Ayahuasca's entwined efficacy: An ethnographic study of ritual healing from 'addiction'

Int J Drug Policy. 2017 Jun:44:23-30. doi: 10.1016/j.drugpo.2017.02.017. Epub 2017 Apr 19.


Background: A range of studies has demonstrated the efficacy of the psychoactive Amazonian brew ayahuasca in addressing substance addiction. These have revealed that physiological and psychological mechanisms are deeply enmeshed. This article focuses on how interactive ritual contexts support the healing effort. The study of psychedelic-assisted treatments for addiction has much to gain from ethnographic analyses of healing experiences within the particular ecologies of use and care, where these interventions are rendered efficacious.

Methods: This is an ethnographically grounded, qualitative analysis of addiction-recovery experiences within ayahuasca rituals. It draws on long-term fieldwork and participant observation in ayahuasca communities, and in-depth, semi-structured interviews of participants with histories of substance misuse.

Results: Ayahuasca's efficacy in the treatment of addiction blends somatic, symbolic and collective dimensions. The layering of these effects, and the direction given to them through ritual, circumscribes the experience and provides tools to render it meaningful. Prevailing modes of evaluation are ill suited to account for the particular material and semiotic efficacy of complex interventions such as ayahuasca healing for addiction. The article argues that practices of care characteristic of the ritual spaces in which ayahuasca is collectively consumed, play a key therapeutic role.

Conclusion: The ritual use of ayahuasca stands in strong contrast to hegemonic understandings of addiction, paving new ground between the overstated difference between community and pharmacological interventions. The article concludes that fluid, adaptable forms of caregiving play a key role in the success of addiction recovery and that feeling part of a community has an important therapeutic potential.

Keywords: Addiction; Ayahuasca; Brazil; Care; Italy; Materialsemiotics; Psychedelics.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Anthropology, Cultural*
  • Banisteriopsis*
  • Behavior, Addictive / drug therapy*
  • Ceremonial Behavior*
  • Humans
  • Phytotherapy / methods*
  • Plant Extracts / therapeutic use*


  • Plant Extracts