If the doors of perception were cleansed, everything would appear to man as it is, infinite. —William Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell
|Albion. Painting by William Blake|
Most of us have the good fortune to possess a few sacred recollections—memories of some passing moments upon a mountain, in a forest, or fishing from a giant lake.Whatever the particular character of our memory, these times loom large in consciousness for in these brief pauses we felt God.Or so we thought.The experience, stripped of theology or doctrine, is ineffable—we know merely that colors shone in unearthly hues and that the vivid contrast around, above, and beneath took on a razor sharp sheen.Most important of all is the feeling—that exceptionally rare sensation—that we are not separated from our surroundings, not caught up in our typical turmoil, but simply immersed into the cosmos at large.Then we wish well to all that is.At last, we feel—we know—we are at home.These intriguing moments are not so different from those induced by the hallucinogens.
Set and Setting
How do these changes occur?To simplify the matter, we are dealing with two variables: set and setting.Dr. Andrew Weil sums it up concisely: “Set is a person’s expectations of what a drug will do to him, considered in the context of his whole personality.Setting is the environment, both physical and social, in which a drug is taken.”
The brain’s chemistry is more intricately linked to the environment than most other organs.The purpose of the nervous system is to monitor and react to the environment.By constantly monitoring and reacting to the environment, the nervous system attempts to keep the organism alive.The speed with which a person will tug his hand away from a hot surface reflects the dazzling electro-chemistry at work in the human animal.The downside of this adaptation is a certain amount of instability.At times, we definitely ‘lose control.’Some environmental factor—a rude remark, a driving offense, a child’s tantrum—sets us off and we react in spite of our best intentions and values.We also know that some people are more prone to lose control than others.This would be considered their ‘set.’They are generally anxious, angry, unpredictable people.Others we know to be ‘rock solid;’ these people are rather predictable and seem quite ‘stable.’The ‘setting’ would be the event and its context.Road rage is a good example.Usually no single driving offense sets a person off.The combination of frustrating traffic, hunger, and the incident together may turn even the meek into the ferocious—such is the setting.
Accessing the Divine Within
Some researchers prefer the term entheogen (“generating the divine within”) when discussing many of the substances outlined below.This august sounding phrase entitles these drugs a bit more respect than they have previously received. Why accord these drugs such respect?As we’ll discuss, the history of many of these substances is not one of abuse and recreation, as we have seen in our own recent times.The history of entheogens finds them as essential sacraments in a variety of ancient religious traditions.In discussing these substances, we are handling artifacts akin to crucifixes and idols—though far more powerful in the experience they typically impart.To decry these items as illicit, mind-bending drugs is to mistake their cultural importance and impose a modern stereotype upon ancient practices.Furthermore, the near universality of entheogen usage suggests something remarkable about man’s essential nature.In his book, The Natural Mind, Dr. Weil likens man’s pursuit of these substances to a basic instinct: “…the desire to alter consciousness periodically is an innate, normal drive analogous to hunger or the sexual drive.”
|Peyote Ceremony in the Sacred Land of Wirikuta. Painting by Maximino Rentería de la Cruz|
Some may scoff: how can drugs create a truly mystical experience? In his study, Cleansing the Doors of Perception: The Religious Significance of Entheogenic Plants and Chemicals, Huston Smith voices a similar wonder and disbelief in recollecting his own drug-induced religious experience: “How could what felt like an epochal change in my life have been crowded into a few hours and occasioned by a chemical?”
Religious leaders in ancient times voiced no such protest.The animistic worldview held that all animals, plants, and objects possessed a ‘spirituality.’With this framework in place, the effects of a psychoactive plant would be recognized as an assimilation of its spiritual power.In this understanding, nothing ‘material’ was affecting any other material thing (i.e. chemicals affecting the brain).In the animist’s world, the spiritual in the plant moved the spiritual in the man.We moderns have so much trouble accepting psychoactive plants as conveying ‘spiritual’ experiences because we know, for a fact, that such plants work because of the peculiar chemicals they possess.We can even replicate these specific chemicals, in a laboratory, and be done with the plant altogether.
Albert Hofmann, for instance, accomplished this in 1938 when he synthesized LSD-25 from a type of molecule present in the ergot fungus. Hofmann later studied some of the traditional ‘medicine’ plants of the great Central American cultures.As he describes: “When we analyzed them we arrived at an unexpected result: these ancient drugs that we are apt to call magical and the Indians consider divine, contained as their psychoactive principles some of our already familiar ergot alkaloids.”
When the…philosophical authority on mysticism, W.T. Stace, was asked whether the drug experience is similar to the mystical experience, he answered, ‘It’s not a matter of its being similar to mystical experience; it is mystical experience.’
“Gratuitous grace” is an appropriate theological term, because the psychedelic (literally ‘mind manifesting’) mystical experience can lead to a profound sense of inspiration, reverential awe, and humility, perhaps partially as a result of the realization that the experience is a gift and not particularly earned or deserved.
It is clearly society, not chemistry, that is the variable, since the same or chemically similar drugs can function so differently in different cultural situations, or be venerated over centuries as sacred, benign, and culturally integrative in some contexts but regarded in others as inherently so evil and dangerous that their very possession constitutes a serious crime.
The setting—the environment—yields our cherished moments as much as any other factor.If God truly exists, he certainly is predictable in the times and places he chooses to send his Holy Spirit to illuminate mortal minds.After all, what mystic would talk of God without his cave, mountaintop, or tranquilizing sunset?
What mystic has no method?
I have attended a number of psychological conferences dealing with this whole problem of the difference between the mystical experience and the psychological crack-up.The difference is that the one who cracks up is drowning in the water in which the mystic swims.
Shamanism and Ecstasy Revisited
There can be little doubt that the use of the more powerful hallucinogens tends to strongly reinforce a belief in the reality of the supernatural world and in the existence of a disembodied soul or souls.An intriguing possibility is that hallucinogenic experiences may have also played a role in the innovation of such beliefs.
