Panel: Reimagining Psychedelic Drugs as Medicines: Ethnography’s Role in Assessing Ritualized Psychoactive Therapies

Organizers: Marc Blainey, Ph.D., and Bia Labate, Ph.D

Panel Abstract 

Based on stories about traumas experienced by youths during the 1960s, substances referred to as “hallucinogens” or “psychedelics” are assumed to be inherently dangerous in mainstream Western societies. Popular fears provoked the United Nations to enact a global criminalization of these chemicals in 1971. Despite this ban, underground practitioners around the world are now deploying psychedelic materials as a psycho-spiritual therapy. Such enthusiasts reject the term “hallucinogen” because it implies that the substance engenders delusions. Acknowledging stigmas of recreational hedonism associated with the term “psychedelic”, many of these psycho-spiritual practitioners prefer the term “entheogen”. Meaning “to generate god within” in Greek, entheogen was coined to denote mind-altering substances employed in religious rituals.

Examples of psychoactive flora and fungi valued as holy sacraments in some contexts include ayahuasca, which has been and continues to be employed in indigenous and syncretic settings; species of Cannabis (containing the psychoactive molecule tetrahydrocannabinol [THC]) have long been used for entheogenic purposes in some Hindu traditions and are a central feature of Rastafarianism; ancient Mesoamericans and 20th century Mazatec shamans in Mexico engaged in the ritual use of mushrooms containing the entheogenic alkaloid psilocybin; resuming an ancient indigenous practice of northern Mexico, the Native American Church’s Christianized use of peyote cactus (containing mescaline) represents an exception to prohibition, recognized by the United States and Canadian governments as a protected religious freedom; the pre-Columbian consumption of the mescaline-containing San Pedro cactus is mirrored among present-day aboriginal groups in the South American Andes region; and finally, followers of the Bwiti religion of West-Central Africa ingest the Iboga root (containing ibogaine) in initiation rites.

Recent empirical studies seem to corroborate entheogenic devotees’ claim that these substances are benign and potentially beneficial when employed in controlled contexts. Laboratory studies apparently show that people who partake in entheogenic rites are generally healthy and well-adjusted citizens. A spate of scholarly publications is now instigating renewed public discussions about how to incorporate the remedial capacities of these substances while diminishing negative impacts of naïve and unstructured uses. The manifest dangers of entheogens lie largely with people using certain kinds of medications, those with schizophrenic or psychotic tendencies, and persons who ingest these chemicals in uncontrolled environments. Indeed, clinical research suggests that psychedelics’ health risks are minimal; moreover, the evidence indicates that within controlled contexts, psychedelics can safely alleviate depression, anxiety, and dependence on more harmful drugs. This growing scientific consensus confirms that psychedelics are non-addictive, cannot cause lethal overdose, and cause less harm to both self and society than either alcohol or tobacco. Now that facts are emerging about the safety and benefits of psychedelics/entheogens, anthropology is uniquely positioned to inform more sensible regulations based on ethnographic knowledge. Since there is presently a discord between extant legislation and the scientific findings, the papers in this session demonstrate that social scientists can help to clarify the public debate. Employing participant-observation perspectives from fieldwork with entheogenic groups, this panel intercedes in a misunderstanding between policies of prohibition and new subcultures of psycho-spiritual therapy.

Keywords: Drugs, Psychiatry, Consciousness

Individual Presentations

Ganja Yoga Instructors: Pioneers of Psycho-Spiritual Cannabis Therapy in North America

Marc G. Blainey

The Hindu tradition of Yoga and the ceremonial ingestion of marijuana (Cannabis spp.) have been present in Asia for thousands of years and have long been combined by mystical devotees called Sadhus in India (where marijuana is also known as “Ganja”).  However, in subsequent globalizations of both yoga and marijuana the two practices tend to be segregated.  While yoga is embraced worldwide as a legitimate therapy, the recent burgeoning of “medical marijuana” remains controversial.  More contentious is the expansion of decriminalized non-medical uses of marijuana.  Amidst this fluctuating scene has appeared Ganja Yoga, a renewed integration of vaporized or edible marijuana into otherwise typical hatha yoga classes.  The founder of Ganja Yoga began offering classes in Toronto in 2009 and is now developing a lucrative Ganja Yoga business in San Francisco.  Ganja Yoga is technically prohibited outside of a few American states where recreational marijuana possession has been legalized (e.g. Colorado, Washington, Alaska, and Oregon).  Nevertheless, Ganja Yoga practices are now promoted openly on street signs and in online news articles.  So far, police have yet to charge any Ganja Yoga teachers or participants with a crime, perhaps reflecting the low priority of enforcing federal laws that forbid recreational marijuana consumption in Canada and the United States.  Aimed at shedding light on why people partake in such spiritualized fusions of alternative therapy, this paper presents results of ethnographic research carried out with Ganja Yoga instructors in Ontario and California.

Psychedelic rituals of the Nacimera: Deconstructing Whiteness in the History of LSD as Chemical Entheogen in its White, Western Homelands

Michelle Corbin

Social scientists have investigated the difficult political and cultural complexities inherent to psychedelic and entheogenic fields of engagement since their inception in the western scientific and biomedical ‘discovery’ of psychedelic plants in indigenous communities.Recent critical ethnographies interrogate how the intersecting politics of race, class, gender, sexuality and nation constitute relations of power across these now bourgeoning and transnational fields including especially deconstructions of ‘western’ cultural appropriation particularly around plant medicines from South America.  In this paper, I build on these intersectional interrogations by examining the equally pervasive but comparatively under theorized ‘whiteness’ that is also enacted across these psychedelic fields.

