ROCKY POINT, MEXICO (3TV/CBS 5) - CBS 5 Investigates looks into ayahuasca. It's a plant transformed into a tea that makes people throw up and hallucinate. It's been around for hundreds of years. Tribes in the Amazon call it medicine, but here in the United States, the tea is mostly illegal. That's not stopping people in Arizona from drinking it to improve their mental health.
We're taking you across the southern border to a place that's normally a vacation getaway in Puerto Peñasco, Mexico, also known as Rocky Point. But it's for an ayahuasca ceremony.
"Why are we here in Mexico and not the United States?" CBS 5 asked the ceremony organizer, Alexcis Lopez.
"So unfortunately in the United States, DMT, which is apart of the ayahuasca brew, is a Schedule 1 drug," said Lopez. That means it's illegal.
Lopez organizes ayahuasca retreats in Rocky Point through her church in Tucson. She partnered up with Demi, who learned how to lead ceremonies from the Amazon. Both of them told CBS 5, they've seen more people coming to them looking for answers they said traditional medicine couldn't give them.
"I think we have a lot of depression and anxiety and a lot of disconnectedness in society right now," said Lopez.
Among those people is Aldon Batiste, who medically retired from the Marines when doctors found a tumor in his head. It led to weight gain and depression.
"I didn't want to live that way," said Batiste. "I was very depressed and I didn't love myself. I met someone and they introduced me to the plant medicine."
He's here because pills never worked for him.
"There's no pill or conversation that's going to mend the brokenness inside," said Molly Latin, who battled a devastating disorder when she was running track in high school. "I struggled with an eating disorder and kind of got over-obsessed with the sport. I wanted to be fast and carried by the wind and it got detrimental to my health," added Latin.
Once the clock struck 9 p.m., the six-hour ceremony begins. It's in a living room with the lights shut off. Demi is serving every person a small cup of ayahuasca brewed tea. It's the beginning of an hours-long trip filled with song where people try to make sense of their hallucinations.
"I was embracing the little dark boy or the sad boy, the crying boy," said Latin. "I was a baby in the crib and I remember looking around and seeing mother ayahuasca," said Batiste.
Organizers told me every hallucination means something. They said the tea helps you confront your deepest and darkest fears allowing you to work through issues hidden in your subconscious.
"You don't take this medicine to escape your issues," said Lopez. "You take it to confront those issues."
These types of ceremonies are growing in popularity, according to organizers and they are concerning some doctors in the medical community. There have been reports of people going to South America to drink ayahuasca and never coming back home. "Right now, until we have a further date, I would strongly discourage you taking this," said Banner Health toxicologist Dr. Frank LoVecchio.
Dr. LoVecchio said drinking the tea is dangerous, especially for people on anti-depressants.
"Prozac, Paxil, it mixes together and it can cause a life-threatening reaction called serotonin syndrome and people die from serotonin syndrome," said LoVecchio said.
Lopez told CBS 5 Investigates they always ask if people are on anti-depressants before they're invited to a ceremony. Dr. LoVecchio said he is also concerned with the quality since there is no testing or regulations on the illegal drug. Lopez told CBS 5 Investigates the ayahuasca plant itself is legal in the U.S., but she said it becomes illegal once the plant is made into a tea, which activates the Schedule 1 drug DMT.
CBS 5 Investigates asked Lopez and Demi, "How do you know what you're giving people is safe?"
"What we give them is completely safe. It's the ayahuasca plant and it's the plant containing DMT. That's it," said Demi.
Demi would not tell CBS 5 Investigates where the tea is brewed.
"You know I can't really answer that. Yeah, I'm going to pass on that question," said Demi.
To some, it's a trend that won't last.
"It's a fad. I'd be surprised if we are talking about this in a year or two," said Dr. LoVecchio.
But these people said it's changed their lives.
"I think it's 100% helping. It's helped me change and see myself and actually love myself," said Demi.
Lopez said there is one tribe in the U.S. that is allowed to participate in the ceremony legally because it's apart of their religion. She said the tea isn't a magic pill that will fix your problems and it isn't for everyone. Right now, John Hopkins University is studying the effects of psychotherapy using plants, including ayahuasca. For their findings, click here.