“Intoxications by Hallucinogenic Mushrooms” : A Critical Com

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“Intoxications by Hallucinogenic Mushrooms” : A Critical Com

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“Intoxications by Hallucinogenic Mushrooms” : A Critical Commentary

Published in : Annales de Médecine Interne - Addiction Medicine
Supplément to No 3
May 2002, Volume 153
copyright Masson, Paris 2002
Author: Peter Webster
Letter to the Editor
Re: Article by Pierrot et al., Supplément B, October 2000

“Intoxications by Hallucinogenic Mushrooms” : A Critical Commentary

In reference to the article “Intoxications by Hallucinogenic Mushrooms”
(Supplément B, Octobre 2000): The authors of this article, (Marc Pierrot,
Pascal Josse, Marie-Françoise Raspiller, Michel Goulmy, Marie-Odile
Rambourg, Jacques Manel, and Henri Lambert), perhaps without realising it,
have illustrated an oddly compartmentalised although common modern
standpoint concerning the use of certain age-old psychoactive plants. I
should like to comment on this article in view of the increasing European
acceptance of harm reduction strategies as a response to drug use,
strategies which have been proving their great superiority to the futile
prohibitionist doctrines and policies that have been an unfortunate legacy
of post-WW II American influence. If we are to fully implement such
strategies for the advancement of public health, we must overcome the many
decades of embedded prejudice and historically-ignorant thinking that drug
prohibition has caused, evident even in the terminology scientists and
medical practitioners today employ concerning drug use.

The oddly compartmentalised view of which I speak concerns the apparent
intellectual dissonance, one might even say confusion and ignorance in many
segments of professional communities when it comes to the subject of drug
use for non-medical purposes. Most obviously, the use of nicotine,
caffeine, alcohol (as a drug rather than a beverage), cocoa, and other
age-old legal psychoactive products hardly merits recognition as “drug use”
whereas the moderate use of other, now-illegal products, even though that
use may be quite harmless compared to tobacco-smoking, for instance, is
widely denounced by moralists and scientists alike. Thus, due to the
collective intellectual warping that prohibition has produced, even when a
scientist or physician mentions the term “drug use” he inevitably adopts a
position far more loaded with moral baggage than scientific description.
Such observation has been published time and again, yet has had little
effect in changing the collective viewpoint of modern western society or of
its professional communities. This represents a significant Orwellian
double-think smack in the middle of our supposed “age of science and
reason,” for such a situation in which the use of some but not other
products of a common class is approved can be supported on grounds of
perceived morality, or on behalf of cultural and religious prejudices, but
the attempt to do so from a scientific standpoint inevitably proves
disastrous for one’s scientific objectivity and credibility.

Indeed, it is exceedingly difficult to find any solid scientific evidence
that the prohibitionary approach to the control of drug use in society
delivers any of its purported benefits or goals, and quite easy to
demonstrate precisely the opposite: prohibition routinely and reliably
exacerbates the harms resulting from drug use and even drug production and
distribution. The inevitable conclusion that history teaches is that
prohibitionary policy is thus neither based on nor justified by the
findings of scientific and medical research, and indeed, that such findings
would, if their obvious significance were acknowledged by politicians,
require immediate and complete repudiation of prohibition as effective and
rational policy. How then can a scientist or medical practitioner support
prohibitionary policy or subscribe to the prohibitionary paradigm without
disqualifying his scientific objectivity? Surely it must involve an “odd
compartmentalisation” of one’s thinking, a double-think, to fail to
recognise when one’s viewpoint represents not science but morality, and a
very dubious morality at that, considering its source in the Puritan
Temperance movements of 19th Century America.

The support of the prohibitionary paradigm in professional literature is
often less than obvious, however. It can be (1) disguised underneath a
flurry of professional jargon, (2) implied through one-sided descriptions
of drug use, (3) smuggled in by the use of certain terminology, (4) or
revealed by an illegitimate if strategic shift from scientific to moral
arguments and judgements. Thus to the discerning reader of an article such
as “Intoxications par champignons hallucinogens”, the authors seem more
prohibitionist than scientific, as moral entrepreneurs or preachers rather
than objective professional observers. This must seem a harsh criticism,
but let us take a closer look at what the authors say, for their article
employs all four techniques mentioned above.

