The Encyclopedia of Psychoactive Plants: Ethnopharmacology and Its Applications

What Are Psychoactive Plants?


Psychoactive plants are plants that people ingest in the form of simple or complex preparations in order to affect the mind or alter the state of consciousness.

Consciousness is an energy field that can expand, shift amorphously like an amoeba through the hidden corners of the world, dissolve in the ocean of desire, or crystallize in geometric clarity. Through the use of psychoactive plants and products, consciousness can be paralyzed, subdued, and contained; it can also be animated, stimulated, and expanded. Because psychoactive plants affect the mind, they have been characterized as mind-moving substances.The renowned Berlin toxicologist Louis Lewin (1850–1929) referred to all those substances that produce some sort of psychoactive effects as phantastica. Carl Hartwich (1851–1917), a pharmacist, described them as “human means of pleasure.” Timothy Leary (1920–1996) preferred to speak of them as neuro-botanical substances. Today, the terms psychotropic(“influencing the psyche”) and psychopharmacologic (“affecting the mind”) are often used to refer to these substances.

“Only plants had consciousness. Animals got it from them.”




In the pharmacological literature, which commonly refers to them as mind-altering substances, psychoactive substances are clearly and systematically classified by precise scientific definitions (cf. Inaba and Cohen 1994; Seymour and Smith 1987; Wagner 1985):


 Stimulants (“uppers”)

This category comprises substances that wake one up, stimulate the mind, incite the initiative, and may even cause euphoria but that do not effect any changes in perception. Among the most important plants in this category are coffee, tea, cacao, guaraná, maté, ephedra, khat, and coca.


 Sedatives, Hypnotics, Narcotics (“downers”)

This category includes all of the calmative, sleep-inducing, anxiety-reducing, anesthetizing substances, which sometimes induce perceptual changes, such as dream images, and also often evoke feelings of euphoria. The most important psychoactive plants and products in this category are poppy, opium, valerian, and hops.


 Hallucinogens (“all-arounders”)

This category encompasses all those substances that produce distinct alterations in perception, sensations of space and time, and emotional states. Most of the plants discussed in this encyclopedia fall into this category. Over the course of time, these substances have been referred to under a variety of names:


–Psychotomimetics (“imitating psychoses”)

–Psychotica (“inducing psychoses”)

–Hallucinogens (Johnson; “causing hallucinations”)

–Psychedelics (Osmund; “mind manifesting”)

–Entheogens (Ruck et al.; “evoking the divine within”)

–Entactogens (Nichols; “promoting self-knowledge”)

–Empathogens (Metzner; “stimulating empathy”)

–Eidetics (“giving rise to ideas”)

–Psychotogenics (“affecting the mind”)

–Psychodysleptics (“softening the mind”)


Today, the most commonly used term is still hallucinogen. By definition, a hallucinogen is a substance that evokes hallucinations (Siegel 1995b), which are now medically defined as “sensory delusions that may involve several (to all) senses (= complexes) and are not the result of corresponding external sensory stimuli but possess a reality for the affected person; also occur in schizophrenia, stimulated brain states (e.g., due to poisoning, epilepsy, brain injuries, the effects of hallucinogens)” (Roche Lexikon Medizin 1987, 725).

Because the term hallucination now has a psychopathological tinge to it, nonmedical circles and publications usually prefer the terms psychedelic, entheogen, or visionary substance and accordingly speak of psychedelic, entheogenic, or visionary experiences:


The awakening of the senses is the most basic aspect of the psychedelic experience. The open eye, the naked touch, the intensification and vivification of ear and nose and taste. This is the Zen moment of satori, the nature mystic’s high, the sudden centering of consciousness on the sense organ, the real-eye-zation that this is it! I am eye! I am hear! I knose! I am in contact! (Leary 1998, 34)


Shamans, of course, the traditional specialists in psychoactive substances, do not speak of psychoactive drugs, psychotropics, or hallucinogens—not to mention narcotics—but of plant teachers, magical plants,3 plants of the gods, sacred beverages, et cetera. They revere these mind-altering plants and make them offerings; they use them not as recreational drugs or as something to get “high” with in the evening but as sacraments in their rituals. The shamans regard these plants as sacred because they make it possible for them to contact the true reality and the gods, spirits, and demons. They are sacred because within them dwell plant spirits, plant gods, or devas that one can ally oneself with and that are esteemed as the teachers, mothers, ambassadors, and doctores (physicians) of other realities. In addition, these sacred plants have the power to heal. They can liberate the ill from their afflictions and drive out harmful, disease-causing spirits. They also can bring spiritual awakening to healthy people and make possible mystical experiences. With the aid of these plants, one does not lose control, for control is ultimately an illusion.4 And they are used not to escape from reality but to recognize true reality:


We can see that these plants do more than simply maintain our body. They also promote and nourish our souls and make possible the enlightenment of our mind. Their existence is offering, sacrifice, and selfless love. The earth on which they grow is itself a sacrificial altar—and we who receive their blessings are the sacrificial priests. Through plants, the outer light of the sun and the stars becomes the inner light which reflects back from the foundations of our soul. This is the reason why plants have always and everywhere been considered sacred, divine. (Storl 1997, 20)


“Every life’s heart and desire

Burns with greater rapture, flickers more colorfully,

I welcome every inebriation,

I stand open to all torments,

Praying to the currents, taken with them

Into the heart of the world.”