Truth in Numbers
Before we can begin, a few critical details need to be heard as honestly and with as open a mind as possible, so we can engage in a fruitful dialog regarding an extremely difficult topic.
First, the fact that illicit drugs such as cocaine and heroin are directly responsible for thousands of deaths per year is never disputed. But what rarely gets discussed is the fact that some legalized drugs such as tobacco, alcohol, and prescription medication (which embody the very definition of drugs) are responsible for hundreds of thousands of deaths each and every year, year after year, and are actually more abused in far greater numbers than all illicit drugs combined. This means that millions of deaths have been the direct result of the use and abuse of illicit and legal drugs throughout history.
This is a staggering number.
Conversely, there are a number of ancient and sacred plants known as entheogens. The entire group of these plants is responsible for a negligible number to zero deaths per year. In fact; they may be responsible for under a dozen recorded deaths in their entire recorded history of use. Entheogens are also called “plant teachers” because of the effort required to work with these plants for responsible spiritual exploration; they are not the “quick fix” or the “escape” that abusers of illicit drugs and alcohol are hoping to find.
They are also more commonly (and recently) known as “psychedelics.” This is exactly where the knee-jerk reactions often begin. But I ask to suspend your reaction, to reserve judgment until some important facts are understood as we first find some initial common ground. What we can agree on so far is this: The yearly death toll from entheogens/psychedelics is negligible to zero, in stark contrast to the countless millions of deaths throughout recorded history that illicit and legalized drugs are directly responsible for.
This is critical to hold in our minds as we continue.
The Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act gives us some insight into what the government considers a drug. It’s “a substance recognized in an official pharmacopoeia or formulary, a substance intended for use in the diagnosis, cure, mitigation, treatment, or prevention of disease, a substance other than food intended to affect the structure or function of the body, a substance intended for use as a component of medicine but not a device or component, part, or accessory of a device.” For the sake of discussion, let’s also see what Merriam Webster thinks a drug is: “something and often an illegal substance that causes addiction, habituation, or a marked change in consciousness.”
When the group of substances, plants, and chemicals that fit even a part of the above definitons are grouped together and universally referred to as “drugs” this (perhaps intentionally) limits any possibility of engaging in an intelligent, unbiased, non-prejudiced discussion about the true difference between drugs that are dangerous, addictive, and often-abused, from those used ritualistically in cultures (entheogens) throughout the world and throughout our mutual human history. Despite the Roman Catholic assertion that indigenous cultures were primitive” and “heathens,” it only takes a cursory glance at the state of our planet to get at least an inkling that the people who didn’t overpopulate it or pollute it, who typically lived in harmony with their environment and who were connected to it and an integral part of it, may have something profound, even world-changing to teach us.
And, statistics that are difficult for many to look at continue with both over-the-counter and prescription medications. The #1 abused drug in America isn’t illegal or illicit drugs, even if we include Cannabis in that group; it’s prescription medication. OxyContin, a powerfully addictive narcotic with effects similar to opiates such as heroin became a leading drug of abuse in less than 10 years after its introduction.
Let’s take a look at a common drug; aspirin. Aspirin reactions and interactions claim 37,000 lives per year. This is one of countless other drug interactions that cause everything from allergic reactions to death, yet few of us barely blink an eye when it comes to “death by aspirin.” In a similar example, 16,500-20,000 deaths per year have been attributed to the use of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs). I already mentioned that The Center for Disease Control (CDC) reports that a staggering 430,000 deaths per year are attributable to the abuse of tobacco.
Yet the media never covers these things because there’s no way to sensationalize it or prey on our fears like they can when the word “psychedelic” is uttered. Well, that, and there’s not multi-billion dollar pharmaceutical, tobacco, or alcohol companies as well as their accompanying governmental lobbyists, or the many millions spent on marketing those drugs, often to unsuspecting populations.
On the other hand, entheogens induce almost universal anger, disdain, reaction, and judgment in even the most open-minded, especially when the word “hallucinogenic” accompanies it. Who could blame any of us for this reaction considering the many years of propaganda and false information perpetuated by the media looking for a great story, by corporations looking for more profits, by organized religions feeling usurped, or by the Federal Government looking to maintain control? Coupled with a systematic suppression of the ritualistic use of plant medicines and entheogens by countless cultures, shamanic or otherwise throughout the world and throughout history; the mainstream population has little hope of knowing any differently. This is thankfully changing with pioneering work by groups like M.A.P.S. and the Hefter Institute, who have not only revived clinical research into entheogens, but who’ve now offered scientific evidence that psychedelics and hallucinogens can help treat a wide range of trauma and disorders, ranging from PTSD to victims of rape and other abuse.
