Treating Addictions: Dr. Gabor Maté and Ayahuasca

Dr. Gabor Mate in Vancouver

I first met Gabor Mate in 2007. I invited him to speak about his book, “When the Body Says No,” at a Six Sigma Symposium I had organized.

I still recommend this book to people I coach and frequently go back into his writing to re-orient myself. Gabor is someone who asks incredibly dis-arming questions that make you either turn away in fear (of really looking at yourself) or engage in reflection.

Recently, I was reminded of how much Dr.Mate continues to push conventional thinking when I watched a CBC documentary on The Nature of Things. The CBC website describes the episode:

The Jungle Prescription is the tale of two doctors treating their addicted patients with a mysterious Amazonian medicine rumored to reveal one’s deepest self. Dr. Gabor Maté has a revolutionary idea: to treat addicts with compassion. His work as the resident doctor in Vancouver’s Portland Hotel – a last-chance destination for lifelong drug abusers – has been courageous, but incredibly frustrating. Maté hears of an ancient medicine beyond his imaginings: one that could provide his patients with a solution. Its name is ayahuasca: the vine of the souls. Deep in the Amazon jungle, French doctor Jacques Mabit is using this medicine to treat hardcore addicts. Mabit runs a detox centre in the Amazon (Takiwasi or “The House That Sings”), using the plants and methods of traditional medicine. Ayahuasca is a visionary formula that unlocks emotional memory; causing life-changing catharsis in those who drink it. The reported success rates for curing addicts at Dr. Mabit’s detox centre are quadruple the average.

Dr Mate returns to Canada with a plan to work with a group of healers to treat patients struggling with various types of addiction. At these sessions they will serve ayahuasca: the acrid tea that occupies a grey area of Canadian law. But without a detox centre or support structure for his patients, will it work?

Since the publication of his award-winning book, In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts, Dr. Gabor Mate has been one of Canada’s leading thinkers on addiction and its deeper causes. The experience of making the film has had a profound impact on him: “As a physician all too aware of the limitations and narrowness of Western medicine, I have learned much from working with this plant. The Jungle Prescription took me far physically, but even further in the spiritual realm where our deepest humanity resides. The plant, and the experience with the plant, is no panacea. There are no panaceas. But as an opening to human possibility, even in the face of lifelong trauma and desperation, it offers much. Seeing people open to themselves, even temporarily, has been a teaching and an inspiration.”

The episode is found here:

In the November 9th Globe and Mail, they said this about Dr. Mate’s effort to use ayahuasca to treat addiction:

Health Canada is threatening to prosecute a Vancouver physician successfully using the Amazonian plant medicine ayahuasca to treat addiction.

In a two-page letter sent last week, Johanne Beaulieu, director of Ottawa’s Office of Controlled Substances, reminded Gabor Maté that mere possession of ayahuasca is illegal under Canada’s Controlled Drugs and Substances Act.

Unless he immediately ceased all activities relating to the substances involved, the letter warned, the RCMP would be notified.

Dr. Maté, a family practitioner who specializes in addiction, said he will reluctantly comply with the order.

“I have no intention of breaking the law,” he said in an interview. “But I hope to get permission to use it in therapeutic context. I’m surprised no one thought to talk to me before sending the letter, but I suppose someone in Ottawa is just doing their job.”

Over the past two years, Dr. Maté has administered the medicine – consumed as a thick tea – to about 150 to 200 patients, principally Vancouver-area drug addicts.

Several have since reported significant breakthroughs.

“I think Health Canada’s threat to be ridiculous and unfortunate,” said Megan Hames, 36, who was part of Dr. Maté’s trial group.

A youth worker and restaurateur, Ms. Hames said she has battled various addictions since her youth, including addictions to cocaine, benzoates, marijuana and alcohol.

“Ayahuasca saved my life,” she said. “It enabled me to look at all those dark things I buried long ago … to unleash them and the pain, so that I could move forward.”

According to Dr. Maté, “ayahuasca is not a drug in the Western sense, something you take to get rid of something. Properly used, it opens up parts of yourself that you usually have no access to. The parts of the brain that hold emotional memories come together with those parts that modulate insight and awareness, so you see past experiences in a new way.”

The natural human response to pain is to escape it, he added. “That’s the essence of addiction. Ayahuasca allows users to hold pain and not run from it.”

Used for thousands of years by indigenous populations in the Amazon basin, ayahuasca is legal in Brazil, where it forms the core of three syncretic religions, and in Peru, for traditional purposes. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2006 that ayahuasca is legal for religious purposes. And the International Narcotics Control Board has ruled that ayahuasca is not considered a controlled substance under the UN’s drug-control treaties.

In 2006, a Health Canada study found no serious health hazards to using ayahuasca; instead, it reported health promotion and spiritual benefits.

On that basis, it recommended that a special exemption be granted, allowing a small Montreal group to drink the tea in a spiritual context.

In a 2011 doctoral dissertation on Canadian ayahuasca policy, Kenneth Tupper said the Health Canada exemption marked a historic moment in Canadian drug policy and human rights – the first acknowledgment of the legitimacy of using an illegal psychoactive substance for spiritual purposes.

However, the proposed exemption was contingent on issuance of export permits from Brazil. The permits remain the subject of bilateral negotiations.

“For a controlled substance to be used in Canada, there’s a process that needed to be undergone,” Health Canada’s Ms. Beaulieu said in an interview. “We’d welcome scientists like Dr. Maté talking to us before they start their work. Our intent is not to stop research or treatment. It’s to ensure the safety of Canadians.”

In the meantime, the constituents of ayahuasca – derived from the vine and leaf of two separate Amazonian plants – remain illegal in Canada.