Drug Ritual is ‘Biologically Explosive’ During COVID. Some Devotees Don't Care.
With the pandemic still raging—in some places, worse than ever before—the world of ayahuasca centers dabbling in pseudo-science has led to some bizarre and dangerous choices.
William Menech believes he has discovered a cure for COVID-19. It’s a fairly simple mixture of three herbs he learned about while studying Amazonian plant medicine and shamanism over the last two decades. “Some of them are available right off the shelf at health food stores” across the world, he told The Daily Beast. “Everybody treated with these three plants, within one day, their symptoms are gone. Their smell and taste come back. And they’re cured within four days.”
He’s so sure about this cure that he’s tried to get the recipe to White House officials for proper study and, he believes, an inevitable rollout. (There is no scientifically proven cure for COVID-19. Menech promised to send more information about his concoction and its supposed efficacy to The Daily Beast, but never did.) Yet even though he’s “100 percent on the plants,” as he put it, Menech still shut down his business—a retreat in Iquitos, Peru, called Kawsay where people come from across the globe to legally drink ayahuasca, a potent hallucinogenic brew with purported therapeutic powers—this spring when the pandemic really started taking off. And he’s going to keep it shut down indefinitely, until he can be sure the pandemic is totally under control.
“I’m familiar with the effects of the virus,” he told The Daily Beast. His son and daughter have both suffered cases of COVID-19, he explained. “It can be pretty serious.” So, there’s always a risk that someone comes down with the disease hard and fast and struggles to get treatment before suffering serious and potentially long-lasting damage, or even dying. And Menech believes that gathering travelers to drink ayahuasca together poses a serious transmission risk. As a self-proclaimed healer, he thinks he has “a responsibility, spiritually” to mitigate that substantial potential risk.
Menech made a good call, as the drinking ceremonies that anchor retreats like his do have all the hallmarks of potential COVID-19 superspreader events. They usually involve multiple people drinking out of a shared cup then vomiting profusely, as ayahuasca is a powerful emetic, often while a plant medicine healer sings ritualistic songs in the background. Some ceremonies take place in closed quarters, with people sitting relatively close together for hours on end, and coming into physical contact with center workers or each other. Some of the bigger and more expensive ayahuasca retreats also seem to attract an older, more potentially pandemic-vulnerable clientele.
“I cannot think of another healing practice that is more biologically explosive,” Alex K. Gearin of Kahpi, an ayahuasca education hub, told The Daily Beast. Given these risks, he believes that holding any ceremonies during the pandemic is “risky, and potentially socially irresponsible.”
These are not just theoretical concerns, as Menech learned in February when he says his center hosted a man who’d just visited Wuhan, China. As the pandemic had not exploded yet, he didn’t think much about the fact that the man had a slight cough. But after a few drinking sessions, Menech recalled, “three people at the center got very ill… They didn’t know what had hit them.”
Yet Menech is more the exception than the rule among ayahuasca providers. This fall, with the pandemic still raging—in some places, worse than ever before—news spread in the ayahuasca enthusiast community that several major centers, which had shut down in the spring due to government mandates or travel restrictions choking off their business, were gearing up to reopen.
Back in March, Lorna Liana, an ayahuasca aficionado who’s attended over 150 ceremonies and worked with over 30 plant medicine experts since 2004, consulted medical experts to create a list of potential COVID-19 transmission risks in ayahuasca ceremonies, and ideas on how to mitigate them. Use individual, single-use cups instead of communal vessels, for instance. Hold ceremonies in well-ventilated, or ideally open-air, spaces. Clean everything thoroughly and frequently. However, Liana’s risk assessment concluded that the best response to the pandemic would be an indefinite pause on ceremonies until this public health crisis is under control.
There is no definitive list of ayahuasca retreats, or other providers. Some are small or ephemeral operations. Some work quietly in areas where they are only quasi-legal, or illegal. But The Daily Beast recently reached out to over 60 of the best known ayahuasca centers around the world to see if they had reopened during the pandemic, or planned to soon—and, if so, what measures they were putting in place to mitigate the pandemic risks of their biologically explosive practices. Only a dozen responded to our queries. So, we also reviewed centers’ publicly visible materials, like their websites and newsletters, and consulted a half-dozen experts on ayahuasca centers.
Beyond Kawsay, only two centers, Gaia Sagrada in Ecuador and Pisatahua in Bolivia, explicitly told The Daily Beast that, like Menech, they planned to stay shut down indefinitely, even though they “could open if we wanted to right now,” as Christine Breese, the founder of Gaia Sagrada, noted. Two more centers, La Familia Ayahuasca and Nimea Kaya, prominently note that they will remain closed until further notice on their websites, although the latter explicitly frames this as a response to travel restrictions rather than to the pandemic proper.