There are numerous ways in which travel in the spirit realm was envisaged.…we have seen repeatedly…that spirit flight is the preeminent form.It is the one most emphasized throughout shamanism worldwide: the allusions to flight, particularly through the medium of bird imagery, can be found in rock art, geoglyphs, in effigy mounds, on a shaman’s robes, in ceremonial dancing and costume, in ritual paraphernalia, in shamanic gestural symbolism (such as the flapping of the arms atop ritual poles), and in the legends concerning shamans…
|Woodcut of medieval witches. Source R. Decker|
The herbs featured in this pagan tradition included deadly nightshade (Atropa belladonna), henbane (Hyoscyamus), mandrake (Mandragora), and thorn apple (Datura). In addition to being powerful hallucinogens, these plants are known to be quite toxic. Wicca’s successful usage of this assortment implied a sophisticated knowledge of plants reminiscent of shamanism. Twentieth century scholars, recreating some of the Medieval witches’ ‘flying ointments’ note the very kind of psychological sensations of flight recounted in the Medieval chronicles. Schenk experimented with henbane and reported the following experience:
The frightening certainty that my end was near through the dissolution of my body was counterbalanced by animal joy in flight. I soared where my hallucinations—the clouds, the lowering sky, herds of beasts, falling leaves which were quite unlike any ordinary leaves, billowing streamers of steam and rivers of molten metal—were swirling along.
Along with our culture in general, the character of our religious thinking has changed dramatically over time. Recent, institutionalized religions obtain their theologies from authority, an authority based almost entirely on scripture and its interpretation. Ancient religion, based in a totally illiterate culture, relied upon the authority of direct experience. Harner touches upon this: “We of a literate civilization may get both our religion and our religious proofs from books; persons in non-literate societies often rely upon direct confrontation with the supernatural for evidence of religious reality.”
As arbiters of ‘supernatural evidence’ entheogens were perhaps as important in their time as Bibles and sacred writings in our own.
Soma and the Origins of Hinduism
The history of the search for Soma is, properly the history of Vedic studies in general, as the Soma sacrifice was the focal point of the Vedic religion. Indeed, if one accepts the point of view that the whole of Indian mystical practice from the Upanisads through the more mechanical methods of yoga is merely an attempt to recapture the vision granted by the Soma plant, then the nature of that vision—and of the plant—underlies the whole of Indian religion, and everything of a mystical nature within that religion is pertinent to the identity of the plant. —Wendy Doniger, Soma: The Divine Mushroom of Immortality
|Amanita muscaria. Photo by H. Crisp|
Amanita muscaria was the favored mushroom of Siberian shamans from time immemorial.The first witnesses to meet these people noted the Siberians’ appreciation of the mushrooms.They also chronicled an even more eccentric behavior.Because the cold climate often precludes the growth of Amanita muscaria, they would become scarce and extremely valuable during the winter.The poorer of the Siberians would hungrily await outside the wealthier ones’ tents after a mushroom session had begun.When the mushroom-eaters came out to urinate, their attendants would catch their steaming piss in a bowl and lap it down!Because the psychoactive chemicals (muscimole and ibotenic acid) leave the body but partially metabolized, one could achieve a powerful a state of intoxication from the chemical-laden urine.
One passage in the Rig Veda says of Soma: “Like a serpent he creeps out of his old skin.”
Few metaphors so exactly capture the transition from fungal puffball, just breaking the surface of the soil, into sprouting mushroom, whose cap breaks free and perches over its “single-footed” stipe (another of the Rig Veda’s tropes).One of the most intriguing references to Soma is the following: “Acting in concert, those charged with the Office, richly gifted, do full honor to Soma.The swollen men piss the flowing Soma.”
This surely refers to the knowledge that the urine of those who ate fly-agaric remains psychoactively potent.
The Mysteries of Eleusis
The ancient testimony about Eleusis is unanimous and unambiguous. Eleusis was the supreme experience in an initiate’s life.It was both physical and mystical: trembling, vertigo, cold sweat, and then a sight that made all previous seeing seem like blindness, a sense of awe and wonder at a brilliance that caused a profound silence since what had just been seen and felt could never be communicated: words are unequal to the task.Those symptoms are unmistakably the experience induced by an hallucinogen. —Wasson, Hofmann, Ruck,The Road to Eleusis
The mythological backdrop of the mystery is unrevealing.It concerns the goddess Demeter, an ancient mother goddess credited with the bestowal of grain and agriculture upon mankind, and her daughter, the goddess Persephone.Persephone had been spirited away by Hades, god of the underworld, to become his Queen.In consequence, Demeter wailed as she searched about for her stolen daughter.She left her important duties behind.The Earth became arid and would no longer support man.Zeus stepped in and Hades conceded to release Persephone though by cleverness he caused it so that Persephone resided with her mother for part of the year and with him, in the Underworld, for the other part.This myth explained the rhythms of nature, the cycles of growth and harvest, life and death.
|Demeter, goddess of grain|
The rituals performed in the mysteries revolved around these mythological themes but were not limited to them.Indeed, the recounting of a myth hardly explains the affect the mysteries had on its initiates.Of the mysteries, Cicero wrote:“…we have learned from them the beginnings of life, and have gained the power not only to live happily, but also to die with a better hope.”
And just as Plato had the most significant things to say about the soul, so does he reveal the most about the mysteries:
Beauty it was ours to see in all its brightness in those days when, amidst that happy company, we beheld with our eyes that blessed vision, ourselves in the train of Zeus, others following some other god; then were we all initiated into that mystery which is rightly accounted blessed beyond all others; whole and unblemished were we that did celebrate it, untouched by the evils that awaited us in days to come; whole and unblemished likewise, free from all alloy, steadfast and blissful were the spectacles on which we gazed in the moment of final revelation; pure was the light that shone around us, and pure were we, without taint of that prison house which now we are encompassed withal, and call a body, fast bound therein as an oyster in its shell.
Plutarch relates the process of dying to a mystery initiation.
Of death, he writes:
Numenius felt that Plutarch had betrayed the secret of Eleusis in writing this.But what did he reveal?The mystery was nothing less than a beatific vision, a mystical apprehension of the divine order of things.As Burkert notes: “In religious terms, mysteries provide an immediate encounter with the divine.”
