MEXICO, EARLY IN 1968. With a few friends of similar disposition, I have left the deteriorating summer-of-love counter-culture scene of New York City on an adventure destined to occupy the next quarter-century of my life. We follow in the footsteps of many other seekers, both professional and amateur, who have sought to know more about the astonishing collection of psychoactive plants indigenous to the tropical and semi-tropical regions of the New World. Native Americans had discovered these plants many thousands of years before, and almost without exception they came to be of major importance for the tribes and civilizations which grew to prominence long before the arrival of the white man.
Each of us has his own reasons for embarking on such a voyage, the immediate and conscious reasons each would have stated having perhaps little to do with underlying motivations that would be seen as important only from the distant future. One friend has come along, offering to assist me in my as yet vague project of finding and experimenting with some of these mysterious plants. Another is to meet a friend who has established a modest trade with rural farmers who grow the famed variety of cannabis known as Acapulco Gold. Another seems merely to be along for the ride. And of course we are all in that stage of youth where little risk is perceived in launching into the most uncertain or unplanned projects with little more than a total faith in one's ability to improvise. From the wisdom of middle age, this could only be seen as a recipe for disaster; from the perspective of youth, it is the essence of opportunity.
But, at least for myself, the hidden catalysts which propel me in this uncertain direction are not altogether undiscovered. There is a war going on, I'm supposed to be fighting it. I'm supposed to be a member of a society which has been shaped so skillfully with regard to democratic principles and respect for freedom that it is not only unnecessary, but indicative of some mental or spiritual pathology to question the fundamentals of this system which now finds itself living up to the worst travesties it had imagined of its arch-enemy just a few years before. My fifth grade teacher had impressed me with the fact that the reason I didn't know what propaganda was, was that we simply didn't have that sort of thing here in America. But the Russians...
And then there are these persistent ideas surfacing in my mind about Native Americans, for I had been doing my homework reading about the many ways in which it could clearly be seen that, despite all current mythology, it had been the Native Americans who had had the superior culture and wisdom at the point of contact between themselves and the European invaders. It was the white man who had played the role of barbarian on that sad stage of conquest and slaughter, and it was now the white man who continued in his supreme arrogance by just recently outlawing not only the use, but even further research with these so-called hallucinogenic drugs so important to the indigenous peoples of the conquered land. According to the official doctrine, the effect of these drugs is to mimic psychosis or model something akin to schizophrenia, with the ever-persistent risk of permanent psychological impairment and even suicide. Each one of us has had several experiences with a psychedelic drug and to us it is not the drug experience but the official doctrine that is psychotic and symptomatic of a severe collective psychological impairment in society itself. Never, we feel, was there a successful society so easy to be alienated from, so absurd in its pronouncements and ongoing policies of unending conquest.
The enormity of the Great Sin of European Civilization enters into our conversations only briefly, obliquely, for these areearly days and we are more attuned to "what if" than to what was. I have brought along some rudimentary laboratory equipment and my assistant and I install ourselves in a little rented bungalow on the outskirts of Guadalajara. We plan expeditions into the countryside both near and far to look for the psychedelic plants which beckon like some species of holy grail oh so unholy to that society we so readily left behind. At the public market buying oranges we discover we have already succeeded in our first objective, for on the upper level there is an entire wing of the market devoted to stalls selling traditional medicines and shamanic items of the most diverse character. Peyote cacti are suspended in rows along the shop windows, and are hawked to gringos passing by. It is difficult to judge whether the twinkle in the eye of the shamanic apothecary at the prospect of daily increasing sales of such a common item is even greater than that in the eye of the prospective rebel from American Ignorance about to embark on the most ancient voyage of mankind.