At first the article seems to proceed objectively and informatively
concerning the historical, epidemiological and pharmacological aspects of
“intoxication” by agarics of the genus Psilocybe. A few cases of such
“intoxication” are described in detail (with a flurry of medical
terminology), and without specialised knowledge of the ethnobotany of these
fungi or of the extensive research with psychedelic drugs that was
accomplished in the 1950s and 1960s, nothing might seem amiss. A somewhat
more careful reading, however, begins to show that a curious mix of ideas
has been at work in producing the article. The altered state of
consciousness that these mushrooms typically elicit is constantly referred
to as an “intoxication” or even a “poisoning.” A close look at the
references shows that a curious mix has been chosen here as well: most
reflect the “toxic-poison” paradigm, yet works by Roger Heim, Albert
Hofmann, and R. Gordon Wasson are mentioned, and if the authors had
thoroughly understood and acknowledged the work of these
pre-eminent authorities on the subject of psychedelic plants and drugs,
they would surely have had great difficulty in calling the substances
“poisons,” and their descriptions of the psychological effects of the
substances would have had to go far beyond seeing them as “hallucinations.”
Such terminology is not merely unscientific in this case, but revealing of
the authors’ (perhaps unwitting) subscription to prohibitionist
convictions. If the authors had been writing in English, they might even
have foolishly called the substances “narcotics” as do the leading U.S.
“authorities on drug abuse,” all prohibitionists in the extreme. They do,
however, employ that favourite French condemnatory label for illegal
drugs, “stupéfiants.”

In fact, the viewpoint that results from a familiarity with psychedelic
research and the long history of religious and heuristic use of such
substances reveals that except in the case of extreme overdose, psychedelic
drugs are not toxic and thus not capable of producing “intoxications,” and
they certainly are not “poisons.” Neither do they “stupefy,” a word that
might be far more appropriate for that silly state of incoherence brought
on by a little too much beer. True, psychedelic plants produce radically
altered states of consciousness, but do so through the catalysis of inbuilt
psychological mechanisms of the mind/brain. Thus meditation, fasting,
breathing exercises and other age-old “non-drug methods” are capable of
producing exactly the same states of consciousness, and such states even
occur spontaneously in many normal individuals. Note, by comparison, that a
state of consciousness similar to stupefaction with alcohol is not ever
experienced spontaneously in healthy individuals, nor is it one that is
inbuilt or inherent in human consciousness: it is the direct result of
ingestion of a rather high dose of a crude toxic solvent (ethanol).

If psychedelic states of consciousness (or intensive meditation, for that
matter) produce psychological, emotional or existential conflict in an
individual, this is not something that is “caused” by either the drug or an
alternative method, but by dissonance between the individual’s world-view
and the reality revealed by the changed consciousness. This conflict can,
of course, occasionally be dramatic and unsettling, and lead even to panic
in rare cases. Since pre-historic times, however, these experiences have
been revered as one of life’s most important learning processes, and not
merely in “primitive” tribes whose legacy to modern times might be
considered inconsequential: the ancient Greeks, whose civilisation must
surely be admitted to be the direct precursor of our own, and whose heights
were not re-attained in many ways until the age of enlightenment, practised
a religion in which a psychedelic potion was consumed at a yearly
celebration that took place every autumn for nearly two thousand years. All
the great names of Greek antiquity participated, and were singularly
laudatory in their appreciation of these initiations. In fact, the
psychedelic potion employed at the Eleusis celebration contained amides of
lysergic acid nearly identical in structure and effect with LSD. [1,2] Thus
it represents a strange and illegitimate disconnect with the entire
evolution of human societies and consciousness to view the use of such
natural plant drugs as a perversion, a mere “intoxication,” something to be
demonised and repressed by every means available. The authors of
“Intoxications by Hallucinogenic Mushrooms,” I fear, leave no doubt in the
reader that this is their position.

With prohibited substances, of course, the Clinician’s Illusion runs riot.
Since medical practitioners who come into contact with the user of a
prohibited drug usually do so in an emergency situation, and prohibition
itself, being a moral and not a scientific position, easily infects the
perceptions of an entire society with the conviction that a prohibited
substance simply cannot have beneficial uses, the clinician therefore has
little motivation to think that the emergency cases he sees might be
anomalies rather than the rule. Not only do such practitioners generalise
on the basis of their clinical experiences, necessarily one-sided due to
prohibitionary policy, but they find it convenient and easy to exclude
carefully-considered views and research that represents a radically
different paradigm for understanding drug use. If alcoholic beverages had
been prohibited throughout the world for many decades, it would be
entirely probable that a clinician who would then see the down-and-out
problem drinkers of illegal hooch at their emergency rooms would conclude
that alcohol was a vicious, addictive, toxic, hallucinatory, and deadly
poison, even if he were dimly aware that Catholic Masses were still
celebrated in secret with genuine wine, or that Italians in remote mountain
valleys still consumed wine with meals with no apparent tendency to fall
immediately into delirium tremens. As an analogy, the preceding will seem a
silly exaggeration to some, but to one who has fully seen through the
prohibitionist fallacy and crowd madness, the position of many of today’s
professional clinicians concerning psychedelic drug use is no less absurd.

