Going Fishing

Tambaqui (Colossoma macropomum)

There is an amazing abundance and variety of fish in the Upper Amazon. For both mestizo and indigenous peoples, the lakes and rivers are an endless source of food, with more than two thousand species of freshwater fish. There are catfish of all sorts — the boquichico (Prochilodus nigricans), carachama (Pterygoplichthys multiradiatus), doncella (Pseudoplatystoma tigrinum), and especially the delicious dorado (Brachyplatystoma flavicans), which can grow to a hundred pounds in deep river channels and oxbow lakes. There are carahuasú (Astronotus ocellatus), paña, piranha (Pygocentrus nattereri), tambaqui (Colossoma macropomum), sábalo (Brycon melanopoterus), and paiche (Arapaima gigas), the largest freshwater fish in the world, whose flaky and delicately flavored flesh has been featured in Gourmet Magazine.

Machiguenga greet strangers by asking, "Are there fish in the river where you live?" La Patarashca, a restaurant in Tarapoto, serves doncella stuffed with shrimp in a sauce of cocona fruit (Solanum sessiliflorum), and as a patarashca — stuffed leaves — with tomato, onion, and sweet chili, wrapped in bijao leaves (Calathea lutea). People are not fooling around here.

But first you have to catch the fish.

Paiche (Arapaima gigas)

There are a number of places in the Upper Amazon which are particularly good for finding fish. Large and medium-sized rivers in low areas often form numerous meanders which, when the river changes course, become cochas, oxbow lakes. These cochas often have sediment settled on the bottom, relatively clear water, and high temperatures, and therefore rapid plant growth, which in turn supports quite large fish populations. Sometimes too you can see strips of clear and very slow water in a river. These are quiet places where plankton tends to grow; you can usually find fish downstream. You can also find fish under camalones, places where aquatic vegetation has formed a dense mat on the surface of the water. And fish love to move into the waters covering seasonally flooded forests.

Carachama, sailfin catfish (Pterygoplichthys multiradiatus)

It is possible to take fish just with your hands. It is not as hard as it sounds; I once caught a beautiful trout with my bare hands in a stream in the Esacalante Wilderness. In the Amazon, people wade close to shore in muddy water, gently feeling for fish under rocks and in the mud. In particular, carachama, the armored sailfin catfish (Pterygoplichthys multiradiatus), constructs burrows in the muddy banks of the cochas and rivers in which it lives, each a few feet deep and generally angled downward. You only need to feel around for a burrow, reach in, and very carefully — because carachama have very sharp spines on their dorsal fins — pull a carachama out of its hole and toss it up onto the bank. They are delicious.

Net casting

People in the Amazon often fish with hook and line — an innovation dependent on the availability of steel hooks and high test monofilament fishing line. All you have to do is tie a hook to a length of line on the end of a stick, put a piece of grasshopper on the hook, and toss the hook into the water. Especially in an overpopulated cocha, in just a few minutes you have caught a fish. You can do this over and over again; in half an hour, you have caught enough fish for several days. You can be creative, and tie a piece of wood to the string as a float. If you have a family to feed, you can set out a trotline with baited hooks. Hook-and-line fishing can be done where other methods do not work — at night; during the rainy season, when the water is turbid; in the main current of the river. And it is considered to be — heck, it is — fun.

Fishing nets can be cast from a canoe or by wading out into the water. Casting a fishnet requires skill clearly beyond my own, although, to my chagrin, I have seen numerous young boys do it quite successfully.

Communal fishing with barbasco (Lonchocarpus urucu)

People also fish using fish spears or bows and arrows — usually with barbed two-tined heads — either from a canoe or from shore, sometimes on the river right in frront of the village. Spear and bow-and-arrow fishing is largely limited to the dry season, when rivers tend to be clear rather than silty. A fisher can also put a tabaje, a fish trap, across a cocha outflow. Tabajes are woven from strips of caña brava, giant cane (Gynerium sagittatum) or bombonaje (Carludovica palmata). I have seen two mestizo fishermen work a running stream by anchoring a woven barricade with sticks downstream, driving fish into the trap from upstream, and then gathering them by hand. In a few hours they had caught enough fish, after being dried and salted, to last for a week.

