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The Drug War Imperialism of Richard Evans Schultes

a philosophical review of Hallucinogenic Plants by the founder of the field of ethnobotany

by Ballard Quass, the Drug War Philosopher

September 22, 2023

just did a little back-pedaling on Twitter.

I had recommended the book "Hallucinogenic Plants" by the founder of ethnobotany, Richard Evans Schultes, failing to have first carefully read the work in question. All I knew was that the first few pages were full of fascinating and seemingly unbiased info about Old World Drugs, and I assumed that the book in its entirety would "follow suit." In fact, I had planned to spend the next several hours reading and taking notes from this short but fact-filled classic. My hopes were at their zenith on Page 8 as I encountered the following informative factoids under the heading of OTHER ABORIGINAL USES of hallucinogenic plants:

  1. The Algonquin Indians gave their sons wysoccan as part of a coming-of-age ceremony

  2. The Gabonese used iboga root and coapi for the same purpose

  3. Many South American tribes ingest ayahuasca in order to foretell the future and settle disputes

  4. Datura has been used in Mexico and the American Southwest (along with mushrooms, peyote and morning glories) for divination and ritualistic curing

  5. The Mixtec ate "puffballs" to get answers from heaven

Amazingly, Schultes delivered all those intriguing nuggets without betraying any drug-hating biases whatsoever. (I say "amazingly" based on the Christian Science ideology that was soon to follow.) Just the facts, ma'am, just the facts. But then I turned to page 9 and the heading "USE IN THE MODERN WORLD," where Schultes began spouting the usual drug-warrior vitriol against evil awful drugs. Interestingly enough, he doesn't adduce any evidence whatsoever that such drug use is dangerous, but he implies as much when he muses that hallucinogenic substances "may have little or no value and may sometimes even be harmful or dangerous." They may, indeed, Schultes. Then again they may not. But thanks for that "insight." That's typical Drug Warrior practice, by the way: a psychoactive drug does not even have to be dangerous to be banned: it merely has to have the possibility of being dangerous in the pessimistic mind of a fretful Drug Warrior and then it can be banned at will.

While we're speaking of what "may" be, Schultesy, I would point out (in the spirit of William James, no less) that such drug use may tell us something about ultimate reality. It may also provide us with many far safer means of self-transcendence than that provided by the shabby western drug called alcohol.

"May be dangerous," indeed. Even with no evidence whatsoever, Schultes is ready to condemn a whole raft of drugs, presumably because their use is championed by ignorant savages.

Aaah! You just want to grab Schultes by the collar and shout: "You're a biologist, Schultesy, not a philosopher. Keep your disdain for the locals to yourself, along with your totally unsupported fearmongering about psychoactive substances!"

But Schultes was not yet done with his racist social criticism. He goes on to make the following observation, which is the one that made me shelve the book entirely for the nonce:

"Many people believe they can achieve 'mystic' or 'religious' experience by altering the chemistry of the body with hallucinogens, seldom realizing that they are merely reverting to the age-old practices of primitive societies."

Note, first of all, that "mystic" and "religious" are contained inside scare quotes, as if Schultes was rolling his materialist eyeballs when he penned his screed. And check out that bit about "reverting to the age-old practices of primitive societies." The implication is clear: primitive societies have exactly nothing to teach us about life, and we should be embarrassed to even consider using a practice that THOSE kind of people would find interesting and helpful."

This is philosophy, not science, and philosophy is a field in which Schultes has precisely no expertise whatsoever. And yet his racist musings about psychoactive medicines have informed Drug War policy ever since, giving a superficial veneer of legitimacy to the outrageous outlawing of drug use for religious purposes in the States, as if the DEA and the Supreme Court were qualified to tell us what constitutes a proper religious practice.

Schultes goes on to imply that the western champions of such drugs are generally either hedonists or tree-huggers, though he does go so far as to admit reluctantly that the ontological status of drug-inspired hallucinogens "is still controversial." Of course it is, Schultes. And it will always be controversial. Your materialist outlook on life can never be officially "proven" correct, even in theory, given the incompleteness theorems of Kurt Gödel. But meanwhile your stubborn insistence on your own ontological certainty about the use of hallucinogenic drugs (namely, that there is no "there" there ) can do great harm, by denying your philosophical opponents the right to live a life in conformance with their own beliefs: beliefs like the notion that mind matters, that we should seek to expand and improve our mentation, that we should welcome new sources of creativity, and that we should embrace the exciting and provocative worlds that hallucinogens provide, at least for their recreation value if not for the philosophical hints that they give us about ultimate realities.

Even by Schultes' own materialist standards, hallucinogens should be seen as prima facie good, as per the following syllogism:

A person's health is improved by both being happy and looking forward to happiness

Many westerners are made happy by hallucinogens and therefore look forward to their use

ERGO... Many westerners can improve their health by using hallucinogens

This is not to say that anticipation and elation are the only active mechanisms of hallucinogens, merely that these two elements of their perceived efficacy cannot be dismissed out of hand by naturalists as somehow flaky or inspired by illusory sources.

I'm still going to try to muddle through the book and ignore all the social criticism and philosophical presumption. The illustrations by themselves make the book a must read: that's why I peppered this essay with the same.

I still find it interesting that this book found a mainstream publisher, but back in the day, talk about drug use was still fine, as long as the speaker made it absolutely clearer that he pooh-poohed the practice. Nowadays, mere factual reporting is deemed to be counterrevolutionary, which is why the office of the ONDCP was founded on a policy of never discussing drug use in a positive context. Do drugs help native tribes bond, settle disputes and raise their young people successfully? Tough luck. Today we can only publish negative news about "drugs."

