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Evidence of health and safety in American members of a religion who use a hallucinogenic sacrament

John H. Halpern, Andrea R. Sherwood, Torsten Passie, K. C. Blackwell, A. James Ruttenber* (*deceased)

Med Sci Monit 2008; 14(8): SR15-22

ID: 865802


Background: Ayahuasca is a South American hallucinogenic tea used as a sacrament by the Santo Daime Church, other religions, and traditional peoples. A recent U.S. Supreme Court decision indicates religious ayahuasca use is protected, but little is known about health consequences for Americans.
Material and Method: 32 (out of 40) American members of one branch of the Santo Daime Church were interviewed providing demographic information, physical exam, drug use timeline, a variety of psychological measures, and data about childhood conduct disorder. Subjects were asked about extent of Church participation, what is liked least and most about ayahuasca, and what health benefits or harms they attribute to ayahuasca.
Results: Members usually attend services weekly (lifetime 269+/-314.7 ceremonies; range 20-1300). Physical exam and test scores revealed healthy subjects. Members claimed psychological and physical benefits from ayahuasca. 19 subjects met lifetime criteria for a psychiatric disorder, with 6 in partial remission, 13 in full remission, and 8 reporting induction of remission through Church participation. 24 subjects had drug or alcohol abuse or dependence histories with 22 in full remission, and all 5 with prior alcohol dependence describing Church participation as the turning point in their recovery.
Conclusions: Conclusions should not be extrapolated to hallucinogen abusers of the general public. For those who have religious need for ingesting ayahuasca, from a psychiatric and medical perspective, these pilot results substantiate some claims of benefit, especially if subjects interviewed fully reflect general membership. Further research is warranted with blinded raters, matched comparison groups, and other measures to overcome present study limitations.

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