Written by Matthew Parsons
In many religions and cultures, there are traditional practices which are not in accordance with modern law. The main practice I would like to talk about is the use of psychoactive substances in rituals. Substances such as psilocybe mushrooms, ayahuasca/ DMT, peyote, the San Pedro cactus, and cannabis have been used as part of religious practices. In today’s society, all of these substances, with the slight exception of the San Pedro cactus (legal if not produced for consumption) and psilocybe mushrooms (legal until they are picked), are illegal in the United States. With the passing of the American Indian Religious Freedom Act of 1978, peyote was legalized for use by Native American tribes. This act was given extra support with the passage of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1994, which legalized possession, transport, and use of peyote regarding Native American ceremonies. However, this begs the question: with the legalization of substance use in traditional ceremonies, should even more illegal traditional practices be legalized? Why not legalize, say, human sacrifice or ritualistic cannibalism? Given that the “victim” consents, why should we not allow it? Should our modern ideals and laws keep old traditions down? What gives us the right to come into other people’s land and tell them that they can no longer continue to practice every aspect and ritual of their religion just because we don’t agree with it?
Now, before we start getting into the main focus of the article, I would like to talk a little bit about the drugs and their main laws (not the religious drug use laws). In the United States, drugs are classified in a schedule system. The lower the schedule, the less useful it is deemed to be. With being less useful mostly comes being more illegal, if that makes any sense. While there’s really no such thing as more or less illegal, there are different charges for each drug depending on several factors. These factors include amount of the drug in possession, possible intent to sell, and possible paraphernalia. The schedule system is very odd in the sense that hardcore drugs and much lower impact drugs share the same schedules.
According to the official DEA website, “Schedule I drugs, substances, or chemicals are defined as drugs with no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse.”. Drugs listed as Schedule I include, but are not limited to: heroin, LSD, MDMA, DMT, peyote, and marijuana. That being said, the penalty of marijuana possession is much less serious in the eyes of the law compared to the penalty of heroin possession. Another flaw is that these drugs are very different in their effects as well. Marijuana has never caused a direct death (i.e. serious overdose), while heroin is a leading contribution to the current opioid epidemic in America. Schedule II drugs are defined by the DEA as “substances, or chemicals are defined as drugs with a high potential for abuse, with use potentially leading to severe psychological or physical dependence. These drugs are also considered dangerous.”. Here, you’ll find Adderall, Ritalin, cocaine, methamphetamine, and fentanyl. Very much like the first schedule, there is a wide range of drugs included inside of Schedule II. The schedules carry on through Schedule V, but the substances relevant to this paper are all in the first schedule, meaning they are deemed to be the most useless and dangerous drugs around. So if that’s true, why have these substances been used in the pursuit of spirituality for centuries?
The substances most commonly used in spiritual pursuits are psychedelics. Psychedelics are commonly used in tribal religions as a way of learning more about yourself and the world around you. There are many types of psychedelic substances, all with differing effects. The first substance that should be brought up is N,N-Dimethyltryptamine. Known as DMT, this substance has been commonly used in the pursuit of spirituality since before the year 1500. DMT is considered by many to be the most powerful psychedelic in the world. When smoked, DMT will cause powerful visual hallucinations. If enough is taken (different amounts for each person), you can experience DMT’s special effect: a breakthrough. A DMT breakthrough involves smoking a good amount of DMT (most commonly between 20 mg and 50 mg). Once inhaled, the smoke is held in for about fifteen seconds. If enough is smoked to cause a breakthrough, the user will appear to pass out for around five minutes. While blacked out, users report being transported to different worlds where they may encounter strange beings. Commonly known as the machine elves, these beings are said to hold the answers to any question you may have and can show up in any form. However, it is very common for users to not remember exactly what the machine elves tell them. Because of the short duration of the trip, a DMT trip is commonly called the businessman’s trip. Interestingly, DMT is known to not build up a tolerance. In Rick Strassman’s DMT: The Spirit Molecule, he states, “DMT appeared unique in that tolerance was quite difficult to demonstrate, even in animals given full doses every two hours around the clock for twenty-one days in a row.” (Strassman 136). Whereas it can take over a week for your tolerance to return to normal after most other psychedelics, the tolerance to DMT is practically nonexistent.
