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An Abridged History of Psychedelic Use and Criminalisation

  • Post category:Analysis

Rachel Cervenak and Kody Zalewski provide an abridged history of psychedelic use and criminalisation before taking stock of where we are and where we’re headed.

For thousands of years, psychedelic substances were utilized in various cultures, each with their own traditions and approaches for dealing with psychoactive drugs. The process of recriminalising psychedelic drugs took place in the mid-20th century following the international norms of criminalisation and prohibition established by the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs. This global agreement influenced countries to adopt strict drug policies, including the classification of psychedelics as illegal substances. This period of international alignment led to a uniform approach to drug control and limited the autonomy of individual countries in setting their drug policies.

However, in recent years, there has been a notable shift in attitudes away from this global consensus. Lately, as these compounds are being rediscovered, attitudes towards their use are shifting, both in terms of public perception and legal regulations. As a result, an increasing number of countries are adopting novel approaches that accommodate and acknowledge the therapeutic potential of psychedelics through legal reform.

Indigenous Traditions

Psychedelic substances have a long and rich history of cultural and spiritual use across various ancient civilizations. Many Indigenous societies have regarded, and continue to regard, psychedelics as sacred tools that facilitate communication with the divine and offer insights into the nature of existence. These practices were often deeply embedded in religious and healing rituals, fostering a connection between humans, nature, and the spiritual realm. Let’s delve deeper into some specific examples:

Peyote in Mexico and the U.S.

Archeological evidence suggests that Indigenous people have communed with Peyote for over five thousand years. Peyote (Lophophora williamsii) grows in northern Mexico and a small part of Texas, known as the “Peyote Gardens.” More specifically, it is situated in the Chihuahuan desert and Tamaulipan Thornscrub ecoregions. Peyote ceremonies have been practiced by various Indigenous groups such as the Huichol, Nahua, Tarahumara, Cora, Tepehuan, and more recently the Native American Church (NAC). Although the ceremonial usage of peyote is commonly connected with Native American tribes of the United States and the Huichol of Mexico, there is a resurgence of Texas-native traditions led by the descendants of the Mission Indians. Many of these individuals, who often identify as Coahuiltecans, currently reside in and around the San Antonio area. 

Ayahuasca in Central and South America

The Indigenous people of Central and South America have a long-standing tradition of working with ayahuasca, a powerful psychedelic brew. Ayahuasca is prepared by combining the Banisteriopsis caapi vine, which contains harmala alkaloids, with the leaves of Psychotria viridis or other plants rich in dimethyltryptamine (DMT). This combination induces intense visionary experiences and is used in healing ceremonies, vision quests, and spiritual practices. The term “ayahuasca” originates from the Quechua language and is formed by combining two words: “aya,” which signifies concepts related to the deceased or the dead, and “waskha,” which refers to elements like rope, cord, or braided wire. As a result, it has often been interpreted as “the vine of the dead.” Ayahuasca is considered a sacred plant teacher, offering insights into the nature of existence, personal healing, and communion with the spirit world.

Role of Iboga in Bwiti Spiritual and Cultural Practice

The Bwiti religion, practiced by several Indigenous communities in Central Africa, incorporates the use of the iboga plant (Tabernanthe iboga) into their rituals. Iboga also known as bois sacré (translating to “sacred wood”) contains ibogaine, a psychoactive compound known for its hallucinogenic properties. The rootbark of the iboga plant is typically harvested and consumed in various forms, such as chewed directly or prepared into a powder or paste. Consumption of iboga plays a vital role in Bwiti initiation ceremonies, marking significant life transitions, such as the entrance into adulthood or the assumption of important social or spiritual roles. These initiation rituals are elaborate and can last for several days, during which the initiates ingest significant amounts of iboga. It is believed to enable direct communication with ancestral spirits, provide guidance, and facilitate personal transformation.

Fly Agaric Fungi among the Sámi People

The Sámi, Indigenous people inhabiting parts of Northern Europe, have a historical connection with the Amanita muscaria mushroom, commonly known as fly agaric. This distinctive red-and-white mushroom contains psychoactive compounds, including muscimol and ibotenic acid. The Sámi people traditionally used fly agaric in their shamanic practices and religious ceremonies. Shamanism played a crucial role in Sámi spiritual traditions, and the shaman, known as a “noaidi,” acted as a spiritual intermediary, connecting the community with the spiritual realm and the forces of nature. 