Fish poison is also widely used in the Upper Amazon. The term barbasco can be used to refer to fish poison in general, or more specifically to Lonchocarpus urucu, which is of sufficient importance that some indigenous peoples cultivate it in their gardens. The procedure is simple: the root is is dug up, carried to the fishing place, and pounded with sticks so that the milky sap can be drained into the water. The primary active ingredients are rotenone and deguelin, which affect gill function in fish, inhibiting their ability to breathe. Within fifteen minutes or so fish begin to float on the surface of the water, where they can be collected by hand or in baskets, hit on the head with a machete, speared, or shot with a bow and arrow.

Preparing fish for salting and drying

Fishing with barbasco in a cocha is simple; squeeze the milky sap into the still water, watch it spread, and then collect the fish. It only takes one or two people to fish a cocha in this way. On the other hand, in a flowing stream or river, you have to build a dam at the upper end of the fishing area to slow the flow, and another at the lower end — sometimes with a woven basketry net — to make it easier to capture the stunned fish. Such temporary dam construction may require additional people, which can, of course, turn into a party.


Animated Shamanism

Artist Luc Perez has completed a new eleven-minute animation entitled Shaman, to be released as a French-Danish coproduction from Danske Tegnefilms and 24 Images.

The story begins in modern Copenhagen, where Utaaq, an old Inuit, sits at a bus stop. He sees a bird from his native Greenland — rare in Denmark — and he remembers a great battle he once had with a wicked sorcerer who used a tupilak — an avenging monster fabricated out of animal parts — to kill other hunters. The young Utaaq goes into the mountains and becomes a shaman, and, upon his return, he kills the sorcerer with his newly acquired skills. The film ends back at the bus stop — an old man, lost in contemporary civilization, remembering his youth.

Perez has had a long-standing interest in the interaction between painting and computer animation. For this film, he created large paintings of acrylic on paper, scanned them at different stages of completion, and created the animation in part by mixing the same image at its different stages, so that the animated image itself evolves in the course of the action.

If you are interested in seeing what this looks like, a four-minute preview of the eleven-minute film is available here.


Shamanism Conference

Diana Vandenberg, Portrait of Ruth-Inge Heinze

The 25th Conference on Shamanism and Alternative Modes of Healing will take place on Labor Day weekend, August 30 through September 1, 2008.

This annual conference was founded by the late Dr. Ruth-Inge Heinze, who died on July 20, 2007, at the age of 88. Heinze was a long-time faculty member at Saybrook Graduate School and Research Center, and was a close associate of Saybrook colleague Stanley Krippner. She also served as adjunct faculty at the University of California—Berkeley and the California Institute of Integral Studies in San Francisco. Her interests included the psychology of shamanism, shamanism in Southeast Asia, and alternative methods of healing. This year the conference will be hosted by Dr. Jurgen Kremer, also on the faculty at Saybrook.

The purpose of the annual conference is to preserve and further the integrity of shamanism, including the exploration of twenty-first century shamanism, and share the latest insights in the field of alternative healing. Current topics include global warming and planetary healing. This year’s conference will include the first Ruth-Inge Heinze Memorial Lecture, to be given by Dr. Krippner. Scholars from a wide range of disciplines are encouraged to submit an abstract on a topic.

This is a working conference, gathering together shamans, healers, scientists, anthropologists, teachers, and artists from a variety of indigenous cultures. Speakers are given twenty minutes to present, followed by general discussion. Both scientific papers and experiential offerings and ritual may be presented.