Gaia Sagrada, Kawsay, and Pisatahua all still have retreat dates listed for 2021. But Breese, Menech, and a representative from Pisatahua all noted that they just hope to be able to reopen soon, and are preparing for the possibility. They and a few other centers that have listed some provisional retreat dates for 2021 are keeping an eye on the pandemic’s course, and will push back their provisional reopening dates as needed.
The vast majority of centers The Daily Beast looked at appear to have reopened already, or have plans to reopen within the coming weeks, with only minimal or half-assed pandemic precautions in place. A couple of centers actually openly told us that they never shut down or changed the way they operated, even at the height of pandemic uncertainty, chaos, and lockdowns worldwide.
Six centers The Daily Beast looked at that have already reopened—Ayahuasca in Ecuador, Hummingbird Healing Center, Rythmia, Soltara, Soul Quest, and Spirit Vine—did outline clear, detailed protocols for mitigating risks during their ceremonies, often at least partially informed by and roughly in line with, or in a few cases exceeding, Liana’s recommendations. Melissa Stangl, an advocate for the spread of plant medicine practices in the West and a founding partner at Soltara, a well-known luxury ayahuasca retreat located in Costa Rica, argued that her center’s protocols were more robust than many local businesses’.
Stangl told The Daily Beast she can understand the need for continuing extreme caution at centers in the Amazon, which are often in remote areas with limited access to health care at the best of times. But “Costa Rica has managed the pandemic really well,” she explained, “and their health care system is one of the best in Latin America,” which makes them feel comfortable about any lingering risks.
However, as Breese pointed out, the only surefire way to make sure that people do not pick up and then transmit the coronavirus during travel is to require them to quarantine for two weeks upon arrival at their final destinations—in this case, an ayahuasca center. To our knowledge, no one in this world has imposed this restriction. Breese noted that most are just not set up, either economically or logistically, for that kind of burden. More worryingly, even centers with robust protocols in place tend not to require mask usage during ayahuasca drinking ceremonies proper.
“People would have to take them off to vomit,” Breese pointed out, and you can’t necessarily count on people who are tripping hard to remember that. So, this is a functionally unavoidable concession—the best way to reduce the risk of someone creating a massive mess, and perhaps even choking on their own sick. However, even outside, with good airflow and some distance between participants, the spray of moist particulate during a spirited purging session still poses risks.
“Emotions run high at these retreats as well,” Breese added. “Hearts open. The participants would not be able to stay within the boundaries of social distancing for any length of time.”
“We have thought a lot about how we could enforce safety protocols,” Breese stressed. “We really wanted to find a way to open [this fall.] But there simply isn’t a way to do it safely”
Some of centers The Daily Beast looked at, such as Kentucky’s Peaceful Mountain Way Holistic Healing, only give gentle suggestions about things like “continu[ing] to take evidence-based and common sense precautions when in public, prior to attending ceremony [sic]” on their sites.
Others just claim that they will follow best practices, or are developing protocols, but kept mum when The Daily Beast requested details. A few only mention the pandemic in their materials to apologize for their mandatory spring shutdowns and offer information on how to get a refund or new date for a canceled booking. A handful only mention it to offer advice on how to navigate around travel restrictions to reach them.
The Ayahuasca Shamanic Retreat Center in the Netherlands goes so far as to advertise “a few exclusive, intimate (8 people only! COVID proof) retreats [sic]” on its homepage—without explaining on its site or responding how it could possibly guarantee that, or responding to a request for comment. The Pachamama Temple in Pucallpa, Peru, meanwhile, seemingly attempted to reassure prospective clients this spring that the pandemic had not affected their team. “And we can confidently attribute this fact to the healing properties of Ajo Sacha,” their site reads. Right below, they insist that they do not mean to imply by that statement “that Ajo Sacha is a corona virus [sic] remedy.” They do not appear to address the pandemic in any other way on their site.
The remainder—the majority—of the centers The Daily Beast looked at didn’t mention the pandemic at all in their materials or answer requests for comments, yet still appeared to be taking bookings for upcoming sessions.
Some ayahuasca enthusiasts have justified these rushed reopenings by arguing that the brew is a vital medicine for many people, and moderate risks are always justifiable for vital services.
Jesse Gould, the founder of the Heroic Hearts Project, a non-profit that helps American veterans get the psychedelic treatments many believe can help them to heal from trauma related to their service by connecting them to centers, told The Daily Beast that nothing else seems to help many people he works with. For them, he acknowledged, access to the brew “can be life or death.”
