For those old enough to remember the sixties and Timothy Leary's "tune in, turn on and drop out" call to LSD gatherings, or the cocaine parties of the '80s, the tea-sharing at the ayahuasca circles may have a familiar ring.
But Leanna Standish, a Seattle naturopathic physician and prominent medical researcher, is convinced that ayahuasca (aiya was' ka), which she refers to as "a vast, unregulated global experiment," is going to "change the face of western medicine."
And with that conviction guiding her, she has sought and been granted conditional approval by the Federal Drug Administration (FDA), pending approval from the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), to begin manufacture and distribution for research on potential medical uses for ayahuasca.
DEA approval is needed because the basic ingredient in ayahuasca is DMT (dimethyltryptamine), DMT is illegal in the U.S., classified as a Schedule 1 drug for its likelihood of being abused. Tiny amounts of DMT apparently exist in parts of the brain associated with visual dreaming.
Getting FDA approval for a Phase I trial to pursue medical use of ayahuasca is considered a significant accomplishment and is partly a credit to Standish's reputation, as medical director of the Bastyr Integrative Oncology Research Center and researcher at University of Washington Medical School.
And unlike the LSD "trips" of the '60s, or as one authority described the gatherings two decades later as where "cocaine expressed and amplified the speedy, greedy ethos of the nineteen-eighties," ayahuasca devotees say it reflects our present moment--what some call the Age of Kale." They say "It is a time characterized by wellness cravings, when many Americans are eager for things like mindfulness, detoxification, and organic produce, and we are willing to suffer for our soulfulness."
I learned of Standish's interest in the drug from an article in a September issue of the New Yorker, titled "The Drug of Choice for the Age of Kale," with the headline "How ayahuasca, an ancient Amazonian hallucinogenic brew, became the latest trend in Brooklyn and Silicon Valley." And, I might add, the Seattle area.
Ayahuasca enthusiasts frequently use the language of technology, which may have entered the plant-medicine lexicon because so many people in Silicon Valley are apparently devotees. Thus technology-driven references like "cleansing the mother board," or "wiping the hard drive clean" crop up.
The New Yorker article by a long-time, award-winning writer for the magazine, who included the experience of participating in an ayahausca circle, quoted Standish at some length on the medical-research aspects of the drug.
Standish noted that "many people are going from all over the world to South America, part of a virtual drug-tourism industry, suggesting what I think is a huge need in Western Culture for this type of healing medicine."
The New Yorker article notes that vomiting can follow ayahuasca ingestion. According to the writer "this purging is considered by many shamans and experienced users of ayahuasca to be an essential part of the experience, as it represents the release of negative energy and emotions built up over the course of one's life."
"Now, a critical mass of L.A.'s urban hippies are gathering in groups and projectile vomiting (and worse) on their way to enlightenment.," the writer says.
But Standish has been drawn to what she perceives as the medicinal potential.
"I am very interested in bringing this ancient medicine from the Amazon Basin into the light of science," she said.
Her key initial scientific focus is in "creating a new treatment for depression," which she describes as "a pandemic in this country and in Western culture,"
She says she has started her own company, Standish Medicine Inc., as the vehicle to guide the research, once she gets the final okay from DEA and Bastyr's Institutional Review Board, and adds that she has some potential investors "interested in helping me with a new therapy for depression."