The Social Psychological Context as Crucial Variable

Finally, a word about the need for an anthropological and culture-historical perspective. The ways in which and the purposes for which so-called "primitive" or traditional societies and those of industrialized nations employ chemicals capable of triggering alternate states of consciousness are obviously very different, as are the attitudes with which such drugs and their effects are viewed. As the following pages make clear, in the preindustrial or tribal world, psychotropic plants are sacred and magical; they are perceived as living beings with supernatural attributes, providing for certain chosen individuals such as shamans, and under certain special circumstances for ordinary people as well, a kind of bridge across the gulf that separates this world from Otherworlds. By common agreement, in the "primitive" societies the breakthrough in plane which the extraordinary chemicals in these plants facilitate is considered to be essential for the wellbeing of the individual and the community . The ecstatic trance experience or truly altered state of consciousness triggered by the natural alkaloids, and its culturally conditioned content and subsequent interpretation, are fully consistent with traditional religious-philosophical systems that value and even encourage individual pathways to the supernatural powers and personal confrontation with them, however these be conceived or named. The evidence, archaeological and otherwise, is such that we can say with certainty that most societies, if not all, that still employ hallucinogenic plants in their rituals have done so for centuries, not to say millennia. The plants have a cultural history: they are accounted for by traditions in which all members of the society share.

Indeed, we can go so far as to say that the psychotropic plants have helped determine the history of the culture, inasmuch as it is typically in the ecstatic initiatory trance experience that the individual confirms for himself the validity of tribal traditions he has heard his elders recite from earliest childhood:

When one considers that datura results in mental images of tremendous intensity, it is no wonder that a Cahuilla boy after his first vision under its influence became a firm believer in mythic traditions. Datura enabled him to glimpse the ultimate reality of the creation stories in the Cahuilla cosmology. The supernatural beings and aspects of the other world that he had been told about since childhood were now brought before his eyes for the ultimate test—his own empirical examination. He has seen them. They are real... . Once the Cahuilla neophyte was convinced by his own perceptions, he was thenceforth locked into the entire Cahuilla cosmology, dramatically, with community guidance and support. (Bean and Saubel, 1972:62-63)

The magic plants, then, act to validate and reify the culture, not to afford some temporary means of escape from it. The Huichol of Mexico, like the Cahuilla of Southern California or the Tukano of Colombia, returns from his initiatory "trip" to exclaim, "It is as my fathers explained it to me!" One takes peyote, he says, "to learn how one goes being Huichol." It is hardly to learn "how one goes being American" (or German, or English, or Mexican) in the conventional sense that LSD or DMT are employed in the West. And yet, objectively, the chemistry of these drugs differs little from that of the sacred plants of the tribal world, LSD being similar to the natural alkaloids in morning-glory seeds, while dimethyltryptamines are prominent in the hallucinogenic snuffs of South American Indians. And Cannabis (spp.), which thirty million contemporary Americans are said to have smoked recreationally at least once, and probably more often, has replaced the potent Psilocybe mushroom in the divinatory curing rituals of some Mexican Indian shamans, who easily place themselves in ecstatic trances with a plant that, from the strictly pharmacological point of view, is not in fact comparable to Psilocybe*

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