Ethnopharmacologic Search for Psychoactive Drugs (Vol. 1 & 2): 50 Years of Research
The contents of this book and the ESPD50 symposium from which these papers are derived shows that the investigation of psychoactive drugs is now a serious scientific endeavour. It is no longer the playground of a few adventurers. The indigenous peoples of the world have been fantastic explorers of the properties of the plants and fungi around them. They have discovered and used many psychoactive compounds, and often these plants are central to their cultural and religious life. But these discoveries have also been significant in a broader context, in that they have provided leads to the development of significant therapeutic medicines. The preservation of this knowledge under the stewardship of indigenous cultures has been an invaluable contribution to the advancement of science and medicine. This book clearly shows that this is a worldwide phenomenon, as it reports discoveries from the Amazon to Australia and from Mexico to South Africa. It also shows the broad range of organisms that contain psychoactive compounds, from Mexican fungi to tall Amazonian trees or desert Acacias of Australia. Many of us involved with this volume owe much to the encouragement or tutelage of Richard Evans Schultes, who was the pioneer who could justifiably be recognized as the founder of the interdisciplinary field of psycho-ethnopharmacology. Schultes’ role as an explorer, an ethnobotanist extraordinaire, and a scientist who encouraged his colleagues to investigate the biodynamic compounds in the plants he discovered, opened a new frontier in the study of naturally-occurring psychoactive compounds. Without his encouragement to publish a paper about a visit to the Yanomami where I reported on their hallucinogenic snuff, I might never have followed this up in many other places and with several other tribes.
The rich ethnomedical heritage of indigenous peoples is now being scientifically studied and applied in many different ways, as is apparent from chapters of this volume. As someone who has spent much time with the tribal peoples of the Amazon and studied many different psychoactive compounds, it is my hope that those of us involved in research do all we can to maintain the cultures and the knowledge of these indigenous pioneers. Their discoveries would never have come to the attention of science had it not been for their role as guardians of this knowledge. In return for these inestimable gifts, it is our responsibility to be active in the preservation of the habitats in which tribal people live. But our responsibilities as members of the scientific community do not end there. We must also become strong advocates for the recognition and protection of the intellectual property rights of indigenous peoples. The sort of research reported here is leading to a much wider application of these indigenous discoveries, potentially yielding novel medicines worth billions of dollars to the global pharmaceutical industry. We must make sure that our indigenous friends also benefit for their role in making these discoveries and preserving this knowledge as part of their intellectual and cultural heritage. We must make sure that indigenous peoples and their knowledge are recognized and preserved. At the same time, we must encourage them to develop at their own pace and make their own choices when it comes to the decision to share (or not) their ethnomedical treasures.
Sir Ghillean Prance, FRS, FLS, FRSB
Director (Ret.), Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew
Currently: Scientific Director of the Eden Project
the first ethnopharmacologic search for psychoactive drugs – san francisco, 1967
In 1967, a landmark symposium in the history of psychedelics was held in San Francisco, California, under the sponsorship of the National Institute of Mental Health, which was part of the U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare (HEW). This agency is now called the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). The title of the invitational symposium was the Ethnopharmacologic Search for Psychoactive Drugs, and a volume of the proceedings was published under the same name and sold through the U.S. Government Printing Office. The symposium volume, now rare, has become a classic reference in the ethnobotanical literature.
This was the first time that an interdisciplinary group of specialists, ranging from ethnobotanists to neuroscientists, gathered in one place to share their findings on a topic of widespread interest at the time: the use of psychoactive plants in the context of indigenous and non-Western societies. In 1967, the word “psychedelic” had not yet become stigmatized. There were still expectations in the psychiatric and neuroscience communities that these little-known and curious agents, used for centuries in the ethnomedicine and rituals of more traditional cultures, might yield new healing materials that could be used therapeutically in our own troubled society, as well as being important tools in the exploration of the human mind.
The roster of those attending the original 1967 symposium reads like a who’s who of ethnopharmacology: John Daly, Richard Schultes, Bo Holmstedt, Gordon Wasson, Alexander Shulgin, Andrew Weil, Stephen Szára, Nathan Kline, Daniel Efron, Daniel X. Freedman, and many others lesser known, and now all but forgotten. Only a few of the researchers who attended the original symposium are still alive, and of those, even fewer remain active in the field. Their work contributed to making the first ESPD symposium one of the most unusual and interdisciplinary scientific convocations ever organized.
Originally, follow-up symposia were planned to be held about every ten years; that time frame, it was thought, was sufficiently ample to accommodate the stately progress of scientific research, yet frequent enough to enable researchers in various specialties to come together in a collegial environment to share research results in a timely fashion.
Following the summer of 1967, the prevailing political winds shifted, and psychedelic substances soon after became demonized, feared, and banned. There was no further interest on the part of the federal government to sponsor any similar symposia. In fact, their sponsorship of the original symposium, as valuable as it was for the dissemination of research findings, became an embarrassment, and as a result, no follow-up symposia were ever held. The Symposium Proceedings, available for a time from the U.S. Government Printing Office (U.S. Public Health Service Publication #1645), eventually went out of print, closing that particular chapter in the history of psycho-ethnopharmacology.
