently to them to cast the darkness out of them. He adds, that he became aware of how the shaman's work brings out the energy (in the people) and how sacred and important his work is. Each seminar featured two Ayahuasca ceremonies. Eight people attended the summer seminar, and twelve the one in fall, in which four from the first participated again, because they considered the experience very positive.
The band's health director said that they have been supporting people at residential treatment programs and spend a whole lot of money only to see them return to their addiction when they come back, but that this four-day retreat had a pretty amazing impact.
Lucas says that the results are preliminary, but for some of the participants it really worked and showed long-term effects and the band's health director agreed when he said "there definitely was something good in these ceremonies, but the participants must now integrate their experiences into their real lives." It must be mentioned that these people suffered from high levels of physical and sexual abuse. Lucas also said that the more he studied addictions, the more he began to believe he was studying trauma, wherein the addiction was only a symptom of a serious physical, psychological and/or sexual trauma.
One British Columbia health agency administrator described Lucas as a "rogue" doctor, but Shelley Reilly, an addiction counselor of the Association of BC First Nations Treatment Programs working in residential treatment programs that mix old rituals and ceremonies with modern Western psychotherapy and counseling, said that she liked Lucas' approach and thinks he is correct with pinpointing trauma as the cause of an addiction. And added that cultural and traditional ceremony are huge in healing.
Perry Omeasoo, who works for Vancouver Coastal Health, also called Maté a "rogue" doctor, but agreed that both cultural and spiritual elements are important in addiction treatments, however refuses the Ayahuasca ceremonies because he would never encourage anyone to take an unfamiliar foreign plant to treat his addiction. He agrees with Maté that there are traumatic causes to aboriginal addiction because he himself had felt a kind of emptiness when he left his traditional culture in the Hobbema reserve behind. He had a house, a nice wife and kids, but hiding his Indian culture led him to fill the emotional emptiness with substance abuse. He was eventually able to quit when he got reconnected to his culture and the traditional ceremonies his grandfather had once conducted.
It is those voices Maté would like agencies such as Health Canada to hear. He points out that Ayahuasca is in no way unique and that the shamans did not invent it, but that it simply came along as a spiritual healer and teacher with the potential to change a person's mindset and lifestyle. He said that plants have traditionally been used in healing ceremonies and rituals around the world and mentioned the use of tobacco and Peyote by the Native North Americans.
The more baffled he was last fall when he received a two-page letter from Johanne Beaulieu, director of Ottawa’s Office of Controlled Substances in which he was threatened with arrest. Beaulieu was quoted as saying, "We'd welcome scientists like Dr. Maté talking to us before they start their work. Our intent is not to stop research or treatment. It’s to ensure the safety of Canadians."
Maté said that he believes that Ayahuasca is not eligible for clinical trials because those trials are designed for factory-based drugs and would be very costly. Thomas said that their last year's study lacked key elements of a clinical trial because the number of participants was too low and that they had no control group. He added that the drug was administered as a brew with variable potency, which makes a statistical analysis more than difficult. Some people who observed the Ayahuasca ceremonies argue that there is some kind of spirituality to it that is not suited for clinical trials.
Dr. Evan Adams, aboriginal health physician advisor for the British Columbia Ministry of Health, said no-one can deny that alcoholism and addiction are serious health issues among the First Nations groups, but he seriously doubts any pharma company would fund clinical trials as long as Ayahuasca is not patentable. He would not comment on the use of "traditional medicines from other countries," but is in full support of sovereignty over the traditional Indian plant-based healing and suggests other steps such as laws banning alcohol or legalizing marijuana. He said that he has not been directed by the chiefs to investigate either this traditional medicine or the process to access it and concludes that the First Nations groups must find their own way of dealing with these things.
Maté insists that Ayahuasca is a plant teacher and healer that helps people get well again and advocates a respectful use but with the politics in Canada today, the research into the potential medical benefits of Ayahuasca has found its end - at least for now.