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Hallucinogen that heals? One B.C. psychotherapist’s experience with ayahuasca

Yage, a mixture of the Ayahuasca hallucinogenic liana and a psychoactive bush, is seen in this August, 2014 photo from Colombia.
Yage, a mixture of the Ayahuasca hallucinogenic liana and a psychoactive bush, is seen in this August, 2014 photo from Colombia. EITAN ABRAMOVICH/AFP/Getty Images

The murder of a Vancouver Island man who had gone to Peru to study plant medicine has shone a spotlight on the traditional drug that drew him to the southern hemisphere.

Sebastian Woodroffe was killed by a mob who suspected him of murdering the Indigenous spiritual healer who was teaching him about ayahuasca.

It’s a plant-based drug that’s been part of Upper Amazonian spiritual practice for centuries, and which some psychiatrists and psychologists now believe could hold the key to treating certain mental health and addiction problems.

LISTEN: Hallucinogen that heals? A B.C. psychotherapist’s experience with ayahuasca 

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Hallucinogen that heals?

West Vancouver-based psychotherapist Michael Pond has fought alcohol addiction, at one point losing his own practice before battling his way through recovery.

He’s also tried ayahuasca.

And he said more than a year later, the experience, and the personal changes it brought in him, have lingered.

Ayahuasca is made from two different plants, a vine and a leaf, which, when combined in a tea, release the powerful hallucinogenic substance DMT.

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Psychedelic party drug MDMA is now being used to treat PTSD
Psychedelic party drug MDMA is now being used to treat PTSD

While it has long been a part of Indigenous medicine in countries such as Peru, Brazil and Costa Rica, North Americans have increasingly been taking notice, Pond told CKNW’s Lynda Steele Show.

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“There’s theories that it can help people struggling with mental health, that are struggling with addictions, there’s a theory that it kind of re-sets the lymbic system in the brain,” he said.

“The lymbic system in the brain is the region that’s responsible for memory, and emotion, motivation and learning.”

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Ayahuasca is illegal in Canada. Health Canada considers it a controlled substance with no medicinal value, so it can’t be imported.

But a Canadian Institute for Substance Use Research study in 2013 found ayahuasca-assisted therapy delivered in a rural B.C. First Nations community appeared to show improvements in outlook, hopefulness and empowerment, though said more research was warranted.

And it has its advocates.

Dr. Gabor Mate, a retired medical doctor with a dozen years treating drug users in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, argued that when consumed in ceremonies led by qualified guides, ayahuasca can tap into childhood memories and allow patients to work on healing past traumas.

Pond said it did just that for him.

Meeting the panther

Pond said he took ayahuasca three times in ceremonies over a 10-day period, describing each one as unique.

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“It’s extremely vivid in terms of hallucinations. For me, it took me back to my childhood and my past, and I kind of re-experienced some of my traumatic memories as a child,” he said.

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Pond took the drug in sessions guided by Mate, who he said would work with the group after the trip to help them process what they saw.

“Within 15, 20 minutes I felt the effects, and I immediately began to get strong body sensations, had feelings of bliss, and then I literally started hallucinating, or getting visions as those people would say,” he explained.

“A beautiful panther came down out of the jungle trees and started interacting and communicating with me.”

Lynda Steele: “Metaphorically?”

Pond: “No, literally.”

As Pond describes it, the panther took him on brightly coloured, geometric form-spattered journeys through his childhood, an experience he said allowed him to “kind of reset unpleasant childhood memories.”

Of course, processing those feelings wasn’t always mentally comfortable. And it was often very physically uncomfortable.

“They call it ‘la purga.’ It’s called ‘la medicina,’ the ayahuasca, and then ‘la purga’ is what happens,” he said.

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“So the purging is, yes, there’s a lot of vomiting. There’s a lot of yawning, profuse sweating. So the whole body is kind of purging or detoxifying. That’s the theory, anyway, around it.”

WATCH: Friends of Sebastian Woodroffe say Peru mob killed the wrong man

Friends of Sebastian Woodroffe say Peru mob killed the wrong man
Friends of Sebastian Woodroffe say Peru mob killed the wrong man

When it was over, he said he felt like he had worked through many of his own personal issues, including memories of his own alcoholic father.

More than a year later, he said those feelings of resolution remained.

While the experience was positive for Pond, he said he doesn’t necessarily recommend it to his patients.

He said he will always volunteer information, but is quick to caution people that this was based on his own personal experience, and that it can be intense for people who are processing sometimes violent traumas.

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READ MORE: ‘Party drug’ MDMA touted as breakthrough therapy for PTSD patients

Indeed, in an apparently extreme case, another Canadian man allegedly fatally stabbed a British tourist to death in Peru in 2015.

The incident was reportedly in self-defense, and happened after the pair had both taken ayahuasca.

Pond said anyone interested should do their homework, know where they’re going, and who will be guiding them.

“I’d really research the retreat or the area, the organization that you are going to if you are going to go and try this. Talk to other people who have gone. Because there is a lot of it being used recreationaly, almost, right?”

You can read Pond’s full recounting of his ayahuasca experience on his blog.

-With files from the Canadian Press