I wrote about ayahuasca in my book, From Chocolate to Morphine. It is a strong psychedelic drink derived from a woody vine (Banisteriopsis caapi) found in the Amazon forest, combined with the leaves of another plant (usually Psychotria viridis). To make it, Indians pound lengths of the vine with stone, then cook them with the leaves in water for several hours, sometimes adding other plants to heighten the effect. They use the drink in traditional all-night vision-seeking rituals with shamans or in large tribal ceremonies, such as coming of age rites for adolescent boys. The vine's active component is a drug called harmine, which is not a controlled substance in the U.S., but the leaves provide another drug, DMT (dimethyltryptamine), which is illegal. DMT is responsible for the visual hallucinations that characterize the ayahuasca experience.
When you drink it, ayahuasca first causes intense vomiting and diarrhea and then a relaxed and dreamy state with visions; this effect lasts for 6 to 10 hours. Indians believe the spirit of the vine enters their bodies and enables them to see the spirits of jungle animals, especially jaguars. They also claim that it facilitates telepathic communication and foreseeing future events. Seeing visions while on ayahuasca, as with other psychedelics, depends on set and setting as much as on the drugs. Most users drink ayahuasca in ritualized ceremonies under the direction of skilled shamans or in religious rites. There are many reports of healing of both mental and physical ailments following ayahuasca experiences.
Religious use of ayahuasca is a relatively new phenomenon associated with movements like Santo Daime and UDV (Uniao do Vegetal) in Brazil. These have made some inroads in the U.S. It is not uncommon for South American shamans (or home-grown ones) to offer ayahuasca experiences for those interested.
I think ayahuasca is quite safe medically, but because it's a powerful psychoactive drug, it should be used only under the supervision of someone familiar with its effects. I do not advise using it casually or recreationally, nor should it be used in jurisdictions where it is illegal or its legality is in question. It can be psychologically risky if taken under wrong circumstances.
Andrew Weil, M.D.