The Master Plant Experience

Chapter 3: Master Plants Are Returning in Force

When I wrote my first book, The Dirt Cure, people asked me, “What’s the difference between a germ and a microbe?” “We’ve always been told germs are bad, but it turns out microbes are actually good?” The answer: they’re the same. Germ is simply a pejorative term for microbe. The definition rests in the nature of the relationship. The quality of our entanglement makes all the difference.

I now get asked: “What’s the difference between a drug and a psychedelic?” The answer is similar. At a certain point, drugs became a pejorative term for psychedelic Master Plants. And again, the nuance resides in the relationship, in how we and the plants interact with one other. As with any relationship with a powerful Master, we must ask: are we coming with a sense of respect?

Wait. Respect for a plant? What does coming to a plant with respect even mean?

Consider whether we have cultivated reverence in our collective approach to the array of sacred plants long familiar to our culture – coca, cannabis, tobacco, and others. Most people would readily admit our engagement has demonstrated the very opposite of respect.

When I was in Ecuador years ago, I learned that communities who interfaced with Northerners referred to them as “junkies.” They based their view not just on an overall proclivity for substance abuse, though that observation informed their opinion. The term emerged from what they saw as a constant and endless commoditizing and consuming of everything, even the most revered plants, with little to no respect for the sacred relationship or cultural scaffolding inherent to their benefit.

In their eyes, Northerners – seekers, scientists, pharmaceutical companies, and the rest – only come greedily for themselves, with no consideration of the well-being of anyone else: the plants, the land, the people who transmit the wisdom of those plants, or even the ancestors and the spirit world associated with the plants.

All me, no we.

Welcome to Indigenous Science

Up until now, many mainstream scientists and academics have not regarded indigenous science as true science, which mostly is a case of “it’s hard to see what you aren’t looking for” (or refuse to see). Yet while the principles underlying indigenous science have endured, our reductionist scientific paradigm is now being challenged to its very core by cutting-edge approaches like systems biology and quantum physics. These new perspectives allow us to explore the nonlinear entanglement of living processes, embracing complexity in ways that linear models simply can’t entertain. And as we’ll see, they emerging models are far more in alignment with longstanding indigenous science. In fact, these principles of interconnection are supported by the methods and measures of modern scientific approaches that are familiar to us.

As discussed, in their indigenous communities of origin, psychedelics are referred to not as drugs but as Master or Teacher Plants. They may also be referred to as Grandmother or Grandfather, Mother or Father. These Master Plants are considered to be very old and powerful kin; they convey an ancient wisdom and lineage that can help us heal as individuals and evolve as a community. In contrast to the way we perceive medicine in modern culture, these plants are not meant to be “taken” or “used”; they are regarded as revered members of the community – honored elders, teachers, and allies – and as such are approached extreme reverence and humility, carefully, with offerings in hand. Any benefits derived are considered to be sacred gifts from the plants.

Skeptical? That’s no surprise. Those from the Global North have long operated under the assumption that certain societies, particularly those of indigenous peoples, are primitive, backward, or “undeveloped.” This view is partly based on the fact that they are preliterate or extra-literate, and thus unschooled in the repertory of European literature, history, and research that comprise an “acceptable” education. By this logic, indigenous communities therefore do not practice any science, technology, or advanced forms of knowledge commensurate with the standards of “modern” society.

This topic is worth unpacking in any conversation about the future of psychedelic medicine, because indigenous knowledge is the past, present, and must remain a fundamental part of the future of the widespread engagement with Master Plants.

For example, this prevailing “primitive” paradigm conveniently ignores that many of our advanced scientific and other “discoveries,” including those of psychedelics, primarily come from long-standing indigenous knowledge. At least 75 percent of pharmaceutical company’s plant-based remedies have come from indigenous societies. Fewer than 2 percent of all plants have been fully explored, with the vast majority of those plants living in tropical forests inhabited by indigenous communities.

Take ayahuasca, for example. Many people may not realize that the ayahuasca vine alone has no significant hallucinogenic activity. In order to become the psychedelic brew called “ayahuasca” that’s been prepared for millennia, two plants must be brewed together for hours. One of the plants – which in the Amazon is often the chacruna plant (Psychotria viridis) – must contain the hallucinogenic substance dimethyltryptamine (DMT). However, that plant alone also has essentially no hallucinogenic effect when consumed orally, because it is broken down by an enzyme in our stomachs called monoamine oxidase. Enter the ayahuasca vine (Banisteriopsis caapi) – which contains compounds that render that enzyme inactive, allowing for the DMT to survive digestion and absorption – allowing the combination to penetrate systemic circulation and the brain’s inner sanctum.

