Panel Discussion – Sacred Medicines, Creativity, Evolution & the Paradigm Shift
Societal attitudes toward consciousness-expanding substances are changing as the research supporting the pharmaceutical use of psychedelics to treat ailments such as PTSD and anxiety grows. With the impending commercialization of sacred plant medicines come several problems that risk separating this gift from the Indigenous communities that maintain and cultivate a respectful relationship. How do we approach the future of plant medicine to preserve good relations with Indigenous peoples and our planet?
With: Paul Stamets, one of the world’s leading mycologists and the foremost expert on psilocybin mushrooms; Katsi Cook, a groundbreaking figure in the revitalization of Indigenous midwifery and a longtime participant in peyote ceremonies; Françoise Bourzat, a leading expert on psychedelics as healing agents who did 35+ years’ field work with the Mazatec in Mexico. Moderated by J.P. Harpignies, Bioneers Senior Producer.
Below is an edited transcript of a panel session at the Bioneers 2020 Conference. Watch more panels, keynote addresses, and performances from the conference.
J.P. HARPIGNIES: Before we start, I feel compelled to say that it’s imperative to always put out some caveats when dealing with conscious-altering substances: these are very potent molecules; they need to be treated with great respect; they are not for everyone; they are contraindicated for certain people; and they are best done in a safe and supportive environment with experienced guides on hand. And they are still illegal nationally and internationally, despite wonderful decriminalization efforts in a number of localities.
We are really in a sea change moment regarding how mainstream society is viewing drugs in general and psychedelics specifically. There are many aspects to this transformative moment, but I want to quickly mention three of them. The first is that it’s become painfully obvious to nearly everyone what a catastrophe the war on drugs has been, what an enormous waste of resources and of human lives. It’s been incredibly structurally racist, hitting black and brown communities particularly hard. And as symbolized by the historic vote in Congress to decriminalize cannabis that occurred yesterday, this is obviously beginning to change. We still have a long way to go, but, mercifully, these attitudes are changing, vis-à-vis drugs in general, and we’re starting to get away from punitive attitudes.
The second factor, which is a very different but a fascinating socio-cultural development, is that we are seeing an enormous growth of new forms of sacred plant subcultures in undergrounds around the world, especially the ayahuasca subculture, which has just taken off to an incredible extent globally. Some people feel that that’s a really positive thing, that it’s giving people access to healing methodologies and to self-exploration tools they didn’t have before. There are issues, though, in these subcultures. One is the thorny question of the appropriation of Indigenous traditions by non-indigenous people, something we’ll get into a little bit later on. There’s also the issue of the over-harvesting of some sacred plants, and there’s the fact that because this movement has grown so much, many of the ceremony leaders are inexperienced, and unfortunately there have also been instances of abuse, especially sexual abuse by some ceremony leaders in these milieus, and that’s a big discussion. It’s not the one we’re going to focus on today, but I did feel the need to not sweep these things under the rug.
The third thing is the one that we’re going to focus most on today: after a hiatus of many decades, there’s been a dynamic resuscitation of scientific research on psychedelics in several countries, and that research is getting really tantalizing results about the potential curative properties of some psychedelics to address really difficult ailments such as PTSD and depression, end of life anxiety, and other conditions. That’s really exciting because so many people suffer from these very hard-to-treat conditions, and I hate to be dialectically Marxist about this, but with any new big development, problems also emerge. One of the issues raised is the risk of the de-sacralization of hitherto exalted spiritual practices. Because psychedelics were developed, discovered, and nurtured by Indigenous traditions for hundreds, sometimes thousands, of years, in a context of reverence for the natural world in a cohesive cultural matrix, going from that reverent model to a sort of sanitized medical model can be jarring. If a medicalized model of psychedelic use becomes the only socially acceptable one, that will be deeply tragic for many of us with a long-standing interest in these traditions. And even more problematic is the fact that venture capitalists are now pouring into this new field hoping to cash in on what they view as a potential growth industry within the pharmaceutical industry, so the risk of going from reverence to hyper-capitalist commodification is very real and something that we have to be aware of.
But the reality is that the genie’s out of the bottle. We’re not going to be able to turn back the clock. This could be a very good thing because a lot of people could be helped, but it does raise these thorny issues, and there is no better group of people that I can think of on planet Earth to tackle some of these questions than the three folks we have with us today. They come from very different places, but I don’t know three more experienced, more knowledgeable, and more ethical people in this entire domain than the three interlocutors we have with us today, whom I will now introduce.
