The Encyclopedia of Psychoactive Plants: Ethnopharmacology and Its Applications

The Use of Psychoactive Plants


Humans have a natural drive to pursue ecstatic experiences (Weil 1976; Siegel 1995a). The experience of ecstasy is just as much a part of being human and leading a fulfilling and happy life as is the experience of orgasm. In fact, many cultures use the same words to refer to ecstasy and to orgasm.5 The possibility of having ecstatic experiences is one of the fundamental conditions of human consciousness. All archaic and ethnographic cultures developed methods for inducing such experiences (Bourguignon 1973; Dittrich 1996). Some of these methods are more efficacious than others. The most effective method of all is to ingest psychoactive plants or substances.

These methods, however, require certain skills, for there are many factors that play a role in shaping the effects and the contents of the experiences. The most important is proper use—that is, a responsible and goal-oriented use.

Fitz Hugh Ludlow (1836–1870), whose book The Hasheesh Eater (published in 1857) was the first American literary work on the effects of hashish, has given us an amazing description of the proper way to use hashish:


There is a fact which can be given as a justification for the craving for drugs without coming close to dubious secondary motives, namely, that drugs are able to bring humans into the neighborhood of divine experience and can thus carry us up from our personal fate and the everyday circumstances of our life into a higher form of reality. It is, however, necessary to understand precisely what is meant by the use of drugs.

We do not mean the purely physical craving. . . . That of which we speak is something much higher, namely the knowledge of the possibility of the soul to enter into a lighter being, and to catch a glimpse of deeper insights and more magnificent visions of the beauty, truth, and the divine than we are normally able to spy through the cracks in our prison cell. But there are not many drugs which have the power of stilling such craving. The entire catalog, at least to the extent that research has thus far written it, may include only opium, hashish, and in rarer cases alcohol, which has enlightening effects only upon very particular characters. (Ludlow 1981, 181)


There are many different ways to use psycho-active plants. The reasons they are consumed range from relaxation, recreation, and pleasure (hedonism) to medical and therapeutic treatments and to ritual and religious ceremonies and spiritual growth. It is the task of culture and society to provide the individual with patterns for using them that serve these purposes.

Drug Culture


Both experience and research have very clearly demonstrated that every culture in the world either has used or still does use psychoactive substances in traditional contexts:


Every society, every time has its drug culture. Corresponding to the complexity of society, its drug culture may also be more or less complex, oriented, for example, around just one central drug or encompassing a number of drugs. It can also be subdivided into internal cultures that can contradict one another. (Marzahn 1994, 82)


These “internal cultures” are often referred to as “subcultures” or “scenes.” Within these cultural structures, cultural patterns often form that seem to be archetypical for human existence. Marzahn analyzed traditional rituals that employ psycho-active substances—he uses the term drug, most likely as a provocation—and from these developed a model that suggests that, throughout the world, common drug cultures continually emerge and establish themselves:


Yet the deepest meaning of the common drug culture appears to lie in the fact that this internal order is required because of this exiting, this stepping over boundaries; it is precisely what a culture of border crossers needs. In the context of the common drug culture, the use of drugs is not banished out of time and space. Rather, it has a clear and circumscribed place within both. People gather at a special place and surround themselves with the proper space and with beautiful devices. The communal use of the drug has a beginning and an end. It takes place according to an internal order, which has been derived from experience, and does not simply allow whatever anyone might want. With time, it has become condensed into a ceremony, a rite. This internal order and its outer form, the ritual, are what make it possible for the drug to be used properly and protect people from harm and destruction. In all normal drug cultures, it is a duty of those who have already had the experience to introduce the inexperienced to this order. (Marzahn 1994, 45)


“I allow dew drops to fall from the flowers onto the fields, which inebriate my soul.”




(BRINTON 1887)


“Most people never realize that the purpose of intoxication is to sharpen the mind.”




(1993, 175)


“Religions are false means for satisfying genuine needs.”