Regardless, the critical point is this: Regardless of any moral, ethical, or religious reasons anyone might have for objecting to entheogens and ethnobotanicals, if we can at least all agree that illicit drugs as well as particular legal drugs are far more of a dire concern due to sheer numbers alone, especially in regard to youth, then we have that critical common ground that will enable us to seek out the true answers to one of the most serious issues facing us today.
Addressing the Myth
The media are guilty of one of the crimes I usually associate with organized religion; of preying on our fear and using that fear to manipulate us. One of the most effective tactics is to repeat something enough times, loudly enough, and in enough ways that it eventually gets accepted as a fact. One example is this universally-recognized fear-inducing statement in relation to entheogens:
“Psychedelics make you jump out of tall buildings.”
But the stark, often difficult-to-swallow truth is actually this: The above statement is categorically false and has simply been repeated so many times that it’s now accepted as a fact. It plays so perfectly into our natural “fear of the unknown,” also making entheogens a perfect fit to be the scapegoat.
There’s little to no evidence to support the belief that psychedelics make you engage in fatal activities such as jumping out of buildings, though, but no one seems to notice or to take the time to truly find out for themselves. Conversely, as mentioned earlier, there is far more evidence supporting the fact that many of the demonized entheogens are clinically-proving to be of great benefit in many areas of medicine, or at least are showing great promise in medicine! But label anything with the word “psychedelic” or “hallucinogenic,” and you’re almost assured of getting whatever legislation you wish passed in relation to it regardless of the facts.
Salvia divinorum is one of the most controversial scapegoats in recent history. When news of a suicide hit the news, a diary entry was found that indicated the person who had committed suicide had taken Salvia divinorum at some point in the past and that, as a result of that experience, realized that there was no point to his life and that his only option was to kill himself.
A tragedy; no question.
But, instead of looking to the broader picture of this person’s world, perhaps to the failure of the parents, or to the youth himself who was already so discontent with his world that he had considered suicide previous to ingesting Salvia divinorum”¦it’s far more comfortable and easier to blame the hallucinogen as the reason for his death instead.
And we all so easily jump on the bandwagon. It only took the possibility; a mere MENTION of a hallucinogen to elicit sweeping changes to the laws in relation to it. In my eyes, this is not only a red herring, it’s a matter of shooting the messenger as well, and as long as “justice is done” no one thinks to question.
Just in case there are those who feel I advocate entheogens to anyone and everyone, I feel the need to offer some clarity on that point: I don’t think for a minute that everyone should ingest psychedelics. Many have a difficult enough time handling the waking reality we all find ourselves dealing with on a daily basis. The instantaneous dissolving of the ego can be quite a jarring experience, especially for those in such material-based societies, but the rewards can be equally as valuable. I don’t feel that children, in an non-indigenous setting, should work with entheogens, just as I don’t feel that kids should be using any drugs, whether it’s alcohol, caffeine, tobacco, or even aspirin or Prozac.
The simple fact is this: Psychedelics have no reputable supporting evidence that they cause psychosis or lead one to commit suicide. Without belittling the importance of even a single death that may have been linked to any potentially aggravating factors, it’s critically important to make this clear: The massive backlash from a single death in 3,000 years of safe use seems virtually inconceivable when considering the complete lack of outrage to the literally millions of deaths that have been caused by alcohol, tobacco, illicit drugs and prescription medication, often hundreds of thousands of deaths each and every year. How can this be?
It is incredibly odd that a single death, not even directly linked to the plant in question, has directly resulted in the outlawing of that plant, when millions of deaths directly linked to alcohol, tobacco, illicit drugs, and prescription medication have only resulted in stiffer laws or slaps on the wrist, rather than outright outlawing of this scourge. In fact, much legislation has repeatedly been passed to further ensure even more protection under the Federal Government for some of the most dangerous drugs plaguing our society today.
With Open Eyes
When viewed in this manner, it makes it obvious that preying on our fears of the unknown makes entheogens and psychedelics an easy target and scapegoat, effectively shifting the focus away from the true killers in our society.
