Human-Visionary Plant Relationships in the Anthropocene

Although humanity is rapidly degrading the biosphere, condemning countless plant and animal species to extinction, simultaneously there has been a great deal of remarkable new research into plants’ perceptual and cognitive abilities as well as an enormous renewal of interest in certain plants (e.g. ayahuasca, psilocybin mushrooms, cannabis) as potential physical and psycho-spiritual healing agents.

In the following edited and excerpted transcript of a 2020 Bioneers Conference panel, botanical luminaries share their perspectives on: the growing global fascination with certain plant species and what their embrace tells us about the current zeitgeist; what we can do to help support the land protection and human rights struggles of Indigenous peoples who are the custodians of the world’s greatest plant knowledge in biodiversity hot spots globally; and related topics. Featured speakers are Mark Plotkin, renowned ethnobotanist and award winning eco-activist, co-founder of the Amazon Conservation Team and best-selling author of such texts as: Tales of a Shaman’s Apprentice and Medicine Quest: In Search of Nature’s Healing Secrets; Karyemaitre Aliffe, MD, physician-scientist, leading expert on the healing properties of cannabis, who has taught at Harvard and Stanford and has 35+ years’ experience in natural products research, including explorations in many remote regions globally; Kathleen Harrison, co-founder, President and Projects Director of the nonprofit, Botanical Dimensions, a revered ethnobotanist renowned for her unique explorations of often hidden aspects of plant-human relationships. Moderated by J.P. Harpignies, Bioneers Senior Producer.

J.P. HARPIGNIES: We’re living in an ambiguous, paradoxical time. On one hand, certain specialists are calling this era the Anthropocene, in other words the first epoch in the multi-billion-year history of our planet in which it’s not asteroid impacts or volcanic activity or tectonic shifts that are the main shapers and drivers of our planet’s geology and climate and life, but us humans. And news flash, we’re doing a pretty terrible job. Our plundering of the natural at an unsustainable pace is driving countless animal and plant species to extinction, and we’re destroying many ecosystems. And yet, paradoxically, there seems to simultaneously be an enormous revival of love of the natural world, a craving for everything natural. It’s as though we’re romanticizing that which we’re destroying.

J.P. Harpignies

There are many aspects to this new love of nature, but the aspect that we’re here to discuss today is an exponential growth in recent years of interest in and use of certain psychoactive, mind-manifesting, consciousness-altering plant species. This fascination is certainly understandable because a number of these plant species have remarkable capacities to in some cases heal, soothe, inspire, perhaps even enlighten us on occasion. It has to be said they also have the capacity to confuse and mislead, because sometimes these plants have their own agendas; they can be tricksters. But that’s a whole other level of discussion.

One important thing that needs to be stated at the onset, though, is that whoever is going to partake of these substances would do best to approach them with a great deal of humility and to draw upon the wisdom of those traditions that have millennia of experience in navigating these states of consciousness, and that’s of course above all the Indigenous cultures who discovered and developed the use of these plants, most often to enhance their communication and negotiation with unseen forces and with the other species with whom humans are inextricably interlinked in the web of life. So those of us who partake of these plants have a special responsibility. We owe these Indigenous peoples an immense debt, and it behooves us to do everything we can to help support them in their struggles to defend their lands, their rights and their cultures.

Our own culture seems to me to be entering a sea-change moment in its relationship to these plant species. We’re seeing more and more medical research on potential therapeutic uses of these plants; and we’re seeing a lot of venture capital suddenly pouring into this domain. Some of this can turn out to be very positive because there certainly are some so far fairly intractable conditions, such as PTSD, depression and end-of-life anxiety that conventional medicine hasn’t been very good at addressing, and it’s possible that medicalized versions of these plants could turn out to be more effective in relieving the suffering of a number of the people with these sorts of ailments.

That said, there are also great risks in this endeavor in that the deep flaws in our psyches and in our society—the gross inequities, our intense Narcissism, our lust for power and wealth, etc.—could distort and pervert our relationship to these hitherto sacred substances. In some instances, we could also love some of these plants to death by overharvesting them in the wild. There are many issues that are raised by the growth of interest in and use of these plants, and (segue) I cannot think of a better group of people to wrestle with these thorny questions than the panelists we have here today: Mark Plotkin, one of the great ethnobotanists and conservation activists on the face of the planet, one of the greatest allies of Indigenous Peoples in the Amazon helping them protect their lands and rights, and the author of several classic books on these topics. We also have with us today Kathleen Harrison, a long-time ally and friend of Bioneers going back decades, who in my opinion is one of the most original and unique thinkers in the ethnobotanical community. She has done decades of field work and research, including in the Amazon, but especially among the Mazatec in Mexico, and in fact her daughter is making a film about the long-term relationship of their family to a family of Indigenous healers in the Mazatec country. Kathleen founded Botanical Dimensions, a small but cutting-edge ethnobotanical education organization based in Occidental, California, I urge all of you to support, if you can. So, Kat, it’s great to be here on a panel with you again, be it in a virtual form.