Traditionally used in South America (specifically by tribes of the Amazon Basin area), DMT is also very commonly consumed as a sort of brew known as ayahuasca. DMT in its extracted form is most commonly smoked or vaporized since DMT is not orally active (which just means if you eat it by itself, it won’t affect you). In ayahuasca, an MAOI (monoamine oxidase inhibitor) is added to the DMT containing plant, allowing the DMT to be orally active. To make ayahuasca, you would take an MAOI (in the Amazon, the Banisteriopsis caapi vine is the most common source) and boil it with a DMT containing plant (such as Mimosa hostilis, and Justicia pectoralis). Certain shamans may also have other ingredients, but this is the most simple form. An ayahuasca trip is very different from a standard DMT trip. Firstly, most people will throw up when they consume ayahuasca. This is considered an important feature, and is said to help cleanse your body. After that, they will gradually transition into the trip. Similar to a standard DMT trip, users report seeing the machine elves. Unlike a standard DMT trip, you are still awake during the trip, and it lasts for up to several hours. Many people go to so-called ayahuasca retreats in South America, where they can legally consume ayahuasca.
Next, I would like to talk about other naturally occurring psychedelics which are frequently used in spiritual journeys. The first of these substances that I would like to talk about is psilocybin. Psilocybin is one of the active hallucinogenic substances in magic mushrooms. The other main active ingredient is psilocin, which is also known as 4-HO-DMT. Magic mushrooms have reportedly been used in rituals as far back as seven to nine thousand years. Cave paintings found in the Tassili caves of Algeria show what appears to be the species Psilocybe mairei. In pre Spanish Conquest Mexico, the Aztecs used the Psilocybe mexicana species of mushroom in rituals. The effects of psilocybe mushrooms are very different to DMT. A mushroom trip can last upwards of seven hours. Up to an hour after ingesting, a user may start to feel very happy. This is the beginning of the come up period. A couple hours in, the user will reach what is known as the peak of the trip. This period is where the user’s mind is being affected the most. The effects, like any psychedelic, can be drastically different every time, even for the same user. It is always best to take psychedelics while in good mental shape and in a place you feel comfortable and/ or safe.
While on a powerful psychedelic like psilocybin or LSD, you can have numerous profound experiences. One of the most terrifying and most enlightening experiences one can have on a psychedelic is what is known as an ego death. An ego death is basically when a user’s mind convinces them that they are dead. Although not in any physical danger, it is common for people to not be able to move during an ego death. An ago death can lead to a person making big changes in their lifestyle, usually for the better. An ego death is not a necessary part of the spiritual journey with psychedelics, though it can easily end up being the defining moment of one.
While there are other spiritually used substances such as marijuana and peyote, DMT and psilocybin are the most profound. That being said, the chemical in peyote, mescaline, is also present in certain species of magic mushrooms. The Amanita muscaria mushroom is the most notable example of one such mushroom. Having a red cap with white spot and a white stem, The Amanita muscaria mushroom is also known as the Alice in Wonderland mushroom. Although classified as a magic mushroom, there is no psilocybin in A. muscaria. As stated previously, it contains mescaline, and is poisonous if not prepared correctly. In South America, there are various tribes that utilize A. muscaria in rituals. It is said that in an A. muscaria ritual of the Koryak people, the shaman would consume a number of the mushrooms and use their own body to filter out the poison. Then, the shaman would urinate into the mouths of the tribespeople. This would allow the tribespeople to experience the mescaline trip without worrying about the toxins from A. muscaria (though fatalities related to A. muscaria are rare, it is not recommended to eat this mushroom unprepared). Mescaline is said to have a visually stronger and longer lasting trip compared to psilocybe mushrooms.
Overall, in the eyes of the law, all of the previously mentioned substances are deemed to have no accepted medical use, while also having a tendency to cause a chemical dependency. This, however, is a gross misconception on the DEA’s part. Most, if not all, of the psychedelics in Schedule I are completely safe to take, and they can even help you. Research in the microdosing of psilocybin and LSD has shown to help with the alleviation of focus issues such as ADHD. It is my opinion that the DEA should reconsider the Scheduling of many substances as more research is done. Besides medical use, these substances are important to many religions. The Religious Freedom Act of 1993 made certain substances legal for specific religious groups, though I think this could be improved upon by completely legalizing psychedelic substances. If these groups didn’t have to worry about permits and transportation, it would be exponentially easier to continue their old traditions.
“Drug Scheduling.” DEA, http://www.dea.gov/drug-scheduling.
“Getting DMT.” DMT: The Spirit Molecule, by Rick Strassman, Park Street Press, 2001, pp. 136–136.