The Encyclopedia of Psychoactive Plants: Ethnopharmacology and Its Applications

The Fear of Psychoactive Plants


The fear of consciousness-expanding plants is at least as old as the Bible. In Genesis, this fear is thematically expressed as the Fall. The fruit of the tree of knowledge transforms a person into a god. But since we are allowed to worship only one god, no one else can stand on the same level as him (or her?).

In many hierarchical cultures with an imperialistic orientation (emphasizing power instead of knowledge), immediate mystical, ecstatic, or religious experience is heavily regulated and is usually even forbidden. The direct experience of the world has been replaced by an elaborate, theologically driven religion and is monopolized by the state. Paradise, that other reality, is administered by bureaucrats who have not personally experienced it and who sell it to the needy and those who crave ecstasy. Jonathan Ott has referred to this mechanism as the “pharmacratic inquisition” (1993). The Mexican inquisition provides the best historical example of the suppression of personal experience and its replacement by a state monopoly for administering the divine.

As the Europeans pushed into the New World, they encountered for the first time shamans, whom they contemptuously labeled “magicians” and “black artists.” The shamans’ gods and helping spirits were degraded as false gods, idols, and the devil’s work; their sacred drinks were defamed as witches’ brews. An Inquisition report from the colonial period written by D. Pedro Nabarre de Isla (issued on June 29, 1620) notes:


As for the introduction of the use of a plant or root named peyote . . . for the purpose of uncovering thievery, divinations about other occurrences, and prophesizing future events, this is a superstition which is to be condemned because it is directed against the purity and integrity of our sacred Catholic faith. This is certain, for neither this named plant nor any other possesses the power or intrinsic property of being able to bring about the alleged effects, nor can anything produce the mental images, fantasies, or hallucinations that are the basis of the mentioned divinations. In the latter, the influences and workings of the devil, the real cause of this vice, are clear, who first makes use of the innate gullibility of the Indians and their idolatrous tendencies and then strikes down many other people who do not sufficiently fear God and do not possess enough faith.


Even today, the sacred plants of the Indians and/or their active constituents are forbidden throughout the world. While the use of peyote, mescaline, psilocybin (the active principle of Mexican magic mushrooms), DMT, et cetera, is in principle exempt from punishment, the possession of or trafficking in these is nevertheless illegal (Körner 1994). The drug laws of our time, in other words, are rooted in the spirit of the Catholic Inquisition. As long as the sacred plants and substances of the Indians remain illegal, the war against the indigenous peoples of the Americas will not be over. Generally speaking, the U.S. “War on Drugs” is a continuation of European colonialism and an instrument for criminalizing the Indians and their spiritual kin.

This phobia about drugs is nothing new, for drugs have been viewed as wild and reprehensible since ancient times (think of the persecution of the mystical followers of Dionysos, as well as of the witches, alchemists, and hippies). The fear of drugs and the experiences associated with them is found even throughout the various camps of shamanism fans and in academic circles. Mircea Eliade, for example, discounted the use of drugs to produce trance and (archaic) ecstasy as “degenerate shamanism” (1975, 382). Many members of the New Age movement have claimed that they can attain “it” without drugs. There are also anthropologists who argue that just because “their” shaman apparently enters into trance without any pharmacological support, other shamans—about whom they know nothing—also should not need drugs. It appears, however, that almost all traditional shamans prefer pharmacological stimuli (Furst 1972a; Harner 1973; Ripinsky-Naxon 1993; Rosenbohm 1991; Vitebsky 1995). As one source puts it, “The Indians view the drugs as nourishment for the soul and venerate them because of their wondrous properties” (Diguet in Wagner, 1932, 67).

When the Christian Europeans encountered their first shamans, they saw them as black magicians, master witches who had allied themselves with the devil and who, with his help, were leading the other members of their tribe down the road to ruin. In the early ethnographic literature, they are referred to as magicians, witch doctors, medicine men, weather makers, mediums, and the like. A large portion of the literature on shamanism specialized in demonstrating that shamans are con artists who use sleight of hand to trick the other members of their tribes and that, in the best of cases, they are charlatans whose methods are irrational and superstitious.