And that logician of logicians, Aristotle, speaking out of character: “… is said to have used the pointed antithesis that at the final stage of mysteries there should be no more ‘learning’ but ‘experiencing’, and a change in the state of mind.”
For some days before initiation, a fast was required.In fact, entrance to the Telesterion, the great hall where the mysteries occurred, was only granted after one recited: “…I have fasted, I have drunk the kykeon.”
But it is the latter part of this ‘access code’ that truly reveals the secrets of the mysteries—the kykeon.The kykeon was a special beverage prepared just before entrance to the Telesterion.It consisted of water, barley, and mint.To chemists and non-chemists alike this seems odd; none of these are hallucinogens.It is the opinion of Wasson, Hofmann, and Ruck that there was ‘something in the water.’This something came from a fungus that might grow on barley.It is none other than the ergot fungus, the same from which Hofmann derived LSD-25 in 1938.The water-soluble ergot alkaloids created the state of mind that sanctified the mysteries.
An important clue lies in the fact that the kykeon was a measured volume of drink.One could not get in after a mere sip: “…a definite dose had to be taken.The dose in that case would have been the exact quantity contained in the small pots carried in the hands of the men in the procession.”
That the kykeon actually possessed entheogenic properties seems beyond doubt.In the words of one initiate: “I came out of the mystery hall feeling like a stranger to myself.”
The kykeon delivered a state of ecstasy to the initiates.
They cause sympathy of the souls with the ritual in a way that is unintelligible to us, and divine, so that some of the initiates are stricken with panic, being filled with divine awe; others assimilate themselves to the holy symbols, leave their own identity, become at home with the gods, and experience divine possession.
Burkert describes the actual rites as:“…patterned by antithesis, moving between the extremes of terror and happiness, darkness and light.”
This, indeed, sounds like maximum effect: one was made terribly anxious and frightened before experiencing the vision.The release and joy of the actual experience then appeared all the more ‘saving;’ it transformed the bad trip into the good.In juxtaposition, deliverance was complete.The fear of death had been replaced with ecstatic consciousness and hope for the hereafter.
As your body lies there…your soul is free, loses all sense of time, alert as it never was before, living an eternity in a night, seeing infinity in a grain of sand.What you have seen and heard is cut as with a burin in your memory, never to be effaced.At last you know what the ineffable is, and what ecstasy means.Ecstasy!The mind harks back to the origin of that word.For the Greeks ekstasis meant the flight of the soul from the body.I am certain that this word came into being to describe the effect of the Mystery of Eleusis.
They [the mysteries] were thought to ‘hold the entire human race together,’ not only because people continued, no doubt, to come from every corner of the Earth to be initiated…but also because the Mysteries touched on something that was common to all men.They were connected not only with Athenian and Greek existence but with human existence in general.
|Cannabis sativa. Photo by H. Zell|
The actual plant probably came from the Russian steppes near Eastern Europe, the homeland of the Indo-European culture.It still grows wild in these areas today.All the Indo-European-based languages possess a term for marijuana (cannabis/hemp) testifying to the deep influence of this plant.
The wanderlust of the Indo-Europeans spread their culture, including marijuana use and cultivation, across the mid-latitudes all the way to Asia and particularly throughout the Indian subcontinent.
Besides its utilitarian uses, the plant was surely appreciated by the ancients for its psychoactivity.Archeological evidence suggests marijuana usage in ancient Europe, at least before the Bronze Age.Its medicinal usage in China stretches beyond recorded history but was first chronicled in a pharmacopoeia of the emperor Shen Nung in 2737 B.C.E.
Herodotus, the wandering Greek historian of the fifth century B.C.E. relates cannabis usage by the Scythians, a northern tribe that bordered Ancient Greece:
They have hemp growing in their country, very like flax, save that the hemp is by much the thicker and taller…The Scythians then take the seed of this hemp and…they throw it on the red-hot stones; and, being so thrown, it smoulders and sends forth so much steam that no Greek vapour-bath could surpass it.The Scythians howl in their joy at the vapour-bath.
The religious uses of marijuana occur mainly in India. Different preparations of the plant include the weakest, bhang, the more potent ganja, and the hashish-like charas.A marijuana drink made from bhang has long been prized and some children’s candies even include a bit of the substance.Marijuana is a staple of the wandering holy men, the sannyasi, who mimic the god Shiva, another of the plant’s devotees.
In 12th century Persia, followers of Hashishin ibn-al Sabbah, the so-called hashishin, became a feared militant sect of Islamic mysticism.The two words, hashish and assassin, derive from this notorious group.They targeted various opponents and Christian Crusaders for summary execution.Cannabis was part of the reward for their services.As preparation during their commando training, the novice hashishin were given marijuana as a “foretaste of Paradise” so that they might not fear danger and death.
There is some evidence that European usage began, in small scale, during the Crusades.
More commonly, it is thought that the reintroduction of marijuana to European culture resulted from Napoleon’s massive Egyptian campaign.Napoleon’s advancement of Enlightenment principles included the importation of teams of scholars to study and journal the flora and fauna of Egypt as he attempted (but failed) to subdue the country.Whether from these scientific observations or from the French soldiers’ importation of the likable substance, European doctors began experimenting with marijuana soon thereafter.Of course, as the pattern appears again and again, this medical usage quickly spread to less academic quarters.
The third phase…is something beyond description…it is complete happiness.There is nothing whirling and tumultuous about it.It is a calm and placid beatitude.Every philosophical problem is resolved.Every difficult question that presents a point of contention for theologians, and brings despair to thoughtful men, becomes clear and transparent.Every contradiction is reconciled.Man has surpassed the gods.
The U.S. experience with marijuana began quite early.The American Colonies did an enormous amount of hemp farming.The bustling naval activity of the Colonial period made rope and sailcloth (also woven from hemp) an essential trade commodity.Washington and Jefferson both attempted hemp farming but ceased their operations due to the labor-intensive nature of the crop.
No Americans of that era, though, seem to have discovered hemp’s psychoactive features.
The exploration of marijuana as a ‘drug’ in the United States did not occur until the twentieth century.Marijuana, or reefer, smoking spread throughout African-American populations originally from foreign influences in and around the port of New Orleans around the 1920s.
