Pubdate: Fri, 11 May 2001
Source: Vancouver Sun (CN BC)
Copyright: 2001 The Vancouver Sun
Page A4
Author: Douglas Todd
Bookmark: (Hallucinogens)


Drug-Induced Visions Focus Of Conference

Now that Ralph Metzner is approaching the end of the long, strange trip 
that has been his life, he is sure he has found the divine. The well-known 
psychologist, who first rose to prominence after experimenting with 
hallucinogenic drugs with Timothy Leary at Harvard University in the 1960s, 
is one of the stars of an international conference that begins today at 
Whistler, which comes with the scholastic-sounding title: "Entheobotany: 
Plants, Shamanism and Ecstatic States."

Metzner, 65, is among those conference participants who are convinced 
hallucinogenic drugs have given him visions of the infinite and holy. 
Hallucinogens, he says, "have given me a direct experience with the Divine 

When Metzner ingests psycho-active concoctions such as ayahuasca in a 
"sacramental setting," he says, the serpents that enter his mouth, the 
jaguars that take over his body and the decapitated demons that tell him 
"you don't have to do anything," have led him to believe in animism, that 
all of nature is alive with sacred consciousness.

Metzner, head of the California Institute of Integral Studies, said in an 
interview: "Do drugs really produce the same effects as a mystical 
experience? How would we know for sure? What we do know is that many people 
who take hallucinogenics have feelings of unity and ineffability, the kinds 
of things associated with mystical states."

As one of the fathers of the increasingly sophisticated field of 
hallucinogenic research, Metzner wishes law enforcement officials pursuing 
their "destructive" war on drugs would recognize that he and the more than 
500 people attending the Whistler conference are serious scholars 
interested in how hallucinogenics can open the way to alternative realities.

In the past 30 years, psychedelic drug use has moved from dishevelled 
hippie apartments in Haight Ashbury and Kitsilano to being the topic of 
scholarly papers at tony conferences such as this one at high-priced 
Whistler. Four earlier conference on entheogens have been held at 
world-class resorts in Spain, Mexico, San Francisco and Amsterdam.

Even the word "psychedelic" is generally out, having been tarnished by 
indulgent tripsters and rock stars from the '70s who consumed LSD as if it 
was candy, as well as by war-on-drug crusaders who don't distinguish 
between hard-core heroin junkies and searchers yearning for transcendence 
through magic mushrooms.

Today, the more dignified word of choice for hallucinogenics is 
"entheogens," which is from the Greek and means "to generate spirit 
within," says Ken Tupper, who is writing his master thesis in education at 
Simon Fraser University on hallucinogenics among aboriginal cultures.

A recent study by the National Household Survey on Drug Abuse found that 
almost 10 per cent of North Americans acknowledge using psychedelic drugs, 
with about two per cent having taken them in the past year. Prominent U.S. 
psychiatrists such as Rick Doblin have said 25 per cent of those who use 
hallucinogens see them as part of their spiritual life.

Tupper is among those exploring how entheogens, often known as "plant 
teachers," have for eons been used in worship to enhance the connection 
between mind, body and spirit. He says entheogens are like a surgeon's 
scalpel: dangerous when used irresponsibly, but incredibly healing in the 
hands of skilled practitioners.

The brain scientists, anthropologists, chemists, ethnobotanists and 
psychologists who have flown into Whistler (many from Europe, where more 
liberal drug laws make their research easier) are leaders in what Tupper 
calls a "fringe zone of science and religion."

They're particularly focusing on how psychoactive drugs are still being 
used in indigenous cultures in India, the Amazon jungle, the prairies of 
Canada, the mountains of Mexico and the deserts of southwestern U.S. They 
are not interested in recreational non-hallucinogenic drugs like heroin, 
cocaine, ecstasy and alcohol.

Instead, they are continuing to look into how, why and whether true 
mystical experiences can be attained through the eating, drinking or 
smoking of ayahuasca, cannabis, peyote and magic mushrooms -- as well as 
laboratory-produced derivatives such as LSD and psilocybin. Virtually all 
of them are illegal.

Given this legal stumbling block, Metzner is one of the more fearless 
entheogen researchers, because he's not afraid to go public with his 
excitement about the mystical powers of hallucinogens.

Many other people attending the conference refused to talk to The Vancouver 
Sun about their own hallucinogenic journeys, citing the stigma against drug 

They were painfully aware of the recent arrest of Aaron Sorkin, creator of 
the acclaimed TV show, The West Wing, for possessing magic mushrooms and 
marijuana. They also know about the government's confiscation of large 
amounts of ayahuasca from an Arizona religious commune run by Edgar 
Bronfman, a member of Canada's wealthy Bronfman family.

