The Explosion of Interest in Medicine Plants: What we need to know

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Most of you are probably acquainted with the great interest in a variety of medicine plants or entheogens being researched for treatment with veterans and others suffering from PTSD and a variety of other disorders like obsessive compulsive disorder, depression, anxiety, and various addictions. When interest in some of these plants and chemical compounds like MDMA and LSD in the nineteen sixties and seventies arose showing much promise as healing compounds, great fear among conservative government officials and other traditionalists rendered most of these them illegal and they were made schedule one drugs, a felony if someone had possession or consumed them. Researchers were no longer allowed to study them and they were off limits in every way for quite a few years. Even the possession of marijuana could result in a ten-year prison sentence.

Now the picture has changed and in recent years researchers at an array of well-regarded Institutions like Harvard, Johns Hopkins, and the Mayo Clinic have gained permission to study the effects of a variety of substances on patients with psychological and mental health problems. The research has shown great promise to the degree that some states have legalized them, removed them from schedule one, or are considering legalizing them, some, for research purposes and some for recreational use. Some, like Ayahuasca, are still potentially illegal but tens of thousands of people are experimenting with it all over the world and traveling to countries like Peru and Costa Rica to see if it helps them with a variety of conditions.

This is where we are now. While in the biggest of pictures this is a good thing because the more tools we have to help people with their psychological problems the better, there are some challenges as well. Here in this short article, I will attempt to shine a light on some of the main considerations and use various entheogenic plants and pharmaceuticals as examples.

Let’s look at the main categories to begin with:

  1. There are mind altering plants used ceremonially by indigenous peoples for tens of thousands of years including peyote, ayahuasca, psilocybin mushrooms, tobacco, and huachuma (also known as San Pedro Cactus). Of course, there are thousands more, but these are the main hallucinogenic plants people know about. These plants have very different properties and foundation chemicals in them such as DMT, mescaline, nicotine, harmine, tetrahydroharmine (THH) harmaline. Some of these plants (especially ayahuasca) alter neurotransmitters in the brain, especially serotonin. These cannot be mixed with pharmaceuticals that also alter neurotransmitters (SSRI’s and MAOI’s) or there could be very grave consequences like a precipitous drop in blood pressure. People who, out of ignorance, mix these plants and prescription drugs are taking their life in their hands.
  2. There are compounds discovered in science laboratories that can produce mild to severe non-ordinary states of consciousness such as Ketamine, MDMA, LSD and many others.
  3. There are a group of substances that are abused by the public and can be extremely problematic in an addictive sense. Some of these are plant-based but highly processed like heroin and cocaine. Then there are the laboratory compounds like fentanyl, methamphetamines, and opioids.
  4. As mentioned above there are a vast array of pharmaceutical compounds that people are prescribed by doctors for depression, anxiety, bi-polar disorder, anti-seizure and convulsant medicines, anti-psychotic medicines just to name a very few. Many of these are SSRI’s and MAOI’s that alter neurotransmitters levels like serotonin in the brain and have to be carefully monitored.

What I have noticed is that most people these days, both young and old, are on prescription drugs of various kinds and they do not know anything about them such as their side effects, what they can be taken with, and so on. In some cases, they do not even know why they are taking them other than that their doctor prescribed them or thought they would benefit them.  A little research on the web reveals a host of information on these drugs and most come with severe warnings and a long list of possible dire side effects. Most people never even look at this information (which is readily available on the internet), mostly because they don’t want to know, they just want to feel better.

So, what we have is a culture of big pharma drugs that are being taken by the majority of people in the culture and indigenous culture medicines that are being taken experimentally and for spiritual purposes but in many cases, they are mutually exclusive. There is vast ignorance about this fact and the result is that many people, when they mix the two, end up having rather horrible nightmarish visions, or end up with intense nausea that may be akin to being seasick, a very unpleasant experience. Often the plant medicines are repelled by the pharmaceuticals the person is taking and they end up having no visions or experience at all. Because of the vast availability of many plant medicines there is no screening or understanding that if one mixes the two there are going to be problems.

People who smoke commercial cigarettes, chew tobacco, or tend to smoke THC or take it orally often also tend to have lessor and sometimes no experience on other consciousness altering plant medicines because, as the shamans say, there is only room for so many plants in the system.

The whole topic of marijuana or cannabis sativa is a big one, too complex to explore here. This scene has changed dramatically due to the massive use of this ancient medicine for recreational purposes, the gradual legalization process, and the general public’s gradual acceptance of it. There are two things I will say; one is that most knowledgeable shamans have told me that marijuana and THC is a very good medicine as an anti-inflammatory when applied externally but is not so helpful taken internally, even problematic when taken in strong doses or every day. It is especially problematic when mixed with other mind-altering plant medicines partly because it knocks out their effects. For example marijuana and peyote or ayahuasca are not good combinations.

CBD, the derivative oil from hemp, and its iterations are ubiquitous. The tremendous development in this medicine over the last fifty or so years has led to a massive industry. While there are many proper uses for this excellent medicine including as a sleep aid, an anti-inflammatory, muscle relaxer, and pain deterrent, it tends to be taken indiscriminately by many.