Its association with the burgeoning music called jazz provided it a quick medium to spread from South to North and East to West.Since it was largely a black drug in these days, early legislation against it expressed the typical fears and prejudices of the time.The ‘reefer madness’ campaigns of the 1940s and 1950s held that its use led to degenerate and violent acts, an unlikely interpretation given marijuana’s blissful, tranquilizing effects.By the 1950s jazz had deeply shaped the Beatnik subculture.They extolled the novel drug.From the beatniks, marijuana spread into a largely white population and set the stage for the hippie-overrun 1960s.Used both by Vietnam protesters and GIs alike, marijuana use peaked in the late 1960s and early 1970s and spread throughout all sectors of society.
Today, marijuana use is commonplace and quasi-tolerated both in the United States and abroad.In 1997, almost 50% of those between the ages of 26 and 34 claimed prior usage of marijuana.
The drug’s popularity has created an insoluble problem for law enforcement agencies.Among the greatest concerns of such agencies is that marijuana leads to experimentation with other drugs.After all, once an individual has broken both the social stigma and federal laws concerning drug regulation and found a source to provide at least one type of drug, the barriers to further experimentation are less imposing; as such, marijuana is termed a ‘Gateway Drug.’
Besides its history in popular culture, marijuana possesses a long history as a therapeutic medicine.The role of cannabis in numerous medical traditions (including Hindu Ayurveda) stretches far back in time.Even today, marijuana-derived substances possess medical import in the most advanced therapies of Western medicine.Because of marijuana’s ability to reduce eye pressure, it has been used as a glaucoma drug.Marijuana’s ability to calm both nausea and anxiety elect it an important role in cancer treatment.These characteristics along with its analgesic properties make it an ideal adjunct to chemotherapy.
Despite its historical and medicinal importance, marijuana is considered a social scourge by those who oppose it.In the United States alone almost two million pounds of marijuana are confiscated by federal authorities every year (at an enormous cost of life and money) in an effort to check its widespread usage.
This represents but a fraction of the marijuana consumed each year.One might logically infer a substance’s danger by the zeal with which authorities seek to control it.On this measurement alone, one would conclude marijuana to be a lethal drug.The most recent research does not support this fear.
Marijuana, while not without its risks and dangers (especially to lung tissue, when smoked), poses less inherent risk than many other substances that suffer no such restriction.Marijuana exhibits relatively low potential for dependence; some data suggests it to be about half as addictive as alcohol.
The marijuana plant was classified by the taxonomist Linnaeus in the eighteenth century.He labeled it cannabis sativa.Since Linnaeus controversy has arisen about the number of species in existence.Some believe that three distinct species of cannabis exist: sativa, indica, and ruderalis.
Others feel that the latter two ‘species’ are actually just different breeds of the cannabis sativa plant.
The cannabis indica plant is squatter than the towering sativa; this feature has made it preferable for illegal production with its typical space constraints.
The marijuana plant contains a number of unique substances.These chemicals are called cannabinoids.Pharmacologically, the most active cannabinoid is THC (delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol).
In addition to this, a number of other cannabinoids (such as cannabidiol) likely potentiate THC’s metabolism or otherwise possess their own psychoactive properties.
The manner of marijuana delivery may modify these chemicals to make them more potent.
Recent work has demonstrated the presence of at least two cannabinoid receptors in the human body.Through these sites the drug exerts its effect.The main cannabinoid receptor, the CB1 receptor, is the only known cannabinoid receptor in the central nervous system.These sites are “extraordinarily abundant in the brain” in the words of one researcher.
Such abundance suggests their importance in the regulation of many neural processes.The other cannabinoid receptor, CB2, well represented in cells of the immune system, is poorly understood at this time.As a class, cannabinoid receptors show up in many different species, including invertebrates:
The evolutionary history of vertebrates and invertebrates diverged more than 500 million years ago, so cannabinoid receptors appear to have been conserved throughout evolution at least this long.This suggests that they serve an important and basic function in animal physiology.In general, cannabinoid receptor molecules are similar among different species.Thus, cannabinoid receptors likely fill many similar functions in a broad range of animals, including humans.
At least one marijuana-like neurotransmitter has been discovered.This substance, labeled anandamide (from Sanskrit ananda—bliss), produces quasi-marijuana effects in laboratory animals.Anandamide is produced within the human brain and binds to the cannabinoid receptors in many separate regions of the brain.
Anandamide concentrations run high in the nucleus accumbens, part of the dopaminergic ‘reward pathway.’ The reward system pleasurably reinforces important animal behaviors like feeding and sex.The arousal of a superhuman appetite when using marijuana probably relates to the similarity of the cannabinoids to natural reward chemicals.
The cannabinoids are generally inhibitory neurotransmitters and their selective binding preference in areas of movement and memory help to explain the difficulties many users have with those two functions when under the influence.
The cannabinoids’ augmentation of dopamine release (especially in the mesolimbic tracts) indicates their ability to induce euphoria.However, the fact that they accomplish this dopamine release in a different manner than other drugs of abuse may explain marijuana’s tendency to be less addictive.
More than any other restricted drug, marijuana incites social commentary.A number of proponents argue for its legalization.The extensive usage of marijuana by all types of people makes its prohibition more questionable than other restricted drugs.Indeed, some researchers have likened the current state of irrational prohibition, chemical loyalty oaths (mandatory drug testing), and the generally anathema status of marijuana to a form of “psychopharmacological McCarthyism.”