The conference will be held at the Santa Sabina Retreat Center in San Rafael, California, on the Dominican College campus. For more information, contact Dr. Jane Hawes here.


Learning to Sing

One of the most striking features of Amazonian mestizo shamanism is the icaro, the magic song, whispered, whistled, and sung. The shaman uses icaros to call the spirits for healing, protection, or attack, and for many other purposes as well — to control the visions of another person who has drunk ayahuasca, work love magic, call the spirits of dead shamans, control the weather, ward off snakes, visit distant planets, work sorcery.

It is universally said that each shaman learns his or her own icaros from the spirits themselves; indeed, the poet César Calvo Soriano calls them “untransferable magic songs.” But there are exceptions. First, icaros can be learned from one’s maestro ayahuasquero. My teacher doña María Tuesta told me that I should first learn the icaros of don Roberto Acho, my maestro ayahuasquero; as time passed, she said, and I continued to diet with the plants, I would learn icaros of my own.

And icaros can be learned from other shamans. Indeed, there are many stories of shamans traveling long distances to learns specific icaros. Anthropologist Françoise Barbira-Freedman reports that one of the Lamista Indian shamans with whom she worked traveled from San Martín to the Ucayali to learn the icaro del kapukiri.

Some shamans even visit other shamans incognito in order to steal their icaros. That is why many shamans mumble their songs, or sing in many different languages; the goal is to make their songs hard to learn, to keep them from being stolen. Doña María frequently compared her own open-handedness with the stinginess of other shamans, who do not want to reveal their icaros. “I’m not selfish,” doña María told me. “I sing loud because I’m not afraid to let people know what I know.”

But one’s own icaros most frequently come while dieting with the plants and other substances, in ayahuasca visions, in dreams, in the unheard rhythms of one’s own heart. It is a process that people find hard to describe, especially when the songs are in strange or incomprehensible languages. Musician Alonso del Río, who apprenticed for three years with renowned Shipibo shaman don Beníto Arévalo, talks about this phenomenon. "It doesn't go through the mind," he says, "but between one spirit and another." It has something to do, I think, with solitude. “While you are alone with the sounds of the jungle and its animals,” says Cocama shaman don Juan Curico, “it is a real concert, a choir, that is the silence of the jungle.”

The icaros arrive in various ways. Don Solón Tello Lozano, a mestizo shaman in Iquitos, says, simply, “The plant talks to you, it teaches you to sing.” One may hear the icaro externally, as if sung by someone else, or one may hear it inwardly. Both words and melody may come together, or first one and then the other. One may hear only the words and then complete the melody oneself. Don Agustin Rivas says that he would make a song for each plant he dieted with as its power entered him, with the melodies coming first and the words added later; indeed, the lyrics of some of his icaros were written by Faustino Espinosa, a professor of Quechua. Sometimes, as with don Francisco Montes Shuña, a spirit whistles and sings the melody of the icaro in a dream. Sometimes there is simply an overwhelming urge to sing, and the song and melody come out by themselves.

Three days after Pablo Amaringo had undergone a healing, he was astonished to find himself singing, perfectly, the icaros he had heard there, including the words. “I sang many icaros,” he says, “as if the song were in my ears and on my tongue.”

The third time doña María drank ayahuasca, the spirit of ayahuasca entered into her, and she began to sing loudly. El doctor ayahuasca was in her body, she told me, singing to her, and ayahuasca appeared to her as two genios, spirits, one male and one female, who stood on either side of her — a woman dressed in beautiful clothing, wearing jewelry made of huayruru beads, “everything of the selva, the jungle,” and an ugly man, with bad teeth. Everyone in the room became very quiet, she said, as she sang her new icaro de ayahuasca.



There are two families of venomous snakes in the Upper Amazon — the Crotalidae or pit vipers and the Elapidae or coral snakes. The Crotalidae are called pit vipers because they have a pit or depression between the eye and the nostril on each side of the head, which functions as an extremely sensitive infrared heat-detecting organ. In the United States, there are three genera of the Crotalidae family — the copperhead, the cottonmouth or water moccasin, and fifteen species of rattlesnake.

