From behind their swirling, hypnotic eyes, the collective attention of your ancestors gather around a sacred fire. Maybe they come to celebrate the transition of one of their daughters from girlhood to motherhood. Perhaps they seek answers from the gods about how to stop flood or famine. Or maybe they are here to heal a grief-struck widow with a cracking fault line slicing through her soul.
From hand to hand, they pass around a cup of foul-smelling tea and choke it down. Or maybe it is fragrant and deadly sweet. The oldest and wisest of them waits with a still, unshakable majesty. The rest fidget about: young, unknowing, and less prepared.
All at once, they transition from one world to another.
When they return, none of them is the same.
The scene above sprang entirely from imagination. It is a composite of a thousand cultures, and yet no culture at all.
But every one of us descends from something like it.
The use of psychoactive plants in sacred ritual is among the oldest sacraments in recorded history. Evidence for their inclusion in religious rites dates back to prehistoric North Africa, the Amazon and Europe. Cave drawings in North Africa and Spain suggest tribes there used magic mushrooms in religious ceremonies as far back 9,000 and 6,000 years ago, respectively. Samples found in caves near the Rio Grande in Texas reveal that native tribes there used peyote at least 5,000 years ago.
References to the near-mythical use of flying ointment for astral projection among practitioners of witchcraft appears in European records since the 16th century.
Some scholars have even suggested that the Christian Eucharist and the apple depicted in the tale of Adam & Eve were both actually psychedelic substances. (It should be noted that that particular theory is highly speculative. Then again, so is much of ancient history).
Either way, even the most conservative anthropologists recognize that hallucinogens played a significant role in the early evolution of spiritual development.
“Okay, but just because it’s ancient, doesn’t make it wise.”
Fair point. The ancients engaged in all kinds of behavior we would find abhorrent, inhumane or just plain dumb today.
But the reverse is also true: just because the modern world stigmatizes the use of psychedelic substances for spiritual development doesn’t mean it’s a wise attitude, or even morally sound.
Let’s talk a little about why the way most developed nations criminalize the use of substances like peyote, magic mushrooms and ayahuasca profoundly restricts the spiritual and religious freedom of their people—–even people who don’t believe in any religion at all.
“Religious freedom? Seriously? Aren’t there more pressing issues facing religious minorities?”
Of course. Obviously, genocide, systemic persecution, forced child “marriage” (aka kidnapping and religiously-sanctioned sexual exploitation) and genital mutilation all rank way higher than the right to use magic mushrooms for religious insight.
No comparison can be made to those things, and I am in no way suggesting they somehow equate.
But comparing a lesser transgression to a greater one never solved anything, and I do believe this is important enough to many religious minorities to warrant serious consideration.
For some people, using sacred psychedelic plants as a tool to access the divine is a birthright—one that has been stripped from them in the United States since its criminalization in the 1970s.
“Are you sure these people don’t just want an excuse to get high?”
Obviously, if the law relaxes prohibition of psychodelic substances, people with less noble intentions than spiritual enlightenment will undoubtedly creep out of the shadows and take advantage of the circumstances to use them for recreational purposes.
The thing is, these people already do this without much trouble. They need only to attend a summer festival or concert to acquire these types of substances—-which are entirely unregulated and somewhat dangerous, both in terms of physical safety and criminal liability.
But for people with sincere religious and spiritual interest in psychodelics who want to obey the law and not feel criminalized for pursuing their spiritual interests, the path to a legitimate religious experience is narrow and extraordinarily limited.
For these people, legalization means finding safe, regulated institutions where this is possible.
“Wouldn’t legalizing hallucinogenic substances promote addiction?”
Interesting that you bring that up.
First of all, it’s important to note that some people with a predisposition to compulsive behavior have the potential to become addicted to anything—-even hand-washing or diets.
On the flip some, some substances are so powerfully addictive, they can spawn an addiction in anyone, even someone with no personal or family history of addiction..
But psychedelics like mushrooms and ayahuasca don’t seem to trigger the addiction cycle in the same way that opiods or methamphetamines do.
Promising new studies even suggest that magic mushrooms may offer new hope for addiction treatment.
Meanwhile, many of the drugs that are most likely to trigger an addiction cycle are available legally with a prescription, or, in the case of alcohol, even without one.
