Oral Presentation Session
Reviewed by: Society for the Anthropology of Consciousness
Of interest to: Practicing and Applied Anthropologists, Students
Primary Theme: Health
Secondary Theme: Policy
Based on stories about traumas experienced by youths during the 1960s, substances referred to as “hallucinogens” or “psychedelics” are assumed to be inherently dangerous in mainstream Western societies. Popular fears provoked the United Nations to enact a global criminalization of these chemicals in 1971. Despite this ban, underground practitioners around the world are now deploying psychedelic materials as a psycho-spiritual therapy. Such enthusiasts reject the term “hallucinogen” because it implies that the substance engenders delusions. Acknowledging stigmas of recreational hedonism associated with the term “psychedelic”, many of these psycho-spiritual practitioners prefer the term “entheogen”. Meaning “to generate god within” in Greek, entheogen was coined to denote mind-altering substances employed in religious rituals.
Examples of psychoactive flora and fungi valued as holy sacraments in some contexts include ayahuasca, which has been and continues to be employed in indigenous and syncretic settings; species of Cannabis (containing the psychoactive molecule tetrahydrocannabinol [THC]) have long been used for entheogenic purposes in some Hindu traditions and are a central feature of Rastafarianism; ancient Mesoamericans and 20th century Mazatec shamans in Mexico engaged in the ritual use of mushrooms containing the entheogenic alkaloid psilocybin; resuming an ancient indigenous practice of northern Mexico, the Native American Church’s Christianized use of peyote cactus (containing mescaline) represents an exception to prohibition, recognized by the United States and Canadian governments as a protected religious freedom; the pre-Columbian consumption of the mescaline-containing San Pedro cactus is mirrored among present-day aboriginal groups in the South American Andes region; and finally, followers of the Bwiti religion of West-Central Africa ingest the Iboga root (containing ibogaine) in initiation rites.
Recent empirical studies seem to corroborate entheogenic devotees’ claim that these substances are benign and potentially beneficial when employed in controlled contexts. Laboratory studies apparently show that people who partake in entheogenic rites are generally healthy and well-adjusted citizens. A spate of scholarly publications is now instigating renewed public discussions about how to incorporate the remedial capacities of these substances while diminishing negative impacts of naïve and unstructured uses. The manifest dangers of entheogens lie largely with people using certain kinds of medications, those with schizophrenic or psychotic tendencies, and persons who ingest these chemicals in uncontrolled environments. Indeed, clinical research suggests that psychedelics’ health risks are minimal; moreover, the evidence indicates that within controlled contexts, psychedelics can safely alleviate depression, anxiety, and dependence on more harmful drugs. This growing scientific consensus confirms that psychedelics are non-addictive, cannot cause lethal overdose, and cause less harm to both self and society than either alcohol or tobacco. Now that facts are emerging about the safety and benefits of psychedelics/entheogens, anthropology is uniquely positioned to inform more sensible regulations based on ethnographic knowledge. Since there is presently a discord between extant legislation and the scientific findings, the papers in this session demonstrate that social scientists can help to clarify the public debate. Employing participant-observation perspectives from fieldwork with entheogenic groups, this panel intercedes in a misunderstanding between policies of prohibition and new subcultures of psycho-spiritual therapy.