Fer-de-lance (Bothrops atrox)

In the Amazon, the pit vipers of most concern are the thirty-one species of snake somewhat indiscriminately referred to by the name fer-de-lance or lancehead, all in the genus Bothrops, and all looking very similar, with long bodies and large triangular heads. The lanceheads live in the lowland jungle and average four to six feet in length, although they may grow as long as eight feet. They are generally tan with dark brown diamond-like markings along their sides, and are very well camouflaged. Amazonian pit vipers — as opposed to the colorful coral snakes — have clearly chosen crypsis over warning; it is easy to pass very close to a fer-de-lance without noticing it. Species of Bothrops apparently account for most of the serious snakebites in South America.

Bothriopsis bilineatus

Mestizos in the Upper Amazon generally refer to the various Bothrops species as jergón in Quechua or as vibora in Spanish. The Spanish term cascabel, rattle, usually refers to the genus Crotalus, the rattlesnake, which is not found in neotropical environments, but rather in dry habitats such as the savannahs in Guyana. In the Upper Amazon, the term cascabel may be used to refer to juveniles of the genus Bothrops.

There are also two species of so-called forest pit vipers, in the genus Bothriopsis — the two-striped and the speckled, both exclusively arboreal and camouflaged for tree dwelling, with the color green in their pattern. These forest pit vipers are slender snakes, reaching five feet in length, with prehensile tails, usually found coiled around twigs and bushes.

Bushmaster (Lachesis muta)

Finally, the Amazonian bushmaster or Lachesis muta — the Latin name means silent fate — is the largest pit viper in the world, reaching lengths up to twelve feet. Usually called by the Quechua term shushupi, the bushmaster is found in the lowland rainforest throughout the Amazon. It is generally a coppery tan with dark brown diamond-shaped marks on its back, rather than on its side. It is active at twilight and night, and coils up in the buttresses of large trees, or under roots and logs. After having fed, a bushmaster will remain in place until it has digested its prey, a period of two to four weeks.

Whereas the other neotropical pit vipers bear live young, the bushmaster lays eggs. Because of its length, it can strike over a long distance; because of its large fangs, it can deliver a large dose of venom — probably the largest venom dose of any pit viper. However, bushmasters are very reclusive and therefore rarely encountered; many experienced tropical herpetologists have yet to see their first wild specimen. Thus, few envenomations actually occur, although the fatality rate is reportedly high. I have been unable to find information about the age, physical condition, or treatment of reported fatalities. And it is worth adding that envenomation by any of the Elapidae in the Amazon — primarily fifty-three species of coral snakes in the genus Micruris — is apparently very rare as well.

Crotalid envenomation

Pit viper venom is a complex mixture of enzymes, which varies from species to species, and which is designed to immobilize, kill, and digest the snake's prey. Thus, pit vipers strike and release quickly; coral snakes, on the other hand, have neurotoxic venom, and small mouths and short fangs, so that they tend instead to hang on and chew. Crotalid venom works by destroying tissue, and is capable of causing significant, sometimes disfiguring local tissue damage; but deaths — at least in the United States, where records are available — are very rare and limited almost entirely to children and the elderly.

Indeed, many pit viper strikes in fact are dry and inject no venom, even when there are fang marks. The snake may have recently injected venom and not yet replenished; it may be because humans are much bigger and give off a lot more heat than the snake's usual prey, and this throws off the timing of the venom delivery. Additionally, Crotalids can differ significantly in the toxicity of their venom, even within a single litter.