“Wait, wait. I thought ayahuasca and peyote were legal for Native Americans in ritual use.”
The common misconception that all Native Americans may legally use peyote comes from a little bit fact and a lot of ignorance.
Some Native Americans have been granted an exemption under the Controlled Substance Act of 1970 (specifically, members of the Native American Church specifically in “bonafide religious ceremonies.”) Several subsequent rulings at the state and federal level have addressed the matter.
The legal status of ayahuasca is much more dubious, even for Native Americans. The issue hasn’t been challenged or litigated thoroughly enough to produce clear case law. Ayahuasca retreats in the US therefore rely on a vague interpretation of several higher court rulings.
If tested further, new rulings may change things dramatically.
Either way, in the United States, pagans with religious interest in the use of psychodelic substances (like flying ointment) lack clear protection. Some people believe this is a blatant violation of our right to practice our religion freely.
“Okay, but won’t legalization do more harm than good?”
I would argue that by criminalizing drugs with profound potential for medicinal use, we are doing more harm than good.
People with serious mental health conditions for which we’ve made little progress in the last 20 years or so—-depression, anxiety, combat veterans with PTSD—have turned (as on example) to ayahuasca for treatment. Many have had excellent results.
Unfortunately, the legal status in the United States often means traveling to South America, where government often regulates retreats poorly or not at all.
Opening the door in the US for research into treatment options that employ these substances—-which, by the way, are far less addictive than many of the current legal options for PTSD and anxiety—has the potential to be life-altering for people struggling with mental health disorders.
“Hold on. I thought you were making an argument for the spiritual use of these drugs?”
I am. Perhaps you are asking the wrong person.
While Western medicine continues to divide the subject of “health” and “spirituality,” for people with spiritual beliefs that include holistic traditional medicine , spiritual, mental and physical health are inseparable. You cannot be simultaneously physically “well” and spiritually “unwell” because the spirit and the body are intrinsically linked.
I think we owe it to our soldiers, our brothers and sisters suffering from deep depression and anxiety, and those on a rougher road to spiritual enlightenment the opportunity to explore options beyond the ones that continue to fail them.
“Aren’t these drugs dangerous?”
That’s a loaded question. Let’s unpack it.
First of all, it depends on what we’re talking about. Peyote, ayahuasca, magic mushrooms and the typical ingredients in flying ointment all carry different risks.
In very, very rare cases, some of these medicines have led to the death of the person ingesting them.
So has Tylenol.
Of course, it is not my intention to make light of the decision to ingest a psychotropic drug for spiritual (or any other) reasons. It is a serious matter with serious consequences and has a potentially life-altering impact—this is both its danger and its promise.
Risks Associated with Magic Mushrooms
The people involved in most fatalities associated with hallucinogenic fungi (like common magic mushrooms) were doing something exceptionally stupid at the time of their death—-like driving a car. Taking simple precautions, like not operating heavy machinery during intoxication, likely would have prevented most of these deaths.
Every state in the Union has some kind of legal mechanism in place to prosecute people who drive while intoxicated, regardless of the legal status of the intoxicating substance. So legalizing those substances would not legalize the riskier behavior associated with fatal ingestion.
But even in cases where death resulted directly from drug exposure, legalization and regulation of dosages would make them safer, not more dangerous.
Risks Associated with Flying Ointment
The traditional ingredients in a witch’s flying ointment (like henbane, deadly nightshade and mandrake) are admittedly notoriously dangerous and absolutely have the potential to be life-threatening on their own if improperly dosed.
Though most of us have the good sense to steer clear, many witches also feel that flying ointments are a sacred potion and modern witches continue to rely on vague historical texts to concoct recipes at great risk to their personal safety.
Legalization opens the door for proper regulation and dosage control, dramatically reducing that risk. It also raises the possibility of substituting safer alternatives, like peyote or psilocybin.
Risks Associated with Ayahuasca
Ayahuasca carries some small, but serious risks—–mostly in conjunction with other medications or health concerns.
People have died because they mixed certain substances with an ayahuasca brew to intensify the effects or failed to follow proper preparation precautions.
Very similarly, people have died from alcohol poisoning because they chose to mix it with certain pharmaceuticals.
Again, proper training and dosage regulation dramatically reduces these risks.