As a “Gateway Drug,” it is argued that marijuana use leads to experimentation with other, more destructive types of controlled substances.On sheer logical grounds, this alone is not a legitimate argument; it is a judgment of guilt by association.For instance, one could note a much higher correlation between gun procurement and crimes of violence yet this has not caused a federal crackdown on firearms.There is nothing inherent to marijuana, nothing that clings to it as a causal agent, that leads to further drug experimentation. Alcohol, nicotine, and coffee are as psychoactive as marijuana, in differing fashions, and yet they are not considered to be Gateway Drugs.The chemical induction of alternate states of consciousness by any of these substances does not necessitate further experimentation—again no causative link exists between these agents and subsequent drug experimentation.The anthropologist Weston LaBarre, with his typically ironical criticism, answers this confusion of social policy: “Despite its much-proved danger, we accept alcohol blandly, but rabidly reject marihuana for its as yet unproved dire danger, since unknown euphoriants must surely be more dangerous than known ones.”
|St. Albert and the LSD Revelation Revolution. Painting by Alex Grey|
LSD, whose full name is lysergic acid diethylamide (in German, Lyserg-säure-diäthylamid), was born in 1938 in a Sandoz pharmaceutical lab in Basle, Switzerland.Its father, Albert Hofmann, had been systematically studying the chemistry of the ergot fungus for some time.
For centuries, lore about ergot had bestowed upon it properties favorable in childbearing.It was also the responsible agent in St. Anthony’s Fire, a periodic plague during the Middle Ages that inflicted gangrene and madness on those who consumed ergot-infected grains.By synthesizing ergot’s therapeutic agents, Sandoz hoped to avoid its less favorable qualities.Hofmann satisfied them and derived some medicines from variations on the basic nucleus of an ergot alkaloid, lysergic acid.From these variations, Sandoz patented and produced pharmaceuticals that aided childbirth (reducing contraction time) and assisted in senility and headache.When Hofmann first synthesized his 25th variation of lysergic acid in 1938, he had expected to produce a circulatory and respiratory stimulant.The chemical structure of LSD-25 resembled a well-known agent of that type.The Sandoz pharmacology department noted LSD-25 to be about 70% as effective as another ergot substance for the induction of contractions.They also observed a certain restlessness in their research animals—but who’s to judge when or why an animal is grumpy?Any other hoped for benefits were not found.They decided to shelf LSD-25 as a redundancy at best.For the next five years, Hofmann conducted fruitful research with the ergot alkaloids but a lingering presentiment about the twenty-fifth variation of LSD kept nagging at him.In 1943, he decided to produce a fresh batch for further testing just to see if they had overlooked anything back in 1938.On Friday April 16, 1943, while a massive war raged all over Europe and the South Pacific (North Africa had only just been won by the Allies), Dr. Hofmann, in neutral Switzerland, underwent a bizarre experience.He sent the following report to his superior:
…I was forced to interrupt my work in the laboratory in the middle of the afternoon and proceed home, being affected by a remarkable restlessness, combined with a slight dizziness.At home I lay down and sank into a not unpleasant intoxicated-like condition, characterized by an extremely stimulated imagination.In a dreamlike state, with eyes closed (I found the daylight to be unpleasantly glaring), I perceived an uninterrupted stream of fantastic pictures, extraordinary shapes with intense, kaleidoscopic play of colors.After some two hours this condition faded away.
Even worse than these demonic transformations of the outer world, were the alterations that I perceived in myself, in my inner being.Every exertion of my will, every attempt to put an end to the disintegration of the outer world and the dissolution of my ego, seemed to be wasted effort.A demon had invaded me, had taken possession of my body, mind, and soul.I jumped up and screamed, trying to free myself from him, but then sank down again and lay helpless on the sofa.The substance, with which I had wanted to experiment, had vanquished me.It was the demon that scornfully triumphed over my will.I was seized by the dreadful fear of going insane.I was taken to another world, another place, another time.My body seemed to be without sensation, lifeless, strange.Was I dying?Was this the transition?At times I believed myself to be outside my body, and then perceived clearly, as an outside observer, the complete tragedy of my situation.
… [it] radically changed both my personal and professional life.I experienced an extraordinary encounter with my unconscious, and this experience instantly overshadowed all my previous interest in Freudian psychoanalysis.I was treated to a fantastic display of colorful visions, some abstract and geometrical, others filled with symbolic meaning.I felt an array of emotions of an intensity I had never dreamed possible…I emerged from this experience moved to the core.
The early history of the C.I.A. is peppered with the search for effective mind control agents.The importance of separating truth from lie became a driving force in spy technique.An abundance of double-agents and adepts at disinformation had to be sifted from genuine intelligence gatherers. The C.I.A. settled on a powerful form of marijuana as their best truth serum, for a while.
In 1953, the head of the C.I.A., Allen Dulles, approved the MKULTRA program.This program aimed, “…to investigate whether and how it was possible to modify an individual’s behavior by covert means,” in the words of the project’s chief chemist, Sid Gottlieb.
LSD was among the project’s top concerns.They were especially impressed by its potency.Only an infinitesimal amount was necessary to produce a major ‘trip.’As Marks notes in his book The Search for the “Manchurian Candidate”: “A two-suiter suitcase could hold enough LSD to turn on every man, woman, and child in the United States.”
The C.I.A. imagined tainting a city’s water supply to diminish the opponents’ ability to defend themselves in time of war.Before the C.I.A. could really proceed in their use of LSD they had to know more about it.Using the Josiah Macy, Jr. Foundation and the Geschickter Fund for Medical Research as go-betweens, the C.I.A. funded dozens of LSD research projects at hospitals and universities across the country.U.S. citizens (and a few Canadians) would teach the C.I.A. all about LSD’s capabilities.
One of the most insidious set of experiments was performed in Lexington, Kentucky at the Federal Addiction Research Center.The ‘volunteers,’ who were addict inmates at the Lexington facility, were promised use of their preferred drug (heroin, morphine) for participation in the LSD experiments.In one study, seven men were kept on LSD for 77 days.Because of LSD’s ability to produce tolerance, these subjects were routinely taking triple and quadruple doses by the end of the period.
Sandoz was the only company that produced LSD through the early 1950s. Based in neutral Switzerland, the U.S. expected no loyalty from the pharmaceutical company.Fearing they might sell large amounts of LSD to the Soviets, the C.I.A. sent two agents and $240,000 to purchase all of the firm’s LSD stock.The President of Sandoz informed the agents that since LSD’s discovery the firm had produced a total of just 40 grams.He made a deal to supply the C.I.A. with 100 grams weekly and to keep them informed of all LSD orders.Nevertheless, the C.I.A. was much assured when an American firm, Eli Lilly & Company, discovered a process to produce LSD without the ergot fungus.The C.I.A. now had all the substance they could want and the loyalty of an American firm behind it.
