Ritualistic Use of Ayahuasca versus Street Use of Similar Substances Seized by the Police: A Key Factor Involved in the Potential for Intoxications and Overdose?

J Psychoactive Drugs. 2015 Apr-Jun;47(2):132-9. doi: 10.1080/02791072.2015.1013202.


The ritualistic use of ayahuasca is becoming a global phenomenon. This beverage contains a combination of monoamine oxidase inhibitors (harmine, harmaline, and tetrahydroharmine) and N,N-dimethyltryptamine, the main substance responsible for its visionary effect. The recreational use of similar alkaloids and N,N-dimethyltryptamine has increased in recent years, mainly because of their hallucinogenic effects. In the present study, the concentrations of psychoactive alkaloids in three powder samples seized by the São Paulo State Police and nine ayahuasca aqueous extracts were analyzed by HPLC-DAD in an attempt to distinguish between illicit drugs and the religious beverage. The alkaloids detected (μg/mL) in the ayahuasca aqueous extracts were N,N-dimethyltryptamine (402-2070.3), harmaline (27.5-181.3), harmine (294.5-2893.8), and tetrahydroharmine (849.5-2052.5), whereas, of the three powder samples, one contained only N,N-dimethyltryptamine (82% and 2% w/w, respectively) while the other contained only harmaline (16%, w/w) and harmine (12%, w/w). The ritualistic use of ayahuasca involves oral intake and the probability of overdose is minimized by serotonergic stimulation of vagal pathways, leading to vomiting and diarrhea. In contrast, the recreational use of N,N-dimethyltryptamine involves consumption mainly by smoking or inhalation, both of which markedly increase its bioavailability and the potential for intoxications.

Keywords: HPLC-DAD; ayahuasca; beta-carboline alkaloids; dimethyltryptamine; forensic toxicology; illicit drugs.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Banisteriopsis*
  • Beverages / analysis
  • Biological Availability
  • Ceremonial Behavior*
  • Chromatography, High Pressure Liquid / methods
  • Diarrhea / chemically induced
  • Drug Overdose* / etiology
  • Drug Overdose* / physiopathology
  • Forensic Toxicology / methods
  • Hallucinogens / pharmacology
  • Humans
  • Illicit Drugs / analysis*
  • Indole Alkaloids / pharmacology*
  • Inhalation Exposure / analysis
  • N,N-Dimethyltryptamine / pharmacology*
  • Plant Extracts / pharmacology
  • Serotonin Antagonists / pharmacology
  • Vomiting / chemically induced


  • Hallucinogens
  • Illicit Drugs
  • Indole Alkaloids
  • Plant Extracts
  • Serotonin Antagonists
  • N,N-Dimethyltryptamine