Ritual Uses of Psychoactive Substances


It is possible to classify many psychoactive plants and the products made from them into different types of rituals that reflect how they are used. These include:


Shamanic initiation

Fly agaric mushroom (Amanita muscaria)

Cigar tobacco (Nicotiana rustica)

Shamanic healing rituals



Cebil (Anadenanthera colubrina)


San Pedro (Trichocereus pachanoi)

Shamanic ritual circles


Mushrooms (Panaeolus spp., Psilocybe spp.)

Hemps (Cannabis spp.)

San Pedro (Trichocereus pachanoi) and cimora

Vision quests


Thorn apples (Datura spp.)

Tobaccos (Nicotiana spp.)

Rites of passage


Iboga (Tabernanthe iboga)

Hemp (Cannabis indica in Jamaica, among the Rastafarians)

Rituals of greeting

Kava-kava (Piper methysticum)

Cola nuts (Cola spp.)


Burial rituals

Cola nuts (Cola spp.)



Henbanes (Hyoscyamus spp.)

Angel’s trumpets (Brugmansia spp.)

Ololiuqui (Turbina corymbosa)

Salvia divinorum

Thorn apples (Datura spp.)


Rain magic and rain ceremonies

Henbane (Hyoscyamus niger)

Saguaro (Carnegia gigantea) wine

Healing rituals within a religious cult

Nutmeg (Myristica fragrans)

Harmful magic

Yagé, ayahuasca


Purification rituals

Cassine, yaupon, black drink (Ilex cassineIlex vomitoria)

Guayusa (Ilex guayusa)



Sexual magic rituals (Tantra, Taoism, cult of Aphrodite)

Mandrakes (Mandragora spp.)

Damiana (Turnera diffusa)

Oriental joy pills

Yohimbé (Pausinystalia yohimba)

Initiation into secret societies and cults or cultic communities

Iboga (Tabernanthe iboga)

Madzoka medicine

Religious ceremonies led by priests


Wine (libations)

Spiced coffee

Mystery cults




Socially integrative ritual circles

Plants: cocas (Erythroxylum spp.), hemps (Cannabis spp.), khat (Catha edulis), cola nuts (Cola spp.)

Products: balche’, beer, chicha, palm wine, wine

Perceptual training

Tea (Camellia sinensis) ceremony

Kodoh (incense)


Hemp (Cannabis indica)

Coffee (Coffea arabica)

Khat (Catha edulis)

Tea (Camellia sinensis)



In many cultures, the experts are the shamans, or sometimes the priests, diviners, or medicine people. However, in our culture there is a deep chasm, a wound, for the people who preserved our own traditional knowledge have disappeared as a result of forced Christianization, imperialism, the Inquisition, the persecutions of witches, the Enlightenment, and positivism. And yet in spite of this, the psychoactive life continues to pulse in the inner cultures. And the archaic patterns continue to remain relevant, so appropriate uses of psycho-active substances continue to emerge. This has produced what may be called “underground experts” in the proper use of psychoactive substances:


Through rhythm, internal order, and ritual, the common drug culture provides an orientation and a foothold in dealing with drugs: for our aspiration, because it embeds drug use within an understanding about the proper way to live, about the goals and forms of life, and about the role that befits drugs within these; for our knowledge, because it provides information about the mechanisms of actions, benefits, and drawbacks of drugs that is based upon experience and traditional knowledge; for our feelings, because it provides us with security in the simultaneously affirming and shy respect for drugs, thereby protecting us from ill-conceived fear and fascination, from both a demonizing worship and a demonization; and finally for our actions, because it develops and passes down rules that are recognized and respected because experience and validation have shown them to be meaningful and because they tell us which drugs, in which dosage, when, where, and with whom are beneficial and which are not. (Marzahn 1994, 47)


The Most Important Considerations: The Theory of Dosage, Set, and Setting


The theory of dosage, set, and setting provides a useful model for better understanding the effects of psychoactive plants. Dr. Timothy Leary (1920–1996), a Harvard professor, conducted scientific experiments with psychedelic substances (LSD and psilocybin) in the early 1960s. On the basis of his own experiences and his systematic observations, he and his colleagues Ralph Metzner and Richard Alpert (Ram Dass) developed this theory (Leary et al. 1964), which states that there are three main factors responsible for the experiences induced by psychedelics. The first factor is the dosage—a truism since ancient times, or at least since Paracelsus. The set is the internal attitudes and constitution of the person, including his expectations, his wishes, his fears. The third aspect is the setting, which pertains to the surroundings, the place, and the time—in short, the space in which the experiences transpire. This theory clearly states that the effects are equally the result of chemical, pharmacological, psychological, and physical influences.