Taking the experiments to their final extreme, the C.I.A. began drugging people outside of the agency, people who had no knowledge of LSD or what it did.When they did this to Dr. Frank Olson, a Chemical Warfare scientist for the Army, tragedy ensued.Gottlieb dosed a bottle of Cointreau with LSD during a meeting with members of the Army’s Special Operations Division.Olson took poorly to the LSD and after suffering through some days of paranoia, guilt, and worry—committed suicide.The C.I.A. cover-up was immediate.Twenty-two years passed before the Olson family understood the cause of their husband and father’s suicide.
I have been born again.I have been through a psychiatric experience which has completely changed me.I was horrendous.I had to face things about myself which I never admitted, which I didn’t know were there.Now I know that I hurt every woman I ever loved.I was an utter fake, a self-opinionated bore, a know-all who knew very little.I found I was hiding behind all kinds of defenses, hypocrisies and vanities.I had to get rid of them layer by layer.The moment your conscious meets your subconscious is a hell of a wrench.With me there came a day when I saw the light.
In 1960 a middle-aged psychologist, just riding the wave of some successful research, consumed a handful of foul-smelling mushrooms while summering in Cuernavaca, Mexico.
The psychologist’s name was Timothy Leary and he was about to take his first psychedelic trip on psilocybin mushrooms in the tradition of the Aztecs who had celebrated religious practices in Cuernavaca half a millennium before.Leary’s mushroom experience impressed him so much that he devoted the rest of his life to the entheogens and became the flashpoint for the psychedelic inferno of the 1960s.
Broke and homeless, the fledgling group benefited from Leary’s socialite standing.A friend of Leary’s, a wealthy New York heiress, provided shelter for the psychonauts at one of her family’s estates.IFIF settled on a five square mile estate, mansion and all, 90 miles north of New York city.These luxurious surroundings were home to some of the group’s more decadent experiments.Trouble kept brewing and after just a few months of community living, Leary disbanded IFIF.The group was finally arrested and expunged from the house by authorities, led by assistant district attorney G. Gordon Liddy.
Along with him, thousands of other hippies and LSD enthusiasts seemed to be losing their way.Taking the baton from a bedraggled Leary, others, like Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters, continued to sway the masses to use LSD.They organized massive “Acid Tests” (see Tom Wolfe’s classic novel The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test) in which crowds could sample LSD while listening to the psychedelic music of the Grateful Dead.But even when millions had been ‘turned on’ the vision of the clear light always hid behind the next bend, the next dose, or the next drug.As Stevens sums up in his chronicle Storming Heaven: LSD and the American Dream: “Instead of creating a taste for enlightenment, LSD was promoting a love of sensation, the more intense the better…”
These groups began experimenting with every kind of drug in search of illumination, bliss, or just a new kick.
Among the maelstrom of hippies and hippie leaders, some spoke with more seasoned wisdom.For instance, Richard Alpert, who had been one of Leary’s co-conspirators in the massive popularization of LSD eventually came to see drugs as a stumbling block.While exploring India in search of real enlightenment he came across a traditional guru and began following the rigorous methods of meditation.His spiritual record, Be Here Now, became a key text for the seekers of his generation.Another student of the Eastern traditions, Alan Watts, gave perhaps the final word on drugs and enlightenment: “My retrospective attitude to LSD is that when one has received the message, one hangs up the phone.…my feeling about psychedelic chemicals, as about most other drugs, is that they should serve as medicine rather than diet.”
|Psilocybe cubensis. Photo by Dr. Brainfish|
The sacrifice finished and the steps of the temple and patio bathed in human blood, they all went to eat raw mushrooms; on which food they all went out of their minds, worse than if they had drunk much wine; so drunk and senseless were they that many killed themselves by their own hand, and, with the force of those mushrooms, they would see visions and have revelations of the future, the Devil speaking to them in that drunken state.
In 1936, an anthropologist named Blas Pablo Reko, began consulting the Nahua-speaking (a language derived from Aztec) mountain peoples of Oaxaca, Mexico about their sacred plants.Joined by the godfather of ethnobotany, Richard Evans Schultes, Reko obtained samples of the mushrooms from a village of Mazatec.In 1939, Schultes published a paper identifying the legendary Aztec teonanácatl (Flesh of the Gods) as this mushroom, and subsequently classified them Psilocybe mexicana.
Here as in the first night the visions seemed freighted with significance.They seemed the very archetypes of beautiful form and color.We felt ourselves in the presence of the Ideas that Plato had talked about.In saying this let not the reader think that we are indulging in rhetoric, straining to command his attention by an extravagant figure of speech.For the world our visions were and must remain ‘hallucinations’.But for us at that moment they were not false or shadowy suggestions of real things, figments of an unhinged imagination.What we were seeing was, we knew, the only reality, of which the counterparts of every day are mere imperfect adumbrations.
Using a set of nine criteria to distinguish a mystical experience (unity, transcendence of time and space, deeply felt positive mood, sense of sacredness, objectivity and reality, paradoxicality, alleged ineffability, transiency, and persisting positive changes in mood and behavior
) Pahnke distributed (in a double-blind procedure) either psilocybin or a niacin placebo to twenty volunteer subjects, mostly students from the Andover Newton Theological Seminary.
Of the ten subjects who actually ingested psilocybin, all experienced mystical experiences along the lines of the criteria mentioned above.One, unfortunately, went a bit mad and escaped the building, only to be chased down by supervisors of the experiment.By the next day, this subject was back to normal but never considered his experience very pleasant.
One of the ‘guides’ in this experiment (who also received psilocybin), the same Huston Smith mentioned earlier, reports a particular highlight he had that day.Smith experienced the acme of his mystical experience after listening to what he objectively considered a “trite” hymn but, “…the gestalt transformed a routine musical progression into the most powerful cosmic homecoming I have ever experienced.”
In general, the experiences of the subjects who received psilocybin that day in 1962, were profound and cherished over a lifetime.A retrospective study in 1990 found all the active subjects truly thankful for that day twenty eight years earlier.