Last, but certainly not least, is Dr. Karyemaltre Aliffe, a remarkable physician/scientist who has devoted decades to study of and research on plants around the world. He’s worked in over 50 countries, has taught at Stanford and Harvard, and he’s become one of the leading researchers and developers of cannabis-based medicines. I’m really eager to hear what these luminaries have to say. We’ll start with Mark Plotkin.

MARK PLOTKIN: An important point I want to make is that, in general, there’s a big difference between taking a whole plant with all the complex compounds it contains and taking a pharmaceutical drug based on just one supposedly “active” ingredient found in a plant. Take quinine (Cinchona officinalis): that tree, native to the Andes, has probably saved more lives than any other tropical species because it’s long been the most effective treatment for malaria. The modern Western scientific approach has been to isolate one of the alkaloids found in the plant and make pharmaceutical anti-malarial drugs based on it, but the massive use of that sort of single alkaloid has resulted in the malaria-causing plasmodium parasite beginning to develop resistance to it. I have a physician friend in Colombia who tells me he is able to treat even quinine-resistant malaria by using the whole bark from the tree instead of the pills, because the bark contains 15 different compounds and the parasite has a much harder time developing resistance to it.

Mark Plotkin

The modern scientific reductionist approach repeats the same sorts of mistakes over and over, and it’s one reason we’re facing more and more drug-resistant diseases. Useful in treating malaria is another plant: Artemisia – yet the pharmaceutical industry is repeating the same pattern as with quinine, and once again we’re sure to generate artemisia-resistant malaria. I’m not saying we should never develop synthetic drugs based on compounds found in plants, but we have to do it carefully, and we need to have far more understanding of and respect for nature’s complexity, because, honestly, our supposedly scientific, high-tech methods often fail or create unintended consequences because they are far too simplistic in their approach to very complex, interdependent living systems.

For example, scientists are very interested in thermophilic organisms that thrive in very high temperatures (near volcanic vents, etc.) because they might have valuable uses in a wide range of industrial applications. They found one promising specimen at Yellowstone and brought it to their lab, but when they grew it in their petri dishes, the organism had not retained its heat resistant properties. They went back to the site and found that it grew in some sort of symbiosis with another bacteria, so they tried to add that one to the mix, but that did not work, either. Once they looked more closely, they found that that bacteria had a virus in it that must also play some role in that bacterium’s properties. The thermophilic property was a product of an entire mini ecosystem, not one easily isolated factor!

Time and time again, we look at nature and want to snatch and grab one gene, one bacterium, one alkaloid and bring it back to the lab and make a useful, uniform product that we can mass produce and make money from, but it’s just not that simple. That’s not how nature operates. And most of the time we don’t listen to the people who know the most about how nature operates and what it can teach us, and that’s the Indigenous people in the most biodiverse places on the planet.

A perfect example of this is the green monkey frog. The use of some of its skin secretions by some Amazonian tribes in Peru as a vision-inducing substance was reported by the remarkable explorer Loren McIntyre back in 1969 (there’s a great book about his travels and discoveries, Amazon Beaming). Scientists have only recently been finding new proteins and some very promising antimicrobial compounds in these frog secretions, which could help us against drug-resistant bacteria, among other things. The psychoactive properties of what they often call “Kambo” have also elicited the fascination in recent years of some people in psychedelic subcultures.

A few years ago, I was visiting some people I have long known in the Trio tribe in Suriname (a tribe I profiled in my first book, Tales of a Shaman’s Apprentice), and I mentioned the green monkey frog that people in Peru (3000 miles from Suriname) use, and one of the shamans said: “We have that frog here too, and we use it for hunting and divination, just like the people in Peru!” And I told him that couldn’t be possible. No one had ever reported it in Suriname, and I’d been working there for 33 years and never seen it. He said, maybe that’s because it lives up in the canopy. I said “I’ve been here 33 years, and you never told me about this?” Well, he said “You never asked me about it, and, by the way, there’s another frog we use for divination purposes.” It turned out it was from a completely different genus, and here it was in a totally different part of the Amazon, and no scientist knew about it. It takes a long time to gain the trust of people sometimes, and you have to be really patient and listen really carefully, and Western

Another example is the fungus Cordyceps. My colleague Glenn Shepard was long interested in a plant called piripiri, a chemically-inert sedge related to grass that tribes in the western Amazon have long told us is an effective female contraceptive and also has other properties. When researchers tested it in the lab, they couldn’t find any chemical activity at all, but Glenn Shepard, who speaks Machiguenga and has worked with that tribe for decades was talking to one of the Machiguenga shamans about this and the shaman gave him the plant to take. Soon thereafter, Glenn felt great and began juggling masterfully, something he had never been able to do well previously. He began studying the plant in a bit more detail, and found that the secret of the sedge isn’t the plant itself but a species of cordyceps fungus which contained seven new-to-science alkaloids. Again, scientists looking for the single ingredient missed the complex fungal-plant relationship.