Most of you know Paul Stamets, one of our greatest mycologists, a brilliant myco-entrepreneur and myco-technologist who has created novel medicinal compounds, discovered hitherto unknown fungal species, created promising technologies to remediate toxins in the environment using fungi, and is also probably the most knowledgeable person on the planet as regards psilocybin. This panel was his idea. It was convened by Paul, so we have him to thank for this opportunity to be in conversation today.
Katsi Cook, a dear old friend and ally of Bioneers going back decades, is a Mohawk from Akwesasne, the Mohawk lands in northern New York State, southern Ontario and southern Quebec along the St. Lawrence River. Katsi is a legendary figure in the revitalization of Indigenous midwifery traditions and has been a great fighter for Indigenous women’s health for decades and decades, and an important researcher in that area. I can’t do justice to the full scope of her work here, but the reason we really wanted Katsi here in this discussion is that she also has long-standing experience with the use of peyote, which will be part of our discussion.
Last but definitely not least is Françoise Bourzat, who also has decades of experience in researching, studying, and teaching about sacred plants. She’s done decades of field work with the Mazatec in Mexico and is a somatic therapist in the Bay Area in California. She’s also written a very interesting book I recommend highly, Consciousness Medicine.
We’re going to begin with Paul because it was his idea to get us here together. And then we’ll follow with Katsi and then Françoise, and then, ideally, we’ll engage in some lively conversation.
PAUL STAMETS: There is, in my opinion, a worldwide revolution, a paradigm shift in consciousness going on. Many of us have been engaged in long struggles in environmental, civil rights and Indigenous people’s movements, and one commonality we have all shared is a recognition of the importance of our ecosystems, of protecting the Earth, the mother that has given us birth, and of thinking downstream for the health of future generations. The Indigenous idea that we must think ahead to the effects of all we do today on the next seven generations is one we have to take to heart with new intensity as we now tackle climate change, biodiversity loss, plant and animal extinctions, and the zoonotic diseases resulting from our deforestation and factory farming methods. The planet is calling out right now, asking us to co-create solutions. We are no longer separated by borders. A virus in China, Africa or Wisconsin can rapidly spread all over the world. That underscores the importance of understanding our commonality of being.
I think the intense rebirth of interest in psychedelics is part of that new consciousness and can play an important part in awakening and spreading it, and this movement is spreading all over the world, fast. And there is, concurrently, a pharmaceutical-ization of psychedelics underway, especially of psilocybin, and this is something that we must come to grips with. No matter what happens with the pharmaceutical interests producing synthetic psilocybin as prescription medicines, 99 percent of the people are still going to use the actual mushrooms. That’s just the way it is. Psilocybin mushrooms can be easily grown at home or in your backyard. They’re grown all over the world. People have been honing their skills at it for decades and growing them for themselves, their families and friends, and frankly, going into a physician’s office and meeting an austere looking professional that’s a stranger to you to get dosed is a pretty steep emotional hurdle to overcome for a lot of people.
That being said, the therapeutic use of psilocybin necessitates having therapists and being very careful and making sure that these substances are used in a responsible way, and that can be good because sacred mushrooms should never be party drugs. I understand the coming-of-age process and the fact that young people want to experiment and change their consciousness. Andrew Weil’s book The Natural Mind was a huge influence on me when I was young, so I get that, but these are very powerful substances that need to be treated reverently.
I have done a lot of research on psilocybin (I had a D.E.A. license for many years). I’ve even discovered a new psilocybin-active species of mushroom. There are, globally, some 216 species we know about in the genus, the taxonomic group Psilocybe, and some 116 of those species are known to have actively available psilocybin. About 25 species grow here in North America, anywhere from Texas to Northern British Columbia, different species in those different ecosystems. Psilocybin mushrooms also contain a number of other active compounds—other tryptamines, baeocystin, norbaeocystin, norpsilocin, etc., but we have found that, while some of these substances might have curative properties one by one (and companies are tempted to isolate those “psilocybin analogues” and use them because they don’t get you high and they’re legal in that form), when they’re stacked together in their natural form, i.e. in dried mushrooms, you get an “entourage effect,” a synergistic reaction that seems to boost neural growth far more than when you try to isolate and separate the chemical components.