In traditional psychiatry and psychoanalytical-oriented anthropology, shamans were regarded as schizophrenics, psychopaths, and sufferers of arctic hysteria, that is, as people who are ill. Strange indeed that these ill people are the very ones who concern themselves with the task of healing. In contrast, shamans have been glorified and proclaimed as saviors in antipsychiatric circles. This attitude gave rise to images of “psychiatric utopias in which the shaman was the leader” (Kakar 1984, 95). In the more recent ethnographic literature, especially that based upon the approach known as cognitive anthropology, shamans are looked at from the perspective of that which they represent for their communities: people who, because of their calling and their special gift of trance, are able to divine, diagnose, and heal. In doing so, they maintain harmony in the community, preserve the tribal myths and traditions, and ensure the survival of their people.11

The interdiction of psychoactive plants and their effects is not bolstered solely by questionable politically based laws, but also receives support from the side of established science. Here, two concepts from psychiatry have played key roles: psychotomimetic and model psychosis. The first is a term for a substance that is said to mimic a psychosis; the second is a term used to characterize the experience. As a result, these plants and the effects they produce are viewed not as something sacred or mystical but as something pathological. This is reminiscent of such anthropologists and religious scholars as George Devereux and Mircea Eliade, who regarded shamans as psychopaths or people suffering from hysteria.

Since the end of the nineteenth century, Western psychiatry has known of and used drugs that alter consciousness (Grob 1995; Strassman 1995). The first such substance to be tested and used in psychiatry was mescaline. Mescaline was first extracted, chemically identified, and synthesized from the Mexican peyote cactus at the end of the nineteenth century. At that time, the effects of mescaline upon healthy subjects were thought to be the same as those that were otherwise known only from psychiatric patients. This led to the idea of the pharmacologically induced “model psychosis” (cf. Leuner 1962; Hermle et al. 1988). During the twentieth century, other substances with similar effects were discovered in the plant world, synthesized in the laboratory, and tested on patients and even on prisoners (Hermle et al. 1993).

The concept of the model psychosis is simply another form of ethnocentrism. Whereas the Inquisition saw the workings of the devil in these psychoactive substances, psychiatrists interpreted the sacred visions as psychotic-like states, that is, as “artificially” induced mental illnesses. Today, however, the model psychosis concept has itself landed on the rubbish heap of modern high-technology science. Recent research into the brain activity of true psychotics and of healthy users of psychedelics, using PET scans, has demonstrated that very different regions of the brain are active in each (Hermle et al. 1992).

Another opinion prevalent in our world holds that “drugs” cannot be used intelligently but will automatically be “misused” (cf. Dobkin de Rios and Smith 1976). In our culture, it is commonly argued that narcotic drugs lead to “addiction” or “dependency.” Here, the views vary widely. In addition, the addictive potential of a substance is often used as the only definition of an inebriant (also frequently referred to as an “addictive drug”). Since addictive behaviors can arise with respect to almost every substance, many foods, luxury goods, and numerous medicines should also be seen as addictive substances. Many people, for example, are “addicted” to chocolate (cf. Ott 1985). Some have even argued that sugar is a drug, and an addictive one at that (McKenna and Pieper 1993). So, are chocolate and sugar invigorating foodstuffs, delicious luxury goods, or addictive drugs?

Since ancient times, psychoactive substances have been used by athletes as doping agents (cf. Mammillaria spp.). In the modern world of competitive sports, the plant substance ephedrine and its derivatives (amphetamines), camphor (cf. Cinnamomum camphora), strychnine, and cocaine have all been used. Of course, the use of doping agents is condemned, regarded as unsportsmanlike, forbidden, and strongly proscribed (Berendonk 1992). Many athletes, however, are like the “closet shamans” (see p. 20), constantly on the lookout for new ways to augment their performance. Recently, preparations of the ascomycete Cordyceps were successfully used for doping purposes. The athlete involved could not have her victory disallowed, however, for this was a dietary supplement, not a forbidden substance.


“The world is as one perceives it and what one perceives of it.”









The first botanical and chemical investigations of the peyote cactus (Lophophora williamsii) were conducted at the end of the nineteenth century. The extraordinary psychedelic effects of mescaline, an alkaloid isolated from this cactus, have influenced the history of European psychiatry.



Two psychoactive plants in an intimate embrace: an Amazonian ayahuasca vine (Banisteriopsis caapi) winding itself up the trunk of a coral tree (Erythrina mexicana).