Monday, June 2, 2014

Psychoactive Plants

Have you recreationally used psychoactive drugs this week? Chances are you have: common legal plant-derived psychoactive substances include caffeine and alcohol. Psychoactives (compounds that act on our central nervous system, especially the brain) are also found in prescription drugs like antidepressants, stimulants, mood stabilizers, sedatives, addiction treatments, and painkillers, many of whose ingredients have been sourced from plants.

Can we add an asterisk to "Just Say No"??? (Photo by Julius Schorzman)

Plants produce many psychoactive compounds that are / can be extremely useful to humans but there are many people who don't feel comfortable discussing their use. It seems like "psychoactive drug/substance" isn't perceived too widely in a positive light, but I think that's probably due to a lack of knowledge on the topic. If someone were to come up to me and ask, "Do you use any psychoactive drugs/substances?" it doesn't seem like "Yes" or "Absolutely!" would be an appropriate response. It seems like a potentially incriminating question, probably rooted in the anti-drug education I can remember from my elementary school years. When you're brought up with statements like "substance abuse," "Drugs are bad," "Dare to resist drugs," and "Just say 'No' to drugs," you are bound to see anything termed "drug" or "substance" in a negative light and have a knee-jerk reaction against it.

"Psychoactive" and its subcategory "psychedelic" also seem to be loaded terms with all sorts of negative connotations, which could have their genesis in some folks' negative attitude towards culture in the '60s and '70s, association of the terms with abuse or overdose, the fact that the word contains the pejorative "psycho," or knowledge of only addictive psychoactive substances or psychedelics that cause predominantly negative experiences. Our American culture has largely been bent on prevention or tight control of use of psychedelic substances, including Cannibis (aka marijuana), though its effects are quite mild. Marijuana is the most commonly use psychedelic in the world and also has a number of important material uses (usually under the name "hemp").

A good example of a marijuana smoker stereotype.

As we know from medicine, powerful plant compounds can be and have been used to treat serious diseases. In order for this to happen, the dosage is critical, and even a slight deviation from the recommended amount could have serious consequences. There is a risk:benefit correlation here, and the same is true for many psychoactive / psychedelic substances, which can be easily misused without proper education. First, one needs to understand the effects certain plants have, and also be able to correctly identify plants. There are certain plants that almost always produce horrifying experiences that someone would never want to repeat, let alone have in the first place (e.g. those caused by plants in the genera Atropa, Datura, and Brugmansia) but there are also plants that have usually positive and even indescribably amazing experiences (e.g. Ayahuasca) when properly prepared and in the right dosage (many have suffered harm when these conditions were not met). In my mind, some of the greatest knowledge held by indigenous peoples throughout the world relates to the preparation and use of psychoactive plants in the areas of therapy, spirituality, and appreciation of the natural world and the connections between all living things. Even though these people are often seen as poorer and less advanced than societies in developed countries, they possess riches and wisdom of which most people do not know or understand.

Mateo, a Matsigenka shaman (far left) prepares Ayahuasca with ethnobotanist Glenn Shepard (far right) in the Peruvian rainforest. (Photo by Manuel Lizarralde)

The plants are mixed together in a pot in the correct proportions and boiled for several hours. (Photo by Manuel Lizarralde)

Much of this wisdom has to do with powerful properties of plants, especially psychedelics. Even when properly prepared, a certain type of experience cannot be guaranteed for a particular plant or combination of plants. Major variables include the dosage, the internal constitution of a person (attitudes, fears, struggles, worldview), preparation for the experience, and the context of the experience, including the physical setting. That being said, there are often general effects that can be expected from certain plants and preparations, as described in the previous paragraph. Here is a link to a Wikipedia article that contains a couple good attempts to describe what can occur when humans use psychedelics. See especially the "Dynamics" and "Levels" sections: I don't know how anyone would not be interested in the psychoactive / psychedelic properties of plants after reading through experience descriptions such as those.

"Encontro" by Alexandre Segregio depicting part of an Ayahuasca experience, which I chose because it was the best artistic representation I could find to reflect the Ayahuasca experience as a whole as I experienced it. Even though the body remains in the forest, the "spirit" travels beyond this world to other dimensions and what are also apparently other planets / galaxies / universes.

The sad part is that many people in our culture will only ever look to psychoactive plants for a recreational "high" and most people who have had experiences will have only experienced Levels 1 or perhaps 2 (e.g. marijuana). Fewer individuals would find or make use of the means to reach Levels 3 or 4 (e.g. mushrooms), still often an experience of only superficial entertainment. An incredibly profound Level 5 experience is safely accessible only with certain less-than-well-known tropical plants (e.g. those in Ayahuasca) with the correct preparation, with the right attitude and in the right context. If one is able to make those stars align, the experience is largely ineffable, as the Wikipedia article rightly states, and seems to transcend any other experience one has ever had.

Many psychedelic substances are illegal throughout the world because of the potential for abuse and the possibility of further experimentation leading to addicting drugs like cocaine or heroin (morphine). I think it is important, however, that we not "throw the baby out with the bath water," especially when it comes to Ayahuasca, which is an incomparable experience on its own but also has such great power to transform individuals' lives and alter their perception of the universe and the world in which we live in extremely profound ways. Cannibis is certainly another plant that warrants our consideration due to its many uses and potential uses beyond a recreational "high," and this is currently the hot topic of debate in the world of psychoactive plants. Perhaps it will open up a more widespread conversation and exploration into this most fascinating realm of ethnobotany in the near future.

Rick Hederstrom
Associate Director

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