Culture Magazine

Codgers Just Wanna' Get High and Find the Meaning of It All [42] – Ayahuasca

By Bbenzon @bbenzon

At 74, the venture capitalist George Sarlo might not have seemed an obvious candidate for an ayahuasca experience. Mr. Sarlo, a Hungarian Jewish immigrant who arrived in the United States in 1956, has had great professional success as the co-founder of Walden Venture Capital. He lives in an upscale San Francisco neighborhood, in a large house with an unobstructed view of the Golden Gate Bridge.

And yet something was always lacking. Mr. Sarlo's father had disappeared from their Budapest home in 1942. He had been drafted in a forced labor battalion, an experience he did not survive. At age 4, George had told himself that it was because he was "a bad boy" that his father had left that day, early in the morning, without saying goodbye. He believes that he never recovered from that early loss.

Mr. Sarlo's close friend, a doctor, told him about ayahuasca, a psychedelic brew made from the Banisteriopsis caapi vine, native to the Amazon. Used for centuries in sacred healing traditions throughout Central and South America, ayahuasca is now gaining popularity around the world, featured in recent headlines about the habits of Silicon Valley, though N, N-Dimethyltryptamine or DMT, the active ingredient in an ayahuasca trip, is mostly illegal in the United States (there are a couple of exceptions, under religious exemption). Ayahuasca tourism is thriving, with more and more people happy to fly thousands of miles to take part in weeklong ceremonies in Peruvian jungles, or to seek out more luxurious contexts, like a four-star resort that comes complete with masseuses, pools, and state of the art fitness centers. And, notably, ayahuasca's increasing popularity knows no age limits: many of those now showing interest are squarely in Mr. Sarlo's own demographic.

FWIW, I note in passing that some of the pioneering research on psychedelic mushrooms was done by Gordon Wasson, who was a VP at J. P. Morgan.

Later in the article, near the end:

People might startle at the image of someone old enough to be their grandparents willingly embarking on a night of hallucinations and vomiting. But Sophia Rokhlin, co-author of the new book on ayahuasca, "When Plants Dream," said when it comes to the tradition of drinking ayahuasca, nothing could be more natural. In countries like Ecuador, for example, among tribes who practice healing traditions with ayahuasca (more often referred to there as yagé), the dynamic Ms. Rokhlin has more often observed is this: the elders are increasingly the only ones drinking. "The use of ayahuasca and plant medicines is actually quite stigmatized and looked down upon by communities who are really trying to get a leg up in the capitalist economy," she said. Younger members of communities who partake in ayahuasca ceremonies, she said, are more intent on building materially successful lives in a global economy than they are preserving their local rituals.

But in the United States, Ms. Rokhlin sees the growth of interest among the 70-and-up set as inevitable, for two main reasons: first,more and more scientific studies are being published showing that psychedelic agents have potential in treating persistent mental distress. In one small study of 17 adults, ayahuasca helped relieve recurrent depression. She said that scientifically backed research matters more to this older demographic than trippy "kaleidoscopic articles in Vice" extolling the ayahuasca experience. But as well, she said, for those "closer to the end than the beginning," there is also an increasing sense that "there's nothing left to lose."

However, there are risks ("Danger, Will Robinson!", who wasn't exactly Alone In Deep Space):

This isn't to say there aren't risks associated. Heart problems can be disqualifying. So can many prescription medications. Rick Doblin, the founder of Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (or MAPS), notes that for this older age group, a smaller dose of any psychedelic often suffices, as we can become more sensitive to drugs as we age.

Dr. Charles Grob, professor of psychiatry and pediatrics at the UCLA School of Medicine, who has been researching psychedelics since the 1980s, said: "With elderly people, there should be some emphasis on being aware that higher doses may have a level of risk that would not be present with younger individuals. Particularly for cardiovascular problems," such as arrhythmia. "There needs to be more research." Dr. Grob advises older people to get a full cardiac work-up before using psychedelics.

Dr. Dan Engle, a psychiatrist in Boulder, Colo., warns that another risk for people in their 70s and 80s is the number of pharmaceutical drugs that are contraindicated for ayahuasca, including the most common form of anti-depressants, Selective Serontonin Reuptake Inhibitors (S.S.R.I.s). "But all of that said, ayahuasca is a visionary medicine and it can heal core psychological wounds," Dr. Engle said. "At that stage in their life, in their 70s and 80s, ayahuasca can help people become present and have more acceptance."

For Mr. Kilkenny, what the ayahuasca journeys have provided him with is profound "information." Now, in the moments when he recognizes his own need for validation, he is less inclined to act on it. [...] "My life is a lot quieter and it's a lot more peaceful," he said. "Less seeking, less grasping, less needing. Less fear."


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