Now I’m not arguing against the creation and use of modern, synthetic drugs based on natural molecules. After all, the great chemist Albert Hoffman created LSD-25 based on compounds from the ergot fungus which is related to the fungus found by Glenn Shepard.  Nonetheless, we still need shamans and curanderas/curanderos and microchips to build the medicine of the future, which I think will be some sweet spot somewhere between those two approaches. And we still need to develop the patience to listen with respect and patience to the ones who know best what nature has to offer us, the Indigenous shamans and healers, if we don’t want to miss the opportunity to discover new (to us) anti-virals, anti-malarials, entheogens, etc., all of which we are most likely to desperately need in the years ahead. There’s a lot more out there. The rainforest has answers to questions we have not yet asked!

KAT (KATHLEEN) HARRISON: I am also an ethnobotanist, but of a different sort. I have worked a lot with Native people in South America and Mexico, and in other places. I try to study the worldview that seems to arise from the plants that grow in specific parts of the earth, in specific cultures. I have specialized in plants of ritual of all sorts, plants that are important in story and mythology, and of course the psychoactive species, the ones that a number of so-called “Westerners” have embraced in the last half century—ayahuasca, “magic” (i.e. psilocybin-containing) mushrooms, and others. Some of these, after they were “discovered” by non-Indigenous people, have been embraced by these new enthusiasts and, in some cases, propagated elsewhere far and wide, very far from their original roots, from the places where they evolved in nature and in relationship with the human culture of those places. The (most often Indigenous) people from those places are still the knowledge-holders regarding these plants. Their ancestors discovered how these plants and fungi affect the human psyche and how to use them in a society. For better or for worse, though, these plants have been taken out of their places of origin and their use has spread around the world; we have made them global change agents. There is no going back, but there is still a lot we need to learn from the knowledge-holders and the traditions and from the contemporary Indigenous cultures that hold them. We are still just really at the beginning of our understanding of these plants and the wisdom they can reveal, but, unfortunately, we don’t have time to take much longer in discovering how to respect and embrace these species in the most productive ways.

Kathleen Harrison

These species have the capacity to open our minds to time and history. They can sometimes help us hear the ancestors, our own ancestors. They can force us to confront our current global crises, including the destruction of the oceans and rainforests and of many people who depend on these places who have been decimated and marginalized. But one of the big problems that we Westerners have is that we now have these plants, this gift that we were given (or that we took without permission in some cases), but we don’t necessarily know how to use these extraordinary tools to achieve the greatest good because we, and our culture are not attuned to the wisdom they can bring.

The consciousness that comes with ayahuasca, mushrooms, some mescaline-containing cacti and some other visionary plants, carries the message that we are all part of a collective, that all of nature operates as a collective, but our highly individualistic culture doesn’t allow many of us to grasp that fundamental truth. Plants pull down sunlight and transform it every minute into nourishment for all the beings on the planet, including us, and some fungal species operate as the nervous system, the connectors between all of the plant species. They’re all operating in community, in constant conversation with each other. They are not here for humans. They are here because they are part of life, and this is how life works, which is actually probably why we are here too. Unfortunately, we tend to forget that.

I’d caution the people who are doing research these days, developing the future of what one might call “medicalized” or “institutional” psychedelics — which for better or worse (that’s a big topic) is underway and impossible to stop. I’d ask that they not turn their backs on the ways of seeing that Indigenous traditions have discovered and nurtured, nor on the experiences and accumulated wisdom of those of us who participated in the psychedelic revolution of the 1960s and 70s.

 My sense is that this transformative moment is a sort of initiation. Even this virus and how it’s overturned everything we thought we knew in the world is an initiation in the classic sense of shamanic initiation, in which we are sorely tested and dismembered, then have to figure out how to put our pieces back together to be whole. And I really feel that cannabis and the psychedelic species are part of what nature is offering us to help us remember and really ponder deeply, and then reconstruct the world that has been dismembered, but in a better configuration. And that has to be a collective way of thinking. We each have to be whole enough to stand on our feet and to be able to get up again when we fall down, but we’re not going to save the world if we don’t remember that we have to do it collectively.

For those of us who have the privilege and safety to be able to partake of these psychedelic species and to receive the gifts they offer, it is our responsibility to now move to the collective level. Every time we pursue an altered state of mind, we need to ask ourselves: What can I do for the world? What can I do for the world tomorrow? This is not simply my pleasant or even unpleasant experience. This is my periodic retuning to be a full participant in the world, to remember that I am part of nature, part of this collective, and that we are in a really big crisis. Accessing that higher consciousness that we’ve talked about for decades now can no longer be a purely personal pursuit: we must use it to address the crisis all of life is in. That’s one reason to study the traditions. Traditional tribes, groups, networks of people all over the world from many different traditions, would, when they were facing a major crisis, go into ceremony with whatever their powerful visionary plant or technique was, and seek a collective answer to the situation.