We negotiate for a fifty kilo sack of peyote cactus to be delivered the next day and depart. To say that our spirits and anticipation are high captures only the most sublunary aspects of the moment. Over glasses of orange juice, my assistant and I review our plans for isolation of a total alkaloidal extract of the sacramental plant, a preparation that should produce the exact effect of peyote taken the traditional way, without the nausea and discomfort produced by the high content of soap in the raw plant material. The active psychedelic fraction of the plant we know contains several closely related alkaloids, and we want to experiment with the hypothesis that this blend of alkaloids produces a psychedelic experience superior to that of synthesized mescaline, the principal alkaloid of the mixture. We have both taken the synthesized alkaloid in New York on one or more occasions, and although the resulting experiences were complex, mysterious, highly instructive, and certainly intense yet gentle, we feel that there was a certain lack, difficult to put your finger on, of the sense of spirituality described by those anthropologists and other researchers who had undergone the experience with the natural product during the Native American ceremonies. The ritual and setting of such ceremonies play a major role we know, but our intent is to test the effect of the psychedelic preparation itself in determining outcome.
The next few days are occupied with slicing, preparing, and drying the cactus tops, and we even replant the conical tuber-like remains so that they have a chance to regenerate the parts we have amputated. A two-liter Osterizer blender facilitates a primary extraction with aqueous alcohol, and a series of liquid-liquid extractions to separate the soaps, chlorophyll and other miscellaneous impurities results in our proud possession of a small flask containing an amber, semi-crystalline syrup, practically odorless but having the characteristic taste of synthesized mescaline sulfate. From here, chromatographic or other simple processes would be capable of separating the mixture into its component alkaloids, but we are interested in this natural blend and load several double-zero gelatine capsules with two hundred milligrams of the syrupy elixir. From this vantage point, the prohibitionist fanaticism of the land we left only a few weeks ago seems as remote as home probably seemed to those first barbaric explorers who pillaged this land and tried to eradicate forever the knowledge of the mysterious substance we have just bottled. How different our intentions from those of our ancestors! The sense of triumph over the collective stupidity of centuries, even on such a small, fragile, and local scale, perfuses the laboratory and even though it is very late, we have trouble postponing what we know will be a twelve hour visionary experience until the morrow.
Anyone who has tried to write an account of even a mild psychedelic experience will know the minimal power of words to describe that which is not only indescribable, but beyond language itself. Language seems to me as merely a sort of resonance to experience, coming somewhat after the fact, and capable of dealing with only the established habits and routines of thought and perception. The totally novel experience, if such a concept be allowed, can have no ready-made language patterns to activate. And perhaps the reverse is true as well: in meditation, we are told by its adepts, the quieting of the inner dialogue leads to a purified perception of reality, unsullied by the categorizing imperatives of language. Freed from such restrictions, every experience is potentially unique. Even the most trivial of everyday situations has its originality, but it is the learned, devastatingly efficient habits of the mind which cause one to feel that it is necessary to cope with reality rather than celebrate it. Hence boredom at the apparent sameness of the events of daily routine displaces the inescapable but elusive magic of even a moment of life lived with true freedom.
Somehow the peyote extract we took the next day produced such a freedom from the known; pure experience seemed to flow from some mysterious source to which the resonance of language was not only lacking, but completely superfluous. Those of us who sat together during that voyage sensed this astonishing reality not with fear, nor despair at the inability of normal conscious processes to analyze or explain this strange way of perceiving, but rather it seemed that this state of mind, this method of perceiving reality, was aboriginal, the way things happened long ago when humankind was only beginning his long journey into civilization. And what was more, we clearly realized that this aboriginal mode of perception was not at all primitive, nor limited in its ability to deal with modern life; on the contrary, it utilized and required the entire capacity of one's being, it was in fact larger and more comprehensive than normal everyday, routine consciousness. It seemed that this was the way the mind would work all the time if it were not being impeded by the narrow forms mankind had imposed upon himself through the establishment and maintenance of certain styles of civilized societies. From that point of view, it was obvious that Western Man had, step by step, backed himself into a spiritual corner from which, although he had achieved impressive control of the mundane, physical aspects of reality, he had lost something not primitive, but essential. Thus it seemed that the Native Americans, who had used these miraculous plants as existential medicines since the beginning, had kept possession of that something which the white man had long ago lost, and the Native American societies that resulted were by comparison ecological in the true sense of the word, having a balance and corresponding lack of destructive contradiction both within their societies and also in relation to the environment.