Cocona (Solanum sessiliflorum)

And pit vipers really want nothing to do with humans. Humans are too big to eat, put out a confusing amount of heat, and are potentially dangerous. As a general rule, you will be bitten only if the snake perceives you as an immediate threat. Snakes hate surprises. That is why pit viper strikes on humans are overwhelmingly on the extremities. In North America, most rattlesnake envenomations are associated with alcohol ingestion on the part of the victim. Rock climbers are at risk for rattlesnake bites because they blindly reach overhead to grab a ledge on which a rattlesnake is sitting in the sun.

Pit viper envenomation can be excruciatingly painful — one expert has said that, on a pain scale of one to ten, rattlesnake bites are an eleven — and the discomfort can last for several days. The envenomated extremity can also become frighteningly ugly, leading to panic in both the patient and the caregiver. Greater or smaller areas of the extremity can turn blue or black, swell alarmingly, and develop large blood blisters. It is altogether an unpleasant experience. There is no question that a Crotalid envenomation is a medical emergency requiring urgent evacuation if possible. However, the first step in treatment is to avoid panic; even without evacuation, most cases result in several days of serious misery and then recovery. More rarely, skin grafts may be necessary. Remember that the fatality rate even for untreated pit viper bites is extremely low.

Ishanga blanca, white nettle (Laportea aestuans)

Mestizos and indigenous peoples in the Upper Amazon use a wide variety of plants to treat snakebite. Ethnobotanists James Duke and Rodolfo Vasquez list twelve genera used for that purpose; Richard Evans Schultes and Robert Raffauf list twenty-nine. My teacher don Roberto Acho Jurama often applies a patarashca, poultice, made of a banana leaf, wrapped around the site of envenomation, filled with the finely chopped tuber of jergón sacha (Dracontium loretense), changed every few hours; he also uses ishanga blanca, white nettle (Laportea aestuans), and cocona (Solanum sessiliflorum), as well as chewed leaves of mapacho, tobacco (Nicotiana rustica), applied directly to the wound. The patient may be given a cold-water infusion of jergón sacha to drink, or cocona fruit boiled with sugar.

Shamans all have their own songs to drive out venom and heal snakebite, usually called, generically, icaro de vibora, pit viper song; remember that icaros generally do not have individual titles in the way that, say, songs do in North America. This icaro is then combined with the definitional triad of mestizo shamanic healing — shacapar, rattling; chupar, sucking; and soplar, blowing tobacco smoke — followed by application of the herbal remedy.

It is hard to judge the effectiveness of any of these remedies. There are few records; there is little long-term follow-up; Crotalid envenomation is frequently self-limiting. There appears to be little empirical basis for allegedly high mortality rates in cases of bushmaster envenomation; a pit viper strike can create a deep puncture wound and severely compromised tissue, so sepsis, especially in the jungle environment, must be a frequent complication. There is evidence that a number of plants traditionally used to treat snakebite — especially those in the family Urticaceae, such as ishanga blanca — have antiinflammatory, immunomodulatory, and thus potentially antivenom activity, which remains to be investigated.


Video Amazonia Indigena

The National Museum of the American Indian — part of the Smithsonian Institution — is sponsoring a film festival with the title Vídeo Amazônia Indígena: A View from the Villages, which will showcase award-winning productions by indigenous videomakers of the Brazilian Amazon. The showcase is intended to honor the work of the independent media organization Vídeo Nas Aldeias (VNA), Video in the Villages, which for twenty years has provided video training and production support to indigenous mediamakers in the Brazilian Amazon. Indigenous videomakers from Ashaninka, Hunikui, Ikpeng, Kuikuro, and Xavante communities will be present at the festival.

The films will be shown in various venues in New York City from May 1 to May 5, 2008, and in various venues in the Washington, DC, area from May 6 to May 11, 2008. The schedule for New York City is here, and that for the DC area is here. Admission is free. Check it out.


The Tragedy of Don Carlos

There is a Greek word, hamartia, which is usually translated as tragic flaw, although it connotes more a cognitive than a moral failing — the lack of an important insight, a misperception, a blindness, a failure to perceive ethical and spiritual consequences. The idea of hamartia is often ironic; the very strength that makes the protagonist a hero is what brings about disaster.

