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Experts weigh in on the health benefits of mind-altering plants

  1. Phungushead
    Plants don’t do much compared to animals. They’re sedentary sorts, even with time-lapse photography. We’re talking about vegetative, botanical bores. Right?

    Wrong, according to Dennis McKenna, who argues against the standard take on plants. The droll ethnopharmacologist is struggling with an uncooperative Powerbook as he launches into a presentation at UBC on the co-evolution of humans and plants. The genetic destinies of these two kingdoms have been tied together for tens of thousands of years, he argues. He notes that plants are “virtuoso chemists that use messenger molecules as territorial signals, speaking to fungi, insects, and herbivores. They eat light and spin out all this chemistry: the secondary compounds… that we humans value as medicines as flavourings, as dyes as perfumes, as cosmetics and all the kind of things that make our life richer and sensorily more interesting.”

    McKenna believes western culture needs a rethink of its attitudes toward plant life in general, and psychotropic plants in particular. He spoke at the “Spirit Plant Medicine” conference held recently at UBC. The conference organizers, Ashley Rose and Andrew Rezmer of Conscious Living Radio, brought together a diverse range of speakers, including policy analysts, ethnobotanists, filmmakers, psychologists, therapists and artists. The theme of the conference was the healing properties and potential of what are known in traditional cultures as “sacred” plants.

    Our most effective drugs, those that have outlasted colonial empires and the life spans of patents, did not originate as the intellectual property of pharmaceutical companies. They were the plant-based medicines of indigenous healers from across the world. (Quinine is used to treat malaria. Rattlebox is used to treat skin cancer. Henbane is used as a sedative. Autumn Crocus treats gout. Mayapple is an anti-tumour agent. Willow gives us aspirin, etc.) Among the most important plants in the indigenous pharmacopeia, and the most problematic for industrialized nations, are those species that alter human consciousness.

    Plant-human co-evolution extends back into the mists of prehistory, along with the human impulse to seek out psychoactive substances. In fact, scientists have determined that a wide range of animals regularly seek out mood-altering plants. Whether it’s a group of elks seeking out a late-season outcrop of fermented berries, bighorn sheep nibbling on a narcotic species of lichen or commuters lining up for their morning Starbucks fix, there appears to be a cross-species drive for self-medication on this planet.

    In 1956, Humphry Osmond, a British doctor working at a Saskatchewan hospital, coined the term “psychedelic” from the Greek roots for “mind revealing.” The term refers to a broad range of substances that include peyote, LSD, and psilocybin, the primary active ingredient in so-called magic mushrooms. Mark Haden, who currently works in Addiction Services at Vancouver Coastal Health, spoke at the conference on the recent medical research on psychedelics, which unlike opiates and amphetamines, are nonaddictive. Psilocybin, LSD and MDMA all show promise in treating various health conditions. Among these are cancer-related anxiety, posttraumatic stress disorder, migraine and cluster headaches and obsessive-compulsive disorder. One of the most promising substances for treating drug addictions is ibogaine, derived from an African shrub-root alkaloid. After an eight to 20-hour dreamlike trip, proponents of ibogaine say, the subject emerges with new insight into his behaviour patterns and a greatly diminished desire for a fix.

    In 2006, Donald MacPherson, then Drug Policy Co-coordinator for the city of Vancouver, co-authored a report that put ayahuasca and peyote in the category of “benefit,” based on their medicinal use by aboriginal cultures and on clinical studies by researchers.

    The story of ayahuasca, a non-addictive hallucinogenic tea from the Amazon, tells of the promise and perils of “sacred plants” in the post-industrial world. Indigenous people traditionally employ ayahuasca, also known as yagé, in healing ceremonies. It is not what you would call a recreational drug. The foul-tasting brew, made from cooking up two, synergistically-acting plants, induces vomiting and excretion as a preface to its psychedelic effects. According to reports from experiencers, the visions can range from punishing to sublime. The sensations can range from cosmic insignificance to an ecstatic connection with the living world. Personal issues and private traumas may become transparent. Anthropologist Jeremy Narby, who spoke via Skype at the conference, claims scientists who have used the substance have experienced sudden, remarkable insights into long-standing research problems.