That’s where I think we have a lot of work to do still: we need to move to that sort of practice. We no longer have time to spend our lives having individual experiences. One disadvantage of psychedelics having been kept underground all this time is that there hasn’t been as much communication to the wider society about the actual work that we could do that would help us all, but I also think there are benefits to staying underground. I think that no matter what happens, some sort of underground will continue, and that is okay as long as our collective awakening surfaces more widely and as long as our choices that come out of these visionary states, our insights, are actually embodied and do demonstrable good in the world.

For some of us who’ve done a lot of different explorations of powerful allies of these sorts over the last few decades, some of us for 50, 60 years, it’s a state of mind that is constantly available to us, whether or not we’ve just taken something. We no longer need to take something all the time because we have actually learned to walk in that state of mind, or at least access it intentionally, and there’s a kind of reference or meditation that we can draw upon for advice in how to remember the world, and how to weave it back together again.

Something is being born right now. In the middle of all this terrible pain and suffering which is raging around us, we are learning something; we’re finding a deeper level of our humanity, a realization that we are all brothers and sisters who are suffering together (though some of us far more than others of course), but how do we hold that awareness to not only solve the immediate problem at hand—the stranger who has arrived and seems to have turned everything over—but the greater challenge of now weaving this world together again in a far better version of itself?

If one is open to the “animistic” view that everything in our world is alive and in conversation, then these extraordinary plants are actually “persons.” More and more eco-activists in various countries are advocating that legal personhood be granted to rivers and forests and other species. So if you’re a person who seeks counsel from ayahuasca or psilocybin mushrooms or cannabis or other sacred plants, treat your communication with these other-than-human persons with respect. Realize that we are in a real crunch, but that we need to use the insights offered by these beings to the fullest. Let’s ask them to help us with the awareness that we need to mend the world, but then let’s act together, in community, to embody the changes we need to make.

JP: One common denominator I found in Kat and Mark’s presentations is their emphasis on the need to think holistically. Mark stressed that modern reductionist approaches risk missing a lot when they seek to find the sole “active” ingredient of a plant instead of seeking to understand the complex interrelationships between all the various compounds that synergistically form the whole plant. And Kat drove home that to solve the “wicked” problems facing our species, we have to get beyond perceiving ourselves as atomized individuals and learn to feel and act collectively, as whole communities. Dr. Aliffe, before you delve into your presentation, I was wondering if you have any reactions to what you just heard?

Dr. KARYEMAITRE ALIFFE: First of all, I want to mention that I’m an enthusiastic fan of both Mark and Kat and the work that they’ve done all these years. I am a physician, schooled and trained at Stanford, and was a Program in Cancer Biology MD/Ph.D. Fellow. There is usually presumed to be a great divide between the medical establishment and what occurs botanically in the rainforest with respect to mind/consciousness-altering substances and Indigenous perspectives; however, post-Stanford, I worked at Shaman Pharmaceuticals with the McKenna brothers and with Mark. Actually, I left Stanford to go there because I found more promise in the rainforest than in the fluorescent-lit dungeons of anesthesia at Stanford.

Karyemaitre Aliffe

I’d like to underscore one thing that Kat mentioned, which was the need to seek wise counsel. We have an opportunity in front of us. There are solutions for many of the health problems we face to be found in the botanical realm. For example, some cannabinoid compounds have shown interesting potential to be of use in coping with certain aspects of Corona viruses by neutralizing the pathogenicity and/or transmissibility of viruses. That could potentially permit companies that have a white-collar work force to resume some operations face-to-face (as opposed to Zoom meetings). We need to keep exploring the botanical realm and not simply wait for pharmaceutical giants in shining armor to provide vaccine solutions, as important as that is.

My background, prior to going to the rainforest, was mainly in molecular pharmacology and clinical pharmacology, very detailed and data-driven disciplines. Currently science is racing to develop and use artificial intelligence and machine learning systems that work with “big data.” Now, on one level, consulting information gleaned from “big data” (if done intelligently) can be another way of seeking wise counsel. It’s an approach geared to the new era we’re entering, the Anthropocene, and it can have value, but let’s not throw out the best wisdom from the Holocene. I’ve worked with a number of traditional healers and shamans, and obviously their methods are altogether different: they certainly don’t rely on statistical data. They’re looking directly at the person or group or situation in front of them, but they are accessing and living and working in the context of enormous flows of information from expanded levels of consciousness—they are processing their own version of “big data” 24/7. 

Our culture has almost completely lost that ability to access, understand and harness those flows of information that shamans work with, so maybe we’re coming full circle by using computers to fill in those abandoned regions of our brains, so that we too can now process large flows of data, and if we do that in the right way, that may, among other things, enable us to enter a new era of precision medicine, personalized medicine.

And as a final point, just so everybody is clear, when we refer to Amazon, we’re not referring to the Bezos empire, even though it’s more proximal and prominent in the media. We’re talking about that big forest somewhere that we have a tendency to burn down. No one would ever burn down an Amazon fulfillment center, because then we wouldn’t have fulfillment.

