To many people, the words psychedelic and spiritual are dissonant on first hearing. Yet the use of psychoactive sacraments in shamanic and religious practices is found throughout history. The word entheogen, used to describe certain plants and chemicals when used for spiritual purposes, emphasizes this long-established relationship. Following is a survey of the most historically prominent and widely used entheogens.
PEYOTE The peyote cactus, which has been used in Mesoamerica for at least 2,000 years, is still used sacramentally by the Huichol Indians of Mexico. Their ceremonies are said to closely resemble the pre-Columbian Mexican rites, largely unchanged by missionary influence.
The peyote practices of Mexico began diffusing north into several of the native tribes in the United States during the latter part of the 1800s. The North American peyote ceremony, as described around the turn of the century, is “essentially different from that in Mexico (though having some basic similarities); a ceremony essentially Indian, but not of any particular tribe; a ceremony having overtones of Christianity, but so different from all Christian sects that it would provoke them all to do their best to eradicate it” (from Peyote Religion: A History, by Omer C. Stewart).
Still, the impact of LSD is not to be underestimated. Some contexts of ritual use—for example, Grateful Dead concerts—have endured. And a well-known Zen monk in Europe said recently that nearly all the new students who come to his school do so after taking a consciousness-altering drug, usually LSD.
MDMA The unique psychotropic properties of methylenedioxymethamphetamine (MDMA, or ecstasy), described as more empathogenic and “heart-opening” than psychedelic, were discovered in the mid-1960s. In the late 1970s, an expanding community of psychologists and psychiatrists in the United States and Europe quietly began using MDMA in psychotherapy. The use of MDMA later emerged in dance clubs and other uncontrolled settings, attracting attention that resulted in its being made illegal in the U.S. in 1985.
Though still illegal, MDMA is probably the most commonly used drug at “raves”: all-night ecstatic dance events now found throughout much of the world. Many rave-goers and a few theologians have noted the fundamentally spiritual nature of this kind of ecstatic celebration. Some religious leaders have reported, usually anonymously, that they find MDMA to be a powerful adjunct to prayer and meditation. Unlike many of the other entheogens, the neurological safety of MDMA is still in question.
The historical and contemporary practices surveyed here demonstrate the spiritual significance of entheogens, and indicate that at least some of them can be used with reasonable safety. Religious practices with entheogenic sacraments remain illegal in most countries due to comprehensive bans on hallucinogenic plants and chemicals. However, a few countries, including the United States, do accommodate certain entheogen practices, though here the race of the participants as well as the religious tradition behind the practice are restricted. A genuine respect for religious freedom as guaranteed by the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the U.S. Constitution would seem to require that such accommodations be adopted universally for the traditional plant entheogens (and other substances of comparable safety), that is, without regard to race or creed.
Well-crafted policies and practices would support the anti-drug-abuse objectives of the current drug laws, minimize the risks inherent in profound spiritual experience, and limit the potential for abuse by individuals and organizations that offer such experience. If this can be accomplished, spiritual communities and individuals will be free to decide for themselves the proper role of entheogens, and to evolve beneficial contexts for their use.