CANTERBURY, NH – The life that Derek Januszewski led before ayahuasca, and the life he leads after, are hardly alike.
His former self struggled with obsessive-compulsive disorder, childhood trauma, and substance abuse. Then, in May 2017, he took ayahuasca for the first time.
“And for the first time in ten years, I had 45 days of absolutely zero cravings, absolutely no cravings to use,” he said. “The world has opened up to me.”
Her new world continues to revolve around ayahuasca, a tea infused from a combination of plants native to South America that her followers believe has healing properties. Januszewski, 46, with tattooed arms and a trimmed beard, is the pastor of Pachamama Sanctuary, a religious organization he founded on the side of a wooded road in Canterbury that serves ayahuasca to its guests several times a month. Since opening in 2019, Januszewski says he’s welcomed nearly 2,000 people to the three-bedroom home he’s renting out for a weekend of psychedelic exploration.
Ayahuasca has been used by indigenous tribes in the Amazon for hundreds of years to supposedly heal physical and mental distress. Americans with the money and interest to do so have traveled to places like Peru and Costa Rica for the experience. In 2006, the United States Supreme Court ruled in a unanimous decision that the government could not prevent a church in New Mexico to use the substance as a sacrament. At the same time, the active ingredient in ayahuasca, dimethyltryptamine, or DMT, remains a controlled substance under federal law, and therefore illegal to consume.
In this legal gray area, new ayahuasca retreat centers have sprung up across the country. What was once limited to those who could travel to South America, or had connections to an underground network of practitioners in the United States, is now available in small towns and large cities. The pandemic has further fueled a growth in domestic ayahuasca options, proponents say, with limited international travel and growing numbers of trained people. curanderosor shamans, supervising the ceremonies.
“Like a spiritual psychiatric ward”
At Pachamama in Canterbury, each retreat consists of two evenings of ayahuasca, during which a guest practitioner will lead the ceremony, often accompanied by music and a campfire. “Sitting with the medicine” often results in intense mystical visions and can include visions of your own death, according to participants. (There is also a lot of vomiting or diarrhea.)
“It’s like a spiritual psychiatric ward,” Januszewski said. “In a way, it’s beautiful. You’ve got people here crying. You’ve got people here purging. You’ve got people rolling around in the grass trying to reach the earth. That’s where we can lose our minds and find our souls.
Then, those who participated in the ceremony will come together for “integration,” a group dialogue aimed at sifting through the visions and thoughts that arise during the psychedelic journey, and translating these messages into tools for one’s daily life. .
The Pachamama Shrine refused to let an NHPR reporter observe a ceremony. But it’s not hard to find detailed reviews online of this or other ayahuasca setups. Reddit’s messaging forums are full of articles about various shrines in the US and abroad, while the site Retirement.Guruwhere Pachamama currently enjoys a rating of 4.92 out of 5, also allows users to leave reviews.
“A trip to the Amazon was totally out of the question, because I’m poor,” Em Quiles, a nonprofit executive from Worcester, Mass., told NHPR. She said she first heard about Pachamama through a friend and after years of anxiety and depression, with limited relief from medicine and therapy, she had decided to try ayahuasca in Canterbury.
“Before entering the ceremony, I was a little apprehensive,” she said. “I’m a Latina, it’s a white-run organization, I go to the middle of the woods. I don’t know what I’m doing.
But Quiles praised Januszewski and other volunteers who supported the 20 or so others who attended the weekend retreat earlier this year. She said the shaman – in Pachamama there is a list of those who oversee the ceremony – also provided comfort: “I felt that Pachamama had done a very good job of honoring medicine, respecting its sanctity and the sacredness that he deserves, that he commands.
Ayahuasca still far from being approved as a medicine
Although often described by its practitioners as a drug, formal clinical study of the drug’s potential to treat conditions, including depression, anxiety, substance abuse disorders and PTSD, remains at a standstill. “very early stage,” according to Fred Barrett, associate director of the Center for Psychedelics and Consciousness Research at Johns Hopkins University.