But as a representative of the International Center for Ethnobotanical Education, Research and Service (ICEERS), a plant medicine advocacy organization, told The Daily Beast, there are many different ways to take, and reap the purported benefits of, ayahuasca—and not all of them require in-person group ceremonies, travel, or other pandemic risks. They’re not as easy to learn about or locate as highly visible centers, but just a little bit of Googling will surface details on them. And for people who are solely devoted to the ways that centers frame and deliver ayahuasca, ICEERS noted that a few providers have started developing protocols for all-digital ceremonies. Granted, this may involve the illicit procurement of ayahuasca for at-home consumption for some users. But in the face of desperation, legal limitations like those sometimes end up taking a back seat.
“Most people can wait a little while” to seek out ayahuasca’s potential benefits, Menech added, or they can make do with a host of other perhaps less effective but still viable mental health tools. “If it’s not an emergency, where your life is in danger now, then why put your life at risk?”
Gould is eager to get the pipeline between the veterans he works with and centers back online because he thinks it’s vital to their wellbeing, and he’s willing to accept some risk. But as of a few weeks back, when he spoke to The Daily Beast, he was also still willing to wait a while longer. He said that didn’t feel like he’d gotten enough information from the reopened centers he’d reached out to for him to make an informed, balanced decision. He also had his doubts that the protocols they had outlined would do enough to mitigate persistent pandemic risks. So, he told The Daily Beast that he would just see how reopenings play out—and explore alternative ayahuasca access avenues.
Menech believes the rush to reopen ayahuasca centers with insufficient or nonexistent safety protocols is all about money. Center owners, often foreigners living and working in Central and South America, operate on slim margins. More importantly and sympathetically, their centers usually employ dozens of people in economically precarious rural, and often indigenous, communities; ICEERS notes that they are sometimes the centerpiece of local economies. So, the economic shock of a prolonged closure, or even the added costs of robust safety measures, can do real damage—and local governments in many nations with numerous ayahuasca centers do not have the capacity to make up those losses.
However, Menech argued that in most communities people can still find other jobs, even if they are not as well compensated and may require temporary relocation to another city or town. Centers can still bring in some money by developing digital services, an ICEERS representative told The Daily Beast, like remote retreats or one-on-one psychedelic counseling with healers. Many centers and ayahuasca advocacy groups have also started fairly successful fundraising ventures to create their own support funds to offset local staff’s losses.
“Financially, I’m shot,” Menech told The Daily Beast. “I’ve had to move because I can’t afford my rent anymore. But am I going to put other people’s lives at risk because I am having financial issues now? No… That’d be putting my financial security above others’ safety.”
But in a few cases it’s clear centers have rushed to reopen not—or not exclusively—because they need cash, but because they doubt mainstream pandemic narratives, and in several cases buy into conspiracy theories or magical thinking instead.
Paula Danti of the Naturalia Retreat in Iquitos opened her doors again as soon as Peru lifted its international travel restrictions in October. “We really never closed,” she told The Daily Beast. “The borders of Peru just closed,” cutting off the flow of foreigners who frequent her retreat.
However, it seemed as if she had not put much thought into safety protocols before reopening. When The Daily Beast talked to her in early October, she noted that her team was “actually discussing what to do now.” She asked The Daily Beast if she should get a thermometer to check people’s temperatures not because she thought it would be useful, but to make people feel safe.
She told The Daily Beast she has traveled between Peru, Spain, and the United Kingdom in 2020, and “everywhere I have been, [the pandemic] is not as bad as the media says.”
More blatantly, Sharon van Bramer, an ayahuasca advocate who runs about three ceremonies every month at Bluestone Ayahuasca Retreats in Cancun, Mexico, told The Daily Beast that she never shut down her center, or changed the way she did protocols, because she didn’t think the pandemic merited that move. She actually didn’t know the pandemic had started until she got a few cancellations from people living abroad in mid-March, because she doesn’t read or watch any news. But she just brushed those cancellations off and found folks to replace them. (Van Bramer isn’t the only person who kept her center open during the pandemic. However, most centers that never closed either served set pods of people or hyper-local communities, not travelers like Bluestone.)
Van Bramer believes viruses can only turn into diseases and hurt us when our lives and minds are out of whack. Ayahuasca, she believes, can help people achieve the balance that will keep them safe. Belief that a virus can do something to you that you and your spirit don’t want or need to happen, she told The Daily Beast, means you’re living in fear, which opens you to sickness. And people who are out of balance, she says, or who the universe has decided need to get sick to grow, won’t be safe no matter what precautions they take. She is so dubious of established medical facts—of observable reality—that she actually scoffs at ayahuasca centers that maintain relationships with allopathic doctors to handle rare health emergencies among their clientele.