Positive mystical experience with psychedelic drugs is by no means automatic. It would seem that the “drug effect” is a delicate combination of psychological set and setting in which the drug itself is the trigger or facilitating agent—i.e., in which the drug is a necessary but not sufficient condition.
With some eagerness the famed Swiss pharmacologist Albert Hofmann obtained samples of Psilocybe mexicana from Wasson via Roger Heim, a French mycologist.
Hofmann was able to isolate and then synthesize the primary entheogenic chemical he entitled psilocybin.The various species of mushrooms in the Psilocybe (Greek for “bald head”) genus contain other active chemicals, but most experts agree that psilocybin is the primary agent of the experience.Wasson and Sabina, after experience with synthetic psilocybin, found no difference from the natural mushroom experience.
Both LSD and psilocybin possess a molecular structure called an indole ring.These molecules closely resemble the neurotransmitter serotonin and can fit into a certain serotonin receptor, called the 5-HT2 receptor. Current researchers hold this to be the primary site of action for the hallucinogenic effects of these substances.
How or why binding to the 5-HT2 receptors creates the entheogenic experience remains unknown.
|Lophophora williamsii. Photo by Peter A. Mansfeld|
The peyote cactus (Lophophora williamsii) has been used as a sacred plant in the Americas for at least 7000 years.
Shaped like a bulging carrot, most of the cactus stretches beneath the soil.Only the crown of the plant, like the top of a carrot, remains above ground.A few wooly patches grow on this button and occasionally a dainty flower blooms from it.Those who make use of the plant cut off this top section.A new button grows back from the subterranean portion.Peyote buttons can be dried and kept for a very long time without losing any psychoactive properties.
A people who still rely on hunting for a good portion of their food, the Huichol represent, in LaBarre’s words: “…almost the ideal type of the mesolithic shamanic myth.”
By this he refers to his larger theory that the shamanism of mesolithic hunting peoples crossed over with them from Eurasia into the New World tens of thousands of years ago.The stability of these cultural traits, as portrayed in numerous tribes and in evidence from French caves, to Siberian folkways, to Huichol peyotism, reflect an enormously ancient and influential complex of religious themes among pre-modern peoples the world over.
The art and clothing of the Huichol reflect peyote’s influence on their culture.Few of the world’s art forms reflect such a mastery of bright color, obviously the workings of the intense visual acuity peyote provides.Their careful beadwork generally focuses around religious and symbolic themes, commonly depicting the holy trinity of these people—deer, corn, and peyote.The yarn paintings they specialize can convince the aesthete that he himself is seeing a psychedelic vision—the colors and pronounced play of geometry and form blast the eyes with a visionary maze.
|Huichol art. Photo by Mariana Rentería|
Forte relates a telling anecdote that imparts the Native American view concerning this substance: “Once, when a journalist casually referred to peyote as a drug, a Huichol Indian shaman replied, ‘Aspirin is a drug, peyote is sacred.’”
Andrew Weil,The Natural Mind(Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Company,1972),p. 29.
Huston Smith,Cleansing the Doors of Perception (New York: Jeremy P. Tarcher/Putnam, 2000),p. 15.
Wasson, R. Gordon, Albert Hofmann, Carl A.P. Ruck,The Road to Eleusis(New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1978),P. 29.
Huston Smith,p. 24.
Walter Pahnke, “Drugs and Mysticism,”in The International Journal of Parapsychology, Vol. 8, No. 2 (1966): 295-313.
Peter T. Furst, Hallucinogens and Culture(San Francisco, CA: Chandler & Sharp, 1976),p. 17.
Cf. Walter Pahnke,pp. 295-313. [Perhaps there is more of a biochemical basis to such “natural” experiences than has been previously supposed. Certainly many ascetics who have had mystical experiences have engaged in such practices as breathing and postural exercises, sleep deprivation, fasting, flagellation with subsequent infection, sustained meditation, and sensory deprivation in caves or monastic cells. All these techniques have an effect on body chemistry. There is a definite interplay between physiological and psychological processes in the human being.]
Joseph Campbell with Bill Moyers,The Power of Myth,ed. Betty Sue Flowers (New York: Anchor Books, 1988),p. 16.
Michael Harner (ed.),Hallucinogens and Shamanism(New York: Oxford University Press, 1973),p. xiv.
Paul Devereux,The Long Trip: A Prehistory of Psychedelia(New York: Penguin Books, 1997),p. 220.
Michael Harner,“The Role of Hallucinogenic Plants in European Witchcraft,”in Hallucinogens and Shamanism(New York: Oxford University Press, 1973),p. 128-129.
Gustav Schenk,The Book of Poisons,trans. Michael Bullock(New York: Rinehart, 1955), cited in Michael Harner, p. 139-140.
Michael Harner, p. xi.
Wendy Doniger O’Flaherty,“The Post-Vedic History of the Soma Plant,”in R. Gordon Wasson,“Soma: The Divine Mushroom of Immortality,”(New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1968),p. 95.
Richard Schultes, Albert Hofmann, Christian Rätsch,Plants of the Gods,(Rochester, VT: Healing Arts Press, 2001),pp. 82-85.
R. Gordon Wasson,Soma: The Divine Mushroom of Immortality,pp. 41.
Wasson, R. Gordon, Albert Hofmann, Carl A.P. Ruck,The Road to Eleusis(New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1978),p. 51.
Marcus Tullius Cicero,Laws (The Loeb Classical Library),trans. C.W. Keyes,(Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1928),Book II, 36, p. 415.
Plato,Phaedrus,trans. R. Hackforth, Plato: The Collected Dialogues,eds. Edith Hamilton & Huntington Cairns(Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1961),250 b-c.
Walter Burkert, Ancient Mystery Cults(Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1987),pp. 91-92.
Carl Kerényi,Eleusis: Archetypal Image of Mother and Daughter,trans. Ralph Manheim,(New York: Pantheon Books, 1967),p. 177.
Kerényi, p. 178-179.
Sopatros,Rhet. Gr. VIII, 114f.in Walter Burkert,Ancient Mystery Cults(Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1987),p. 90.
