By Jasmine Virdi
As the use of ayahuasca becomes increasingly widespread, the Amazonian vine has extended its roots beyond the traditional indigenous and religious contexts of South America, lending itself to a newly evolving field of practice. However, the economic viability of ayahuasca ceremonies combined with the vine’s complicated legal status opens the field to a plurality of malpractice, particularly when it comes to what practitioners actually serve in the cup.
A Closer Look at the Chemical Composition of Ayahuasca
Ayahuasca, otherwise known as yagé, is perhaps one of the most curious hallucinogenic plants of the Amazon, known for its powerful psychoactive effects and healing capacities. Generally, when we refer to ayahuasca, we refer not only to the woody liana Banisteriopsis caapi, but the visionary decoction made by pounding its stems and boiling them together with various plant admixtures.
Typically, ayahuasca, as prepared by the syncretic ayahuasca churches of Brazil, the Santo Daime, União do Vegetal, and Barquinha, only contains B. caapi and P. viridis (Psychotria viridis). However, it is increasingly common to encounter additional plants in brews made by the indigenous groups in Peru, Ecuador, and Colombia. For example, Colombian yagé is made with an entirely different DMT-containing admixture plant, Diplopterys cabrerana, which produces mild qualitative differences in terms of effect.
The psychoactive compound DMT is inactive when ingested orally, as it is the enzyme monoamine oxidase (MAO) in the gut that breaks down the vision-inducing ingredient before it is able to cross the blood-brain barrier and make its way into the central nervous system. However, the vine itself contains the beta-carboline alkaloids harmine, harmaline, and tetrahydroharmine (THH), of which harmine and harmaline are monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs). Chemically speaking, the alchemical essence of ayahuasca rests in the mixing of monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs) present in the alkaloids of the B. caapi vine with a DMT-containing admixture plant.
Determined to understand the diversity of ayahuasca brews, Helle Kaasik, a researcher from the University of Tartu, Estonia, in collaboration with researchers from the University of Campinas, Brazil, sought to illuminate the chemical differences in ayahuasca brews across traditions.
Their study, yet to be published, analyzed changing distributions of DMT, harmine, harmaline, and tetrahydroharmine (THH) across 102 ayahuasca samples. These samples were taken from different locations in Europe and Brazil, spanning across different traditions including indigenous shamanic, Santo Daime, and neo-shamanic.
Interesting tendencies emerged based on the traditions from which the samples came, with indigenous brews showing a balanced ratio between the concentrations of DMT, THH, and harmine. Samples that came from the ayahuasca religion, Santo Daime, also showed a similar balance between chemical compounds, although some brews tended towards increased concentrations of DMT.
However, when it came to brews received from neo-shamanic facilitators of different backgrounds, there was notably more variation between chemical constituents, and on average, they contained substantially greater concentrations of DMT than indigenous brews.
Of the 102 samples, 39 were further tested for additional additives and contaminants, with several brews from neoshamanic practitioners found to contain Peganum harmala (Syrian rue) and the DMT-containing Mimosa tenuiflora, otherwise known as jurema. Similar to the ayahuasca vine, Syrian rue contains the MAOI, harmaline. The combination of the MAOI in Syrian rue with the DMT-containing M. tenuiflora mimics the chemical composition of ayahuasca, being a well-known ayahuasca analog or “anahuasca.” The substitution of P. viridis with M. tenuiflora contributed to the higher concentrations of DMT found in neoshamanic brews.
More shockingly, two of the samples obtained from Europe were found to contain no caapi at all. Rather, this counterfeit ayahuasca was found to contain a combination of moclobemide (a pharmaceutical antidepressant and MAOI), psilocin (the active ingredient in magic mushrooms), and high concentrations of DMT from M. tenuiflora.
For years now, well-seasoned psychonauts have been imitating the active ingredients in a similar manner, creating ayahuasca analogs by combining other DMT and MAOI-containing plants. Combinations made of extracted or synthesized ingredients are referred to as “pharmahuasca.” However, there is a distinction to be made between testing anahuasca, pharmahuasca, and other psychonautic cocktails on oneself as opposed to falsely marketing brews as ayahuasca. Hence, using the term “counterfeit.”