Researchers attending the Whistler conference are pleased the U.S. 
government has made it legal in recent years for members of the Native 
American Church to use peyote in their rituals. But they still fear drawing 
the attention of police or customs officials who take a "zero-tolerance" 
attitude toward those who carry psycho-active drugs or advance their benefits.

Metzner, who feels he's protected from authorities by his relative fame 
(and the fact he doesn't sell drugs), is angry that Christianity, the 
dominant religion of the West, has been anti-psycho-active drug from its 

He believes it took noted 20th century philosophers such as William James 
and Aldous Huxley, author of the classic book on hallucinogenics, The Doors 
of Perception, to reveal the mystical potential of psychedelics to the 
wider public.

The kind of divinity that Metzner has discovered through ethneogens is not 
the monotheistic God of orthodox Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Instead, 
he says, he's been opened up to polytheism, the belief in many gods.

He's learned, he says, that "we're all plants -- that the divine is 
everything." He refers to this shamanistic worldview as "pantheism," or 
sometimes "panentheism."

Entheogens, Metzner says, can help humans escape from the material realm of 
solid objects ("where, when you drop something on your foot, it hurts"). 
They can assist entry into the many non-material, spiritual realms that 
Metzner is convinced exist.

For example, Metzner has his own interpretation of what occurs when someone 
has an hallucinogenic vision of a bear. A traditional psychologist would 
say the bear symbolizes something from the unconscious. But Metzner 
stresses that a shaman would say it might be the actual spirit of a bear.

"The bear spirit wants to show you something. And it would be insulting to 
treat it as just a symbol."

Conference organizer Rob Montgomery, a Canadian-born researcher who 
collects exotic jungle plants for the Waimea Botanical Gardens in Hawaii, 
is one of the few other participants willing to go public about ethneogenic 

"Everyone can benefit from trying it at least once," Montgomery says.

He describes hallucinogenic journeys as "bungee-jumping into the soul."

Montgomery encourages British Columbians to attend the conference (which 
costs $290 US for the three days and $100 US for one day) and learn about 
"this totally legitimate field of research. It isn't something that rolls 
into town very often."

One of the reasons Montgomery says B.C. was picked for the conference was 
the province's reputation, deserved or not, for more tolerant attitudes 
toward drug use.

There has been an irony in choosing B.C., however. Although the conference 
is focusing on aboriginals' use of shamanic plants -- and B.C. is known for 
both its magic mushrooms and its large population of aboriginals -- B.C. 
natives appear to have virtually no tradition of using hallucinogens as 
routes to God.

"It's odd," Montgomery says. "But it seems to be true. If B.C. aboriginals 
used entheogens, it wouldn't be something you can keep secret very easily."

Daisy Sewid-Smith, a 62-year-old Kwakiutl educator from Campbell River, 
will speak to the conference on this issue. But she will talk mainly about 
the medicinal value of plants, such as alder and devil's club, which saved 
her from tuberculosis when she was a child.

While Montgomery says the Cree of Alberta have been known to use 
psychoactive plants, Sewid-Smith says the Kwakiutl and other B.C. tribes 
she knows have focused on making contact with the divine, and nurturing 
religious visions, mainly through elaborate rites of passage involving 
exposure to the wilderness and its elements.

"I have talked to the elders and they say my people never used magic 
mushrooms, even though they're everywhere around here," Sewid-Smith said 
from Campbell River. "They connect magic mushrooms to the realm of the 
frog, which is a very suspicious realm. So we don't touch them."

While Sewid-Smith acknowledges she will play a bit of a debunking role at 
the entheogen conference, the participants respect her position. They 
believe no matter how one attempts to connect with the divine, it is 
essential to do it with respect and dignity.

A hallucinogenic experience of the sacred has never been considered 
particularly important on its own, says SFU's Tupper. The thing that counts 
among aboriginal cultures is whether the experience changes one for the better.

Hallucinogens, he says, seem best taken as part of a group experience in a 
sacred, preferably natural setting, and not as part of an individualistic trip.

Adds Metzner: "What you really want to know about hallucinogens are: What 
are the after-effects? Does the mystical experience lead you to change your 
life? That's why they're called 'plant teachers,' because they're teaching 
you how to live."

Smith, who blends his Christian roots with his devotion to Hindu cosmology, 
emphasizes there is virtually no point in taking hallucinogens outside of a 
deep faith and a commitment to a thorough theological belief system. Just 
going out and having a few weird, drug-induced visions, Smith says, is not 
enough to be spiritual.

Although entheogens can transport a person to a metaphysical reality, Smith 
says those who partake must be prepared to return to a rational world where 
they thoughtfully reflect on their experience, practise a spiritual 
discipline and care for others.

Without such safeguards, Smith warns, hallucinogenics may just scramble 
your brain synapses.

"What you thought was a shortcut to the divine could prove to be a 
- ---
MAP posted-by: Terry Liittschwager