We have been doing some very promising research on neurogenesis with Harvard Medical School and with a company that specializes in anti-Alzheimer drugs. We have been growing pluripotent stem cells in our laboratories, using well-established protocols for measuring neurons and their growth, and we have found the entourage effect to be potent. Using the whole mushroom leads to far more neural growth. I personally think psilocybin, used intelligently, will be shown to lead to increased intelligence, creativity, and happiness. People who were in studies using psilocybin mushrooms to help them address such conditions as PTSD and depression often reported that it not only helped them with those ailments, but that it changed their lives more profoundly.
When I told Michael Pollan that psilocybin mushrooms changed my mind, I meant that literally: I think they built new neural pathways in my brain that allowed me to articulate my thoughts more clearly and to become a more creative and more peaceful person. I believe that psilocybin can contribute to creating the paradigm shift we need, can help increase the intelligence of our population, help reduce crime and disease, and help us to face the inevitability of our own death with less anxiety.
Mushrooms and other psychedelics, when used in the right way, can give us a glimpse of the immensity of the universe and can open doors to vast dimensions of consciousness, to the voices of all species and beings asking us to become responsible stewards of life on the planet. In my experience mushrooms tend to increase kindness, empathy, courage, and the desire to serve the greater good, so it is time for a paradigm shift, and I think these sacred medicines can help us. All of us are on this planet together. We are all Indigenous to this planet, though of course First Peoples in many regions of the world are the ones with the longest ancestral knowledge, which we so desperately need to rekindle and propagate if we’re going to get through the crises we face. Now that our society has such a glorious plurality and biodiversity of ethnicities, it’s even more important that we protect these threads of ancient knowledge that were almost cut by invasions, enslavement, disease, wars, religious persecution. When we lose one of the Indigenous elders who carry living links to ancient wisdom, we lose encyclopedias of knowledge. The fact that there are still vibrant Indigenous cultures and peoples and knowledge traditions is a tribute to their extraordinary resilience in resisting centuries of attempted genocide, including weaponized pandemics.
But we can be thankful that some of that ancestral knowledge, including the use of these sacred medicines, has survived and is being passed on, and we have to give something back for those incredible gifts. We have to make sure that these peoples, cultures and plants are protected and treated with respect, and we have to use these plants responsibly. I’m not against the development of pharmaceuticals drawn from psychedelics that can be used in a medical context to treat some diseases, if those can be developed and used responsibly, but psilocybin mushrooms offer within them more components than just one molecule, and my own belief is that they, in their whole, natural forms, will still be the most widely used and most significant way these molecules help our species.
KATSI COOK: Thank you, Paul, brother, for the power of your voice, your intellect, and your sensitivity, and thank you for inviting my comments in support of the fundamental principle that the endangered sacred medicine peyote should be reserved for Indigenous use, especially given the concerns regarding sustainability in this time of climate change and decreasing biological diversity.
In one telling of our Mohawk creation story, when the pregnant Sky Woman pulled on a beautiful yellow flower that grew at the base of the withering celestial tree that stood at the base of the sky world, her action uprooted the tree, and the pregnant Sky Woman fell into the hole left by the uprooted tree and fell to earth to fulfill her destiny to recreate the world. In 1974, on a journey to learn Indigenous midwifery, I followed Beatrice Holy Dance Long Visitor, who later became one of the leading 13 grandmothers, and my well-known sister-in-law, Loretta Afraid of Bear Cook, Beatrice’s daughter, both beloved Oglala Lakota water women in the Native American Church in South Dakota into my first peyote ceremony. I was 23 years old and had recently completed the women’s health training programs at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque. I was hesitant, but if you want to learn midwifery, you have to go into that teepee, Beatrice told me.
For those of you who want to know more about my relationship with the medicine, I have documented my experiences with and learnings from pejuta wakan (“sacred medicine” in the Lakota language) in the 2007 Bioneers book Visionary Plant Consciousness (edited by JP Harpignies). And if you want to learn about the historic legal struggle undertaken by the Native American Church of North America to support the religious freedoms of Native Americans, I strongly recommend the film, The Peyote Road (Kifaru Productions), which features important spiritual leaders such as Reuben Snake, Loretta Afraid of Bear Cook, my brother, Thomas Kanawaienton Cook, and others who worked to establish the American Indian Freedom of Religion Act of 1978. This act protects the freedom of Native Americans to exercise traditional religions and sacred ceremonial practices, ensuring access to sacred sites and the peyote gardens, possession and use of sacred objects, and the freedom to pray in our customed manner.