Psilocybin Mushrooms across Various Cultures

Mycological and archeological evidence supports the possibility that prehistoric cultures worldwide, spanning continents such as Africa, Europe, Asia, and the Americas, have incorporated various species of the Psilocybe genus into entheogenic rituals. Psilocybin mushrooms contain the psychoactive compound psilocybin, which is converted to psilocin in the body. These mushrooms have been revered as sacred sacraments, allowing individuals to experience profound spiritual insights, connect with nature, and explore the depths of their consciousness. Examples include the Indigenous Mazatec people in Mexico who have a rich tradition of using Psilocybe mushrooms for divination and healing ceremonies.

In all these cases, the use of psychedelic substances was deeply rooted in the cultural and spiritual fabric of these ancient civilizations. These substances were regarded as gateways to the spiritual realm, offering profound experiences, healing, and a deeper understanding of the universe. The rituals and practices associated with these substances aimed to foster harmony between humans, nature, and the divine, and were often guided by experienced shamans or spiritual leaders who served as intermediaries between the physical and spiritual worlds.

Introduction of Psychedelics to Western Culture

Since the dawn of the industrial revolution, Western culture has taken a mixed approach to handling consumption of psychoactive substances. During the 19th Century the British Empire sought to expand the trade of opium to East Asia against their wishes. This resulted in the Opium Wars and expansion of Western hegemony into this region of the world. In the 20th Century, refinement of chemical compounds led to the discovery of synthetic compounds like LSD and MDMA.

The benefits of both natural and synthetic psychoactives were quickly realized by the medical establishment. Throughout the 1950s and 60s American researchers discovered numerous uses of psychedelic compounds including treatment of alcoholism and depression amongst others. However, the use of psychedelics by counterculture groups was by authorities seen as a threat to the established order. The rise of temperance movements and the eventual global prohibition of psychoactive substances fueled the stigmatization of psychedelics. International drug control treaties, such as the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs in 1961, played a crucial role in classifying psychedelics as illegal substances and imposing criminal penalties for their possession and distribution. In 1970, the Controlled Substances Act was passed, making possession of these compounds punishable by law in the United States. Most other nations followed suit after the 1971 UN Convention, which contributed to the stifling of research into psychedelic drugs. On June 17th, 1971, U.S. President Richard Nixon declared drug abuse “America’s public enemy number one,” marking the beginning of the global war on drugs. This sweeping federal law led to the mass imprisonment of domestic drug users and suppliers. However, the full gravity of the war on drugs was targeted abroad—sparking a wave of extreme violence in Central and Latin America that many are still living with today.

Loopholes have existed in some nations such as the Netherlands and Switzerland despite the widespread ban on psychoactive drugs as having “no medical use”.  Persistent efforts were made to reopen research into drugs like MDMA in the 1990s and psilocybin in the 2000s. Following several successful clinical investigations, organizations like the FDA in the United States have permitted increasing numbers of studies into psychedelics as valid forms of treatment. Starting with Portugal in 2001, many countries also recognize that criminalization is an unsuccessful form of dealing with substance use disorders and have sought to decriminalize simple possession of illicit substances. 

Where We Are

In recent years, there has been a palpable resurgence of interest in psychedelics and a thorough reexamination of their potential benefits. A growing body of scientific research has highlighted their therapeutic potential in treating various mental health conditions, such as depression, anxiety, and PTSD. This research, along with public advocacy and shifting public opinion, has led to the relaxation of some drug policies around psychedelics in certain jurisdictions. Some regions and countries have decriminalized or initiated pilot programs for psychedelic-assisted therapies. Proposition 122 decriminalized natural medicines, such as psilocybin, DMT, ibogaine and mescaline (non-peyote derived), for people aged 21 and older in Colorado. Psychedelic substances are being reconsidered in the context of spirituality and consciousness exploration, with religious and contemplative communities recognizing their potential for facilitating transformative experiences and spiritual insights. Oregon and Colorado are also rolling out psilocybin wellness regulatory frameworks for people 21 and older to access psilocybin in a controlled setting, under the supervision of a licensed facilitator. The reemergence of psychedelic research and its integration into mainstream medical and therapeutic practices, alongside religious and contemplative communities, signifies a profound shift in how psychedelic substances are being perceived, understood, and regulated. 

