Of all the claims for the power of ayahuasca to heal sicknesses of various kinds, from cancer to asthma, the most popular current claim is that ayahuasca can — in some sense — cure addiction. I have nothing but respect for the proponents of this claim, especially people like Gabor Maté and Jacques Mabit, who have committed their professional lives to establishing the effectivenesss of this treatment. There are certainly anecdotes, claims, and uncontrolled self-report studies that can at best be called preliminary. A recent article in Current Drug Abuse Reviews, for example, reports “statistically significant improvements in several factors related to problematic substance use” after a four-day ayahuasca retreat in a rural First Nations community. But I have seen no substantial scientific evidence that ayahuasca can in fact successfully treat addictions. Here is why I am cautious about such claims.

Gabor Maté

First, I am not even sure what such a claim would mean. Addictions differ from each other. Heroin addiction is very different from methamphetamine addiction, and both in turn are very different from nicotine addiction, not least because heroin and methamphetamine are illegal and nicotine is not. And all three are different in turn from such behavioral addictions as those to gambling or chronic overeating. And then there are also repetitive behaviors that are problematic but not necessarily addictions. Is a bulimic addicted to vomiting? And which of these is ayahuasca claimed to treat? Of course, one could argue that ayahuasca somehow cures everything, but I would be even more skeptical of such a claim.

Further, I am not sure how such a claim can be made in the absence of reliable data on recidivism rates as a function of time. Remember that many programs claim to treat addiction — charismatic religious groups, family interventions, commercial detoxification centers, methadone clinics, and twelve-step programs. I am aware of no data showing that ayahuasca treatments do any better than such programs, which apparently do not do well at all. And long-term controlled follow-up studies are the only way to tell.

One reason that long-term follow-up is needed is that many new or novel interventions often have high initial success. The patient feels specially selected, the proponents are enthusiastic and optimistic, there is a lot of interviewing and record-keeping and heightened interest in the well-being of the patient. But then, often, two things happen. The patients who have shown initial improvement revert to their earlier status; and, over time, as the novelty and interest wear off, the treatment becomes less successful.

Jacques Mabit

Most important, I think, such claims of cure, or even just amelioration, often ignore the significant economic, social, and cultural components of addiction. Junkies and gamblers are both parts of social networks that reinforce their behavior. Shooting up and playing the horses are both cultural activities — indeed, for many participants they amount to careers, with an in-group, language, customs, legends, and trajectory. Most addicts can stop addictive behavior when isolated from this reference group, in prison, say, or in a remote rehab center; in many cases, the behavior quickly begins again when the addict, often with no place else to go, returns to the addict culture.

Finally, addictions may, like many diseases, be self-limiting. As with crime, addicts may simply age out. As William S. Burroughs famously said, there are no old junkies; the ones who do not die eventually just stop. As with other claims to healing, the self-limiting nature of many addictions is an uncontrolled variable which raises questions about the role of the intervention in stopping the behavior.

Perhaps I will be proven wrong.

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5 Responses to “Ayahuasca and Addiction”

  1. Rebekah copas says:

    Good reasonable point here. I think in the case of addiction, that too many variables are involved to promote an Ayahuasca solution. From the Shaman’s point of view, one need considerable knowledge of the substance a patient maybe addicted to, and of the variety of patterns in the psychology of that addiction. With most addictions, I would not deter an addict from attempting solve their predicament via Ayahuasca, if they prove capable of enough thought organization to assert such an intent. But with opium derivatives, I would definitely suggest Iboga is likely to be more effective. Even the small amount of Iboga bark I have chewed, had a pronounced effect in more direct opposition to that I know of opium to cause, than a larger dose of Ayahuasca. But the key with interventions to prevent opium habits, was to understand when and why not try too hard.

  2. Anonymous says:

    The deep-rooted causes of addictive behavior is what the medicine, taken in proper context, efficiently addresses.
    This little doc should answer your questions:
    http://www.cbc.ca/player/Shows/Shows/The+Nature+of+Things/ID/2166412138/

  3. M says:

    A combination of Salvia, Ayahuasca and San Pedro stopped my 10 year gambling addiction. I was on the verge of suicide. I received healing through the plants, which addressed the root causes of addiction in me. Nothing else worked for me in this instance, but the plant healings.