We ritualize our life cycle, and maintain cycles of sacred ceremonies necessary to support and maintain life in relationship with pejuta wakan. Almost 50 years ago, I came out of the teepee door in the morning thinking that if my Mohawk people had this medicine, we could heal. Its use is of course very old among certain peoples in North America (Huichols, Tarahumara), but it has become a central sacred plant of many other family fireplaces in North American first nations communities starting more than a century ago, and its use has spread through the North American Indigenous world, especially strongly riding upon the wave of historic Indigenous activist movements such as the Indian Unity Caravan of the 1960s, the White Roots of Peace Communications Group out of the Six Nations Confederacy, the International Indian Treaty Councils and other initiatives.
This “grandfather medicine” continues to connect Indigenous communities across the hemisphere, and the proper holding environment of grandfather peyote is within the cultural context of Indigenous families and medicine societies. There are many protocols and responsibilities for carrying a prayer that first is bundled in a sacred tobacco tie and a kernel of white corn. It’s up to the sponsor of the healing ceremony, held in specific family fireplaces such as the Half Moon fireplace of my Lakota relatives, to determine who will sit among the circle in support of a prayer for a life. Every detail, from the gathering of the firewood to the protocols of the cedar used to the prayers being offered to the preparation of the sacred foods presented by the water woman to people in the morning, has to be done correctly, impeccably. The proper words, songs, instruments, procedures, have to be followed. There are so many essential elements that belong to the ceremonial commitment of the sacrament peyote. It takes generations of knowledge and commitment for it to be used in the right way.
These traditions are our responsibility to carry as Indigenous people because they contribute to our resilience and healing. The prayer ceremonies resemble the process of birth, as the grandmother medicine opens our minds, bodies and spirits to cope with the pains of life. Beatrice Holy Dance Long Visitor explained to me how the medicine first came to the people. A pregnant woman was alone and lost in the desert, separated from her people. Tired, she lay on the earth, and suffered in labor by herself until she heard a voice nearby. Take and eat of me, a small cactus with no thorns spoke to her. The medicine helped the woman birth her child, and the sacred medicine continues to teach and guide us from the fireplaces of those who take care of these ways. Our elders help us to understand these traditions in a wider context. The late Ernest Kaientaronkwen Benedict, a revered Seneca longhouse elder, described the sacred tree of Indigenous cultures: its roots are our ancestral teachings; its trunk our history; its branches the many struggles for the continuity of our lands, jurisdiction, spirituality, languages, and the reproduction of bodies and lifeways. At the top of the tree sits one little yellow flower that represents the light and the life of the tree. It was long withering under the weight of colonization, but our sacred ceremonies have helped keep it alive, and that tree and that yellow flower are once again beginning to shine.
JP: Thank you so much, Katsi, and we’ll get back to some of the themes you raised, because it’s important to drive home just how endangered peyote is as a plant, and why it’s imperative that it be preserved for the use of Indigenous peoples, and what some alternatives might be for non-indigenous folks. I think a lot of people will want to hear about that, but now Françoise,
FRANCOISE BOURZAT: Thank you for inviting me, Paul and Bioneers, including my friend Nina Simons and the whole team there. It’s wonderful being here finally. I’ve been wanting to participate in Bioneers for a long time.
I’m going to talk about sacred mushroom use in the context of the traditional Mazatec healing ceremonies, which I’ve been involved with for over 30 years now. The traditional Mazatec use of psilocybin mushrooms involves an entire cosmology and a set of practices that go way beyond the use of the plant medicines themselves. When I go to Huautla de Jimenez, where the tradition continues and we immerse ourselves in that Mazatec land, what we are really communing with is not so much the mushroom or not only the mushroom, but with the whole life of the village and of the mountains—the entire landscape and its ecology. The practices include the offering of cacao beans, cacao cleansing rituals, the placing of very specific flowers on the altar. When we are invited to respectfully participate in the ceremonies that happen to be, of course, with different kinds (depending on the season) of psilocybin mushrooms, we are participating in a much more expansive cultural and spiritual worldview.
I want to say is that in my dialogue with the Mazatec, they are not so worried about cultural appropriation. What they tell me is that what they are concerned about is that they hope that if we non-indigenous people use mushrooms, that we’re going to use them with respect, with offerings, with an understanding and a learning from their tradition, from the way they talk to the mushroom, from the way they pray and sing, and the way they let themselves be spoken through by the mushroom. They want us to understand that it’s not just about mushrooms. The mushrooms help the Earth and all life speak to and through us. My teacher, who by the way was very close to Beatrice Holy Dance Long Visitor mentioned earlier by Katsi and to several other wonderful Lakota traditional teachers (and they all participated in each other’s ceremonies), often said, and all these other teachers agreed, that it doesn’t really matter what’s in the plate: what’s important is using what’s in the plate to commune with the Earth, to hear her wisdom and to be healed by her.