During the next few days, I began to realize that with the new restrictions on research with psychedelic agents, and the continued marginalization of the remnants of Native American societies, Western Civilization was attempting to drive the final nail in the coffin of a vast body of psychedelic knowledge, the culmination of a 500-year-old process designed to eliminate an embarrassment to the conviction that wisdom and progress were the rationale behind the spread and hegemony of European Civilization to every corner of the earth. And not only the rationale: Western Civilization now appeared to claim to be the sole possessor of the very concepts of wisdom and progress. Anything that could be done to dampen this enthusiasm to ignore, vilify, and destroy everything that was not Modern, not Capitalism, not Democracy, not Advanced, not Scientific, not Civilized, not US, I saw as not only a worthwhile project, but as an undertaking one would be required to do on the basis of simple moral principles. I had no alternative but to apply any modest talents or abilities that I might possess to discovering the mechanisms by which these psychedelic chemicals produce their effects not only on the brain, but on the mind and spirit; to finding the link between the widespread use of such substances among the most ancient tribes of men, and what that might indicate about the evolution of the human species; to understanding what the current fanatical attempts to prohibit the use of these substances and even stifle further research by qualified scientists indicated about the underlying psychology of the Modern American Attitude; to discovering whether knowledge about these and other aspects of psychedelic use might provide a key so badly needed by the whole range of the sciences of man to overcome widely recognized limitations of these sciences not only to explain but above all to improve the deplorable condition of human social interaction in this century of holocaust. Were these the medicines of a long-lost age, of no further use to humankind in his now modern world, or could we discover that they might still be useful, perhaps essential for a future which did not include the suicide of the species?
The moral imperative that I perceived then, combined with the normal predilection by youth for daring deeds, left me with little doubt as to my future course of action. The probability that I would find it necessary to become an outlaw was of no great consequence to me, it was an exciting concept that it might be possible to be an outlaw from American Civilization and be morally justified in doing so. In fact, I was already an outlaw, a draft-evader, and I had just been dabbling with forbidden fruits in a most serious way, as a scientist practicing his art in defiance of the law of the land. How rare the opportunity to be able to practice a forbidden science in this day and age! The concept itself put paid to many arrogant assumptions about the rationality of the American Way of Life and its justification for eliminating any and all competition to its oxymoronic Philosophy.
I cannot pretend that the work in which I engaged over the next several years was serious research on a par with what our modern academic institutions would accept. But in light of the severe handicaps that have always been the limiting factor for progress in the understanding of controversial or forbidden subjects, I think I may have nevertheless achieved something of value toward a broadly based theory of psychedelic experience. Of course there were others, many others, in fact, who were working on threads of the puzzle presented by modern man's rediscovery of the ancient psychedelic medicines. Some researchers who had, previous to the newly instituted restrictions, been working on the most diverse and interesting aspects of the effects and uses of psychedelics both therapeutic and esthetic, continued their work in diminished, or at least different ways. Although they were forbidden to give a psychedelic drug to any patient or (more importantly) research volunteer whatsoever, substitute methods for activating a psychedelic state were used, sometimes with reasonable success. Some other workers continued with theoretical work based on previously accumulated data, and a very few obtained permission to continue with biochemical experiments with psychedelic drugs given to various laboratory animals. Sadly, permission for such work seemed much easier to obtain when the proposed research might show that the psychedelics were harmful, broke chromosomes, or lived up in some way to the irrational fears of the prohibitionist elements in American institutions. But even if some of these experiments were little more than overdose parties for rats, they produced, valuable data on, for example, the sites of action of psychedelics in the brain.
