Adventure seekers assume certain risks when sampling the profound and powerful effects of psychoactive drugs. Although many are comprised of completely natural items and generally thought of as safe for the mind and body, it is not always the case. Earlier this week, 19-year-old British traveler Henry Miller was found dead in a Colombian forest after participating in a tribal ritual where he had an allergic reaction to a hallucinogenic drug.
The drug, known commonly as yagé or ayahuasca, is not recommended for recreational use. It is an all-natural infusion made from plants found in the Amazonian region of South America. The psychoactive agent in the ayahuasca vine, Banisteriopsis caapi, is an entheogenic substance. That is to say, the vine is infused with other jungle plants with psychoactive properties to create a chemical substance that “generates the divine from within.” This type of drug is meant for use in a religious, shamanic, or spiritual context only.
Several of Miller’s family members have reported to media that the British teenager, an avid traveler from Bristol, UK, was backpacking in Colombia prior to the start of school in September. He decided to take part in the local tribal ritual where he drank the ayahuasca infusion after seeing a “shaman experience” advertised at the hostel where he was staying. Reports do not detail other travelers’ accounts of the night Miller ended up dead after ingesting the drug.
Ayahuasca literally translates to “vine of the dead” or “vine of the soul” in Quechan, a native South American language spoken primarily in the Andes. Many users have reported that consuming the jungle vine in combination with other hallucinogenic Amazonian plants in an ‘ayahuasca tea’ brew has led to spiritual awakenings, psychic revelations, and other mind-bending insights.
There are centuries of history that document Amazonian Indians taking the drug, derived from the ayahuasca plant. The discovery of its psychedelic properties and history of its adoption as a ritualistic “plant teacher” are unknown, but travelers flock from all over the world to experience what is claimed to be the trip of a lifetime.
For Miller, the trip did not go as planned. Reports suggest that Miller was with a group of other foreign travelers when he fell ill, as it is customary for the guided hallucinogenic experience of the ayahuasca trip to be communal. The other tourists taking part in the ritual were escorted back to their lodgings by the shaman overseeing the group, and assured that Miller was being taken care of by members of the tribe.
His body was found by a road in a forest near the southern city of Mocoa in the remote Putumayo region, close to Ecuadorian border.
“We are awaiting further information from the Foreign Office but it is likely that a reaction to this drink was the cause,” said a member of Miller’s family regarding his death.
Ayahuasca has been used for centuries for spiritual purposes, and has become well known in Western cultures. Beat generation writers William Burroughs and Allen Ginsburg discuss the mind-altering effects of the drug the book The Yage Letters, first published in 1963.
In the 2012 film Wanderlust, the characters played by Jennifer Aniston and Paul Rudd take part in a guided ayahuasca ritual, a comedic albeit somewhat inaccurate portrayal of the hallucinogenic experience.
Although side effects including severe vomiting and diarrhea are normal initial reactions to the drug, it is temporary and death does not typically follow. The drug is legal and generally not lethal, but there are definitely specific precautions for an individual to take very seriously before ingesting the ayahuasca concoction. For instance, certain pharmaceutical drugs and other supplements are known to increase the risk of a lethal reaction when combined with ayahuasca.
Details have not been released about the nature of the British traveler’s deadly allergic reaction to the hallucinogenic drug during the tribal ritual in Colombia.
By Erica Salcuni