1998 – Ayahuasca Safety Recognized in The Results of the Hoasca Research Project
Ayahuasca safety has been an important question for academics and healers alike. The brew is widely used by indigenous groups in the Amazon basin, as well as by members of syncretic churches as the União de Vegetal (Union of the Plants, or UDV) and Santo Daime. Considering long-term or even lifetime use of ayahuasca, researchers became interested in the question of whether such use was safe, from both a physical and psychological point of view. Over the course of a five-year period, a team of researchers from North America and elsewhere aimed to answer this important question in the famous Hoasca Research Project.
From 1991 to 1996, Dennis Mckenna and Charles Grob led a research investigation looking into the health of long-term drinkers of hoasca tea (ayahuasca) in the UDV church. The research participants included 15 UDV members who had been drinking hoasca for more than 10 years and 15 control participants who had never drunk the psychedelic brew. McKenna, Grob, and other researchers screened individuals, carrying out psychiatric diagnoses, personality tests, and neuropsychological evaluations. When studying the hoasca drinkers, the researchers measured the physiological changes that took place in the few first hours following the consumption of the brew. These measures included blood tests and neurological and cardiac monitoring. A complete physical examination as also carried out. Combined, these tests would help to reveal whether ayahuasca had any harmful effects on the body.
The authors note that while the effects of ayahuasca had entered the public sphere, thanks to writers like William S. Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg, the psychological and physiological effects of the brew hadn’t been rigorously studied in the scientific community. McKenna points out that concerns had been raised about whether naïve travellers taking ayahuasca would suffer any adverse health effects. This was in spite of testimonials from ayahuasca church members about how their ayahuasca improved their psychological health and moral functioning. McKenna and other researchers, therefore, wanted to find out for themselves just how safe ayahuasca use was. Grob highlighted the importance of this study, stating that it was “an intensive and exhaustive study, never before conducted, with respect to the medical aspects of Hoasca”.
In terms of standard physiological functions (e.g. heart rate and blood pressure), ayahuasca did not lead to any abnormal changes in these functions. Heart rate and blood pressure under the influence of the drug were within the normal range. Male and female UDV members, with ages ranging from 13 to 90 had consumed Ayahuasca regularly, yet researchers did not find any evidence of acute toxicity during the ayahuasca experience, long-term toxicity, or other adverse health effects. In fact, male UDV members in their 80s – who had taken ayahuasca since their teenage years – had impressive mental clarity, lack of serious disease history, and physical vigor. Also, not only did UDV members show no signs of mental or cognitive impairment, they actually scored better than controls in terms of “cognitive function, verbal facility and recall, mathematical ability, motivation, and emotional well-being and personality adjustment”.
Commenting on the results of the study, McKenna said: “We discovered many things, but I find that the key issue is that Hoasca is in no contexts toxic or harmful to the human body, does not cause any neurological, cognitive or personality dysfunctions.” The report concluded that “there does not exist any pattern of dependency, abuse, overdose or abstinence.” Later, the authors of the study stated that “it is not unthinkable that long term use of Hoasca can have positive and therapeutic effects on the psychiatric and functional status of individuals.” Indeed, McKenna and Grob’s previous 1996 study on long-term ayahuasca users in the UDV church showed that these members had positive mental health outcomes and high functional status (i.e. they were well-equipped to fulfil their usual roles, perform normal duties, and look after their overall well-being).
The American branch of the UDV was founded in 1994. However, the possession of ayahuasca is illegal in the United States since the brew contains DMT, a schedule I drug, which means it is viewed by the government as having a high potential for abuse. After the federal government seized the ayahuasca of the New Mexico branch of the UDV, members of the church sued, claimed the seizure was illegal, and wanted to ensure they would be allowed to import ayahuasca for future use. The case to have ayahuasca legally recognised as a religious sacrament went to the Supreme Court in 2006. The Supreme Court found that the government had failed to show that ayahuasca presented any health risks. An important argument in favour of the UDV members was the results of the Hoasca Project showing the short-term and long-term safety of ayahuasca. The 1998 study played a crucial role in helping the UDV win the case and gain the status of religious freedom exemption for the UDV in the United States.
The scientific study represents one of the most pioneering scientific projects on ayahuasca. Others on such a list would have to include how the MAIO molecules in the ayahuasca vine allow DMT access to the blood stream through the gut; the positive long-term effects of ayahuasca on health; how the brain on ayahuasca and meditation behave similar to each other; how ayahuasca visions activate the brain similar to normal vision; and on the anti-depressant effects of ayahuasca, just to name a few.
No author given (n.d.) “Hoasca Project.” UDV Website