JP: Kat, Dr. Aliffe raises an interesting point, which Mark alluded to earlier as well, which is that, in a sense, we (those of us who have deep respect for these indigenous teachings but are also creatures of the modern world) are hoping that we can find ways to reconcile the best of these ancient traditions with the most fruitful, productive aspects of modern technology and modern science. In that context, there’s been a lot of talk in the psychedelic community about some of the venture capitalists entering the fray and some resistance to some of what they’re proposing. What are your feelings about that, your view of the dangers in these new actors entering this space?

KAT: I think there are significant risks, actually. I think there are parallels right now to what seemed to be the death of herbalism some 500 years ago or so, with the takeover of medicine by the upper classes, by formally educated men with privilege. A lot of folk knowledge was repressed, and people, especially women, who practiced folk healing were oppressed in all sorts of ways. Folk medicine and ancient herbal traditions went underground, and in recent decades it has risen again. Now we have herbalists all over the place, and herbalism has come back as a respectable field, although there’s still a tension between officially sanctioned and unsanctioned healing arts.

I see parallels with that in the modern history of psychedelics, and I think we have to watch out for that sort of takeover, in which certain privileged groups, using money, patents, permitting systems, laws, etc., will claim ownership of the whole domain and marginalize even more those who discovered the uses of these substances and those who nurtured and developed their use for a long time. Some of those new players may do some good, if their activities are part of the whole diverse array, but if they become the dominant voice in the field, that would be a problem. My guess is that a lot will be happening; there will be a lot of new medical research, and the undergrounds will also persist. It will be all things.

The bigger picture, though, is that we need to remember that this is all about nature. We need to be as conscious in nature as we can be, and that is what these plants tell us, if we can hear it. I support the ongoing investigation by the average person of the depth and scope of our minds and our hearts, our ability to engage with the world, and the respectful use of these agents as allies and tools to be able to do that. I hope that just continues and continues.

JP: Mark, I was wondering if you had any further thoughts on the matter, given that you’ve dealt a lot with both worlds. You’ve worked with pharmaceutical companies trying to work with these molecules, and you’ve also defended Indigenous Peoples’ rights to intellectual property, so do you have any quick thoughts about what the risks of this new influx of medical researchers and venture capitalists into this domain might be now?

MARK: Let me offer a personal example. I got an email this morning from Colombia from somebody looking for the seeds of a very obscure ayahuasca species that had originally been identified by my teacher, the legendary ethnobotanist and mentor to many of the leading lights in this field, Richard Evan Schultes. I looked online, and there it was for sale!

The whole world now has access to many of these once obscure botanicals in ways we never dreamed possible, but that brings new sets of problems. What if that rare species is overharvested and disappears? There are so many millions invested in these industries now, both underground and – in the case of cannabis, for example – more and more above-ground, that very little attention is being paid to protecting the original habitats of these plants. And climate change is threatening or causing the extinctions of some species, including psychoactive ones. It will be very hard to preserve many of these species without tackling climate change.  

My worry is that, at the same time that we have more and more access to these substances, the roots, both botanical and cultural, are dying. That’s why the Amazon Conservation Team and other groups such as Botanical Dimensions are so focused on defending cultural and biological diversity, so we don’t wind up with a world with no primary forests, in which the only wildlife are cockroaches and pigeons, and all the shamans have passed on without being able to pass on their knowledge and their languages. It’s a conundrum: we have more information and greater access to plants and plant lore than ever before, but we’re also destroying the habitats of those plants at a faster and faster clip. We’re burning the candle at both ends. If there were easy answers, we wouldn’t be discussing this right now. There aren’t any easy answers, but my challenge to everyone who has had important experiences and benefited from these plants and from the cultural traditions that brought them to the world, is to now focus on giving something back: on helping these Indigenous peoples and the lands under threat survive, for all our sakes. How are you paying it forward? That is something which seems to be missing from a lot of these discussions. That’s our challenge.

JP: That’s very important. I think you and Kat have sent us a strong message that at this time in history we can’t just use these molecules solely for our personal healing (as worthwhile as that can be): it’s imperative that we step up and seek to do our utmost to give back. It’s a qualm I’ve long had about the psychedelic underground: a lot of people in it have very utopian ideas and think that if enough folks “change their consciousness” that will miraculously solve the world’s problems without actually having to take concrete actions. They need a wake-up call, all of us do.

Now, Dr. Aliffe, time for your Warholian 15 minutes.

Dr. ALIFFE: One point I’d like to make right off the bat is that these compounds tend to be context specific. As we all know, set and setting are major factors in psychotropic experiences. What does it mean to have a utopian experience in Manhattan or San Jose as opposed to a rainforest? if someone is really seeking a change in the world and believes that some utopian vision will contribute to that change, I would suggest that the first step would be to engage in those experiences in less dystopian environments. I’d recommend avoiding even Disneyland/Hollywood versions of utopia for such a pursuit.

