Pubdate: Wed, 08 May 2002
Source: New York Times (NY)
Section: International
Copyright: 2002 The New York Times Company
Author: Tim Weiner
Bookmark: (Hallucinogens)
Bookmark: (Spiritual or Sacramental)


HUAUTLA DE JIMENEZ, Mexico, May 4 - This is the place that launched a 
million trips.

Back of beyond in the mountains of northern Oaxaca, Huautla has had a far 
bigger impact on Western civilization than vice versa. Its valleys are a 
cornucopia of rare flora and fungi with strange powers, and its "magic 
mushrooms" ignited the psychedelic culture of the 1960's.

The town has 35,000 people, two restaurants, one bar, called the Cup of 
Forgetfulness, and not a single Lava lamp. But without Huautla (pronounced 
WOW-tla), a generation of Americans might never have turned on, dropped out 
or played a Beatles record backward.

Now a second wave of trips to Huautla's high hills is being set off by a 
mind-bending mint called Salvia divinorum, a little-understood plant unique 
to these parts.

After the price of local coffee beans collapsed from the forces of free 
trade, farmers here turned to cultivating the salvia for a global market. 
Its leaves are sold, legally, on Internet sites in the United States and 
Europe, at prices ranging from $40 to $120 an ounce. Foreign tourists are 
coming to Huautla to experience it on their own - to the dismay of the 
tribal priestesses who know it, and other hallucinogens, intimately.

For centuries, the Mazatec Indians who live here have used psilocybin 
mushrooms in ceremonies combining Catholic and indigenous rituals, 
conducted only at night, before homemade altars adorned with 13 flickering 
candles and the images of saints. They call the mushrooms "God's flesh."

"They have the power to cure, to heal, to deliver understanding," said 
Aurelia Aurora Catarino, 56, one of Huautla's leading curanderas, or 
shamans. "They are not a drug. They are a sacrament."

In 1955, after decades of searching, a somewhat obsessed mushroom hunter 
named R. Gordon Wasson, a New York banker, flew here in a private plane. He 
talked his way into a few mouthfuls of the mushrooms, and soon was seeing 
"resplendent palaces all laid over with semiprecious stones."

Unknown to Mr. Wasson, the Central Intelligence Agency was hot on his 
heels. The agency had a secret program to discover and develop drugs that 
could be used as mind-control weapons. Its spies heard about Mr. Wasson's 
trip and sent an operative to infiltrate his group.

In 1957, Life magazine published a 17-page spread written by Mr. Wasson 
about his voyages up to Huautla and into inner space. Millions read the 
piece, including a Harvard professor named Timothy Leary.

Dr. Leary raced down to Mexico and soon set up the Harvard Psilocybin 
Project, turning on colleagues, students and friends like Allen Ginsberg 
and Jack Kerouac. By the time the United States outlawed psychedelic drugs 
like psilocybin in 1966, scholars say, more than one million people had 
taken them.

In the 1960's, thousands of Americans on psilocybin pilgrimages made their 
way up the newly built road to Huautla, a glorified goat path that climbs 
45 miles and 378 hairpin turns from the two-lane highway below. There were 
Beatles songs playing in the streets, remembers Henry Munn, an 
anthroplogist who first visited in 1965.

But "some of these foreigners came here without any respect for the 
sacraments," Ms. Catarino said. They still tell the tale in Huautla of the 
marijuana-smoking, mescal-swigging, mushroom-addled hippie who chased a 
live turkey down the street trying to eat it whole.

The Mexican Army set up a blockade on the road to Huautla from 1969 to 
1976. But recently the flow of foreigners has revived, with hundreds of 
outsiders, mostly well-heeled Europeans, seeking permission to take part in 
psilocybin ceremonies each year.

Now salvia-seeking tourists and marketers are also on the road to Huautla. 
Once again Mr. Wasson, a vice president of J. P. Morgan & Company who died 
in 1986, was the first to describe the powers of salvia (a cousin of the 
sage grown in the United States), 40 years ago in a little-read monograph.

The plant, which grows naturally only around Huautla, has an active 
ingredient, salvinorum, whose effects on the mind are not understood in the 
slightest by scientists.

"The leaves are much more powerful than the mushrooms," said Ms. Catarino, 
who uses salvia outside mushroom season. She strongly disapproves of taking 
salvia anywhere but in the strictly controlled ceremonies she conducts, 
which require prior abstinence from sex, alcohol and other temptations.

Those who have sampled salvia report experiences both mystical and terrifying.

Kathleen Harrison, a California ethnobotanist who ate salvia leaves in a 
traditional ceremony near Huautla, described being transported into "the 
presence of a great female being, a 20-foot-high woman," and feeling like a 
plant in this spirit's garden.

Daniel Siebert, another California ethnobotanist, had a different reaction 
to a concentrated extract of salvinorum. Reporting on a scholarly Web site 
he maintains on the plant,, he said it plunged him into 
"a confused, fast-moving state of consciousness with absolutely no idea 
where my body or for that matter my universe had gone."

"It is tearing apart the fabric of existence," he wrote under its 
influence. "It is madness." His Web site recommends using salvia only with 
a sober companion so as not to "physically injure yourself" while intoxicated.

Ms. Catarino said: "Foreigners come here without thinking, looking for a 
cure from reality. The purpose of these sacraments is to purify, and to 
open the road. When it opens, it's as clear as the blue sky, and the stars 
at night are as bright as suns."

"But in the wrong hands, it can be a disaster," she said. "It can send 
people to hell."
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MAP posted-by: Ariel