    In spite of the high somatic entrance fee – it’s also know indigenously as La Purga – this “harsh teacher” is now a big deal for tourists of the psyche. Travellers from across the world arrive in the Amazon area looking for medicine men, or curanderos, to whack open their unconscious minds like prize-filled piñatas. Journalists from glossy publications fly down on the company dime to blow their minds through an archaic biotechnology of the soul and try to describe the indescribable. (The domestic use of ayahuasca is currently in something of a legal limbo in Canada.)

    Harvard University ethnobotanist Richard Evan Schultes first identified ayahuasca’s active ingredients in the early 1950’s. Although the jungle-trekking professor had no time for the hippies and beatniks that retraced his steps, he introduced a thrill-seeking beat writer William Burroughs to the potion. In 1953, Burroughs arrived in Bogotá and wrote back to his poet friend Allen Ginsberg about the terrifying visions produced by a hideous-tasting concoction the locals called yagé. Ginsberg, enticed into the jungle and a yagé ceremony some years later, wrote Burroughs back about own experiences, which included sensing a being that “was like some great void, surrounded by all creation – particularly coloured snakes.” (Snakes are rumoured to be dependable visitors in ayahuasca visions.)

    Burroughs and Ginsberg’s correspondence, documented in The Yagé Letters (published in 1963), lit up some minor interest in the cultural fringe, but the plant concoction got its biggest boost with the Amazonian travelogues of the McKenna brothers. In the mid-seventies, Terence and his younger brother Dennis set off into the rainforest to investigate the Gaian “Overmind,” preserving their hallucinogenic explorations in the arcane but entertaining texts The Invisible Landscape and True Hallucinations.

    The situation today can be rather disappointing for some travellers seeking a ‘genuine’ shamanic experience with ayahuasca. Ethnobotanist Kat Harrison spoke at the UBC conference on how “lucky kids” from the rich First World arrive into “an economy of scarcity,” looking for all the “wonderful things” that the indigenous people are surely eager to share. Naive travellers looking to turn the inside of their skulls into IMAX screens might as well be hitting the tarmac with bull’s-eyes on their backs, however. Harrison paints a picture of the mindset at work: young explorers “sitting outside a gringo café” are chanced on by a local claiming to be a “medicine man” and isn’t it just marvellous that the universe had their paths cross? “That’s the level of discernment I’m talking about,” she says.

    In Quito, one of the hotspots of ayahuasca tourism, “zombie kids” can be seen drifting around town, Harrison says. These are young tourists who have been psychologically bruised by quickie ceremonies with bad concoctions. These train wrecks are partly the unfortunate outcome of misunderstanding across cultures, Harrison adds. Excessive demand from tourists is eliminating the plants that go into the ayahuasca brew from the Amazon basin. A peasant farmer with a hungry family to feed, who has hung out a shingle as a curandero, figures the white rich kids just want to obliterate their senses – so he finds the next best thing. Another speaker suggests some of these zombie kids may have been sold scopolamine, a potent tranquilizer; several others at the conference attested to sightings of “zombie kids” in Quito.

    Dr. Gabor Mate ran a popular family practice in East Vancouver for two decades and once served as Medical Coordinator of the Palliative Care Unit at Vancouver Hospital. He shook his head as he shared a rumour about an ayahuasca gathering in the Gulf Islands. Up to 120 people at a time were left to plumb their own miseries and ecstasies, with a jukebox playing and an absent organizer, he learned. “It’s a money making proposition, there’s no context there and it’s dangerous.”

    Probably the last thing Mate and other conference speakers want to see is another moral panic over yet another drug, especially one with so much therapeutic potential. In the psychedelic parlance, ‘set and setting’ are all important – frame of mind and surroundings. In aboriginal cultures, ceremony and ritual provide context, ensuring a supportive context for psychic navigation of a strong medicine. In Brazil, ayahuasca is the sacrament of a legally recognized synchretic practice, Santo Daime. (In 2005, the US Supreme Court approved the ceremonial use of ayahuasca on US soil by an offshoot of the Santo Daime, the União do Vegetal.)

    Given the wild west nature of some psychedelic tourism, the speakers were in agreement of a pressing need for agreed-upon standards of use of traditional medicinal plants in North America. Therapists, psychologists and health professionals working with these substances must offer full disclosure to clients and seek informed consent. (The agreement with clients of Iboga Therapy House, a privately funded healing retreat on BC’s Sunshine Coast, runs to 32 pages, says program director Sandra Karpetas.)

