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Sacred Plants in the Age of Cynicism

by Ballard Quass, the Drug War Philosopher

May 4, 2024

keep getting tut-tutted on Reddit for my desire to use the huachuma cactus on my own in Peru. I am told that all proper use of such plant medicines must be facilitated by Andean shaman. And I agree somewhat. Certainly one's first use of such a substance should ideally be mediated by a party familiar with the effects to be expected, and since I am in Peru, I may as well go to one of the heirs of the time-honored practice, at least for my first use. But there are a number of philosophical and practical issues raised by this desire to make Andean shaman the gatekeepers of such a substance.

Should an agoraphobic in Massachusetts be required to travel to Peru in order to benefit from San Pedro Cactus? They cannot even bring themselves to leave the house and yet we want them to fly to another continent? And if one is using the cactus to beat a dependence on Big Pharma meds, do they really have to sign up for endless expensive and time-consuming shamanic retreats as opposed to using the substance at home? And how about we philosophers who want to follow up the work of William James1 2 on the effects of psychoactive substances viz the nature of ultimate reality? Are all of our experiments to be viewed through the lens of Andean practices? In that case, we are surely hamstrung. For the philosopher wants to know: what do these substances tell us and in what situations do they speak to us? It would be highly anti-scientific to presuppose that shamans have all the answers to our questions and that our job is simply to sit back and learn about the substance's effects through their eyes and their traditions.

And these are THEIR traditions. Yes, we can learn from the Andean shaman, but we need not try to BECOME them.

My critics do have a point, however, although I'm not sure that they themselves have clearly perceived it. The problem is that the western world has become quite cynical about the whole idea of sacredness over the last 200 years, and it's disturbing to many (myself included) that godsend medicines should be trivialized by materialist cynics. One envisions snarky op-ed writers at Vice dismissing huachuma as a cheap high and young recreational users doing all they can to justify that label. However, we should not behave like the Drug Warriors who think only of cases of what they personally consider to be misuse. If we want a free world again, we have to accept that there will always be jerks involved in any worthwhile activity. Besides, when it comes to teacher plants, even "recreational" users may find that they learn something from their trips even if they were not intending to.

Personally, I think the biggest threat comes from materialist science. I would much rather see San Pedro Cactus gummi bears on sale in America in a for-profit drug boutique than see Big Pharma put the master plant on the shelves of CVS Pharmacy in pill form, in a formulation specifically designed to remove all that pesky self-transcendence provided by the original medicine. For it's not just the American people who scorn the sacred, it is the FDA as well. That's why they recently fast-tracked a form of LSD for treating anxiety3. It sounded very progressive to me at first. Imagine, our FDA potentially legalizing LSD! But then I learned that they had acted only after the manufacturer had reformulated the drug to prevent the user from experiencing any visions or ecstasy. So cancel the celebration. These are one-size-fits-all pills created by reductive materialists to let Big Pharma benefit (albeit disingenuously) from the LSD "brand name."

Author's Follow-up: May 4, 2024

picture of clock metaphorically suggesting a follow-up

The shamanic use of psychoactive drugs has had its dark sides as the following citation shows from MAIN SACRED PLANTS IN SOUTH AMERICA By Ana MarĂ­a Llamazares et al.4. The substance being discussed is brugmansia, sometimes referred to as toe.

"The Chibcha in Colombia prepared a fermented liquor to which they added seeds of this species, to give to the slaves and the wives of the dead chief; this made them fall into a state of stupor before they were buried alive with the corpse."

The Choco used the same plant to make a magic liquor. Western Amazonians use it for the visions. Then there is Peruvian Shamanism informed by the admirable Andean Cosmovision5.

The point is that we can be respectful and discerning at the same time. There is shamanism and there is shamanism. Beyond imitation, we should, I think, seek to integrate huachuma into American traditions -- into American churches, I would suggest, to get those pews filled again! How? By taking into account the criticism of Quanah Parker6:

"The White Man goes into church and talks about Jesus. The Indian goes into his tipi and talks with Jesus."

AFTERTHOUGHT: The half-baked drug-law reformer seems to believe that we can legalize a substance only after we have determined that it was traditionally used in the past. This is a ridiculous criterion for re-legalization. Why should we say that the history of present-day plant use must be dictated by the past? What if we did not explore space because no ancient civilizations had ever tried to launch a rocket to the moon?

We should look at these things from the standpoint of principle. The specific drug does not matter. The fact is that tribal peoples have always used psychoactive drugs for the benefit of humanity. We should take that principle and move forward with it, rather than creating some ridiculous rule whereby we sign off on drugs only if and when we have discovered that our forbears would have approved. It's blatant obscurantism, a willful censorship of human progress in the spiritual and psychological realms. We should not just be looking for past historical uses, we should be putting these substances to work now in the many obvious ways that they could be of use today (for the depressive, for the artist, for the spiritual seeker, etc.) -- obvious uses to anyone except a materialist scientist or a racist and/or imperialist Drug Warrior.


1 William James, Harvard University, Boston, 2024 (up)
2 James, William, The Varieties of Religious Experience, Philosophical Library, New York, 1902 (up)
3 Quass, Brian, LSD for puritans, 2024 (up)
4 Maria, Ana, Main Sacred Plants in South America,, 2004 (up)
5 The Inca's Spiritual Traditions: the Andean Cosmovision, Happy Gringo Tours, 2024 (up)
6 Quanah Parker: The Last Chief of the Comanche, The Cowboy Accountant, the white man goes into (up)

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LSD Tweets

Typical materialist protocol. Take all the "wonder" out of the drug and sell it as a one-size-fits all "reductionist" cure for anxiety. Notice that they refer to hallucinations and euphoria as "adverse effects." What next? Communion wine with the religion taken out of it?
I looked up the company: it's all about the damn stock market and money. The FDA outlaws LSD until we remove all the euphoria and the visions. That's ideology, not science. Just relegalize drugs and stop telling me how much ecstasy and insight I can have in my life!!
The MindMed company (makers of LSD Lite) tell us that euphoria and visions are "adverse effects": that's not science, that's an arid materialist philosophy that does not believe in spiritual transcendence.
The FDA says that MindMed's LSD drug works. But this is the agency that has not been able to decide for decades now if coca "works," or if laughing gas "works." It's not just science going on at the FDA, it's materialist presuppositions about what constitutes evidence.
I have dissed MindMed's new LSD "breakthrough drug" for philosophical reasons. But we can at least hope that the approval of such a "de-fanged" LSD will prove to be a step in the slow, zigzag path toward re-legalization.
Clearly a millennia's worth of positive use of coca by the Peruvian Inca means nothing to the FDA. Proof must show up under a microscope.
Another problem with MindMed's LSD: every time I look it up on Google, I get a mess of links about the stock market. The drug is apparently a godsend for investors. They want to profit from LSD by neutering it and making it politically correct: no inspiration, no euphoria.

William James Tweets

William James knew that there were substances that could elate. However, it never occurred to him that we should use such substances to prevent suicide. It seems James was blinded to this possibility by his puritanical assumptions.
So he writes about the mindset of the deeply depressed, reifying the condition as if it were some great "type" inevitably to be encountered in humanity. No. It's the "type" to be found in a post-Christian society that has turned up its scientific nose at psychoactive medicine.

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