Wasson, Hofmann, Ruck,p. 21.
Weston LaBarre,“History and Ethnography of Cannabis,”in Culture in Context: Selected Writings of Weston LaBarre(Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1980),p. 93.
William Emboden,“Ritual Use of Cannabis Sativa: A Historical-Ethnographic Survey,”in Peter Furst (ed.),Flesh of the Gods: The Ritual Use of Hallucinogens(New York: Praeger Publishers, 1972), p. 217.
Herodotus (The Loeb Classical Library), Vol. 2,trans. A.D. Godley(Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1971),Book IV, 74-74, pp. 273-275.
Ernest Abel,Marihuana: The First Twelve Thousand Years(New York: Plenum Press, 1980),p. 17.
LaBarre,“History and Ethnography of Cannabis,” p. 99.
Charles Baudelaire,Artificial Paradises: On Hashish and Wine as Means of Expanding Individuality,Trans. Ellen Fox(New York: Herder & Herder, 1971),pp. 18-23.
Ernest Abel,Marihuana: The First Twelve Thousand Years(New York: Plenum Press, 1980),p. 80.
U.S. Census Bureau,Table No. 238.
For a thorough discussion of marijuana’s medical properties see Institute of Medicine,Marijuana and Medicine: Assessing the Science Base, Janet Joy, Stanley Watson, and John Benson (eds.)(Washington, DC: National Academy Press, 1999).
U.S. Census Bureau,Table No. 361.
Institute of Medicine,pp. 83-136.
J.C. Anthony, L.A. Warner, R.C. Kessler, “Comparative Epedemiology of Dependence on Tobacco, Alcohol, Controlled Substances, and Inhalants: Basic Findings form the national Comorbidity Survey,”in Experimental and Clinical Psychopharmacology 2(1994) : 244-268.
Ray and Ksir,pp. 401-402.
Institute of Medicine,p. 25.
Institute of Medicine,p. 36.
Institute of Medicine,p. 41.
Institute of Medicine,p. 42.
Institute of Medicine,pp. 43-47.
Eliot Gardiner,“Cannabinoid Interaction with Brain Reward Systems—the Neurobiological Basis of Cannabinoid Abuse,”in Marijuana/Cannabinoids: Neurobiology and Neurophysiology,eds. Laura Murphy and Andrzej Bartke(Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press, 1992),p. 322.
Institute of Medicine,pp. 51-53.
Institute of Medicine, p.58.
L. Grinspoon and J.B. Bakalar,Marijuana, The Forbidden Medicine(New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1993).
Weston LaBarre,“Anthropological Perspectives on Hallucination, Hallucinogens, and the Shamanic Origins of Religion,”in Culture in Context: Selected Writings of Weston LaBarre(Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1980),p. 65.
For a complete account, Albert Hofmann,LSD: My Problem Child,Trans. Jonathan Ott (Los Angeles, CA: Jeremy Tarcher,1983),pp. 5-21.
Hofmann,LSD: My Problem Child,p. 15.
Hofmann, LSD: My Problem Child,pp. 17-18.
Stanislov Grof with Hal Bennett,The Holotropic Mind(San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1993),pp. 15-16.
John Marks,The Search for the Manchurian Candidate,(New York: New York Times Books, 1979),pp. 4-6.
Lee Guthrie,The Life and Loves of Cary Grant(New York: Drake Publishers,1977),pp. 163-165.
Timothy Leary,High Priest (New York: The World Publishing Company, 1968),pp. 12-34.
Jay Stevens, Storming Heaven: LSD and the American Dream(New York: Harper & Row, 1987),pp. 188-271.
Alan Watts,In My Own Way(New York: Vintage, 1972),p. 402.
Richard Schultes, Albert Hofmann, Christian Rätsch,Plants of the Gods(Rochester, VT: Healing Arts Press, 2001),p. 156.
Diego Durán,Historia de las Indias de Nueva España, IICap LIV 24; quoted in R. Gordon Wasson,The Wondrous Mushroom (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1980), p. 202.
Richard Evans Schultes,“The Identification of Teonanacatl, a narcotic Basidiomycete of the Aztecs,”in Botanical Museum Leaflets(Cambridge, MA: Harvard University,1939),pp. 37-54.
Wasson,The Wondrous Mushroom,p. 16.
Walter Pahnke,pp. 295-313.
Rick Doblin,“Pahnke’s ‘Good Friday Experiment’: A Long-Term Follow-Up and Methodological Critique,”The journal of Transpersonal Psychology 23, no. 1, (1991), 1-28.
Robert Forte,“A Conversation with R. Gordon Wasson,”in Entheogens and the Future of Religion,ed. Robert Forte(San Francisco: The Council on Spiritual Practices, 1997),pp. 72-73.
Hofmann,LSD: My Problem Child,pp. 141-142.
Richard Glennon,“Pharmacology of Hallucinogens,”in Handbook of Substance Abuse,eds. Ralph Tarter, Robert Ammerman, Peggy Ott(New York: Plenum Press, 1998),pp. 222-223.
Richard Schultes, Albert Hofmann, Christian Rätsch,Plants of the Gods,(Rochester, VT: Healing Arts Press, 2001),p. 145.
Weston LaBarre,The Peyote Cult, 5th Ed.,(Norman, OK: The University of Oklahoma Press, 1989),p. 257.
Robert Forte (ed.),Entheogens and the Future of Religion(San Francisco: The Council on Spiritual Practices, 1997),p. 1.
William McKim,Drugs and Behavior,4th Ed.,(Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2000),p. 331.
Alexander Shulgin,Pikhal: A Chemical Love Story(Berkeley, CA: Transform Press, 1991).
Jerome Beck and Marsha Rosenbaum,Pursuit of Ecstasy: The MDMA Experience(Albany, NY: The State University of New York Press, 1994),pp. 18-22.
Una McCann, Melissa Mertl, and George Ricaurte,“Ecstasy,” in Handbook of Substance Abuse,eds. Ralph Tarter, Robert Ammerman, Peggy Ott(New York: Plenum Press, 1998),pp. 567-574.