I was so irritated at Schultes' "nothing-to-see-here" attitude that I was tempted to publish this essay without reading his entire book. It's grating to hear a westerner dismissing native practices out of hand with such smug assurance. He uses the term "nightmarish" for visions that one suspects were more "awesome" or "holy" in the eyes of tribal users and the term "toxic" to describe (or rather to libel) substances whose use results in visions. But Schultes is forced to find those visions pathological, as symptoms of poisoning, since he's assumed a priori that such sensual experiences are meaningless phenomena. He does at least mention the widespread tribal belief in the telepathic powers of ayahuasca, but he is quick to reassure the reader that these are "properties for which, of course, there is no scientific basis." I guess not, since science wants to measure these things and therefore must denigrate any mere experiences, the more so in that, strictly speaking, consciousness itself is a mere epiphenomenon according to the materialist scientist of today. The only things that are real are molecules and genes. Everything else is unscientific. (That's why modern doctors can't figure out if substances like laughing gas can help the depressed: they're dutybound by materialism to ignore the obvious and to look through their microscopes instead for proof of efficacy.)

But since the work in question was short and appeared to be rich in factual details, I persevered -- which is great, because the book is richly detailed and fantastically illustrated by freelance artist Elmer W. Smith. Moreover, the author ignores his own biases long enough to give us factual accounts of the tribal use of a wide variety of "hallucinogenic" substances that I had never heard of before, or about whose entheogenic properties I had been hitherto ignorant. Of course, the term "hallucinogenic" itself is a pejorative term for naturally occurring medicines, since it presupposes Schultes' own western belief that the visions they produce are mere "false creations, proceeding from the heat-oppressed brain."

I was particularly fascinated by his description of the leaves and flowers of the Methysticodendron amesianum, which he tells us are used by "witch doctors" among the Sibundoy Indians. The Sibundoy live in an eponymous Colombian valley that the author tells us has been characterized as "the most narcoticconscious area of the New World." Sounds like a people after my own heart! I'm tempted to load up the moving van even as I type! Incidentally, I wonder who first came up with the term "witch doctor"? Surely, it was some European like Schultes who wished to slander the plant-friendly doctors of the New World with the pejorative epitaphs that had been lavished on the unruly plant-compounding females of the Old World.

Hallucinogenic Plants

reviewed on

I was the first person to review "Hallucinogenic Plants" on (see below). Looks like a review was necessary. 67 users have deemed this book a "favorite," after all, and that probably means that they are unaware (or at least insufficiently aware) of the drawbacks that I have cited above.

Schultes is a Drug War imperialist

In 1976, the US Supreme Court ruled that white Americans had no right to use psychoactive plants in religious rituals because Caucasians had no history of that practice. That was a lie in light of the psychedelic-fueled Eleusinian Mysteries, but even if it were true, it would be an absurd reason to ban a religion. And where did the court get this idea? From researchers like Schultes who wrote: "The widespread and expanding use of hallucinogens in our society may have little or no value and may sometimes even be harmful or dangerous. In any case, it is a newly imported and superimposed cultural trait without natural roots in modern western tradition." To which I answer: SO WHAT? William James said we must study altered states. The Aztec gods celebrated psychoactive plants. Surely Schultes is outside of his area of expertise when he tells us that such plants probably have no use for westerners -- as if we westerners should be happy with our drug called alcohol, which kills 95,000 Americans every year. Schultes is a cultural imperialist who helped lay the ground for the religious intolerance of the Drug War.

It will be objected that Schultes carried out much of his research prior to 1973 and the Drug War of Richard Nixon. I believe, however, that there was a "Drug War" ideology or mentality in America long before Nixon showed up to use drugs as a way of arresting and sidelining his political opponents. That mentality is the imperialist notion that materialism rules, that drugs should work in such a way as to be easily marketable, that a pill should work WITHOUT regard for set and setting, that improving one's mood through medicine is wrong, unless one does that in a very low-key way using Big Pharma meds, etc. That those who infringe upon these rules can morally and legally be removed from the workforce and have their property taken from them, etc. You know, the kind of laws that our forefathers fought for.

Author's Follow-up: September 24, 2023

I was just watching a new series on Curiosity Stream called "The Secret Life of Plants." Scientists have now finally caught up with tribal peoples by finding that plants can "hear" and see and communicate with insects and fellow plants. This is just more evidence that nature does not do things by accident, and that the preponderance of chemicals there that influence human beings is no accident, despite the scoffing of materialist scientists.

Related tweet: September 24, 2023

A new documentary series on "The Secret Life of Plants" shows how these seemingly lifeless objects can use a chemical language to call insects to its defense (egging on ladybugs to eat leaf-chewing larvae) and instruct seeds to germinate ASAP (when a fire devastates a forest).

In other words, nature does things for a purpose. The fact, therefore, that nature contains a seemingly endless supply of chemicals that inspire psychoactive states in humans is no accident. It is anti-human progress and anti-nature to outlaw the use of such substances.

Next essay: Noam Chomsky on Drugs
Previous essay: How Prohibition Causes Addiction

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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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You have been reading an article entitled, The Drug War Imperialism of Richard Evans Schultes: a philosophical review of Hallucinogenic Plants by the founder of the field of ethnobotany, published on September 22, 2023 on For more information about America's disgraceful drug war, which is anti-patient, anti-minority, anti-scientific, anti-mother nature, imperialistic, the establishment of the Christian Science religion, a violation of the natural law upon which America was founded, and a childish and counterproductive way of looking at the world, one which causes all of the problems that it purports to solve, and then some, visit the drug war philosopher, at (philosopher's bio; go to top of this page)