Even more tragically, however, some very gifted workers left psychedelic research entirely, unable to continue meaningful work. Prohibition of the use of some substance, like alcohol, tobacco, tea, cannabis, opium, or anything else you can name, is historically so easily shown to be self-defeating, that it bewilders the rational mind to attempt to understand the philosophical outlook of those otherwise intelligent humans who propose that man can be protected from folly by the simple expedient of the passage of law. One would have to hypothesize ulterior, perhaps unconscious motives on behalf of those who propose and maintain prohibitions, or conclude that they are not rational human beings at all. It is several orders of magnitude more difficult to understand the philosophy of prohibition of an avenue of scientific research. This is not to say that there should be no control whatsoever of scientific research activities by publicly-elected government. If over-enthusiastic pursuit of profit by biotechnology companies seems to be leading to dangerous situations such as widespread release of bio-engineered organisms into the environment, safeguards must be installed: the biotechnology enterprise is not simply eradicated by fiat. Government authorities and legislative bodies have not seemed unduly worried about proven deleterious world-wide effects of research on nuclear energy or weapons. The prohibitions on psychedelic research may well indicate ulterior motives and hidden agendas by those at the center of power. More importantly, if more difficult to analyze, the prohibition must indicate some inherent collective psychological conflict at the very core of the belief system of Modern Western Civilization. It is as if, collectively, we have no greater fear than that engendered by the rediscovery of a most ancient, important, and healing practice and phenomenon, the psychedelic experience. This is most curious, and I shall return to the topic in chapter 8.
In the wake of repression then, there arose another group of psychedelic researchers, which like other groups down through the history of acts of repression by the powerful, was effectively driven underground to an at least temporary obscurity. In the middle ages we had the alchemists, purportedly looking for ways to make gold from something less valuable, a project which certainly would meet the approval of the acquisitive ecclesiastical authorities of the time. The true alchemical quest, if we can believe some modern interpretations, would not at all have met the approval of an authority proclaiming its monopoly on spiritual matters. No one today would deny the historical existence of the underground aspect of alchemy in the middle ages, a science which of course bordered on witchcraft, wizardry, and sometimes sheer lunacy caused perhaps in some cases by exposure to toxic heavy metals such as lead and mercury, favorite substances for the alchemists. Nor will the modern historian of science deny the influence and importance of much of the work of the alchemists for the succeeding generations of researchers who made the beginnings of a modern science out of a diverse collection of arcane experimental data. But the existence of underground science today, practiced by a fraternity of no less colorful and sometimes equally as crazed individuals as the alchemists, must be dismissed as a fairy tale by those authorities who have been instrumental in bringing about the very situation from which underground science must necessarily grow.
Underground science has many limitations and difficulties which the establishment scientist never need suffer. There are no universities and publicly financed institutions allowing research to flourish and researchers to enjoy a reasonable standard of living including the respect of society and sometimes even fame and fortune. Under severe repression, underground scientists have little chance even for peer review of their work, not to mention journals for publication of their papers, or conferences, research grants, awards, and always the threat of moderate to severe penalties meted out by the Inquisitors, which today includes not burning at the stake, but languishing incommunicado for periods of time that might make some wish for a return to the fiery methods of medievalism. With increasing calls for the application of the death penalty (in the United States) in cases of "major trafficking", we may yet achieve or surpass the medieval traditions.
To be fair, there do exist a few journals, and some excellent books that have been published during the thirty years of Inquisition, and even a few conferences have brought together luminaries in the field of psychedelic research. Since the late 1980's, a very few limited research projects with humans have been approved using some types of psychedelic drugs in treatment programs for addiction or other psychological problems, or in metabolic studies. But the scope and extent of such research has not even begun to approach that seen already in the 1950's, and certainly the continuation of important and productive research of the 1960's, for example on creativity, or philosophical and religious aspects of the psychedelic experiencxe, has not even been suggested to government authorities for approval. And so the fact remains that for the most important and interesting uses of psychedelics, no one may give a psychedelic drug to a volunteer human being and then publish the results without drug police knocking on, and today often smashing down, the door. Even the time honored tradition of self-experimentation is cause for arrest, and if one is in the wrong place at the wrong time with a few bucks not instantly traceable to justifiable and tax-paid income, civil forfeiture of all moneys and properties by the defendant (still under the presumption of innocence) ensues.
If this seems an exaggerated or surrealistic view of today's world, then the reader is certainly in the establishment camp. For as an underground scientist who has had the pleasure of knowing a few other individuals similarly motivated, I can attest that the fears are real and certainly not the result of paranoia. I have known several who have languished, forfeited, or both. I myself am no stranger to enforced languishing. And it is with a certain caution that I now attempt to reveal my findings while hoping to retain an intact front door.
Chapter 2 | Table of Contents