Of roughly 100,000 or more plant varieties in the Amazonian jungle alone, many unrelated indigenous communities somehow discovered not just the ayahuasca vine, but also the necessity of combining the vine with just the right second plant, and the hours-long process required to prepare them together to have a psychedelic effect. Oh, and all of this happened without what most of us would consider the necessary scientific knowledge or technology to identify enzymes, alkaloids, and other compounds involved.

What’s more, when they’re asked how they obtained this intricate, detailed, and very specific knowledge, they say the Master Plants showed them.

And yes, they mean this literally.

In fact, they refer to Master Plants – or really, the Spirit or Mother of the Master Plants such as ayahuasca – as a doctor, a teacher, or a force with intelligence and the capacity to create an alliance with humans if the humans come in a good and respectful way. For those who dedicate themselves to the relationship, Master Plants can transmit knowledge and power – not for personal gain, but for the good of all.

Most people’s automatic response when they hear all of this is that it’s clearly some kind of hallucinogenic fantasy. Learning botany and pharmacology…from a plant? Anthropologists have written extensively about this claim, which is widely held by indigenous communities in the Amazon and around the world. With few exceptions, the anthropologists say it simply cannot be taken seriously.

Moreover, most scientists to this day refuse to recognize that indigenous people could have developed ways to use nature’s molecules and compounds by any means other than chance experimentation. And they continue to maintain this stance in the face of extensive evidence that the complexity of remedies used, sometimes for millennia, is as advanced as anything developed by modern science.

Another example is curare, the synthetic medication used universally by anesthesiologists to paralyze patients during surgery. Originally developed by indigenous people to paralyze tree monkeys they hunted that would otherwise remain hanging high up in trees after being shot with arrows, curare ensured that they fell to the ground. In order to create the treated arrows, however, the people had to identify and gather several different plants, boil them together for hours to create a paste (all while avoiding breathing the poisonous fumes), and then determine that the preparation was only effective when administered under the skin rather than ingesting it.

Are we to really assume this all happened by dumb luck?

No matter. We – by way of anthropologists, botanists, the pharmaceutical industry, and many others – have been only too happy to utilize and commoditize all of this advanced knowledge, or intellectual property (as we would call it), even as they disregarded and disrespected wisdom holders, plants, and spirits who have shared them. To add insult to injury, anthropologists pejoratively labeled the ones who often transmitted the information – now universally called “shamans” – as psychiatrically or medically unstable.

This same attitude also has permeated the way we view indigenous myth. These days, myths are mostly set aside for story time. However, once upon a time, myth was fundamental to everyone’s understanding of the world – and not just metaphorically.

Every culture has its own dominant mythology – a story that explains how the world is and provides guidance for living. Most of us, for example, have been indoctrinated with a very particular mythology of our dominion over nature and other beings, the commoditization of living beings and eternal elements – animals, plants, trees, land, minerals, water, people – and our entitlement to build that into a model of unlimited growth and unbridled benefit for ourselves.

There are, however, other mythologies – ones that were once widely held not just as colorful stories but also as transmissions of eternal knowledge – that are far older. What’s more, all of this information and much more has been memorized and recited as a sophisticated memory coding technique as opposed to being written and maintained in volumes of books.

In indigenous cultures around the world, once the knowledge is transmitted from plant or animal or spirit to human, the information then would be embedded and orally conveyed by way of myth.

Myths, accompanied by song, dance, and art, are cataloged knowledge, passed from the ancients to now, generation by generation, initiate to initiate. For Australian Aboriginal people, for example, these dreamings and song lines are guides through the land and historical events, as well as sources of advice on how to live and survive. Some record events going back over 10,000 years.

Indeed, indigenous communities have always conveyed rich and detailed knowledge via stories, symbols, models, and metaphors assisted by art, music, and spiritual practice, all of which guide people in respectfully caring for each other and their human and greater-than-human kin. The stories communicate historical events that transformed the earth over time, and the necessary guiding principles and values for living in harmony within their community and with the world around them, also known as “right relationship.”

Myths metaphorically demonstrate fundamental principles like interdependence; respect for plants, animals, and places; and the ways that each generation must behave in order to maintain a reciprocal relationship with the natural world. But they are not just stories. They have long been used as instruments to encode generations of knowledge, in some cases from ten thousand years or more. The Navajo people, for example, shared the names of seven hundred species of insects with researchers, all from memory – with names, sounds, behaviors, and habitats all remembered through oral transmission of myth accompanied by cues embedded in song and dry sand paintings. For Australian Aboriginals, rituals that describe hunting magic are not just ways to engage with supernatural beings and invite good fortune – the associated songs catalog details of animal behavior, the visible constellations of stars that show the most effective time of year to hunt, and landmarks to find the animals, while the dances imitate the activity and characteristics of the animals, ways to avoid being detected by them, and patterns they might use to disperse.

