Aim: To extend previous reviews by assessing the acute systemic toxicity and psychological hazards of a dimethyltryptamine and beta-carboline brew (ayahuasca/hoasca) used in religious ceremonies.
Method: A systematic literature search, supplemented by interviews with ceremony participants.
Results: No laboratory animal models were located that tested the acute toxicity or the abuse potential of ayahuasca. Separate animal studies of the median lethal dose of dimethyltryptamine (DMT) and of several harmala alkaloids indicated that a lethal dose of these substances in humans is probably greater than 20 times the typical ceremonial dose. Adverse health effects may occur from casual use of ayahuasca, particularly when serotonergic substances are used in conjunction. DMT is capable of inducing aversive psychological reactions or transient psychotic episodes that resolve spontaneously in a few hours. There was no evidence that ayahuasca has substantial or persistent abuse potential. Long-term psychological benefits have been documented when ayahuasca is used in a well-established social context.
Conclusion: A decoction of DMT and harmala alkaloids used in religious ceremonies has a safety margin comparable to codeine, mescaline or methadone. The dependence potential of oral DMT and the risk of sustained psychological disturbance are minimal.