Drug addiction is a major issue in the modern world with sky-high numbers for deaths due to drugs throughout the world each year. Very little in the standard medical world has provided an answer to the question of how to break a drug addiction, and recidivism rates for addicts have always remained high. New research into the medical properties of ayahuasca indicates it might be an answer in the fight against drug addiction.
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The US drug overdose issue
Some people will attribute any use of drugs to there being a drug problem. Consider that for decades, marijuana smoking was treated the same as heroin use, though today it’s clear that it doesn’t deserve that treatment. Trying to determine who has a drug issue is moot in the end, as it almost doesn’t matter. One of the ways to judge a drug issue is by the problems that come out if it, with the biggest ones being drug-related violence and deaths. So rather than worry about how many people are using drugs in a way that might be defined as problematic, let’s instead look at drug deaths to gauge the issue.
There are plenty of different national and international reporting agencies about drugs, often with different numbers coming out, though they tend to be in the same direction. It’s also hard to get full global statistics, so sometimes the best possible option is to investigate particular locations to see trends.
According to the CDC, the first three months of 2020 saw approximately 19,416 drug overdose deaths in the US alone. The same period from one year earlier had about 16,682, nearly three thousand less. In the CDC’s US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Center for Health Statistics report from October of 2020, the agency also approximated 75,500 overdose deaths between March 2019 and March 2020.
The grand majority of overdose deaths in the US are related to the opioid crisis, the massive widespread addiction to synthetic opiate drugs which has been increasing to incredible heights, particularly because of over-prescription, and the inclusion of new drugs like OxyContin and fentanyl. Even the CDC itself says the initial wave of the opioid epidemic started “with increased prescribing of opioids in the 1990s, with overdose deaths involving prescription opioids (natural and semi-synthetic opioids and methadone) increasing since at least 1999.” The CDC goes on to say that the second wave began in 2010 and was related to heroin overdoses, and that the third wave starting in 2013 with an increase in synthetic non-prescription opioid use.
The CDC likes to claim this is related to illicit fentanyl, but this undermines the fact that while the CDC also likes to claim a decrease in prescribing rates in 2019, this decrease still amounts to over 153 million opioid prescriptions doled out that year at an average rate of 46.7 prescriptions per 100 people.
To be clear, when going through the numbers for specific counties, also put out by the CDC, there are actually plenty of individual counties where there were over 100 prescriptions written per 100 people. So, I think it suffices to say that any recent issues with opioid deaths are just as much at the hands of pharmaceutical companies (and the US governmental agencies that allow this to happen) as the illicit market that sprouted from this pharmaceutical one. Regardless of who is responsible, this is now the situation.
If it was only about opiates, that would be problem enough, but it’s not. According to Statistica, regarding US deaths related to cocaine poisoning from 2009-2019, the number has gone up from approximately 3,822 deaths in 2009 to about 15,883 in 2019. This, of course, does show a large increase that cannot be attributed to pharmaceutical companies at all. It also brings up the question of how much these deaths are related to additives rather than cocaine itself, as the drug is often cut with other drugs like methamphetamine.
Drug overdose issues worldwide
Drug addiction is hardly a US invention (even if the US has done well to dominate the field). Take this article from December 2020 from the BBC concerning Scotland. According to the article, Scotland is actually the epicenter of the European drug crisis with the most deaths on average in Europe. The article stipulates the issue with underreporting in some countries, and makes the statement that of reported numbers, Scotland is highest. The 2018 reports had already put the drug issue as a public emergency, with 2019 numbers coming out late due to corona and other issues. The 2019 numbers show a 6% rise to 1,264 deaths.
If this number sounds small, consider that the population of Scotland is approximately 5,463,300, which brings the death rate to .023%. That’s actually slightly higher than the US! There were about 75,500 deaths from March to March, 2018 to 2019, and approximately 330 million people in the US, making for an overdose rate of .022%. While Scotland also attributes the majority of overdoses to opiates, it registered a growing amount of benzodiazepine overdoses, and multi-drug overdoses as well.
Then there’s Canada, where in three months of 2020, April-June, there were 1,628 opioid-related deaths. This is a 54% increase from the same months in 2019, and a 58% increase from January-March of the same year. If we were to take that number and multiply by four to get a rough yearly estimate for a year at those rates, we’re looking at 6,512 deaths out of a population of about 37,590,000, or .017%. From January to June 2020, 86% of overdose deaths in Canada happened in British Colombia. 75% of overdose deaths in general in Canada in that same time period were related to fentanyl.
Much like with Scotland pointing out multiple drugs used in overdose scenarios, it was also found in Canada that 52% of accidental overdoses involving opiates, also involved a stimulant. Between January to June of 2020, 70% of deaths related to stimulants involved cocaine, while 48% involved methamphetamines. In that same time period, 84% of the deaths related to stimulants, also involved an opiate.