    • Miamia Amor says:

      Thank you for this comment. That’s all I needed to read with all the pessimistic ones I read. I am a meth addict and have been for 12 years now. I hide it extremely well and no one in my life right now has a clue that I am struggling with this. I have a fantastic job, a beautiful house and I’m a social site star and YouTube sensation. But none of that can cure my addiction. Money doesn’t buy happiness. I’ve tried rehabs, hospitals, a church, therapist/psychologist/counceling, I’ve moved, taken the pharmacutical approach, cold turkey, acupuncture and meditation…. you name it, I’ve tried it… I always go back to using. The longest I’ve made it is 3 months. I am very spiritual and this a-brew is my last option. I am very suicidal tho I don’t want to die, my addiction causes these thoughts and I’ve acted on these thoughts. But I’m still here. I have this weight upon me that I don’t know the cause of, can’t find the cause of and Aya is my last hope. To allow me to see and experience and face what is holding me down and causing me so much sadness and pain and is slowly killing me. My ceremony is the 22nd. I’ll let you know the update afterwards if Aya can cure the incurable. I pray and I know it will because if it doesn’t I won’t be around much longer. So, thank you for igniting my hope again. Fingers crossed.

  4. Olek says:

    Hi there!

    I am sorry but I think you completely missed the point. In my opinion is that if you want to heal yourself (pay attention here HEAL YOURSELF) with ayahuasca you need to make one important statement – aya is not a panacea, it is not a cure itself! ( and by the way dr Gabor Mate is quite clear about it )
    We live in society which is so used to quick fix solutions, pills for headaches and depression and fast food home deliveries. In western culture we don’t like to wait, we want to have a solution now and we definitely don’t like to make an effort to achieve our goals. We are used to easy paths without involvement of ourselves, our own efforts and our own will. We want it all and we want it now. And so….these days we want to use ancient plant medicines to heal ourselves quickly and permamently.
    Ayahuasca is so far away from such a point o view. This is not another ‘medicine’ which will heal you quickly and instantly from whatever illness you are having. This is not another type of quick release solution, this is more like spiritual practice where you need to apply what you’ve learned in your daily life. Lots of people in this world are suffering and craving immediate cure for their problems, what they don’t understand is that at the end of the day you need to ‘walk the talk’. Aya will show you the way, show the patterns that you are stuck in to, she will show you obstacles and how you created them in your own life, she will help you get in touch with yourself and your deeply buried emotions but she won’t fix you – if you won’t apply what have been shown to you, if you will ignore the experience – it’s potential will sooner or later fade away. So I think saying that ‘ayahuasca heals addiction’ is extremely misleading and to some extent dengerous.
    Another thing is that for some people one session is enough to gain mental material to work on for rest of their life and probably that are the ones who give miraculous testimionials about their experinces, and those are the experiences that everyone would like to go for, done once – got healing for the rest of life. Some people need to be in longer relationship with the plant to get the guidence. Work of aya is very inteligent – she will give you what you need and what you are ready for at the moment.
    Ooh and just another thing – with no doubt there are different techiniqes and approches on healing addiction or any other mental or physical life difficulties – and thank god for it. Yet so interconnected we are all very different to each other. We are heading into same direction but often choosing different paths. Personally I think that we don’t need to have a scientific proof to know if something got a healing potential. Do we need to proof that living in thriving, loving, respectful society is good for us?
    Do we really need to scientifically check if exploring and releasing one emotions is healing?
    Do we still need to prove to ourselves that 12 steps, rehabs, therapies and so on are helping on the way?
    Ain’t testimonials enough?
    Why we need to justify our actions so much?
    I think what we really need in these society is more trust in ourselves and more energy given in direction of education about plants like ayahuasca. There is lots of misinformation, false believes, misleading testimonials and so on, especially here in the space of internet.
    Find good shaman, educate youself using truthful sources and try it for yourself if you haven’t yet!
    Love to you All!


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