In the fifty years that have passed since that first symposium, numerous federal administrations have come and gone. Our recent past and current administrations, along with most of their affiliated institutions, remain as far from developing a viable, realistic drug policy today as they were then. In the decades since, a new generation of researchers, many inspired by the giants represented at that first conference, has continued to investigate the outer limits of psycho-ethnopharmacology. Some outstanding discoveries have been made, and the work continues. At the same time, there has been a sea change in public and medical perception of psychedelics. There is now a renaissance in research around the world, and the therapeutic potential of some of these agents is being reinvestigated. While psychedelic substances have become less stigmatized than in the past, they remain controversial. Much work in this field remains unfinished, and the most significant discoveries may still lie in the future.
how espd changed my life – summer 1968
When the first ESPD symposium was held in 1967, I was 16 years old, a bored teenager living in a small town in Western Colorado. More than anything, I longed to escape my dreary life and travel to San Francisco, the Mecca for the counterculture, the epicenter of the psychedelic revolution. My brother, Terence, a lifelong friend and mentor, had escaped our soft prison a few years earlier and was a student at Berkeley at the time. We were both just beginning to discover the wondrous world of psychedelics, and we agreed that they were the most fascinating things that we had encountered in our young lives. The fascination we felt then continued to guide our interests and even careers for the rest of our lives.
Terence passed on in 2000 after a long fight with brain cancer. I have continued the quest for understanding on my own, grateful to him for introducing me to psychedelics, and for the passionate curiosity we shared. I do the best I can, but every day I miss having his wisdom and humor in my life. He was, as he kindly said of me in his book True Hallucinations, “my brother and a colleague of long standing.”
In 1967, while we were fascinated by psychedelics and wanted to immerse ourselves in the counterculture, neither of us had much of a clue about them. Terence was living in Berkeley, and I managed to get away from my small town and visit him during the height of the Summer of Love. Neither one of us was aware of the obscure private symposium that had taken place in San Francisco just a few months earlier.
Like most of our like-minded contemporaries, we had no context from which to understand the emergence of these ancient compounds into mass consciousness in the 1960s. Timothy Leary had transformed from a mild-mannered Harvard researcher to the Messiah of LSD, and although we resonated with much of his message, we were slow to plunge full tilt into the hippie movement. Part of the reason for this is because we identified as intellectuals, and were put off to some degree by the distinctly anti-intellectual trappings of hippie culture. We felt there had to be more to psychedelics than their superficial depictions in the mass media, but we had no idea where to find a more in-depth and balanced perspective.
Sometime in 1968, while we were busy trying to sort all this out, two books surfaced in our world; these works were able to provide for us a deep background context in which psychedelics made sense. One of these was The Teachings of Don Juan, Carlos Castaneda’s first book of many, detailing his apprenticeship with a Yaqui shaman (Castaneda, 1968). Although subsequent events have shown that much of Castaneda’s work is highly fictionalized, if not a complete fabrication, we did not know that at the time. For me at least, that first book was influential because it provided a cultural context for psychedelics, based on traditions older and richer than anything I had encountered in mass media sources. It made clear that there was nothing new about psychedelics; in fact, these sacred plants and fungi had been used in indigenous shamanic practices for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. While Castaneda’s book was not scientific or even accurate, it gave me insights into shamanism, a set of practical technologies and beliefs involving the use of these materials for healing and the exploration of consciousness. Terence gave me a copy of the first edition of the Teachings of Don Juan for my 18th birthday in 1968; it was a very special gift. I still have it, and I still cherish it.
The proceedings of the first Ethnopharmacologic Search for Psychoactive Drugs were published some months after the symposium, in 1967. The volume was issued by the U.S. Government Printing Office as U.S. Public Health Service Publication #1645, published under the sponsorship of the Pharmacology Section, Psychopharmacology Research Branch of the National Institute of Mental Health (Efron et al., 1967).
I have no recollection of how this volume first came into my hands. All I remember is that somehow a rather well-used copy came into my possession sometime in the summer of 1968. I dropped whatever else I was reading and devoured the book from cover to cover! This book provided the perfect balance to the Teachings of Don Juan. While that work had made me aware of the cultural contexts related to the indigenous uses of psychedelics, the Ethnopharmacologic Search for Psychoactive Drugs was even more influential, because through it I became aware that this discipline – ethnopharmacology, or more accurately psycho-ethnopharmacology – was a real field of scientific investigation. Moreover, it was my first introduction to the people working in this field, people like R. E. Schultes, Bo Holmstedt, Alexander Shulgin, R. Gordon Wasson, and others, who became iconic figures in my personal pantheon, and in some cases, as with Schultes and Shulgin, mentors and friends.
The realization that real science was being pursued in this field was a revelation to me, not least because it opened up the possibility that one day I, too, might be able to achieve a place in this exclusive fellowship. And eventually I did, but when it first came into my hands, I thought at least I would be able to prove to my parents that I was serious about psychedelics, and not just a confused hippie in search of cheap thrills. They were not very reassured, but over the years they came to recognize the merits of my chosen career in science.
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