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He called it a hair tonic, feds called it illegal, but the name is 'ayahuasca'

In this May 6, 2018, photo, Shaman Pablo Flores pours ayahuasca into a plastic cup during a session in Nuevo Egipto, a remote village in the Peruvian Jungle. At right is Gustavo Vargas of Tampa, accused of possession of DMT, a substance found in ayahuasca. (AP Photo/Martin Mejia. Inset: Hillsborough County Jail)
Published Jul. 7, 2018

TAMPA — One afternoon in late November, security personnel at Tampa International Airport noticed something peculiar in a baggage X-ray: four one-liter bottles wrapped in plastic, each with a broken seal, holding a brown liquid with the consistency of mud.

The man who owned the bags, Gustavo Vargas, had just stepped off a flight from Panama, which originated in Colombia. Pulled from a U.S. Customs line and questioned, he first claimed they were a special hair tonic.

When federal agents pressed him, Vargas admitted the concoction was a drug, according to a federal criminal complaint. But not any kind with a familiar name.

He called it "ayahuasca" (pronounced "eye-uh-Wah-ska").

The South American brew is a mixture of two plants that contain a substance called DMT — or dimethyltryptamine — which, when ingested, causes psychedelic sensations. Native people of the Amazon basin have used it for hundreds of years as a spiritual medicine in religious ceremonies.

In the United States, DMT is illegal. But its relative scarcity in North America, and its connection to genuine religious practices, makes it difficult for the government to treat it the same as common narcotics.

"To my knowledge, there has never been a successful prosecution of an ayahuasca case in the United States," said Charles Grob, a professor of psychiatry and bio behavioral sciences at the University of California-Los Angeles.

Some who have used it describe a deeply spiritual experience, marked by colors and visions and a feeling of ascension to a higher plane of consciousness. Others describe periods of extended vomiting.

Despite the purge, Grob says there are no significant health hazards associated with ayahuasca, if it's administered responsibly.

"The people that are seeking this out, they're looking for some kind of spiritual experience or rejuvenating experience," Grob said. "They may be dealing with underlying depression or substance issues."

Indeed, some research suggests that ayahuasca could be an effective treatment for alcoholism and other addictions.

Some areas of South America in recent years have been magnets for ayahuasca tourists — people who travel from elsewhere specifically to partake in an ayahuasca experience.

A shaman, or spiritual teacher, typically presides over the ceremonies, which can incorporate traditional music.

In 1999, federal agents seized several drums of ayahuasca from a New Mexico church, which was a branch of a Brazilian religious sect. Threatened with prosecution, members of the small congregation filed a lawsuit against the government, asserting their right, under the First Amendment, to use ayahuasca in spiritual sacraments. The case eventually made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which sided with the church.

Since then, that church has received special permission from the Drug Enforcement Administration to use ayahuasca in their ceremonies.

Vargas told U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials that he bought his ayahuasca from a shaman in Colombia. He said he brought it back to the United States for a religious gathering that was to occur in January.

Vargas, 42, lives in Tampa and has dual citizenship in the United States and Colombia. He told the agents he worked for a janitorial service, making $10 an hour. The agents noted his travel history included five trips to Colombia within the prior year.

Asked how he was able to travel, given his limited financial resources, Vargas admitted that someone else paid for his airfare, according to a criminal complaint.

Agents ran the substance through field tests that are normally used to detect methamphetamine, opioids and other illegal substances. The tests yielded positive results for those drugs, but a criminal complaint notes that it is possible that the presence of DMT in the liquid could produce a false-positive for the presence of meth.

No field test exists for DMT. In any case, its illegality led agents to arrest Vargas that day. Not much happened with the case for months.

Then came a formal criminal charge: possession of DMT. That was just last month.

Vargas is free on a $50,000 bond, with orders that he is to reside with his aunt, Piedad Alvarez, in Tampa. In a phone call last week, she said her nephew didn't want to talk without first asking his attorney.

"He has some of his family there (in Colombia)," his aunt said. "It's been very hard for him because he can't pay for a lawyer."

Nicole Hardin, the federal public defender representing Vargas, did not respond to a request for comment.

In 2015, the most recent year for which complete data is available, the DEA documented 586 reports of DMT nationwide. Law enforcement officials have encountered the drug in all 50 U.S. states, according to DEA data.

"People take it for everything from headaches to hot flashes to just general bad luck," said John-Allen Gibel, a St. Petersburg yoga instructor and massage therapist who studied Amazonian spiritual traditions for three years in Peru as a shaman's apprentice. Ayahuasca is legal there.

In his time in South America, Gibel said, he used ayahuasca upwards of 150 times. Interest north of the equator is growing, he said.

"There are more and more urban enclaves where you can find it through word of mouth," Gibel said.

Even so, he cautions that the experience should only be had in a controlled setting, with an experienced shaman.

"I don't recommend the wholesale and miscellaneous use of ayahuasca," he said. "In fact, I don't recommend it for most people."

Contact Dan Sullivan at dsullivan@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3386. Follow @TimesDan.

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