The model that Timothy Leary proposed for the psychedelics also applies to experiences with other psychoactive plants (including the stimulants and narcotics). All three factors must be carefully considered when one wishes to have experiences with and understand these plants. Even in the same person, the same plant can evoke very different effects if the dosage, set, and setting are changed.

The first factor, of course, pertains to the choice of plant. Then the proper dosage must be consumed. But what is a “proper” dosage? It is the amount that will produce the desired effects. But since the effects are not solely the result of the dosage, the proper dosage can be determined only by taking the other factors into consideration as well. As the saying goes, “An ounce of practice is worth a pound of theory.” This is especially true in the present context. When experimenting, one should always begin with low dosages. It is better to use too little than too much. You can always use more on the next occasion. If one rashly takes too much, the result may be unpleasant or even dangerous. When ingesting strychnine, for example, the dosage is extremely crucial. A small dosage can produce wonderful sensations and sexual vigor, whereas a large dosage can be lethal.

American Indians, for example, recognize three dosage levels for magic mushrooms: a medicinal, an aphrodisiac, and a shamanic. For the medicinal dosage, a quantity is administered that does not produce any psychoactive effects but that can heal certain ailments. The aphrodisiac dosage is higher: The mind is activated but not overpowered by visions or hallucinations; perception and sensitivity are heightened and the body is aroused and invigorated. The shamanic dosage catapults consciousness into an entirely different reality that is flooded with cosmic visions and enables a person to peer into worlds that are beyond the normal experience of space and time.



“In different cultures, drugs are often used in completely different manners. This demonstrates that the consumption of drugs is culturally shaped to a very large extent. Which substances are used, when, by whom, how, how often, and in which dosage, where, with whom, and why, and also which conceptions are related to this are largely dependent upon the cultural membership of a user. Because of these influences, inebriation is experienced and lived out in very different ways, and a drug may be used for different purposes, may be assigned different functions.”




(1994, 123)



This beaded head of a jaguar bears witness to the great importance that psychoactive substances play in shamanism. The jaguar is a symbol of the shaman—for he can transform himself into this powerful animal—but he is also his power animal and ally. The shaman uses a psychoactive plant, the peyote cactus (Lophophora williamsii), to establish contact with this ally. The fantastic world he enters is echoed in the artistry of the beadwork. The visionary cactus itself is portrayed on the animal’s cheek. (By an unknown Huichol artist, ca. 1996)



Shamans throughout the world use psychoactive substances in order to penetrate into the other world, the other reality. Drumming helps ensure a safe journey during the visionary adventure. (Nepali shaman at Kalinchok, 1993)



During a dramatic visionary experience, the shaman obtains his special abilities and powers by dying as a person and being reborn as a shaman. Psychoactive substances often produce experiences of death and rebirth, as well as near-death experiences. (Huichol yarn painting, ca. 1995)


Set is perhaps the most important factor for becoming aware of the efficaciousness of a psychoactive plant, especially when a hallucinogenic substance is involved. These substances have the ability to activate, potentiate, and sometimes mercilessly expose everything that a person has in his or her consciousness or buried beneath it. People who were raised under the repressive conceptions of the Catholic religion, for example, may need to struggle with the original sin that was laid upon them in the cradle, whereas a nature-venerating pagan may perceive his or her partner as a temple of divine desire.

In traditional cultures, set is shaped primarily by the worldview that all individuals share and is especially expressed in a tribe’s mythology. The mythology provides a kind of cartography of the visionary worlds and other realities. Using this cartography, an explorer of consciousness can reach the desired goal. And he can always count on the help of the shaman who accompanies him, for the shaman is the best cartographer of the other, visionary reality. Even when a person gets lost in that world, the shaman can bring him back. The contents of the visions, in other words, are shaped by culture.