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The psychedelic ayahuasca is easier to find even though its legality is questionable

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

The psychedelic ayahuasca is becoming easier to find, even though its legality is still questionable. New Hampshire Public Radio's Todd Bookman reports.

TODD BOOKMAN, BYLINE: The life Derek Januszewski led before ayahuasca and the life he leads after bear little resemblance, his former self struggled with obsessive compulsive disorder, childhood trauma and cocaine addiction. Then...

DEREK JANUSZEWSKI: In May of 2017, I sat with ayahuasca for the first time, and for the first time in ten years, I had 45 days of absolutely zero cravings, no pull to use. The world opened up for me.

BOOKMAN: In Januszewski's new world, he's the pastor of an ayahuasca church in New Hampshire. It's called Pachamama Sanctuary. Several times a month, people pay around $700 for a weekend of ayahuasca in the woods. Drink a few ounces of the tea, which is made from a combination of plants, and you may have mystical visions. Others say it feels like watching their own death. This isn't for the faint of heart.

JANUSZEWSKI: It's like a spiritual psych ward, in a way. But it's beautiful. You have people over here crying. You have people over here purging. You have people rolling around in the grass, trying to get towards the Earth. It's where we can, like, lose our mind and find our soul.

BOOKMAN: Pachamama Sanctuary declined to let me attend a ceremony, but Em Quiles of Massachusetts was happy to talk about her time there.

EM QUILES: A trip to the Amazon or whatever was totally out of the question 'cause I'm poor.

BOOKMAN: Quiles said she found a good experience closer to home.

QUILES: Pachamama did a really good job at honoring the medicine and respecting its sacredness and treating it with the sacredness that it deserves and that it commands.

BOOKMAN: Pachamama and spaces like it are openly discussed online and even have ratings. Pachamama has a 4.92.

MARTHA HARTNEY: You can even hear people talking about it over polite dinner conversation now.

BOOKMAN: This is Martha Hartney, a Colorado attorney and member of the Psychedelic Bar Association. A 2006 Supreme Court ruling sided with a church serving ayahuasca, saying the government couldn't interfere with its religious practices. But Hartney says the court didn't legalize ayahuasca, which is still a controlled substance. It remains a grey area, even for churches. And she warns of phony shamans filling the demand.

HARTNEY: There's money to be made. There's power to be had.

BOOKMAN: There are also potential health impacts. Yes, people have been doing it for hundreds of years. But claims of ayahuasca as medicine, a treatment for depression or PTSD - these are still in the early days of formal clinical study. Fred Barrett is at the Center for Psychedelic and Consciousness Research at Johns Hopkins.

FRED BARRETT: The degree to which this is happening in uncontrolled settings without any oversight or accountability could be a risk.

BOOKMAN: Pachamama says it screens its guests for potential health issues and only uses experienced facilitators. And the pastor, Derek Januszewski, isn't exactly coaxing people.

JANUSZEWSKI: There's nothing for you until you are called. Just be patient. Don't go and drink it 'cause it's a cool fad. You're going to have a hard time.

BOOKMAN: Lately, the town of Canterbury, N.H., has been giving Pachamama a hard time, and not all of the neighbors are on board. Januszewski is looking for a new property, a place where he can continue to bring what he calls a sacrament - ayahuasca - to more people.

For NPR News, I'm Todd Bookman. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Todd started as a news correspondent with NHPR in 2009. He spent nearly a decade in the non-profit world, working with international development agencies and anti-poverty groups. He holds a master’s degree in public administration from Columbia University.