    Artists, musicians and writers have long known of the creative potential of certain non-addictive substances, as have many computer programmers and scientists. The Nobel Prize-wining biochemist Kary Mullis has claimed he came up with the idea for the “polymerase chain reaction,” a scientifically revolutionary technique for copying fragments of DNA, while under the influence of LSD. Spiritual experiences are also not uncommon. And there is growing evidence that psychedelics are useful in addressing hard-to-treat disorders, particularly alcoholism and drug addiction. Yet these substances, many of them still illegal outside of medical research circles, can also precipitate psychopathology in users predisposed to psychosis – especially if they are used with no regard to set and setting, or dosage. The best analogy for psychedelics is the family car – it can be used as a tool to transport you safely from one place to another, or as a joy-riding, four-wheeled weapon.

    Mate argues for the health benefits of ayahuasca and ibogaine, when they are used with caution and respect for their power. “All illness, from my perspective…all this represents a story, a narrative that a person constructs very early in life. And the way they live brings them into illness or into addiction,” he observes. “What is at the core is the connection to everything. The sacred is about getting beyond the personality, getting the to point of authenticity beyond the conditioned self. That is what the spiritual traditions boil down, as far as I understand them.”

    Dennis McKenna believes the medical establishment’s separation of health and spirituality is arbitrary and that they are two sides of the same existential coin. He points to a 2006 study by Roland Griffiths of John Hopkins University on psilocybin-induced mystical experiences. More than 60 percent of the subjects described effects that were indistinguishable from a “full mystical experience” as measured by established psychological parameters. One third said it was the single most spiritually significant experience of their life and more than two-thirds ranked it among their five most meaningful and spiritually significant experiences. According to Griffiths, the subjects compared it in importance to the birth of their first child or the death of a parent. “These were not druggies,” Mckenna observes. “These were people who had never taken psychedelics. They had no particular interest in that, but they were interested in spirituality.”

    “Wouldn’t you think Pfizer would be interested in a drug like that?” McKenna asked rhetorically. Perhaps not. The psychedelic experience is simply too mercurial for corporate legal departments to endorse as another lifestyle drug. It’s all good fun grokking the invisible landscape, until the snakes arrive. If marketers want to see consumers blissed-out on some Huxleyan “soma,” it probably won’t be derived from dreamworld roto-rooters like psilocybin or ayahuasca.

    McKenna adds that the spiritual dimension of psychedelics (or “entheogens” as they are commonly called in this context) is not mutually exclusive with a scientific view of the world. “It’s misguided for anyone to try to become indigenous, unless they already are. We’re not going to become Amazonian shamans; we can learn from their practices, and adapt them to our own post electronic twenty-first century environment. The important thing is that there is a context.”

    On the one side, you have the remarkable biochemical properties of certain plants. On the other side, you have the vast, uncharted territory of the human psyche. In between is the visionary realm conjured up by the overlap of these two worlds. Dr. Gabor Mate told of a conversation with a client with ALS, a terminal illness. “After his first ayahuasca trip, he said, ‘I came here to save my life. I understand now that saving my life doesn’t necessarily mean living longer; it means living while I’m alive.’ That meant he got beyond the conditioned personality.”

    Mate has worked with people on the margins of society – the drinkers, the drug-addicted, the disturbed and discarded. Many of these people have constructed personal narratives with unhappy endings. With intention, there is always an opportunity to edit the text – and depending on the person, traditional plant medicine can aid the process, Mate observes.“There is nothing more beautiful to see than someone who comes to realize how beautiful they are inside,” the doctor adds.

    By the time the conference wound down, I had a writing pad full of exclamation marks and underlined quotes. I was impressed by the speakers’ combination of conviction and caution. I was moved by the words of Chenoa Egawa of the Native American Church, who spoke with great eloquence on how her people’s medicine gave her a voice. One of the common reports from entheogenic experiences involves a momentary sense of deep connection to the living world. This experience may persist in memory as a profound truth. This is the ultimate irony: that ingesting plants and fungi sometimes facilitates an attitude of respect and reverence for the biosphere, the matrix of botanical life. We’d do well to remember that, in terms of plant-human co-evolution, the hairless primate is the junior partner. And the story is far from over.

    Plants are boring? Not on your life.

    August 2011

    Article and illustration by Geoff Olson


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