Being in a real rainforest, by oneself, is a psychoactive experience in and of itself. I’ve worked in the Amazon with shamans and doing plant collections, and on one occasion I was walking down a riverbank, seeking a particular plant that grew alongside the river, and I suddenly happened to find myself in quicksand. Prior to that, my only experience with quicksand was in movies or TV shows, but there I was. There was nothing in the whole environment around me to grab hold of. I was too far away from any other people for yelling to do any good (though I admit, I did yell). Perhaps fortunately, there weren’t even any predatory animals around to hear my cries. But one thing I can assure you of is that it was a very different experience than being at home in my bungalow in Menlo Park.

There are no right angles in the rainforest. “Psychoactive,” as defined by the World Health Organization, refers to anything that impacts our cognitive function or mood, so a psychoactive state is not just the result of getting high or taking hallucinogens. Seasonal affective disorder, caused by lack of sunlight, is a depressive disorder. Certain frequencies of light, available in natural sunlight, are associated with beneficial therapeutic benefits. That means that sunlight is “psychoactive.” And anybody with children, or who has ever been a child, knows just how psychoactive sugar can be. It changes behavior. It changes mood, so I challenge us not to have such a narrow idea about what is psychoactive.

Part of my training at Stanford was in anesthesia, intensive care and pain management, including a fellowship in clinical pharmacology. One really interesting thing about the practice of anesthesia is that (even though no one else would state it this way) anesthesia is “psychotropic medicine.” It is the one branch of medicine that deals with psychotropic agents regularly, administers them to patients and observes them real-time (as opposed to writing a prescription and sending them home and having no idea what their experience was or whether they even took the medication). This has some similarities to a shaman’s work: you’re monitoring a fellow human being being psychotropically altered, observing it unfold before your eyes, and your specific objective is to create a mind/body environment that is conducive to this person passing through the ceremony of surgery in an optimal fashion.

In the language of science, of clinical pharmacology, anecdotes carry no weight compared to the gold standard of double-blind studies, and, increasingly, of big data; but every person, every patient I ever managed was “anecdotal.” Everybody, every person, is just one sole patient—i.e. an anecdote—in the operating room. You can’t say: “This person shouldn’t have died because the previous 10 people that I treated using the same protocol did not.” That doesn’t matter to anyone, not to the surgeon or to the family. So even though double-blind studies are important for the pursuit of linear pharmacology, they don’t tell us anything about an individual’s experience. They miss a lot.

Another interesting concept worth looking at because it reveals some other limitations of current scientific approaches is the “entourage effect.” It’s a marvelous little term. It’s nothing new in botanical medicine or in the study of pharmaceuticals, but it is far too often neglected. In the domain of pharmaceutical development, researchers are always studying one single agent at a time, with the Ehrlich “silver bullet” approach. They are not taking in all the complex interactions occurring in the environment, be it the human environment, the physiologic environment, or even in the cellular environment. They just want to observe effects induced by a specific single molecule. But the drugs they develop will ultimately be given to real human beings who are, especially if they’re older, most likely already taking a wide range of other prescription drugs for conditions such as high blood pressure, diabetes, high cholesterol, mood disorders, etc. Most people are functionally engaged in polypharmacy. They’re taking more than one drug, and those drugs have not been studied thoroughly in combination. Is there an entourage effect? Are there complementary activities or even untoward effects from that combination? That’s rarely studied or even considered.

And, of course, when you add in cannabis, large swaths of the medical establishment holding prejudices against it complain that cannabis may interfere with their prescription drugs, as though their prescription drugs were invariably providing a more important therapeutic action than cannabis, and as though some of the drugs they prescribe don’t have potentially dangerous side-effects. Drugs such as Ambien are far more likely to cause people to do all kinds of wildly unpredictable things, while sleepwalking, or even sleep-driving on the freeway, than any amount of cannabis.

Bear in mind that cannabinoids are just enhanced salicylic acid derivatives, the same family of molecules as aspirin. They’re not nearly as esoteric as many current psychotropic pharmaceuticals. 

Some of the complexity can be resolved by simply looking at the actual data as it is without any paradigm bias or prejudices; emulating Darwin, who went into the wilds, not with a preconceived notion of trying to prove a theory about the origin of species, but rather as an intelligent, trained observer. He accumulated a great deal of “big data” and then processed it before developing a theory.

Western culture broadly—and Western scientific culture specifically, for all its supposed objectivity—has actually been very unsophisticated and even unscientific in its approach to addressing phenomena of consciousness and of the mind-body relationship. Psychiatry and neurology are just emerging from the Dark Ages; just starting to shed the ill effects of a slew of unproven biases, dogmas masquerading as science. Primarily due to the work of people in Silicon Valley who developed unbiased methods for us to assess large volumes of physiological and medical observations, we have been able to start to put these flawed precepts behind us. Many of the major advances in medicine over the last several decades are due to people who developed digital information technologies, such as MRI, fMRI, CAT scans, ultra-sound, etc.