“We don’t know yet if these drugs and therapeutic approaches can really be approved as drugs,” he said. Ayahuasca, he said, can have unintended interactions with other medications or foods in your body. Additionally, some people have negative or “difficult” hallucinations that could cause psychological problems.
However, Barrett said the few formal studies of ayahuasca’s potential to heal people that have been done in controlled environments are promising.
“With this small amount of information, the effect sizes so far seem huge, which is generating all the interest in these approaches,” he said.
Even with the potential healing properties, Barrett cautioned that taking ayahuasca in an uncontrolled setting, versus the direction of a clinician, carries risks.
“How do you know that a particular retreat, a particular shaman, is legitimate?” he said.
The rapid growth of ayahuasca in the United States is leading to an increase in the number of practitioners, some of whom Januszewski says may be attracted by a “gold rush” in demand.
Colorado attorney Martha Hartney, an estate planner who also works in the area of religious ayahuasca use, agreed.
“There’s money to be made, there’s power to be had,” she said.
Hartney, who is a member of the Psychedelic Bar Association, said that before visiting an ayahuasca establishment, she would go beyond reading reviews online or postings on Reddit. Instead, she says word of mouth, the experiences of previous guests, and researching the practitioner who will lead the ceremony are the best ways to ensure a safe experience.
There is no shortage of options for those wishing to experience ayahuasca. In her community of Boulder, Colorado, she estimates there are 15 to 20 “circles” every weekend.
“You can hear people talking about it in polite conversation right now,” she said.
The legal landscape of drugs still unclear
And yet, ayahuasca churches continue to exist in a legal gray area. The 2006 U.S. Supreme Court ruling sided with an establishment that uses ayahuasca in its ceremonies, but the opinion is not directly applicable to all other churches.
“It’s not that it’s entirely legal in a clear way where the laws against it have been repealed,” said Omar Figueroa, a California-based attorney. “These are Schedule 1 controlled substances.”
According to Figueroa, federal and state prosecutors could still take action against establishments, including Pachamama, for serving ayahuasca. The legal test would be whether the facility is operating safely and there is no risk of diversion, he said.
In 2020, the New Hampshire Supreme Court heard arguments in a case involving a Colebrook man who was convicted of possession of psilocybin (or “magic”) mushrooms. The defendant, Jeremy Mack, argued that the mushrooms were part of his religious practice as a member of the Oklevueha Native American Church, and therefore protected by the state constitution, which states that people have a “natural and inalienable right to worship God according to the dictates of one’s own conscience.
In a 22 page review, judges overturned the conviction and sent the case back to a lower court to consider whether the government could prove it had a compelling public interest in bringing a lawsuit against Mack, or whether prosecutors were significantly burdening his religious expression. Ultimately, this newly established “balancing test” was never performed because prosecutors dropped the charges.
Local law enforcement responded to the Pachamama shrine, according to police records, but Januszewski says no legal action was taken. He says the federal Drug Enforcement Agency also monitors his facility, though the DEA did not respond to a request for comment.
But while federal and state officials seem unwilling to shut down Pachamama’s shrine, the local Canterbury planning council is raising concerns. City issued cease-and-desist orders after Januszewski failed to provide proper documentation of issues with property’s smoke detectors and septic systems, emergency signage, parking plans and emergency snow removal options.
Just before voting to deny Pachamama a review of its site plan in May on the basis of incomplete documentation, meeting minutes show that the Canterbury Planning Council told Januszewski that “the Council n wasn’t trying to get Pachamama to do anything unrealistic, but their actions had to be appropriate for the nature of the operation. In June, the city filed a court case against the owner and Januszewski.
“It’s a sensitive point,” Januszewski said. “That’s part of the reason we’re leaving.”
Later this year, he says he plans to move the sanctuary to another town in New Hampshire, though he declined to say where. He started a Go Fund Me page to help pay for the new space, but so far he’s only raised about $11,400 of his goal of $77,777.
Januszewski said he remains committed to serving what he calls his church’s sacrament to those who are ready for the experience. But he warns that only those who feel “called” to do so should make the journey.
“Be patient,” he said. “Don’t go drinking it because it’s a cool fad. You are going to have trouble. »
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