In indigenous cultures, myths are a matter of survival. And a myth rarely represents only one form of knowledge but includes overlapping categories like history, literature, botany, geology, hunting, safety, ethics, law, or spirituality. An initiated elder might know over a thousand stories that act as maps for landscape features, plants, animals, elements, and other necessary resources, all remembered with no volumes of written words on which to rely.

As with a game of telephone, too many people sharing the information can distort the integrity of the transmission. What this means is that when we hear indigenous myths that sound like children’s stories, it’s probably because they are. At the most basic level, those myths are the simplest and most colorful versions of information to be memorized, meant to introduce children to the much more complicated layers that they’d eventually learn in the process of lifelong initiation into the knowledge of their community.

It’s of the utmost importance that this repository of information be woven together with ethics and maintained only by the initiated, because indigenous elders have long understood that any information – no matter how profound or powerful – can become a weapon when wielded without wisdom.

The same is true for Master Plants.

The Right Intentions and the Right Ceremony

Indigenous communities express a great deal of concern around the use of Master Plants as a means of “sorcery.” While such talk makes many of us uneasy, sorcery, at its core, means to use their exceptional power with evil intent, for example, to attack, cause disease, or even destroy enemies. In many indigenous paradigms of disease, physical and mental illness can be traced to psychic attacks and negative intentions (whether conscious or not). And Master Plants in the right hands, with the right intentions, and with the right ceremony, can allow the healer to see into the suffering person and help them purge the spiritual sickness.

The importance of ritual and ceremony in the use of Master Plants thus centers on this very issue and is considered a fundamental reason to uphold sacred and ceremonial “rules of engagement.” The rules vary by community and Master Plant, but the concern that humans could easily devolve into using their profound power with malefic intent is universal.

As such, while considered sacred by indigenous communities, no one maintains that Master Plants only offer healing benefit. Master Plants are, however, indisputably powerful, and let’s face it, humans who engage with great power don’t always demonstrate their finest behavior. Again, this is where initiated elders play a critical role, holding others accountable by passing down ritual laws, historical events, ethics, and responsibilities encoded into myth, song, dance, and ceremony to select initiates.

Until very recently, it could easily be argued that overall, the Global North’s first interactions with psychedelics in the 1950s demonstrated a less than responsible, less than ethical approach that could be called the opposite of sacred.

For example, it’s thought that humans have likely consumed psychedelic psilocybes, or magic mushrooms, for millennia. It’s also thought that the context for ingestion was likely sacred and ceremonial, which was certainly true for the Mazatec people of Mexico. That changed on June 29, 1955, when a vice-president of J.P. Morgan named R. Gordon Wasson traveled to Mexico with a photographer to the home of the Mazatec curandera (medicine woman) Maria Sabina, and they became, in Wasson’s words, “the first white men in recorded history to eat the divine mushrooms.”

Wasson found that many cultures across the world worshipped mushrooms and had constructed religious ceremonies around their consumption. He was especially interested in the Aztecs after learning of early Spanish missionary accounts of the Aztec mushroom ceremony of eating the teonanacatl, or “God’s flesh.”

It wasn’t until 1955 in the Oaxacan village of Huautla de Jiménez that Wasson achieved his goal. He asked a town hall official for help learning the secrets of the divine mushroom, and was taken to a mountainside where the mushrooms abundantly grew and then to the home where Maria Sabina lived.

Maria Sabina was well-respected in the village as a curandera. She’d been consuming psilocybe mushrooms regularly since she was seven years old and had performed the mushroom ceremony for over thirty years before Wasson arrived.

The all-night ceremonies she conducted were always intended to commune with God to heal the sick. The spirits would tell Maria Sabina the nature of the sickness and the way it could be healed. Vomiting by the participants was considered an essential part of the ceremony to purge the sickness. Each participant in the ritual would ingest mushrooms as Maria Sabina chanted invocations to coax forth the divine.

Maria Sabina was reluctant to introduce Wasson to the ceremony because Wasson and his colleague weren’t in need of healing. Wasson and his friends were the first foreigners who had come to town in search of the “Saint Children,” but in contrast to the tradition, they didn’t suffer from any illness. Their reason was simply to find God.