In discursive contrast to the psychedelic plants, I argue that the chemicals often stand as markers of the scientific, the modern and the white. LSD, the most (in)famous synthesized psychedelic, was created by white scientists, in white countries and catalyzed the emergence of the historical white countercultures of the sixties. To this day, it remains primarily within white subcultures that have continued to develop into a globalized network of white and western ‘traditions’ complete with diets, centers, and music.  Drawing on whiteness studies, I analyze the pervasive but un-named whiteness constituting these psychedelic western psycho-spiritual ‘traditions’ that have coalesced around LSD.  Using critical discourse analysis methodologies, I examine scientific and cultural engagements with LSD from the 1960’s to the present within the United States to analyze the ways that hegemonic whiteness is enacted within the history of LSD as chemical entheogen in its white western homeland.

Embodiment and Healing in Contemporary Ayahuasca Shamanism in the Peruvian Amazon

Evgenia Fotiou

Ayahuasca, a psychoactive plant mixture used in a ceremonial context throughout Western Amazonia, has expanded globally in recent decades becoming popular among westerners who travel to the Peruvian Amazon in increasing numbers to experience its reportedly healing and transformative effects. The experience often includes the participation in a shamanic dieta, involving fasting and the ingestion of purgatives to prepare the body. I will discuss conceptions of the body in contemporary ayahuasca shamanism as well as the process involved in shamanic apprenticeship involving several stages during which the body is purified, intuition and sensitivity are developed, the body is strengthened and finally protected. Departing from western dualisms between mind and body, I will focus on the corporeality of the ayahuasca experience as manifested in purging, and other bodily sensations such as sweating, shaking, crying and yawning, and discuss how those are understood in relation to healing.  For the purposes of this paper, bodies are understood not as isolated subjectivities but as intersubjective milieus (Csordas 2002, 244) attending to the bodies of other subjectivities including those of plants. I demonstrate that the use of plants in this manner constitutes a technology intricately connected with Amazonian conceptions of the body as well as emotions and ultimately understandings of healing.

Navigating emergent mental health resources through plant medicine in the Peruvian Amazon

Olivia Rose Marcus

In Peru, ever more locals and visitors diagnosed with mental health conditions, such as addiction, anxiety, post-traumatic stress, and depression, turn to ayahuasca for healing. To address these mental health concerns, travel to Peru for healing experiences with shamans has seen a dramatic increase over the past two decades.  A growing cadre of mental health practitioners attempt to integrate ayahuasca experiences for greater therapeutic outcomes among non-indigenous clientele. In this emergent form of integrative therapy, global mental health interests converge with local healing traditions, influencing the ways in which people experience illness and treatment as well as the production and use of knowledge concerning medicinal plant use in the Amazon. Based on my doctoral research in Tarapoto and Iquitos, this paper discusses how both local and international people navigate health resources and what happens when disparate methods are integrated to serve a ‘modern’ clientele. Located in the Amazon basin, Iquitos is a city well-known for ayahuasca-related tourism and a proliferation of ayahuasca retreat centers. Tarapoto, a smaller city situated in the high Amazon, is becoming another nexus of ayahuasca tourism, with a rising number of retreat centers established in the villages surrounding the city. I discuss whether the influx of non-local clients and mental health practitioners have influenced the ways in which local shamans perceive mental wellness and treat mental illness. Going beyond matters of traditional versus modern, I explore the methodological junctures between ayahuasca healing and psychotherapeutic healing to discuss an emergent form of care.

Ritual and Habitus : Patterning Psychedelic Use

Arimys Kalil

This paper considers the ritualistic use of psychedelics in contrast to other uses of these substances in Euroamerican culture; including the socially derived and reinforced sanctions (both formal and informal) that pattern the use of these substances.  Taking as a point of departure Biogenetic Structural Theory, I will discuss ritual as a form of technology that regulates experience and controls perception.  In contrast, the habitus of Euroamerican cultures reflect a strong association between irresponsibility, flamboyance and danger and the use of psychedelics. This elaborated association along with the unique social and cultural context against which psychedelics made their appearance shaped their reception into American society and culture, creating our habitus, which is changing. We are entering a new age of psychedelic science, realizing the potential benefits of (not only, but including) psychedelic drugs like LSD and psilocybin in the effective treatment of depression.  I maintain that the sanctions and scheduling of these substances helped to create the subculture that has proved to be the catalyst for not only recognizing the outstanding therapeutic value of psychedelics, but also bringing about policy change that could lead to psychedelics becoming licensed medications. Although psychedelics consist of a vast array of substances, I will focus on a few specific examples from Amazonia and Euroamerican cultures, including both scientific and humanistic examinations into their usage.

Reviewed By: Society for the Anthropology of Consciousness

Meeting Details and Logistics:

117th AAA Annual Meeting
Wednesday, November 14 – Sunday, November 18
San Jose Convention Center
San Jose, CA

Session Date and Time:  

Friday, November 16, 2018
2:00 PM – 3:45 PM
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