“I could put myself in a biotech uniform and lock myself in a bathroom, and if I’m supposed to get COVID—if my spirit thinks I need it—then I would get it no matter what I did,” she said. “If I get it, I get it. If I die, then that’s what my soul wanted. That was the moment for me to go.”
“The attitude I’ve expressed is pretty popular and widely held in the plant medicine community,” van Bramer told The Daily Beast. Experts on the movement say that she’s probably right.
People often find ayahuasca ceremonies and other forms of plant medicine and spirituality after they have bad experiences with and start to mistrust Western medicine, explained Derek Beres, a reporter who’s followed the world of psychedelics since 1994. There are good reasons for doubt and skepticism, he acknowledged. (See: the opioid crisis.) But all too often, ayahuasca acolytes move beyond reasonable doubt to a generalized mistrust of everything related to Western medicine, and start buying into a whole host of wild conspiracy theories. They also often start placing their faith entirely in their own intuitions or idiosyncratic spiritual beliefs—many of which are, coincidentally, based on very Western misunderstandings of plant medicine rituals.
“Dark conspiracy theories, and more generally distrust of the government, have been rampant in psychedelic communities as long as they’ve existed,” said Kevin Whitesides, an expert on new age belief networks at the University of California–Santa Barbara. “COVID-19 has just brought a lot of that out in a very public way for the first time. All of a sudden, people need to make really public decisions about how to behave, what kinds of behaviors and thoughts to support.”
This clarification and hardening of anti-science strains of thought has created tensions within the ayahuasca community, an ICEERS spokesperson said. Advocates and center operators who believe plant medicine should coexist with Western medicine, and who are taking the pandemic seriously—people like Breese and Menech who’ve shut down indefinitely, or like Stangl who’re at least making concerted efforts to mitigate risks while reopening—worry that their more reckless, conspiratorial cousins will at best make it harder for ayahuasca to gain mainstream acceptance in the West, and at worst endanger their clients’ lives.
Center operators who aren’t taking the pandemic as seriously try to brush these tensions away using the language of personal choice, arguing that individuals can make their own informed decisions about when it’s safe to reopen their centers, or when it’s safe to visit a reopened center.
“This is all just about different points of view. It’s not that you’re wrong and I’m right. It’s just different perceptions,” argued van Bramer. “I don’t want to impose my beliefs on anybody.”
Of course, the problem is that individual decisions in a pandemic have ramifications that expand far past one person. The way one center chooses to operate can potentially create the conditions to spread the virus out into wider communities—functionally forcing its operators’ idiosyncratic beliefs onto others in a very tangible and dangerous manner. “I’m sure the centers that are opening now are not considering the ramifications of doing so” in the ways that they are, noted Breese.
There is no central body regulating ayahuasca centers, or even setting best practices for them. So, there is no way to complain about or push back on centers that don’t seem to be taking the pandemic seriously if they are not technically breaking local laws or live in areas where pandemic laws are not enforced, save to leave critical reviews of them on social media, travel sites, and plant medicine forums online. Even that pushback may not have much effect, as van Bramer’s case proves centers can just brush off concerns by finding communities who share their views and don’t care about complaints like these. The potential of pushback is also limited to publicly active centers, and irrelevant to the many circles and groups that operate quasi-legally or illegally, under the radar, across the globe. Thus, decisions on reopenings during the pandemic are often entirely subject to a small set of individuals’ whims, and their sometimes distorted perceptions of the ongoing public health crisis.
Rushed ayahuasca center reopenings are all the more frustrating because they are not a necessary result of pandemic skepticism and esoteric beliefs. Nor does getting onboard with a long and difficult period of lockdowns also necessitate getting fully onboard with mainstream medical thought and pandemic narratives. Breese and Menech are proof of that.
Like Menech, Breese believes we already have plant-based cures for COVID-19. But she takes that notion a step farther, arguing officials seem to be blocking public knowledge of these cures. She and her team also “feel that some of the lockdown stuff is a bit severe, especially for younger people.”
“The truth is that no one really knows” if they’re right about the virus not being so bad, or about the value of accepting risks for ayahuasca, Breese argued. “And even one life lost is too many.”
“If I’m a healer,” as many ayahuasca providers claim to be, Menech noted, “then why would I ever—ever—put somebody’s life and health at possible risk? To me, that is not ethical.”
“That’s completely contrary to the whole spirit of healing work.”