In the Mazatec and in the larger Mexican culture, communing with ancestors, with the dead ones on the other side of the veil, the other side of this reality of incarnation, is a central practice, and mushrooms can aid in letting us visit that realm of the ancestors where time and space are irrelevant, the eternal space of the soul, and it’s interesting that we are now in this psychedelic renaissance, and one of the main therapeutic uses that is being talked about in the mainstream and that research has been done on is using psilocybin as an ally to help reduce the anxiety of people at the end of their lives, and we can obviously learn a lot about that from those Indigenous cultures who have been exploring this territory for so long.
I just finished an interview with my teacher’s daughter (my teacher passed away a couple of years ago). It’s really important for us to hear the voices of these cultures; in this case for Mazatec healers who have so much experience and wisdom about these states of consciousness to speak to us during this psychedelic renaissance, so that we stay on the right path. For myself, I’ve long tried to be a humble servant of this mushroom and to be a bridge, to try to weave together the traditional practices I have learned from my Mazatec teachers with my Western training in Psychology and other therapies, so that we can bring this incredible tool and create safe spaces to heal people in our own culture. A major part of my work for many years has been trying to create conditions in which we can train psychedelic guides who really deeply understand both the traditional aspects and the modern psychological dimensions of working with such a powerful healing modality here in our own society, now.
And one thing that could get lost with the commercialization and medicalization of psilocybin that’s starting to happen is the principle of reciprocity. What do we give back? How do we thank and acknowledge the Indigenous people who have held these traditions for thousands of years, and how do we include them in this renaissance and make sure they benefit from it as well? I’ve been in conversation with Kat Harrison (who has been very involved in the Mazatec tradition for even longer than I have) and other people in the field to see how we can help support them and help them preserve their cultures. Kat said that she felt the most important thing we needed to help them preserve was their language, for many reasons but also because Mazatec is the language of the mushroom. If it disappears, an enormous amount of wisdom and the key tool to communicate with the spirit of the medicine will be lost. My daughter and I are talking about creating a fund with various Mazatec people who will decide how to utilize the resources to preserve their tradition and improve their access to healthcare and education. So reciprocity has to be a really big part of our use of these plants, and we have to keep it in mind more and more as these commercialization efforts move forward.
We have to be creative to bridge Indigenous practices and the realities of the modern, industrialized Western world. I don’t think we can stop some commercialization of psilocybin because big pharma is coming, and they’re too powerful to stop. And I don’t think originally the intention to create some modern pharmaceutical medicines for people who are suffering intensely was bad. I understand that our society’s medical system is based on a model in which synthesized psilocybin would be the logical product. And I am myself part of a research study in Los Angeles on COVID-related grief right now that is, in fact, using synthetic psilocybin. I’m also involved in a retreat for parental grief in Jamaica in which we are working with whole mushrooms that grow there. I’m going there next week, in fact, to meet the Jamaican physicians we’ll be working with, so I work in different ways, and I don’t condemn the use of modern methods. I think we can work in all sorts of ways to try to make positive change, whether it’s supporting the initiatives to change laws (both Paul and I have been active in Oregon and Canada on that front), or helping formulate modern medical protocols to help treat people with PTSD, anxiety, depression, etc., but we should never forget that mushroom use is above all a vehicle for the expansion of consciousness, and we must never forget the debt we have to the traditions that gave us this medicine.
We also have to make sure that the profit motive doesn’t create more inequality, that it doesn’t deny access to these medicines to those communities who might need them the most but have historically not been sufficiently included in the psychedelic movement, especially communities of color. This is really important.
I think mushrooms can’t be “de-souled,” and many positive things can happen going forward, but we have to work to make sure that even as the world changes quickly in its attitude toward psychedelics, that this healing tool doesn’t lose its connections to Indigenous traditions, and that in the spirit of solidarity and conservation, preservation and support, we communicate with Indigenous people and help them find their way of articulating their own powerful voices, so they can create a solid presence in the world of sacred medicine, even in the face of this new era of commercialization. We have to continue to speak our voice, not to go to war or create conflict but to express loudly and clearly how sacred these plants have been for us and what we have to do so that they’ll be here and sacred in seven generations.