So much for the authors’ use of jargon, one-sided descriptions of “drug
use” and smuggled-in prohibitionist terminology. Their most egregious fault
however, is to be found in their last three paragraphs. Here they become as
prohibitionist as the most infamous of U.S. anti-drug fanatics by calling
for a “war on these intoxications” employing the full force of the police,
customs, and judicial systems. In the context of historical perspective,
this is an Inquisitional stance little different from the wars on heretics
and witches of the middle ages. And their position perfectly illustrates
technique (4) mentioned above: the illegitimate shift from scientific
description to moral lecturing. True, the authors recommend “education”
about psychedelic drugs but insist that must include “condemnation” of
their use, much as witches and heretics were said to be in need of
“education” to convince them of their great error in subscribing to
anarchic and dangerous beliefs. It is always curious to see moralisers and
prohibitionists recommend “education” concerning drugs and drug use, for if
that education is to be complete, and include the works of pre-eminent
psychedelic researchers, the one thus educated can hardly fail to see the
absurdity of the moralist and prohibitionist stance on these matters. In
the present case, this must surely lead to the conclusion that if such a
moralist is also a scientist or physician as we cannot fail to believe
given the credentials listed for these authors he has either not read the
literature himself, or has failed to see that his moral convictions will
not allow him to recognise scientific truth when he sees it, in both cases
monumentally unscientific positions in which to find oneself.

As Andrew Weil and Ronald Siegel [3,4] have both forcefully demonstrated,
the seeking of altered states of consciousness is a human universal,
perhaps even an instinctive drive for much of the animal kingdom as it is
known that non-human species also seek out plants which alter
consciousness. At least 98% of Homo sapiens’ time on earth has been spent
in close partnership with mind-altering substances, and practically without
exception the possibility to undergo such altered states has been the most
precious and valuable opportunity known. If these substances had been
“toxic” and “poisonous” rather than beneficial, uplifting, inspirational,
and treasured, it is doubtful their use would have so long persisted. One
would think from modern views that a mere few generations exposed to these
“harmful” products would have led to our extinction. If we wish to believe
that today we are “modern” and have nothing to learn from the practices and
traditions of 98% of our ancestors, or that we can ignore and repudiate our
inbuilt biological and psychological heritage, we would be foolish indeed.

In the spirit of harm reduction and for its effective implementation,
European professional communities must play an important role in bringing
about change both conceptual and political. Politicians can be dragged in
many unproductive directions by both national and international forces, and
cannot be depended on to take the initiative in these matters. This is
especially so when scientific knowledge must take precedence over
long-standing tradition and prejudice, situations in which public opinion
should not be allowed to lead policy but rather must be educated by it. As
it should be in a world where the advance of science and technology will
necessarily play an increasing role in saving us from the false doctrines,
the follies and stupidities of the past, not to mention the abuses and
ignornaces of the present, the scientific and medical communities must go
beyond their routine duties and functions, beyond the well-worn texts and
accepted knowledge that formed their education, to play a leading role in
preparing western civilisation for the revolutionary changes that will be
necessary to bring some order and coherence to not only drug policy but to
the very way in which we understand the role and function of such
substances for the entire history of humanity. The public will not do it,
for they lack the knowledge and the means. And politicians will not do it,
for without great pressure from the scientists and physicians, they lack
the incentive.

“Drugs will not be brought under control until society itself changes,
enabling men to use them as primitive man did; welcoming the visions they
provided not as fantasies, but as intimations of a different, and
important, level of reality.” Brian Inglis [5]


1. WASSON RG, HOFMANN A, and RUCK CAP: The Road to Eleusis. Harcourt Brace
Jovanovich, 1978 & Hermes Press 20th Anniversary Edition, 1998

2. WEBSTER P, PERRINE DM, and RUCK CAP: “Mixing the Kykeon” in Eleusis:
Journal of Psychoactive Plants and Compounds, New Series 4, 2000.

3. WEIL A: The Natural Mind: A New Way of Looking at Drugs and the Higher
Consciousness. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1972

4. SIEGEL RK: Intoxication: Life in Pursuit of Artificial Paradise, New
York: E.P. Dutton, 1989.

5. INGLIS B: The Forbidden Game, A Social History of Drugs: U.K.: Hodder
and Stoughton Limited, 1975.
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