Over time, Wasson witnessed nine ceremonies by Maria Sabina. On one trip, he brought French mycologist Roger Heim, who identified the species of mushrooms and sent samples to Albert Hofmann, the Swiss chemist who twenty years earlier had synthesized LSD. Hofmann isolated the chemical structure of psilocybin, created a synthetic version, and began sending doses to research institutions across the world.

The subsequent Life Magazine article written by Wasson in 1957, “Seeking the Magic Mushroom,” opened a Pandora’s box that led to the emergence of the American psychedelic counterculture, the defilement of the mushroom ritual, and, ultimately, the banning of psilocybin across much of the world. The article also eventually impacted Maria Sabina and her community profoundly as Westerners came to her by the hundreds.

Wasson gained the public eye, at least for a time, as well as a research career, going on to publish a number of volumes in the field of mycology and ethnobotany.

Wasson’s story also attracted the interest of the CIA for its covert program Project MK ULTRA.

Not surprisingly, psychedelics brought about some darker components of US history. Over the 1950s and 1960s, the military and CIA conducted their own experiments through MK Ultra with LSD and psilocybin as part of their broader research on mind-control and behavior modification. This research was conducted at universities like Harvard as well as other academic institutions in partnership with the government or military.

The program involved administering LSD and other psychoactive drugs without consent or warning to both willing and unwilling subjects, including CIA employees, military personnel, and members of the general public. The goal of the program was to investigate their potential use as weapons, as well as to study the effects of these substances on the human mind.

Sorcery is thought to be a superstitious term, far removed from the modern world, but what was this, if not using the power of Master Plants and psychedelics to bring ill effects or destruction on enemies?

To this day, the full extent of the CIA’s experimentation with psychedelics remains unknown. The programs were controversial and eventually said to be terminated.

Yet whether or not he was aware, Wasson became an agent of sorts for the program after the CIA secretly funded Wasson’s trips to Mexico under a shell organization.

After reading Wasson’s article “Seeking the Magic Mushroom,” psychologist and Harvard professor Dr. Timothy Leary traveled to Cuernavaca, Mexico. Rather than partake in the sacred mushroom ritual, he purchased mushrooms from a local curandera and ingested them by the pool of his villa – removing the mushrooms from the ceremonial setting.

From that experience, Leary stated that he’d “learned more about my brain and its possibilities and more about psychology in the five hours after taking these mushrooms than in the preceding fifteen years of studying and doing research in psychology.” Leary proceeded to return to Harvard and start the Harvard Psilocybin Project with his colleague Dr. Richard Alpert (later known as Ram Dass).

Leary and Alpert proceeded to develop pioneering concepts in psychedelic therapy, testing whether ingesting psilocybin could reduce recidivism in prison inmates or catalyze religious experiences in divinity students. Though the published results enthusiastically endorsed psilocybin’s mystical and therapeutic potential, they ultimately were judged to lack credibility due to their excessively positive spin – for example, omitting descriptions of the intense anxiety experienced by many of the participants.

Leary and Alpert were doing more than simply testing psychedelics in controlled experimental settings. They were using LSD every weekend and encouraging their students and colleagues to do the same. The academic community became divided over this widespread, indiscriminate use of LSD, all driven by the belief that every researcher should be mandated to have a mind-opening experience. Ultimately, Leary and Alpert were fired. Soon after, Leary began his public campaign to “turn on, tune in, and drop out.” Alpert traveled to India, studied with a guru, and came back as Ram Dass.

The overemphasis on the positive aspects of psychedelic experiences and downplaying of the negative became more of a problem when psychedelics reached the streets in the early 1960s. As psychedelic researcher and director of MAPS Rick Doblin wrote: “Some of the backlash that swept the psychedelics out of research labs and out of the hands of physicians and therapists can be traced in part to the thousands of cases of people who took psychedelics in non-research settings, were unprepared for the frightening aspects of their psychedelic experiences, and ended up in hospital emergency rooms.”

For these reasons and more, from the mid-1960s onward, LSD research came to a halt, and in 1966, the United States outlawed potential LSD treatments for PTSD and alcoholism. The medication became a Schedule I narcotic, meaning it had “a high potential for misuse” and “no currently recognized medicinal use.”

While public health played a role, this policy had political motivations as well, particularly in light of promising research. And one of Nixon’s top advisors John Ehrlichman admitted in an 1994 interview more than two decades later that the drug war was in part a ploy to undermine Nixon’s political opposition:

“You want to know what this was really all about? The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course, we did.”

