Rush, an addiction researcher with a doctorate in public health, first heard of ayahuasca in 2011 and decided to travel to Peru to learn more. He checked into an ayahuasca center called Takiwasi and, during a ceremony, confronted his twenty-year addiction to nicotine.

"I was laid flat out in a coffin and my three children were standing around me," says Rush. "Then I started purging, and it felt like I was purging the tobacco poison."

Not long after Rush returned home, he says, he gave up smoking for good.

Ayahuasca ceremony house in the Peruvian Amazon.
Ayahuasca ceremony house in the Peruvian Amazon.
Two men brew up a pot of ayahuasca in Iquitos, Peru.
Luis Eduardo Luna
Two men brew up a pot of ayahuasca in Iquitos, Peru.


"I had quit before, but this time was different," he says. "It's like I have no memory of smoking. I don't have any tactile memory in my hands. That was a year and a half ago, and I haven't had a cigarette."

Having studied addiction science for 30 years, Rush asked the Takiwasi center what data it had. As it turned out, it wan't a lot. When he realized that other, similar programs also lacked decent evaluation data, he sought to fix that as well.

"I said, 'I am in your service,'" he recalls.

The Indiegogo campaign funded the project team's first planning meeting, the kickoff of a study that will be several years long. The meeting took place in Peru at the end of October and brought together 40 international researchers to help design the project.

They decided that ATOP will be an umbrella over studies in several South American countries, each looking at ayahuasca in the treatment of drug and alcohol abuse. By the end, the researchers hope to have definite answers on whether addicts treated with ayahuasca see a verifiable reduction in alcohol- and drug-related harms.

"It's real clear that all we have now is kind of anecdotal evidence and small studies with short-term follow-up," says Rush. "This is a potential approach that a lot of people have some confidence in, and at least enough confidence to say, 'We need more studies. We need to know more.'"

Olivia LaVecchia is a staff writer at City Pages, RFT's sister paper in Minneapolis.

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