Why you’ll soon be taking psychedelic drugs

Apparition of Face and Fruit Dish on a Beach (1938, detail) by Salvador Dalí
Apparition of Face and Fruit Dish on a Beach (1938, detail) by Salvador Dalí - Alamy

Ernesto Londoño’s enviable reputation as a journalist was forged in the conflict zones of Iraq and Afghanistan. In 2017, he landed his dream job as The New York Times’s bureau chief in Brazil, with a roving brief, talented and supportive colleagues, and a high-rise apartment in Rio de Janeiro. When, not long after, he almost accidentally-on-purpose threw himself off his balcony, Londoño knew that he was in serious emotional trouble.

It was more than whimsy that led him to look for help at a psychedelic retreat in the Amazon hamlet of Mushu Inu, a place with no running water, where the shower facility consisted of a large tub guarded by a couple of tarantulas. He had seen what taking antidepressant medications had done for acquaintances in the US military – in short, nothing good – so he decided instead to write at first hand about what, in America, has become an increasingly popular alternative therapy: drinking ayahuasca tea.

Ayahuasca is prepared by boiling chunks of an Amazonian vine called Banisteriopsis caapi with the leaves of a shrubby plant called Psychotria viridis. The leaves contain a psychoactive compound, and the vines stop the drinker from metabolising it too quickly. The experience that follows is, well, trippy. By disrupting routine patterns of thought and memory processing, psychedelic trips offer depressed and traumatised people a reprieve from their obsessive thought-patterns. They offer them a chance to recalibrate and reinterpret past experiences. How they do this, however, is up to them, and this is why psychedelics are anything but harmless recreational drugs. It’s as possible to step out of a bad trip shrieking psychotically at the trees as it is to emerge, ­Buddha-like, from a carefully guided psychedelic experience.

The Yawanawá people of the Amazon, who have effectively become global ambassadors for the brew – which, incidentally, they’ve only been making for a few hundred years – make no bones about its harmful potential. The predominantly Western organisers of ayahuasca-fuelled tourist retreats are rather less forthcoming.

Psychedelics promise revolutionary treatments for PTSD. In the US, government-funded pharmaceutical researchers are attempting to subtract all the wacky, enjoyable and humane elements of the ayahuasca experience, to thereby distil a kind of aspirin for war trauma. It’s a singularly dystopian project, out to erase the effect of atrocities in the minds of those who might, thanks to that very treatment, be increasingly inclined to perpetrate them. On one ayahuasca web forum, meanwhile, the brew itself speaks to its counter-cultural acolytes. “If I don’t spread globally, I will face extinction, similar to Humans,” a feminised ayahuasca cuppa proclaims. “For survival ­reasons, I must spread globally, while Humans must accept my sacred medicine to heal their afflicted soul.”

Ayahuasca retreats such as this one in Ecuador are popular with Westerners
Ayahuasca retreats such as this one in Ecuador are popular with Westerners - Alamy

Londoño has drunk the brew, but, thankfully, not the Kool-Aid. He says that his ayahuasca experiences saved if not his life, then at the very least his capacity for happiness. He maintains a great affection for the romantics and idealists whom he depicts in pursuit of the good and the healthful in psychedelic experience. His own survey leads him from psychedelic “boot-camps” in the rainforest to upscale clinics in Costa Rica tending to the global 1 per cent, and even American “churches” that couch therapy as a religious experience so that they can import ayahuasca and get around the strictures of the Drug Enforcement Administration. The most startling sections, for me, dealt with Santo Daime, a syncretic Brazilian faith that contrives to combine ayahua­sca with a proximal Catholic liturgy.

Trippy is told, as much as ­poss­ible, in the first person, through anecdote and memoir. ­Seeing the perils and the promise of psychedelic experience play out in Londoño’s own mind, as he comes to terms over years with his own (quite considerable) personal traumas, is a privilege; even so, it brings with it moments of tedium, as though we were being expected to sit through someone’s gushing account of their cheese dreams.

This – let’s call it the stupidity of seriousness – is a besetting tonal problem with the introspective method. William James fell foul of it in The Principles of Psychology of 1890, so it might seem a bit much to chide Londoño about it in 2024. Still, it’s fair to point out that Londoño, an accomplished print journalist, is writing, day on day, for a readership of predominantly American liberals – surely the most purse-lipped and conservative readership on Earth. So maybe, with Trippy as our foundation, we should now seek out a looser, more gonzo treatment of the topic, one wild enough to handle the wholesale spiritual regearing promised by the psychedelics coming to a clinic, church and holiday brochure near you.

Trippy is published by Orion Spring at £18.99. To order your copy for £16.99, call 0808 196 6794 or visit Telegraph Books