In a place like Australia, which as of yet hasn’t been hit as hard, the 2018 drug-related overdose death toll was 1,740 out of a country of approximately 25.2 million people that year, making for a rate of .0069. This is way lower than the other countries mentioned, but it should be noted that 2/3 of these over-doses were related to opiates. However, when looking at the drug class that showed up most often – whether by itself or in combination – it was not opiates, but benzodiazepines. According to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, “Over the past decade, drug-induced deaths were more likely to be due to prescription drugs than illegal drugs, and there has been a substantial rise in the number of deaths with a prescription drug present.”
On a broader scale, according to OurWorldInData, which uses the UN’s Global Burden of Disease report, over 750,000 deaths worldwide were attributed to illicit drugs in 2017. And this with underreporting from many countries. As a comparison, this number is nearly twice the global homicide rate which sits at about 400,000, although this number is also likely to be way off.
Of course, just to mess with those numbers a bit, it’s also estimated that approximately three million deaths a year are attributable to alcohol use. This encompasses more than just overdoses, but is highly significant in that alcohol is considered a leading risk factor for early death and disability for those 15-49, and is responsible for as much as 10% of deaths in this age group. This makes the opioid epidemic look like nothing. Yet we barely talk about it at all.
What is ayahuasca?
Standard methods of drug addiction therapy have not proven terribly effective. One of the ways we know this is by the sheer number of people with addictions, which indicates new cases being added with few being deleted. There also wouldn’t be a massive market for addiction medicine specialists, rehab centers, or drug maintenance if these things were not a part of an expansive field that also brings in a lot of money.
So, if you’re reading a report telling you that talk therapy, rehab centers, and group counseling are useful, consider that the addiction rehab industry was worth approximately $42 billion in the US alone last year, and is growing quickly. Does it really sound like these methods are working, or just working to bring in money?
And this brings us to medical psychedelics, and the use of ayahuasca. Though the background story of ayahuasca is a bit hazy, it has been used plenty both in history and today, and has been reviewed in medical testing. Ayahuasca is a tea made from the combination of two plants: Psychotria viridis and the Banisteriopsis caapi vine.
Though both plants have their own effects, when put together the DMT from the former and the beta-carbolines in the latter (also known as MAO inhibitors, which stop the DMT from being broken down), trigger a powerful psychoactive response. Though the use of ayahuasca might not match all the stories told at ayahuasca retreats, it was certainly used in different places in history. In today’s world, the user ingests the tea, and has a hallucinogenic experience, often with the help of a guide.
So, how is ayahuasca useful in the fight against drug addiction?
Ayahuasca in the fight against drug addiction
Ayahuasca is not the first psychedelic to be looked at for addiction, as many studies were performed on LSD for alcoholism last century. The best way to get an idea of how ayahuasca can be used for drug addiction, is to see how it performs in medical testing. The following is a list of general research related to ayahuasca for drug addiction:
- In 2013, the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) published this study about ayahuasca-assisted therapy for problematic drug addiction, in rural British Colombia. The results found were that: “…participants may have experienced positive psychological and behavioral changes in response to this therapeutic approach, and that more rigorous research of ayahuasca-assisted therapy for problematic substance use is warranted.”
- In Chapter six of Ayahuasca and the Treatment of Drug Addiction, from 2014, the authors state that more systematic studies must be done with improved methodology, but that long term studies have shown the ability to discontinue drugs among users in Brazil, and that therapy centers using ayahuasca claim to have higher success rates.
- In the 2019 systematic review: Ayahuasca: Psychological and Physiologic Effects, Pharmacology and Potential Uses in Addiction and Mental Illness, the study authors found that “Research into medical use of ayahuasca indicates potential as a treatment in addictions, depression and anxiety , with a variety of other possible medical uses, though these require more research”
- In the book Psychedelic Medicine by Dr. Jacques Mabit, there is a section called ‘Ayahuasca in the treatment of Addictions’, and not only does Mabit make the case for ayahuasca use for addiction therapy, but he points out regarding the two plants used to make the tea, “This specific symbiotic action, which modern science identified just a few decades ago, has been empirically known for at least 3000 years by the Indigenous groups of the western Amazon, according to archaeological evidence (Naranjo P., 1983)”, reminding us that while these topics are fought over in modern medicine today, ancient populations seemed to understand them just fine.
That there is a massive drug problem in the world is by now a fact, so long as a person considers unnecessary deaths related to drug use as a problem. This is seen in overdose deaths worldwide, with growing issues related to opiates, and a long-standing issue with alcohol.
As the drug-addiction therapy industry grows exponentially, signaling major issues with both over-prescription and recidivism, new avenues should be explored to get people the help they need. In light of cannabis making its way from ‘hated’ to a ‘medical darling’, its no surprise that psychedelics are following suit. With a host of new research, and plenty of historical evidence, ayahuasca is being looked at as the new weapon in the fight against drug addiction. With the current and growing dilemma with opiates, this is one of the most promising things to come along.
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