JP: One of the things that comes to mind immediately from hearing you all talk is that it seems to me that what we’re trying to do is find our way to the most ethical and productive relationships that human beings can have with these substances during this time of radical transformation, and it’s pretty clear that we have to view these things case-by-case, situation by situation, plant by plant, and I would immediately put peyote in a separate category, because it’s so endangered and hard to grow and so important to the Native American Church, so that’s one plant whose use should in most instances be limited to Indigenous peoples.
In general, if there is now going to be large-scale use of psychedelics in all sorts of new forms, what are the most ethical forms that can take? And I think it’s going to be a case-by-case, company by company, initiative by initiative, research project by research project, and we’re all going to have to be very vigilant. Paul, do you have any thoughts about what the most ethical and constructive approaches can be?
PAUL: I think there are three clear and different paths here with three of the main psychedelic plants, and they’re quite different. I personally want to advocate that all wild peyote be preserved and held sacred and protected for Indigenous people. I just think at this time, with ecosystems being so stressed and the peyote hunt being so important for First Nations that that resource needs to be protected. I call out to all people who are not in this Indigenous tradition to help protect peyote in the wild. It is indeed very, very difficult to grow, and the wild harvest is so central to the First Nations long-standing traditions, so it should be reserved for them.
With psilocybin mushrooms, though, it’s really different. They’re circumpolar. They grow all over the world. They’ve been used by dozens of cultures that we know of, and probably many more that we don’t know of. I think they can be kind of the bridge that unifies everyone together. We can rejuvenate them. We can grow them. Because they’re saprophytes, they grow in decomposing material. Once you get them in the culture, you can protect them. That’s not saying that myco-diversity isn’t important; it’s very important, but the most commonly used psilocybin in the world is Psilocybe cubensis, which is not remotely in any danger of extinction. It’s very easy to cultivate, so I think that psilocybin is unambiguously the one psychedelic that joins all of us together.
Now ayahuasca is more complicated. I went to Cusco recently, and I saw neon signs flashing for ayahuasca ceremonies—massive commercialization, hordes of tour groups coming to take ayahuasca. Now, on the other side of that equation, a lot of people have benefited from ayahuasca and say it’s changed their lives. I’m not discounting that, but I have great reservations about the commercialization of ayahuasca, and cultural appropriation is also part of that narrative. Psilocybin mushrooms don’t have that problem. They’re much less controversial and much more appropriate for multi-cultural use.
FRANCOISE: I agree with Paul. Mushrooms are easy to grow. They come and go. They’re fast. They’re potent. They’re unifying, but it is true that some people who do peyote or San Pedro do not necessarily find themselves inclined to use mushrooms, because it’s a different experience. Mescaline-containing cactuses are very different in nature as an experience than the mushroom is, so some people might prefer the mescaline-containing cactus experience, so I can see that as a point of discussion.
JP: Katsi, if we all agree that the peyote in the wild should absolutely be protected and reserved for Indigenous use, what do you think about non-indigenous people using synthetic mescaline or huachuma (aka San Pedro, a much faster growing cactus that some Indigenous people in the Andes seem happy to share) instead?
KATSI: There are other medicines throughout the hemispheres that get shared across alliances built in reciprocity at a nation-to nation level, and I think that people are essentially free to explore, but if you take these medicines outside of the safe cultural contexts in which these plant energies made themselves known and built relationships with human beings, you can scare yourself. But I understand that we’re in a time in which we need to restore and build bridges back to Mother Earth, in which the Earth Mother is crying for her children to understand the nature of reality in our umbilical cords to the cosmos, so I encourage people to strengthen their experience at this time.
JP: I want to turn to a few audience questions. Several people have asked how mushrooms might specifically aid in end-of-life anxiety.
FRANCOISE: Clearly there’s so much involved in end-of-life. The mushroom experience connects us with a bigger dimension, with a bigger space, with eternity, with soul, with what remains alive after we die, what continues to exist on the level of essence. It also brings us in the moment, to what is present here and now, to the love that surrounds us and the love that we feel within us. That can be really profoundly soothing and healing and can liberate us from the anxiety, sadness and grief that can be present at the end of life. I took people who were dying and eventually passed away to Mexico, to try to help them release the stress and the anxiety that they were experiencing. They experienced a sense of beauty and oneness, love and light, and freedom from their fear of leaving this earthly plane. It was a very potent and beautiful experience. I think people should have that freedom of choice, to be able to have access to this tool at that last stage of life.
JP: Paul, there’s a question about how to ethically grow mushrooms.
