Psychedelic CSR: Special Protections Within Ayahuasca Tourism

This is the third installment of our Psychedelic CSR blog, this time detailing some concerning trends in ayahuasca tourism. Like our other corporate social responsibility blogs, we present these problems only to discuss subsequent solutions! As an emerging industry, we ought to implement special protections within ayahuasca tourism.

ayahuasca tourism

Ayahuasca Tourism Considerations

As psychedelics are increasingly being perceived as a groundbreaking medicine in the West, more and more Westerners are traveling around the world to take part in traditional ayahuasca ceremonies. This phenomenon is known as ayahuasca tourism and almost always includes the following staples: a shaman (or medicine man) to guide one’s ayahuasca trip, an ayahuasca brew (containing DMT and a duration-sustaining MAOI), and a massively powerful hallucinatory trip for the “tourist” in question. The shaman’s service is widely believed to be instrumental in any promised healing, and therefore, can be worth a considerable amount of money. This is a simple enough concept, right?

But as ayahuasca tourism made headlines in trend setting magazines and celebrity-focused news stories, several non-traditional elements have infiltrated these ayahuasca ceremonies. This includes, but is not limited to, the fetishization of ayahuasca ceremonies, a mass miscommunication regarding details of a shaman’s culture, and the arguable “over commercialization” of ayahuasca tourism.

To be clear, I have no interest in hindering one’s ability or preference for taking drugs, let alone taking them in a traditional and ritualistic setting. Likewise, it is not lost on me that the sheer presence of a shaman can mean a lot to one’s comfortability towards taking ayahuasca. Frankly, I do not wish to discourage the individual from partaking in ayahuasca tourism at all. Instead, I’d like to discuss how we can implement special protections within ayahuasca tourism as a collective – namely, the emerging psychedelic medicine industry.

ayahuasca tourism

With Great Commodification Comes Great Responsibility

Given that mainstream publications have dubbed the sacramental brew as the latest craze in Silicon Valley or “Hollywood’s Hip, Heavy Hallucinogen,” we can safely infer that what we are witnessing is in fact a buzzing industry. In other words, we should assume there is financial infrastructure in place here, which means marketing is involved from the point one books a ticket to the point one consumes the brew. Readers are encouraged to be skeptical of retreats with incredibly high price tags, and like all drug-related endeavors, potential users should do their homework.

This commodification of ayahuasca ceremonies is not inherently a bad thing, however, with great commodification comes great responsibility. For sake of brevity, this piece will echo concerns within the ayahuasca tourism community of South America, but readers should know that concerns will obviously vary from area to area.

Among all concerns, the following is perhaps the most discussed: less trained medicine men and less psychoactive brews have spread like wildfire as the for-profit framework becomes stronger in ayahuasca tourism. Psychedelic figures in the West, such as ethnobotanist Dennis McKenna, have mentioned this in the press before. Indeed, some have argued that “sham shamans” have appeared due to a clash of cultural values.

Perhaps the best way to investigate this claim is to look at what South American shamans have said about it. Shipibo healer Pedro Tangoa López wrote about this in his 2020 article The Dangers of Ayahuasca Tourism, stating the following:

“A lot of foreigners come here for many reasons, but here’s something I need to say. There’s this wrong idea from foreigners, thinking that an old 70 years old Shipibo man that drinks ayahuasca must be some kind of great sage. This is not always true. 15 or 20 years ago many Shipibo brothers, about my age, became shamans due to the economic boom, not because they were great sages. Some of them become shamans overnight just for the economic benefits.”

López goes on to say that these scams are a byproduct of commercialization and have caused very serious problems, such as raping, harassment, and theft pursued by untrained practitioners. It is also worth noting that, even if one is not robbed or harassed, distorting the practice inevitably creates lackluster results, and as López puts it, the user can “return home worse and frustrated.” Many of these tourists are coming to alleviate mental health symptoms, so it is especially scary for healing ceremonies to be ineffective. 

