Exploring ayahuasca-assisted therapy for addiction: A qualitative analysis of preliminary findings among an Indigenous community in Canada
Elena ARGENTO, Rielle CAPLER, Gerald THOMAS, Philippe LUCAS & Kenneth W. TUPPER
Drug and Alcohol Review, 2019
Doi : 10.1111/dar.12985
Introduction and Aims. A previous observational study of ayahuasca-assisted therapy demonstrated statistically significant reductions in self-reported problematic cocaine use among members of an Indigenous community in Canada. This paper aims to qualitatively explore the impact of ayahuasca assisted therapy on addiction and other substance use-related outcomes and elucidate the lived experiences of participants.
Design and Methods. Qualitative interviews were conducted with 11 adult Indigenous participants of the ayahuasca-assisted ‘Working with Addiction and Stress’ ceremonial retreats (June– September 2011). Semi-structured interviews assessed experiences of participants following the retreats at 6-month follow up. Thematic analysis of interview transcripts was conducted.
Results. Narratives revealed that the retreats helped participants identify negative thought patterns and barriers related to their addiction in ways that differed from conventional therapies. All participants reported reductions in substance use and cravings; eight participants reported complete cessation of at
least one substance at follow up. Increased connectedness with self, others and nature/spirit was described as a key element associated with reduced substance use and cravings.
Discussion and Conclusions. This analysis expands upon prior quantitative results highlighting the therapeutic potential of ayahuasca-assisted therapy and provides important contextual insights into why ayahuasca-assisted therapy may have been beneficial for members of an Indigenous community seeking to address their problematic use of substances. Given limited efficacy of conventional treatments for resolving addiction issues, further research should investigate the role of ayahuasca and other psychedelic-assisted therapies in enhancing connectedness and other key factors that may improve well being and reduce harmful substance use. [Argento E, Capler R, Thomas G, Lucas P,
Tupper KW. Exploring ayahuasca-assisted therapy for addiction: A qualitative analysis of preliminary findings among an Indigenous community in Canada. Drug Alcohol Rev 2019]
Key words : ayahuasca, psychedelics, psychedelic-assisted therapy, addiction, indigenous health.
Indigenous peoples in Canada and globally experience a disproportionate burden of social and health inequalities with significant heterogeneity across settings . Stemming from multi-generational impacts of colonialism, racialised policies and related trauma, high rates of concurrent mental health and substance use disorders among Indigenous populations remain of critical concern. Despite decades of ongoing efforts, conventional treatment approaches have had limited success, exacerbated by formidable barriers to health faced by those who have experienced devastating disconnection from traditions, culture and spirituality [1,2].
Ayahuasca, an Amazonian plant-based tea, is among various psychedelic substances purported to have therapeutic benefits mainly in non-clinical settings but more recently also in clinical ones [3–6]. In recent years, a renewed interest in psychedelic-assisted therapy has generated mounting evidence linking therapeutic uses of psychedelics with improvements in problematic substance use [7–9], trauma  and psychological well-being [11–15]. Ceremonial or ritualistic use of ayahuasca has been associated with reductions in substance use problems [16–19]. Recently, the first randomised controlled trial on ayahuasca for treatment-resistant depression was conducted in Brazil: findings demonstrated significant, rapid antidepressant effects following a single dose of ayahuasca compared to placebo . Clinical trials have demonstrated similar outcomes with other psychedelics (e.g. psilocybin, LSD) [14,15,21]. However, further research is needed to more conclusively demonstrate the therapeutic potential of psychedelics in addressing addiction.
Previously, members of our research team published results from an observational study of ayahuasca-assisted therapy in the context of ‘Working with Addiction and Stress’ retreats among Indigenous members of a rural Coast Salish community in British Columbia (BC), Canada. Findings demonstrated statistically significant reductions in self-reported cocaine use and improvements in measures of mental well-being and quality of life . This paper aims to share the life experiences of participants in their own words to provide a deeper and more personalised understanding of how ayahuasca-assisted therapy affected their psychosocial well-being and substance use.