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A Brief History of Psychedelics 

From ancient rituals to modern research, discover the evolution of psychedelics and their impact on culture, spirituality, and science.

Overview: Psychedelics have a long history of cultural significance, from ancient rituals to countercultural movements. They were extensively studied in the 1950s and 60s, but their recreational use led to criminalization and halted research. Recent years have seen a resurgence of interest, particularly for treating mental health disorders. Indigenous cultures used psychedelics like ayahuasca and psilocybin mushrooms for spiritual and medicinal purposes. The role of Gordon Wasson in introducing psychedelic mushrooms to the West is controversial. Criminalization hindered further exploration, but the psychedelic renaissance has revived scientific interest. MDMA and psilocybin show promise in treating PTSD and depression, respectively. Psychedelics have a complex history and a promising future in mental health research.

The Rise, Fall, and Rebirth of Psychedelics

Psychedelics, such as psilocybin (the active ingredient in magic mushrooms), and DMT (the principal ingredient in the psychedelic Amazonian decoction ayahuasca), have been around for thousands of years, but their use and cultural significance have waxed and waned throughout history.

From ancient shamanic practices to the counterculture movements of the 1960s, psychedelics have had a significant scientific and cultural influence.

In the 1950s and 60s, researchers conducted extensive studies on the therapeutic potential of psychedelics, mescaline and LSD in particular, leading to importantdiscoveries in the fields of neuroscience, psychology, and psychiatry. However, the widespread recreational use of psychedelics during the countercultural movement of the 1960s led to their criminalization, which stifled further research for several decades. 

Culturally, too, psychedelics have had a profound influence on music, art, and literature, and have been associated with deeply meaningful spiritual and mystical-type experiences.

In recent years, there has been a resurgence of interest in the therapeutic use of psychedelics, particularly in the treatment of mental health disorders such as depression and anxiety. 

Below, we will take a brief tour through the history of psychedelics, exploring their cultural and scientific significance and shedding light on their complex and controversial legacy.

Ancient Use of Psychedelics 

Throughout history, various indigenous cultures have used visionary plants and fungi for medicinal, spiritual, and cultural purposes. Indigenous use of these substances has a rich history and continues to exist as an essential part of many cultures, playing a central role in the beliefs, practices, and customs of many communities around the world. 

Ayahuasca 

One prominent example of indigenous use of psychedelic plant medicine is ayahuasca, an Amazonian shamanic brew made by combining the leaves of the Psychotria viridis plant, which contain DMT, and the stems of the ayahuasca vine, Banisteriopsis caapi,  which contains monoamine oxidase inhibitor (MAOI) compounds that facilitate the body’s absorption of DMT.

Ayahuasca is traditionally used for medicinal, spiritual, and ceremonial purposes by indigenous people in the Amazon basin, including Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, and Brazil. Additionally, ayahuasca is used in shamanic rituals to induce altered states of consciousness, connect with spirits, and gain insight into oneself and the world.

According to recent evidence from hair samples taken from mummies discovered in the Azapa Valley, Chile, the use of the ayahuasca vine can be traced back to 600-1000 AD. However, experts who specialize in ayahuasca culture argue that the consumption of the brew may be much older, with some anthropologists claiming that Amazonian tribes have been utilizing the plant for over 5000 years.

Psilocybin Mushrooms

So-called “magic mushrooms” have also been used for millennia in Europe and Central America. In Guatemala and Mexico, there exist archaeological artifacts such as statues and stones depicting psychedelic mushrooms that date back to around 1500 BCE. These objects provide evidence of advanced religious practices involving the use of psychedelic mushrooms, specifically Psilocybe mexicana.

In Mexico, the Aztecs traditionally used sacred mushrooms in religious ceremonies to induce altered states of consciousness and connect with the divine. The Aztecs referred to these mushrooms as "teonanácatl," which translates to "God's flesh." 

In Spain, the Selva Pascuala mural, a 6,000-year-old rock art site, offers intriguing insights into the prehistoric ceremonial use of psychedelic mushrooms, potentially Psilocybe hispanica, by the region's inhabitants. The mural appears to possibly portray ritualistic use of psilocybin mushrooms, suggesting an ancient connection to these mind-altering substances. This discovery has sparked additional research into the historical use of psychedelics in ancient Europe.

Similarly, in the Sahara Desert's Tassili n’Ajjer region in Algeria, cave paintings dating back 9,000 years depict scenes that hint at the ritualistic use of psychedelic mushrooms.

These ancient artworks provide valuable glimpses into potentially ancient cultural and ceremonial practices involving psychedelics, underscoring their enduring presence in diverse societies throughout history.

Peyote 

Peyote, a small globular cactus which contains the psychedelic compound mescaline, is another plant medicine that has been ritually used for spiritual and healing purposes by Indigenous American tribes for thousands of years.

Radiocarbon analysis has revealed peyote specimens and shamanic artifacts that date back 5700 years. These have been discovered in both Cuatro Ciénagas, Coahuila, Mexico, as well as in the Shumla Cave located in Texas.

Peyote is considered a sacred sacrament in the Native American Church (NAC). The NAC is a religious organization that originated in the early 20th century, blending Native American spirituality with elements of Christianity. The ceremonial use of peyote is central to their religious practices.

Members of the NAC believe that consuming peyote during ceremonies can lead to spiritual insight, healing, and communion with the divine. It's important to note that the use of peyote in this context is protected by law in the United States for members of the NAC, as it is considered a part of their religious freedom

Seeking the Magic Mushroom: The Role of Gordon Wasson in Psychedelic History

Gordon Wasson, a prominent American banker and amateur mycologist, played a significant role in introducing psilocybin mushrooms to the Western world. In 1955, Wasson traveled to the mountains of Oaxaca, Mexico, where he met María Sabina, a Mazatec shaman who used the mushrooms in her healing ceremonies.