PAUL: Well, first, I think we need to address whether the mushrooms are cultivating us or we’re cultivating them. So many of these psilocybin mushrooms grow on debris fields, and humans are the greatest walking catastrophe I know in creating debris fields on the planet, so it might seem as though psilocybin mushrooms are chasing after us. One particular species, here in the Northwest, in Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia, I guesstimate about every fourth truckload of wood chips from alder will naturally have psilocybin mushrooms in them, specifically this species, Psilocybe cyanescens, a very potent psilocybin mushroom. Even though we’ve never found it out in the wild, when those wood chips are scattered for landscaping, they come up in profusion. What sparked the psilocybin mushroom movement in the West Coast of North America is that when they started using wood chips for landscaping, these psilocybin mushrooms literally came out of the woodwork, so to speak, and mycologists were blindsided. Mycologists who’d studied them for 40, 50 years had never seen these things before.
But, as to the question of ethical cultivation, it depends. First, how much do you really need for your own personal use? Not that much, and everyone can grow a small amount in the landscape using natural weather cycles if you’re in the right region, or you can do it at home safely and cleanly if you can follow instructions carefully. But when you talk about growing them commercially or supplying a commercial market, there are really big concerns. Many times, there’s not enough air exchange, so molds and bacteria can grow on them. Some people have had adverse reactions as they would eating spoiled seafood. The growers dry them down so the bacteria are still there, and they can produce endotoxins, which can be very, very dangerous, so if we are going to have psilocybin mushrooms available, clinically or by prescription, or for therapeutic use, they have to follow basically GAP (“good agriculture practices”) specifically designed to prevent contamination.
My biggest concern about cultivation is of course the use of synthetic chemicals. It has to be certified organic. It’s antithetical to the entire mushroom spirit to grow them in a non-organic fashion. It’s really important that we have standards to make sure that the mushrooms being consumed are safe, and that by far is the biggest problem with “underground” commercial growers: there aren’t any quality controls; it’s somewhat self-policing because you’re not going to buy mushrooms from somebody who gave you something that made you sick, but nevertheless, you don’t want to be the first person in that experience. So, I think there are some quality control issues that need to be addressed. Growing enough for your personal use in your own backyard or at home, that should be no problem, but growing large amounts for commercial and/or therapeutic purposes has to be under controlled circumstances where there are checks and controls.
JP: Katsi, some people are asking an allyship question, i.e.: what non-indigenous people can do to help protect Indigenous practices, such as the peyote tradition. What is the best way that people can help, if help is needed?
KATSI: Help support Indigenous Rights political movements in general, and specifically support the efforts to protect the ecosystems where the peyote grows in Texas, but also be part of the movements to maintain life and heal Mother Earth and protect all our relatives, plant, animal and human. The kind of consciousness that’s engendered at Bioneers is one example of what’s necessary.
JP: Another question that’s come up is where people can get psychedelic therapy. Where is it available? Obviously this is quite a borderline area because places like CIIS have created psychedelic therapist training programs, but it’s still illegal nationally, so we’re in a very gray area.
FRANCOISE: As of now, the only places where the consumption of mushrooms is actually legal and accessible is the Netherlands and Jamaica, and in Mexico a little bit, in certain limited environments.
JP: What about Portugal?
FRANCOISE: Portugal and the Czech Republic have decriminalized use, but not legalized it. As of now, it’s only legal in Jamaica and the Netherlands on a national level. The legalization of mushrooms in Oregon has opened a door. Two years from now it’s likely people will have access to facilitation of mushroom experiences with guides trained and licensed by the State of Oregon. Part of my goal is to train really good psychedelic guides, and although it can be very much oriented towards healing certain conditions (such as depression or PTSD, etc.), it can also be designed as an experience to explore consciousness. In Oregon, all these different avenues should be available in a couple of years. I imagine that other states will be following the situation Oregon, to see how this initiative works and what the pros and cons turn out to be. If it goes well, I think other states may follow its lead. And there should soon be some exemptions in Canada that will permit some people to be granted access to psychedelic experiences. A lot is happening there. TheraPsil is one very active organization working in Canada to get that right for end-of-life patients.
JP: Paul, we had some more questions about growing mushrooms. What your best advice is for them to get information?
PAUL: Well, there are lots of books out there that have good information about how to cultivate, but law enforcement really looks at intention. If you are intending to make a lot of money by dosing people with psilocybin, without the guard-rails of a therapist or medical community, I think you’re really pushing the envelope and could get in trouble, so people should be very careful about that. If you’re trying to monetize this for personal gain, to make money, then I think it becomes a difficult argument to convince others that you’re actually just doing it for the good of the people.