We now have far greater ability to analyze animal, human, and cellular processes and so look deeper into biological functions. All of these capabilities are digital technology-dependent. They are definitely not because we suddenly have a brighter generation of physicians than we did 40 or 50 years ago. In my area of study, I can say that this enhanced data analysis has benefited the qualities of studies on a range of cannabinoids and has helped us understand their beneficial effects on mood, cognitive function and other conditions. Now we have the opportunity to expand upon it, with, for example, wearable/mobile technologies that have the ability to capture physiological data to achieve levels of data assessment that typically are not available in the U.S. These sorts of devices can, I think, help us deepen our understanding of cannabinoid effects and what differences various medicinal formulations might make.

JP spoke in the introduction about the ambiguity and paradox of our simultaneously romanticizing and destroying the natural world and our need for humility. Part of humility is to observe objectively and not presume that we really know what our ancestors were doing in the Holocene period. We have to remember their cultural context and their reference points were very different. Our culture long associated, and still to some degree associates, the idea of “drugs” with wild behavior such as adolescents stealing cars, seducing girls, robbing convenience stores, etc., but I have never heard of young people in the rainforest “getting high” on ayahuasca and stealing canoes to go party. That’s just not part of the culture. We have to be careful about how we interpret information. For example, recent archeological digs have found evidence in Central Asia of the ritual burning of cannabis and frankincense together, so the popular media published headlines asserting that our ancestors were “getting high.” That’s a cross-cultural assumption, and those tend to be incorrect.

One last thing I’d like to delve into is the relationship of climate change and of environmental contexts on the therapeutic potential of cannabis. The cannabinoids within cannabis that we explore for their therapeutic potentials are “secondary metabolites”—molecules that are not directly involved in the growth, reproduction and proliferation of a plant, but that provide selective advantages over other plants, microbes or even animals that may diminish that plant species’ ability to thrive and proliferate. Secondary metabolite profiles change as plants respond to environmental change. In the case of cannabis plants, such compounds include: cannabinoids, terpenes, and cannaflavins, a class of flavonoid metabolites with enormous anti-inflammatory potential (discovered by one of our esteemed colleagues, Dr. Marilyn Barrett, who worked with us at Shaman Pharmaceuticals). So, when you’re looking at therapeutic compounds in cannabis plants, you have to look beyond just the simple genetics of a particular cannabis strain. You have to study the secondary metabolites—just as in viticulture, where grape quality depends on what the French call the “terroir,” the very specific circumstances and conditions of the soil, rainfall, temperatures, and the general environment. Plants are super-sensitive to their local conditions. Some studies have even shown that if you introduce certain insects intentionally into your cannabis grow, it can induce increased production of particular secondary metabolites.

This has major implications. For example: if you seek to grow cannabis in a highly-controlled, clean and sterile environment, it may not necessarily be to your advantage in terms of producing the types of therapeutic compounds you want. When consumed by humans, cannabinoids interact with our endocannabinoid system; and own endocannabinoids (endogenous cannabinoids) are derivatives of arachidonic acid, a common molecule in human and plant physiology that is involved in stress responses. To simplify a bit, the point is that there is continuity between plant and animal (and therefore human) physiology. When plants are stressed, they produce molecules to help manage those stressors, and these molecules can often help humans manage stress. So, if you’re raising pampered, unstressed plants, you may not produce the therapeutic compounds you are seeking. This is another example of the need to look at whole of complex systems, and where the plant and the work you’re trying to do fit into the larger world, where everything is interconnected.

JP: Thanks, Dr. Aliffe. Your comment about the terroir reminded me of my friend Jeremy Narby, who refers to the Pucallpa region of Peru as having the equivalent reputation for ayahuasca as Bordeaux has for red wine. One of the things that all of you are driving home is the complexity of the plant/human relationship and the pitfalls of excessive reductionism. Even though a lot of our science is necessarily based on reductionism (we need it, for example, to understand molecules and DNA in exquisite, infinitesimal detail), some of these substances we’ve been discussing are extremely complex and the cultural relationships humans have developed with them over long periods of time are very complex, but our culture has a tendency to want the magic bullet to solve every problem, and it’s pretty clear from all you’ve shared here today that the approach that searches for magic bullets won’t generally work with these plants (and I would add that it’s a good idea to avoid bullets in general) and that we need to strive to keep reminding ourselves of the larger interconnections both to nature and to human cultures to maintain a “right relationship” with these plant allies.

Some of the questions that have come up from the audience are about what people can do beyond the psychedelic experience. Kat, you touched upon this, but can you offer any further thoughts on other practices or forms of consciousness that might help people carry forth any insights that might have come to them from sacred plant use and that might help them put their best foot forward in the real world, helping them in joining efforts to address the collective problems we face?

KAT: These sacred plant experiences, and I include cannabis in this, can reveal things to us. We discover something hidden, and we can actually learn to look for what’s hidden. We can learn to look under the stone or behind the veil and behind the next veil. These are metaphorical ways of talking about opening our perceptions to what is there that we are missing, and these experiences can help us do that, but when we walk in the daylight, in the daily world, we need to remember to seek to keep those perceptions open. We need to remember that our worldview in any given culture defines what is apparent and in front of us, and in a materialistic/matter-based worldview, as we have had in the West for quite a while, that means that unless we work hard to perceive beyond our culture’s blinders, we’re going to miss a lot. I think that’s part of the complexity you’re talking about.