Wasson's experiences with Sabina and the sacred mushroom inspired him to write an article for Life magazine titled “Seeking the Magic Mushroom,” which was published in 1957. This article brought widespread attention to the mushrooms and Sabina's shamanic practices.

Wasson later authored and co-authored several books, including a book called “The Road to Eleusis: Unveiling the Secret of the Mysteries,” which he co-authored with LSD discoverer Albert Hofmann and classical studies professor Carl Ruck. In the book, they argue that the sacred potion given to participants at the secretive Mysteries conducted at Eleusis in Greece contained some kind of psychedelic substance.

While Wasson's account of his experience with psilocybin mushrooms (which he referred to as “divine mushrooms”) in Life magazine brought widespread attention to the plant and its cultural significance, some critics have accused Wasson of cultural appropriation and exploitation.

Specifically, there is debate over whether Wasson properly compensated Sabina for her knowledge and expertise, as well as concerns about the potential negative impact that increased tourism and interest in the sacred mushrooms may have had on the local community and their cultural practices. 

Furthermore, María Sabina was ostracized by her community in the aftermath of her interactions with outsiders. Despite Sabina's intentions of sharing her culture and spirituality with the world, her actions were seen as a violation of traditional Mazatec beliefs and practices, which placed a strong emphasis on secrecy and privacy.

In particular, Sabina's use of the mushrooms in the context of tourism and Western attention was seen as a betrayal of her people and their sacred traditions. As a result, Sabina was shunned by many in her community and faced significant social and economic challenges, including poverty and isolation.

Psychedelics Made Illegal

During the 1950s and 1960s, there was a surge of scientific interest in the therapeutic potential of psychedelics such as LSD. Psychiatrists and researchers conducted numerous studies using these substances to treat a range of mental health disorders, garnering much promising evidence.

Psychedelics soon leaked from the lab and became increasingly popular in the United States during the mid-twentieth century, particularly among countercultural movements seeking alternative forms of spiritual and personal exploration.

However, in the 1960s, as the use of psychedelics became more widespread, sensationalist media reporting about their safety and potential for abuse also increased. This led to increased scrutiny, stigma and regulation of these substances by the US government.

In 1970, the US government passed the Controlled Substances Act, which categorized various drugs based on their potential for abuse and medical use. Psychedelics such as LSD and psilocybin were classified as Schedule I substances, which wrongly indicated that they had a high potential for abuse and no recognized medical use.

This classification effectively made the possession, use, and distribution of these substances illegal under federal law, and put a damper on further scientific exploration of these substances until recent years. 

The criminalization of psychedelics was fueled by a combination of factors, including concerns about their safety and potential for abuse, as well as a broader cultural backlash against the countercultural movements that had popularized their use. Additionally, some politicians and law enforcement officials have been accused of seeing the criminalization of these substances as a way to exert control over youth culture and dissenting voices.

Since the 1970s, there have been occasional calls for the decriminalization or legalization of psychedelics, often driven by the growing body of research suggesting their potential therapeutic benefits for conditions such as depression, anxiety, and addiction. Several cities and states in the US have passed measures to decriminalize or legalize the use of these substances under certain circumstances

The Psychedelic Renaissance

The past decade has seen a renewed scientific interest in the therapeutic potential of psychedelic substances, leading to what is commonly referred to as the “psychedelic renaissance.”

Among the substances that have gained significant attention are MDMA and psilocybin, both of which have been granted "Breakthrough Therapy" status by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), psilocybin for treating depression and MDMA for treating post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). This indicates that the agency recognizes the potential of these treatments and will expedite their development and review process. 

MDMA, also known as "ecstasy," has shown particular promise in the treatment of (PTSD) in clinical trials. For example, a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled study published in 2021 found that MDMA-assisted therapy significantly reduced PTSD symptoms in veterans, with sustained improvements lasting up to 12 months after treatment. At the primary study endpoint 67% of the participants in the MDMA group no longer met the diagnostic criteria for PTSD after just 3 sessions. 

Since the publication of the mentioned study in 2021, subsequent Phase 3 trials have further confirmed the robust and lasting effects of MDMA-assisted therapy for PTSD. The results continue to underscore the promising potential of MDMA in the treatment of PTSD.

Psilocybin has also shown promising potential in the treatment of depression across several clinical trials. For example, researchers at Johns Hopkins University recently conducted a 12-month follow-up study and discovered that psilocybin-assisted psychotherapy resulted in a noteworthy reduction in depression in 75% of individuals suffering from major depressive disorder. More than half of the participants were observed to be in remission. 

Psychedelics: A Complex History and Promising Future

The history of psychedelics is a complex and multifaceted story, spanning thousands of years of human experience. From the shamanic rituals of ancient cultures to the cutting-edge research of modern medicine, psychedelics have played a profound role in shaping cultural traditions and human consciousness.

While the criminalization of psychedelics in the mid-20th century put a halt to much of the research and exploration around these substances, the recent psychedelic renaissance has brought renewed attention and interest in the therapeutic potential of psychedelics for mental health disorders.

As we move forward, it is important to continue exploring the potential of these substances in a responsible and ethical manner, balancing their potential benefits with recognition of their associated risks and the need for safety. By doing so, we may unlock new insights into the human mind and pave the way for a more holistic approach to mental health care.

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