For better or worse, the initiative worked. After President Richard Nixon declared a “war on drugs” in 1971, the number of people incarcerated in American jails and prisons escalated from 300,000 to 2.3 million. Half of those in federal prisons are incarcerated for a drug offense, and two-thirds of those in prison for drug offenses are people of color. Disproportionate arrest, conviction, and sentencing rates for drug offenses have had devastating effects on communities of color in the United States.

Meanwhile, streams of hippies, scientists, seekers, and celebrities continued to flood Maria Sabina’s village of Huautla de Jiménez.

For her part, Maria Sabina frequently expressed regrets over introducing Wasson to the mushrooms and always emphasized what she saw as the mushroom’s true purpose. Still, she rarely turned seekers away. Yet all the publicity and tourism was disastrous for the Mazatec community, who blamed Maria Sabina for bringing misfortune to her community and defiling the mushroom ritual. Her house was burned down, and federales raided her home many times, accusing her of selling drugs to foreigners. The tourists took over her town and surrounding towns, had bad trips, and behaved in disruptive ways, including running naked through the streets.

In the 1970s, Mexican authorities banned the use of the mushrooms. The influx of tourists receded, but in Maria Sabina’s eyes, the damage had been done.

“From the moment the foreigners arrived to search for God, the Saint Children lost their purity,” she said. “They lost their force; the foreigners spoiled them. From now on, they won’t be any good. There’s no remedy for it.”

Wasson himself expressed remorse for his role in popularizing the recreational use of the mushrooms.

Maria Sabina died penniless at the age of ninety-one in 1985. Because she is held up as a sort of sacred figure of the psychedelic movement, her face graces mugs and T-shirts sold to the tourists passing through her hometown, and the site of her former home is now a public museum.

Yet she was held in no small part responsible for the ruin of her people’s traditional way of life. She stuck to her ancient craft as a curandera but ultimately regretted that she’d let the secrets of her people’s tradition escape into the wider world, even for spiritual purposes.

She said: “Before Wasson, nobody took the mushrooms only to find God. They were always taken for the sick to get well.”

The Return to Healing the Sick

Fast-forward to the 2000s, interest in better approaches to addiction as well as major depression began to revitalize the psychedelic clinical research field. In 2008, Dr. Matt Johnson paired high-dose psilocybin administration with a more standard cognitive behavioral therapy for smoking cessation: to help the person quit, identify their reasons for quitting and their motivations for engaging in that pattern of behavior, and untangle that web of addiction. They interspersed within that a high dose of psilocybin to accelerate the process. The initial pilot study was in highly motivated individuals that had been smoking for decades on average, and the results were really exciting. The majority were able to quit smoking immediately after two high doses of psilocybin along with supportive counseling. And the majority of those people were able to maintain biologically-verified smoking abstinence through a six-month and then twelve-month follow-up. Even years later, many were still abstaining.

These results were far better than for any other approach anywhere else in the world. In a typical group of people trying to quit smoking, around 30 percent are usually successful in quitting longer term. But by six months or a year later, they relapse. In contrast, this study had an 80 percent success rate at six-month follow-up of participants who were not smoking. Sixty-seven percent were not smoking at the twelve-month follow-up. These results were unmatched by any other approach attempted for nicotine addiction.

Similarly unprecedented results are emerging from clinical trials to resolve addiction to other substances as well as major depression, PTSD, and eating disorders, with studies on many more conditions in progress.

In 2014, Scientific American called for an end to the ban on psychedelic research.

Reforming laws around the use of psychedelics is a significant development for at least two reasons. First, psychedelics may offer a level of therapeutic benefit that could literally save lives for people suffering from the impacts of trauma and much more. Second, legalizing psilocybin may prompt a radical rethinking of the prohibition on other Schedule I drugs, which might serve as a catalyst for ending the largely racially motivated “war on drugs.”

To date, several American cities and even some states have moved to decriminalize psychedelics, either as a result of ballot initiatives or decisions made by municipal councils. The use and possession of psilocybin-containing mushrooms were made legal in Denver for the first time in May 2019. Since then, Legalize Nature, a decentralized group, has directed grassroots campaigns in more than one hundred American cities to decriminalize psilocybin and other entheogenic plants and increase access to them.

And the initiatives are picking up speed. Psilocybin and other naturally occurring psychedelics will henceforth be treated as the “lowest law enforcement priority” in cities including Oakland; San Francisco; Santa Cruz; Ann Arbor; Washington, DC; Somerville; and Cambridge, among others. All eyes are on Oregon, the first state where Schedule 1 substances in small quantities are legal.

More than forty years after research into their therapeutic effects was all but outlawed, psilocybe mushrooms and other Master Plants are now being studied for use in a manner much closer to what María Sabina considered to be their true purpose: to heal the sick.

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