I think it helps to think about how people at another time or in another culture or with another worldview might perceive something. We need to cultivate a lot more humility about what we know. For instance, it’s only really recently, in the 21st Century, that our science has started to understand the immense importance of fungi in maintaining life on this planet. That whole invisible, underground fungal universe, all around us, right under our feet, turns out to be an absolutely critical piece of the web of life, but we largely ignored it and knew very little about it, and that’s just one example. So, basically, my advice is: look deeper, look longer, and teach children to always wonder what’s behind the surface of things.

JP: Mark, any thoughts on this?

MARK: I think the past predicts the future, and if you want to know how best to communicate a message, look at how people did it in the past. I do want to broaden our conversation about plants a bit. We forget that the most significant mind-altering plant in history has probably been the wine grape. It’s a roughly $325 billion dollar industry annually and growing all the time. You want to talk about fostering creativity? One of the great Greek poets said no poem was ever written by a drinker of water, and it’s been a central factor in Western culture for millennia. That said, it does have drawbacks. A clever observer said decades ago that if you give five guys alcohol, they’ll start a fight, but if you give them cannabis, they’ll start a band, so all these things need to be appreciated judiciously in their own way.

And now our culture has access to all these psychoactive plants that were largely unknown to it (outside of very small circles of cognoscenti) until very recently. Large quantities of people know have access to many more stimulating plants and fungi than ever before, and there are also, with electronic communications and social media, many more ways to communicate at incredible speed. These powerful tools bring a lot of opportunity and a lot of challenges. Each one of us is going to have to assume a lot of responsibility to figure out how best to learn, teach and act. It’s a daunting challenge we all face.

We have to remember that things will keep changing and new tools and opportunities and challenges will emerge and that it’s impossible to predict precisely what will happen. Who could possibly have guessed decades ago that ayahuasca, which only a handful of botanists and anthropologists in our society had even heard of and was associated with vomiting and terrifying visions, would be sweeping the world? Will Kratom, barely known outside of Asia until very recently, now emerge as a major anti-addiction treatment? Whole new (to us) categories of psychoactive plants and substances might yet emerge from rainforests and other ecosystems.   

JP: We only have a few minutes left, so let me ask each of you if you have a parting thought about what you think is most important for people to take away at the current time about our relationships with these powerful plant species?

Dr. ALIFFE: I think we have to resist the push that is likely coming to apply a materialist reductionist standard to the study of and creation of medicines from plant teachers, because that standard is diametrically opposed to diversity. It seeks to generalize limited observations to large populations, and in that sort of generalization, there are certain to be concomitant errors (usually referred to as “side effects”). Diversity, beyond demagoguery and social issues, is really about “big data.” Honoring diversity can be accessed by opening dialogues with the other, and that other can be Indigenous peoples and other cultures, but it’s also within ourselves, the big data within. All of us are relevant. All data matters because all experience matters. That’s where the truth is.

MARK: To try to bridge what Kat and the good doctor have said, I’ll go back to the wine example. There are 1,368 varieties of grape that have been made into commercial wines, but 80% of the wines we drink today come from just 20 varieties, another incredible example of our reductionist tendency, and we know what happens in monocultures—they are wiped out when the “right” plague or pest sweeps through. How do we combat our culture’s tendency to impose monocultures? To build resilience we absolutely have to embrace diversity, biological and human, and shape our environment accordingly.

We know we’re currently in a terrible place. The question is whether we’re just going to keep doing the same things that got us into this mess in the first place or if we’ll wake up enough to change course. If we stay on our current course, to cite only one threat, there are far worse bugs out there than COVID-19. Some of those African hemorrhagic fevers will keep you awake at night. COVID, as bad as it is, will seem like a cake-walk by comparison. If we keep invading forests and disrupting ecosystems on a massive scale, it’s not a matter of if but when.  

The question is which path we are going to choose, the path of diversity and resilience, or the reductionist monoculture path in which we just focus on the small handful of most profitable crops in the short term or the one alkaloid in a complex plant we think will be most useful to us quickly. The path of diversity and listening and learning from other cultures makes for a better world; the path our society is on now definitely doesn’t, but we can’t just take hallucinogenic substances or go to workshops and drumming circles. It’s not easy at all, but we have to externalize the teachings we receive in our inner work and make real, concrete change out there, in the wider world.

KAT: I’d like to underscore that we really have the opportunity to be in relationship with these species and to ask them to help us as a collective. But to have success in that endeavor, there are two key principles to keep in mind: reciprocity and curiosity. When we seek guidance, we also have to always keep firmly in mind that it is our obligation to give something back—to the plants, to those who share their wisdom with us, and to all of life. And we have to keep being open to seeing more deeply, to keep exploring new ways of seeing the world and of being in the world in order to inform our work in the world. Every single one of us now has the job of healing the world, and these states of mind and these species, these plant and fungal persons, can offer help, but we have to earn that help. Thank you for your attention.

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