The names of Emily and Caleb have been changed to protect their identities because possession of ayahuasca is illegal under Canada’s Controlled Drugs and Substances Act.
Jennifer Logan's relatives say they are hoping test results will reveal why she died at a retreat in Peru after drinking a concoction called "tobacco purge tea."
The Canadian woman died at the retreat outside the city of Puerto Maldonado on Jan. 17 after drinking the tea, meant to provide a spiritual cleanse through purging, during a ceremony with a shaman.
Logan, 32, died of a pulmonary edema, an abnormal buildup of fluid in the air sacs of the lungs. Her sister, Amy Logan, says the family believes the tea played a role in her death. Tobacco purge tea is made from a potent variety of tobacco found in the rainforest called mapacho. When used in tea the plant induces vomiting intended to cleanse.
Her memorial took place Saturday in her hometown of Saskatoon.
The drink was apparently not ayahuasca, a hallucinogenic tea that is believed by those who practise plant-based healing to have cleansing and psychological healing properties, but it is similar in that ayahuasca also has a purging effect on those who ingest it, and it is a growing trend at spiritual ceremonies.
Ayahuasca is being used in clinical research to treat depression, anxiety and PTSD. However, it has been connected to several deaths at spiritual ceremonies.
Diligence is urged
The indigenous cultures of the Amazon have for centuries been brewing plant concoctions that induce vomiting and contain naturally occurring doses of the hallucinogen dimenthyltryptamine (DMT).
Plants used to make tobacco tea and ayahuasca are legal in Peru.
Sonya Weir, co-ordinator for the Institute of Shamanic Medicine in British Columbia, says people have to be very discerning when travelling to South America to participate in plant healing ceremonies.
"It's a terrible tragedy, and there might have been compounding factors — we don't have all the facts yet," says Weir, a shamanic healing practitioner, about Logan’s death. "But regardless, you have to do your research."
Weir does not participate in ceremonies involving teas mixed with medicinal plants, and they are not endorsed by the Institute of Shamanic Medicine.
"We have travelled to Bolivia and done shamanic work with teachers in South America. We would say if you want to do a retreat, we could recommend a shamanic practitioner. Do your homework. Do your research. I would absolutely not go to Peru and meet someone on the street and go off and put my faith in them."
Canadian underground culture
But tea ceremonies that involve teas containing tobacco or ayahuasca are not just taking place in South America; they also occur right here in Canada.
Although the plants do not naturally grow here, there is a plant-healing culture, which remains largely underground because the ceremonies are illegal.
Those who have participated in ayahuasca ceremonies in Canada that involve purging similar to the effects of tobacco tea say preparation is of the utmost importance.
"If you prepare properly, you basically just spit. There’s nothing to really bring up," said Caleb, a 36-year-old Toronto resident. "Sometimes when it’s too intense you want to fight it. The shaman works you through it."
"It’s sad to know that happened," he said of Logan. "I think it’s an amazing adventure, but it’s not to be taken lightly."
Caleb only agreed to be interviewed if his real name wasn’t used.
"Maybe there are blogs and people who are open about this, but for me it is all word of mouth," he said.
"I by no means think it's a bad thing, but don't abuse it. Make sure it's right for you. Do your background research and do your homework."
Instructions distributed ahead of an ayahuasca ceremony direct participants to alter their diet and fast beforehand.
"Cut back on salt, sugar, alcohol, sexual activity a few days prior. The day of ceremony, fast at least half the day with light lunch or a full day if comfortable. Need to know of any medications being used," the directions read.
"I’ve purged in ayahuasca ceremonies every time," says Emily, 34, a Toronto woman who has participated in four ceremonies, both in Canada and abroad. "For me, the purge is mostly energetic, meaning even though you go through the motions of vomiting, nothing is actually coming out. You feel like the purge is a release of a blockage of sorts. I think the diet is very important prior to the ceremony."
Amy Logan said staff at the all-female retreat made various teas for clients and crafted a tea designed to make her sister vomit and cleanse the body, giving her "clarity on her future path."
"The other three women in the group stopped vomiting within 15 minutes … Jennifer didn't stop and began to panic," before she passed out, Amy Logan said.
Staff gave her first aid before she was taken by motorcycle and boat to hospital, but doctors could not revive her. Amy Logan said her sister was healthy, about 120 pounds, and a vegetarian who did yoga and meditation.
"Who knows how long it took to get her to the hospital," Caleb said. "Here the hospital is maybe 20 minutes away."
The CBC documentary The Jungle Prescription looks at the use of plant medicines like ayahuasca to treat addiction:
The Nature of Things: Jungle Prescription