SoCal ayahuasca retreats can bring healing. Not all are safe


An Ayahuasca drink sits on a wooden table. Ayahuasca is a psychedelic drug associated with indigenous Amazonian spiritual practices, and it’s becoming more popular in Southern California. Photo by Shutterstock.

To get into an ayahuasca ceremony, you have to know someone. And you  probably do, even if you didn’t realize you run with that kind of crowd. At a recent ceremony in the Santa Monica Mountains, I met a pilot, a barber, some people in the entertainment industry, and a single mom who turned to ayahuasca because she was struggling to co-parent with her ex. Some people even showed up with their parents.

Ayahuasca is a psychedelic drug associated with indigenous Amazonian spiritual practices, and it’s catching on in Southern California in a big way. For the past decade or so, all kinds of psychedelics have been rebranded as a wellness tool. Some cities have decriminalized them, starting in 2019 with Denver, Colo., and now the entire state of Oregon is getting ready for legal magic mushrooms in 2023.

Not LA, though, so this ayahuasca ceremony is on the down-low. You ask around, you get a referral from a friend, pay a couple hundred bucks, and you’re in. At least, that’s what worked for me.

The Purge

A couple weeks before the ceremony, I receive these instructions:

”Disclose any medications.” That's because ayahuasca can pose a serious risk if you’re on certain meds.

“Bring toilet paper, pillows, and blankets.” Check, check, check — got 'em.

”Wear comfortable clothing, preferably white.” Why white? Well, I’m not sure, but the friend who referred me said his first time trying ayahuasca, he made the mistake of wearing a starchy collared shirt — like he was dressing for a job interview — so I opt for light-colored athleisure wear instead. You gotta feel comfortable puking your guts out. 

Because all I know for sure is that I’m probably going to puke my guts out. Ayahuasca is famous for the purge. 

When the night finally comes, I drive deep into the mountains, excited and nervous. I feel like I could puke just walking in the door. 

Our fellow seekers tonight, about 20 of them, aren’t druggies or burnouts. Most ayahuasca users don’t consider it a drug, they call it medicine. They’re professionals and workers, some with trauma to heal, some just open to the experience. There’s a lot more gray hair than I expected. After sharing our intentions, we each go up for a little cup, then drink together. 

It's disgusting. Ayahuasca tastes like motor oil and dirt, with a harsh, bitter sweetness that reminds me of how coolant smells. 

For the first 10 minutes, it’s silent. Then someone vomits, the first of many purges to come. And purging isn’t just vomit, it comes in many forms. Slowly a cacophony of bodily noises escalates, and all of a sudden, pupils are dilated, and we are high. 

The music kicks in. Some of it is live, some of it recorded, some like the purest open mic with the most talented musicians. It is, after all, Los Angeles. 

There is definitely an interplay between the music, medicine, and intentions. "The music is directing the ceremony and telling it where to go. It's taking people on a journey," says Tony Moss, who leads a local group called I.AM.LIFE that does ayahuasca-inspired ceremonies without ayahuasca because, in Southern California, ayahuasca is only legal in certain contexts. 

A fellow seeker who’s going by his initial “A” agrees that the music is a powerful part of the experience. "You sort of get on the same wavelength because the music is playing the whole time. That is your rhythm. That is the rhythm of the entire room,” he says. “You start having thoughts, but you don't know if your thoughts are coming from you or coming from the music. It felt like the music was responding to my thoughts and other people in the room. And I think it's vice versa. I think the music's dictating what it is, and people are responding to that emotionally. And the medicine allows you to do that.”

So everyone is on the same wavelength — a beautiful, connected feeling. But this oneness, vulnerability and openness that ayahuasca users are commonly in search of, is exactly where things can start to go off the rails.

Not all sunshine and rainbows

"When you go into these spaces, there is such exuberance, and there is such excitement, and there is such a shared sense of community,” says Dave Nickles, a producer and co-host on the New York Magazine podcast Cover Story: Power Trip. He and his co-host dove into the dark side of ayahuasca, and yes, there definitely is a dark side. 

“When you're engaged in boundary-dissolving drugs, how could you not feel at times at one with your comrades and confidants and friends who sit in circle with you every few weeks or months? And you know, these are the people that you show this piece of yourself that no one else gets to see,” Nickels continues. “And yet, that exuberance, I think, frequently overrides the whispers and murmurs and concerns, like that gut feeling that tells you maybe everything isn't sunshine and rainbows. " 

There have been allegations of rape, sexual abuse, and other misconduct. Such charges, including misconduct by group leaders during psychedelic therapy, have undermined some of the research and institutions at the forefront of this so-called renaissance. Even worse, many people seeking this treatment are already vulnerable because they are trying to heal sexual trauma, depression, PTSD, and other complex psychological issues. 

There’s also a culture of hostility to anyone who points out the problems, says Dr. Lily Kay Ross, who co-hosted the New York Magazine podcast with Nickles. 

Dr. Ross told me, "The idea is: We want to protect the movement, we want to protect the renaissance. We want psychedelics to have the most beautiful, glimmering, alluring image possible because we're fighting against criminalization, and we're trying to get these drugs legal. But the consequence of all of that is that here we are on the brink of legalization, this could be scaled up to millions and millions of people in the years ahead, and there are all of these really important discussions that haven't happened."

Important discussions like: What is and isn’t ethical for the leader of a psychedelic group to do? And, what’s really a safe dose? There are studies that show ayahuasca and other psychedelics can help heal sexual trauma and addiction, but some of those studies have been discredited. 

Ayahuasca has also been touted as a salve for depression. Dr. Jeff McNairy, the chief medical officer at Rhythmia, a luxury spiritual resort in Costa Rica that offers ayahuasca retreats, says he gets good feedback from their clients who suffer from depression. But the problem with ayahuasca as a remedy for depression is you have to go off your SSRI medications for 30 days before and after a ceremony, which could be dangerous for folks struggling with their mental health.

Fortunately for me, this night in the Santa Monica Mountains is much more about communing with my ancestors and feeling at one with the world than a negative or dangerous experience. After 12 hours and at least as many purges, I drive home from my ayahuasca trip feeling more connected than I have in a long time, and open to trying it again. 

Sound design: Michael Castañeda 

Musicians: Néstor Colmenares, William Cordero, and Steffen Hoffman



Courtney Kocak