The psychedelic renaissance has also sparked a broader reevaluation of drug policy, with a growing recognition of the need for evidence-based approaches and harm reduction strategies. The UN has shifted in its drug policy stance towards decriminalization, adopting a common policy on drugs, which commits to support member states in decriminalizing drug possession for personal use. 

Where We’re Headed

With the increasing recognition of their therapeutic potential and the accumulation of scientific evidence supporting their efficacy in treating mental health conditions, there is a growing momentum towards decriminalization and regulation that prioritizes public health and harm reduction (or as some prefer to say, risk reduction or benefit maximization.) This shift is likely to result in more nuanced drug policies that distinguish between medical and non-medical use, allowing for controlled and supervised therapeutic applications.

As psychedelic research expands, there may be an increased emphasis on evidence-based practices, standardized protocols, and professional training for those working with psychedelic therapies. These developments may lead to the integration of psychedelics into mainstream healthcare systems, where they can be utilized as adjuncts to traditional therapies. Furthermore, the evolving understanding of psychedelics’ potential for personal growth, spiritual exploration, and creative enhancement may lead to the development of frameworks that respect individual autonomy and allow for responsible use outside of medical settings. While the future of psychedelic policy appears promising, it will undoubtedly require ongoing dialogue and collaboration about the balancing of individual freedoms and public safety.

It is essential to exercise caution and critically reflect upon the potential consequences of solely relying on the medicalization of psychedelics as the primary avenue for accessing these substances. While the growing field of psychedelic-assisted therapy offers immense promise in addressing mental health conditions, it is important to recognize the rich cultural and spiritual traditions that have long utilized psychedelics as sacred tools for connecting with the natural and spiritual realms. Indigenous traditions worldwide have valued and safeguarded these practices for generations, recognizing the inherent human right to commune with psychedelics and the profound wisdom they offer.

Indigenous communities have long safeguarded the ancient wisdom and practices surrounding keystone medicines, carrying a profound understanding of their cultural, spiritual, and healing significance into the future. Inclusion of Indigenous voices and perspectives in policy discussions becomes paramount as we forge a harmonious path ahead.

Reciprocity and benefit sharing will retain their utmost importance in the realm of sacred psychedelic plants and fungi, acknowledging the interconnectedness between humanity and the natural world. This recognition emphasizes the need for balanced and respectful relationships, extending beyond financial transactions. The Indigenous Reciprocity Initiative exemplifies this principle by distributing funds unconditionally, supporting Indigenous community projects, and fostering education and collaboration for the preservation of biocultural heritage.

Similarly, organizations like Benefit Honoring and the Indigenous Medicine Conservation Fund play a pivotal role in cultivating alliances among corporate entities, private interests, and Indigenous communities. By uplifting the leadership of Indigenous communities, who possess profound knowledge of their local ecosystems and cultural traditions, these organizations shape a future rooted in equity. Benefit sharing stands as a cornerstone, ensuring that Indigenous communities share in the benefits derived from psychedelic substances. Upholding reciprocity and benefit sharing necessitates inclusive decision-making, informed consent, and fair agreements. By respecting these principles, we will pave the way for the establishment of just frameworks that not only honor Indigenous contributions and rights but also propel us into a more enlightened future.

In conclusion, as psychedelics become integrated into mainstream medical frameworks, it will be necessary to ensure that the accessibility and affordability of psychedelic-assisted therapy are not limited by high prices or exclusive licensing. It is vital to advocate for the protection and recognition of religious and spiritual use, acknowledging the significance of these practices in fostering individual and collective well-being. Balancing medicalization with the preservation of cultural and spiritual rights is essential to ensure that all individuals have the opportunity to connect with psychedelics and the transformative experiences they offer, whether within a therapeutic context or within the framework of religious and spiritual traditions.