The training of therapists and physicians to use this medicine is a very legally defensible path that would most likely not be high up on law enforcement’s priority list compared to somebody who’s selling a bunch of psilocybin mushrooms at raves and trying to make money hand-over-fist. I think the intention of the individual participating at this new stage will greatly influence whether the government or law enforcement is going to crack down. They don’t want to have a case in the courts that makes them look bad, so if you’re involved in truly helping veterans and other people with PTSD, etc., that’s a much safer route, but, still, please, be careful. Consult with medical professionals. Create records of correspondence of what your intentions are, create data-sets that clearly indicate your true intentions. And if you know people going into this in a big commercial way in the underground, I pay a lot of taxes, and I resent people making a lot of money and not paying their fair share. We all have to pay taxes to help the poor and unemployed and to have post offices and highways, all that stuff. We all have to step up to the plate and help the commons.
JP: I’m glad to see that psychedelics and civic responsibility go hand in hand. One of the other questions people have is what the advantages of micro-dosing versus “heroic” doses might be.
PAUL: Well, we’re navigating based on the science. We’re trying to do fact-based medicine, and there are both meta studies and clinical studies starting to examine these questions. Some of us are beginning to subscribe to the theory (not yet a hypothesis) that after a major dose, a heroic experience, or at least a solid therapeutic dose, then micro-dosing subsequently may reactivate the same neurological pathways. You may have a neurological memory, and micro-dosing could re-stimulate those pathways. So we think that micro-dosing may, in the long term, have really great benefits. For one thing, you don’t need to be in a clinical hospital environment with the need for medical support. Micro-dosing might be “liberation mycology” that helps you to go beyond working with a therapist, because in a sense your brain and nervous system have already been trained; you’ve been there, done that, but if that theory proves to be true, it would still require that one would have done a bigger dose earlier. I don’t think we know enough yet to know if micro-dosing alone would be as effective.
JP: I’ve heard of “Liberation Theology” and “Radical Mycology,” but Liberation Mycology is a new one on me…
Paul Stamets, speaker, author, award-winning mycologist, medical researcher, groundbreaking mycological entrepreneur, and a visionary thought leader in the study of fungi and their uses in promoting human health, ecological restoration, and detoxification of the environment, is the author of six books, including: Mycelium Running: How Mushrooms Can Help Save The World, Growing Gourmet and Medicinal Mushrooms, and Psilocybin Mushrooms of the World. Paul has discovered and named numerous new species of psilocybin mushrooms and is the founder and owner of Fungi Perfecti, LLC, makers of the Host Defense Mushrooms (www.hostdefense.com) supplement line. And Paul’s work has now entered mainstream popular culture. The new Star Trek: Discovery series features a Lt. Paul Stamets, Science Officer and Astromycologist(!).
Katsi Cook (Mohawk/Haudenosaunee), from Akwesasne along the St. Lawrence River, a groundbreaking, revered figure in the revitalization of Indigenous midwifery and of advocacy for Indigenous women’s health, is Director of The Spirit Aligned Leadership Program, which works with Indigenous elder women to heal, strengthen, and restore Indigenous communities. A founding member of the National Aboriginal Council of Midwives and the Konon:kwe (“all women”) Council, Katsi has decades of experience as a researcher and a lecturer on Indigenous environmental reproductive health, and she and her husband of 40 years, Jose Barreiro, have 6 children and 11 grandchildren.
Françoise Bourzat, a San Francisco Bay Area-based somatic counselor, teaches at the California Institute of Integral Studies (CIIS) in San Francisco, runs online courses, lectures in various institutions, collaborates with physicians on a variety of treatment projects, and trains psychedelic guides internationally. She has guided ceremonies with sacred mushrooms in collaboration with Indigenous healers in Huautla de Jimenez, Mexico, for the last 30 years and is the author of: Consciousness Medicine: Indigenous Wisdom, Entheogens, and Expanded States of Consciousness for Healing and Growth.
J.P. Harpignies, Bioneers Senior Producer, affiliated with Bioneers since 1990, is a Brooklyn, NYC-based consultant, conference producer, copy-editor and writer. A former Program Director at the New York Open Center and a senior review team member for the Buckminster Fuller Challenge from 2010 to 2017, he has authored or edited several books, including Political Ecosystems, Delusions of Normality, Visionary Plant Consciousness, and, most recently, Animal Encounters.