As further evidence: There’s mounting evidence that a legal drug such as Prozac has multiple instances of suicides and attempted suicides attached to it, yet no one is fighting to get Prozac outlawed. It’s also been proven that places where Kava Kava is prescribed for depression instead of Prozac, there are fewer side effects and now, evidence that there are fewer depression-related deaths as well. This is key information that could help us all live longer, healthier and happier lives, yet this information, like the positive stories of the use of psychedelics and other psychoactive plants (like Kava Kava), are stifled because of the laws presently in place.
Kava Kava has also been used as an alternative to alcohol, and statistics show that in places where Kava is consumed more than alcohol, there are significantly lower incidents of violence and motor vehicle accidents. Surely this must count for something.
I typically leave the subject of Cannabis out of the discussion on purpose, but this is a prime example of an irrational war waged against a natural herb that has shown immense medical benefits. Although the Federal Government still won’t change their policy on this ancient entheogen, a number of states have not only decriminalized cannabis, it has been publicly approved for medical use. Surely this is an indication that there are forces beyond our awareness at work that may not be providing us with the whole and complete truth, and are at least worth examining.
And this is but one entheogen of many that, for thousands of years, have been used successfully medicinally, but have since been blindly outlawed or treated as scapegoats. It will take a massive shift in consciousness”¦an evolutionary shift to effect a change. And that’s actually at the core of what my entire mission on this planet presently revolves around: To be part of the voice for evolution in consciousness and attitude in relation to entheogens and the restoration to their proper place in the medicine cabinet of Mother Nature.
And the exciting news is that things ARE changing. Many states, instead of blindly outlawing Salvia divinorum as over 10 states have of this writing are drafting legislation so Salvia is legal to adults over 18 years of age. This is forward-thinking legislation that returns the right of adults to choose for the tools they want to work with to explore the contents of their own mind themselves. The truth about Cannabis is starting to vividly outshine the propaganda and unfounded outrage that has been mounted against it by the Federal government, and this gives me great hope for the future.
Even ecstasy, hallucinogenic mushrooms, and D.M.T., which are all Schedule I drugs in most of the world as of this writing, have clinical trials being conducted on each as we speak. The results have been astonishing. Ecstasy is proving to be extremely helpful for victims of violent crimes such as rape. Hallucinogenic mushrooms have been showing great promise for the treatment of severe depression. Marijuana has been proven to aid in several serious medical ailments. Ibogaine (another illegal hallucinogen) has proven to be extremely effective in treating addiction. And the list goes on.
CAN entheogens be dangerous? Of course they can. Should they be available to kids? Of course not. But blindly making them illegal, often at the expense of valid, deeply beneficial medical research is simply irrational. But until we can see beyond the lies, the propaganda, and the indoctrinated knee-jerk negative responses whenever the word “hallucinogen” is uttered, the battle will be slow, arduous, and often accompanied by feelings that the fight itself is futile.
Our ignorance and our mutual fallibility to believe what the government and media tells us is true is where their greatest power and our greatest weakness lies. It’s easy to capitalize on. But I have two unconquerable allies in this fight: Truth and the Internet. Because of these two powerful forces, I believe it’s only a matter of time before we are all forced to evolve our mass consciousness into something far more rational and mutually beneficial to all beings when it comes to the use of entheogens. I will always believe that truth will always win out in the end, no matter how demonized, oppressed, or ignored.
In closing, the word entheogen means “to reveal the Divine within.” They are part of a cornucopia of plants that Mother Nature provides, enabling those who choose to do so to explore one’s own consciousness, the nature of reality, and our mutual places in the universe. Perhaps this is one of the reasons why there is such a deeply indoctrinated and often irrational reaction to those things which may help expand our individual consciousness; they potentially threaten to undermine those in power. As as we all know, those in power are typically willing to hang onto it at all costs.
What Psychedelics Offer
One of my favorite quotes on psychedelics comes from both Terence McKenna and Dennis McKenna. Both feel that
For that reason alone, I will not give up the fight, and will continue to only get louder as time progresses.
If you want a more detailed discussion on the mechanism of psychedelics, read my “Entheogens: More Than Chemical Reactions” article.
– Keith Cleversley
Chevlen, Eric (2001). “A Bad Prescription from the DEA,” The Weekly Standard, 6:36:16-20.
Setter, Stephen M. (1999). “Tailored Intervention Promoting Safe NSAID Use in Elders,” U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Grant Application (funded, Stephen M. Setter Principal Investigator), 20-21, 31.
National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, Comparative Cause of Annual Deaths – United States (www.cdc.gov/tobacco/research_data/health_consequences/andths.htm), last accessed December 23, 2001.