Many people travel to Peru and other places to experience in a recreational type way, or in a healing way, a variety of altered states. Some unscrupulous mestizos and even full-blood indigenous people want to cash in on the tourist curiosity and arrange for ceremonies where one night they give the gringos Huachuma, next night they distribute ayahuasca, and then the next night they give both mixed together with coca leaves, perhaps alcohol etc. Then these poor folks stagger back to their own countries not knowing what happened to them but often with terrible stories. Some become psychotic and some just don’t feel right about themselves for months or even years.

Many people travel to Peru to overcome serious addictions to heroin, cocaine, opioids, and methamphetamines. Plants such as ayahuasca, psilocybin, and peyote have been proven to help many addicts recover successfully. However, they have to be on a strict diet beforehand to purge their systems, before they can take the healing entheogenic plants. Addicts and people who take these substances can easily die if they consume entheogens while they are using. The results are horrific and not pretty.

A real danger is that even legitimate shamans or ayahuasqeros are not all schooled in the effects of the many pharmaceuticals that people take these days. While most require a strict cleansing diet, some do not and may not necessarily screen people for what they have been taking. Most antidepressants and antianxiety medications are either SSRI’s or MAOI’s and can have a deadly effect when mixed with Ayahuasca. The participant can suffer a precipitous drop in blood pressure and die. The few deaths that have occurred on ayahuasca are almost all from this combination of pharmaceuticals and the plant medicines. This can also be a danger back in one’s own country. One gets a hold of a bottle of ayahuasca at the marketplace in one of these countries and brings it home. Suddenly they consider themselves qualified to serve it up to their friends without any knowledge of the potential dangers of mixing plant medicines with big pharma drugs that so many people are taking these days.

In general, laboratory compounds and biologically based entheogenic plants do not mix well when taken together. The plant experiences the inorganic compound as a foreign agent and tries to clear it out. The results may be very painful as in terrific nausea and pains in the gut or violent purging that can go on for hours. The plant may consider the person mixing the compound with it to be very disrespectful and the results can be quite negative. For example, one should not take ketamine or MDMA with an organic plant substance.

Big pharma is good at isolating and synthesizing the special ingredient that produces certain helpful results in human beings such as anti-inflammatories, painkillers, fever reducers and so on. However, when it comes to plants that produce higher states of consciousness this is a totally different matter because these plants have developed over millions of years to be medicines for people and other animals. There is not just one ingredient but many alkaloids that work together in just a particular way to produce profound states of consciousness. There is natural mescaline in peyote and huachuma and there is synthesized mescaline and they are quite different in affects and results. One is clearly a chemical and the other is clearly a plant medicine with the spirit of mescalito associated with it.

There are continuing attempts by big pharma to synthesize the main ingredients in botanical plants that produce altered states of awareness. The plan is to monetize the plant by attempting to patent the resulting artificial ingredient. This comes with significant problems and is a topic I will not cover here. Let’s just say that when it comes to real healing, there is nothing like the compounds of unaltered nature.

This discussion could go on and on but I believe I have captured the essence of this part of the conversation here. Plant medicines are extraordinary alchemy and need to be held in the highest respect. As with all medicines, improper consumption can sicken us and even kill us. It would be best if we learned from our indigenous neighbors how best to approach the plant kingdom, how to align with these wonderful teachers, and how not to abuse them.

No part of this discussion should suggest that you should abandon whatever pharmaceutical medications you have been prescribed. Some are quite helpful and even necessary. Just know what they are and read up on them. Don’t just take them out of habit for years. Get a periodic review from your physician to see if it is time to deprescribe from one or more of them. And, of course, be very careful what you mix them with and it will lengthen your life.

This article is designed to educate you to the dangers or mixing different types of medicines or at least giving you a heads up that there are considerations and dangers. In this brief article I have not even raised the topic of alcohol use mixed with entheogens. That is for another time. In the next article I will concentrate more on some of the more interesting shamanic considerations of plant medicines that are not particularly acknowledged by the medical establishment and even not to researchers of entheogens or creators of entheogen healing programs.

José Stevens

José Luis Stevens, PhD is the president and co-founder (with wife Lena) of Power Path Seminars, an international school and consulting firm dedicated to the study and application of shamanism and indigenous wisdom to business and everyday life. José completed a ten-year apprenticeship with a Huichol (Wixarika) Maracame (Huichol shaman) in the Sierras of Central Mexico. In addition, he is studying with Shipibo shamans in the Peruvian Amazon and with Paqos (shamans) in the Andes in Peru. In 1983 he completed his doctoral dissertation at the California Institute of Integral Studies focusing on the interface between shamanism and western psychological counseling. Since then, he has studied cross-cultural shamanism around the world to distill the core elements of shamanic healing and practice. He is the author of twenty books and numerous articles including Encounters With Power, Awaken The Inner Shaman, The Power Path, Secrets of Shamanism, Transforming Your Dragons and How To Pray The Shaman’s Way.

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You may make copies of this writing and distribute it in any media you wish, so long as you do not charge for it or alter it in any way. You must credit the author and include this entire copyright notice. While the text may be shared, no audio files, including lectures, music and/or sound meditations, may be posted on any site for any reason without written permission from the Power Path.

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