Again, individuals are not doomed here – and there is great advice by this shaman in the aforementioned piece regarding signs that a shaman is untrained. But we must understand these problems fully if we wish to tackle them once and for all as a community.

Other Ayahuasca Tourism Considerations

Furthermore, López cites the over commodification of ayahuasca ceremonies to erode the spiritual element of the rituals (though I do not believe I am in a place to validate such concerns). Similarly, the shaman argues this new industry is a detriment to the environment, mentioning that the rate in which ayahuasca vines are being cut is not very sustainable (although this claim is contested by some). It is safe to say, however, that setting up any new industry in the Amazon creates environmental issues. Those especially interested in how the psychedelic medicine industry can fight climate change should read last week’s Psychedelic CSR blog.

Finally, the last concern that has a solution well within the psychedelic medicine industry’s reach is the price of ayahuasca tourism. Foreigners pay thousands and thousands of dollars to partake in these ceremonies, which unsurprisingly excludes working class individuals from being able to participate. A deep dive into this issue is perhaps best summarized in this 2019 DoubleBlind feature.

Socially Responsible Solutions Moving Forward

It is definitely not the psychedelic medicine industry’s place to assess the “spiritual integrity” of the shamans in ayahuasca tours and retreats – one’s religious freedom allows various extents and fashions of a religion to be practiced. I also would never advocate for this science-based industry to venture too heavily into spirituality, and we’ve done a good job avoiding such realms of thought so far.

But we absolutely can use corporate social responsibility to prevent the aforementioned issues from worsening. First, if a psychedelic medicine company insists on establishing a new ayahuasca retreat, they ought to consider doing so in the West! Yes, laws prevent companies from just “setting up shop” anywhere, but isn’t that an issue we are well adjusted to here in psychedelic medicine? There are many ayahuasca retreats in the U.S., which keeps us out of indigenous communities where we may be doing more harm than good.

If a psychedelic medicine company is already a part of ayahuasca tours in some way, they ought to have many regularly occurring conversations with nearby inhabitants and native shamans. We have no solid evidence that Western-funded ayahuasca retreats have ever surveyed local residents’ feelings towards their work, which is disheartening. But we have the option to facilitate that conversation many, many times. Perhaps some residents support the economic stimulation it brings to their community, but wishes these retreats employed local residents. Perhaps some residents are indifferent to ayahuasca tourism, but would like to discuss the manner in which a company harvests the vine. Or perhaps some residents simply disapprove of this new business completely and feel their tradition is being practiced wrong. How will we know until we ask?

Moving on, the psychedelic medicine industry should prioritize the environmental health of communities with a long history of ayahuasca ceremonies. For example, The Rainforest Foundation reminds us that supporting indigenous communities is one of the most effective ways to prevent deforestation. This is largely because indigenous communities manage their lands more environmentally than we do in the west (e.g., lower deforestation incentives, higher carbon sequestration, prioritizing the land’s ability to produce oxygen, etc.). Along with The Rainforest Foundation, psychedelic medicine companies are encouraged to donate to Project DrawDown and explore environmentalism efforts more broadly.

ayahuasca tourism

Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) is the Bare Minimum

A capital markets analyst at Canaccord Genuity Group, one of the most prominent investment banks in psychedelic medicine, recently estimated that the psychedelic market will be worth nearly $100 billion. This leads me to believe that the psychedelic medicine industry can generate tons of money without getting involved with ayahuasca tourism. But again, companies already involved with these tours should focus on implementing corporate social responsibility (CSR) to avoid the worsening of problems discussed in this piece. CSR is the bare minimum for this industry to prove it is not a “business as usual” pharmaceutical industry – we are in the business of truly helping people.

Ali Shana

Ali Shana

Ali Shana is a Palestinian-American writer and grad student studying clinical mental health counseling. He tends to report on a variety of drug-related topics, such as policy reform, psychopharmacology, and medication-assisted therapies.