A complete biography of Carlos Castaneda has yet to be written. His life in many ways followed a classic Hollywood arc — a trajectory from obscurity to fame and fortune and, finally, to a sort of desperate madness. And the story, too, is a classic tragedy, since Castaneda was undone by the very qualities that brought him his remarkable success. He was charming, boyish, imaginative, clever, filled with imagination, and driven by a need to outwit the world. Castaneda was ultimately undone by a profound hamartia.

For many of us, The Teachings of Don Juan was our first glimpse into a shamanic world at once magical and meaningful, not just for primitive and superstitious people in distant countries, but for ourselves. The character don Juan Matus was the teacher we all yearned for, an initiator into this dark and magical realm — self-contained, charismatic, cynical, intimidating, wise, loving us despite our flaws.

It was all, of course, a fraud. But we were willing to forgive Castaneda, at least for a while, because he was himself the trickster teacher, who had caught the spirit of our deepest needs.

Eventually it all unraveled. The books became increasingly bizarre and inconsistent. Detailed skeptical analysis revealed fiction after fiction. It seemed that every time Castaneda had a new enthusiasm, his purported teachers would have a new teaching. I stopped reading after the third book.

If you were not paying close attention — if you were not within the oddly contoured boundaries of Castaneda's inner circle — it was easy to miss the accelerating weirdness of Castaneda's final years. When he died of liver cancer in 1998, at the age of 72, the impeccable warrior left behind a legal mess, irreparable damage to Yaqui and Huichol cultures, and a core of female cult followers, at least one — and perhaps all — of whom committed suicide.

Soon after Castaneda's death, The New York Times published an article about the lingering legal and familial chaos. In 2007, Salon published a comprehensive article about Castaneda's last days and the fate of his followers, entitled The Dark Legacy of Carlos Castaneda. And in 2006 the BBC produced an hour-long documentary on Castaneda, which you can see here:


How I Became a Sorcerer

We have discussed the idea, widely held in the Upper Amazon, that human beings in general, and shamans in particular, have powerful urges to harm other humans, and that the difference between a healer and a sorcerer comes down to a matter of self-control. And on that there hangs a story.

A while ago, after having returned from my most recent trip to study with my maestro ayahuasquero don Roberto Acho, I was sitting in a training seminar, and I was angry with the facilitator, a man I greatly respect and admire. I was angry for foolish and childish reasons; I felt I was not being paid enough attention.

Suddenly, without any apparent intention on my part, a spider flew out of my mouth — a large, black, hairy spider, about three inches across. The spider flew from my mouth to the face of the seminar facilitator, where it grasped and clung to his cheek, eventually melting into his face. I was taken aback by this. Damn, I said; I didn't realize I was that pissed off. And that would have been the end of it; except that, at the next day's session, the distraught facilitator announced that he had been told that his wife's breast cancer, thought to be in remission, had recurred.

Now, was there any connection between my spider and his wife's illness? Of course not. The spider touched him, not his wife. And the recurrence must have taken place before the spider left my mouth; certainly sorcery cannot be temporally retroactive. Of course there was no connection.

And yet, what I carry away from this experience is still a sense of guilt. I did not cause the harm; I could not have caused the harm. But what happened was a loss of control — my momentary anger, my ego, my envidia, the worst part of me leaping from my mouth in the form of a spider, just like the spiders and scorpions that are projected, in the Upper Amazon, from the phlegm of a brujo, a sorcerer.

From this inconsequential incident, I have learned three things.

First, there really is no going back. Once you walk through the door into the realm of the spirits, you cannot return to any prior state of innocence. As I have said before, once you begin la dieta, once you drink ayahuasca, once you begin to form relations of confianza with the healing plants, the world becomes a more dangerous place. When you have begun to realize the porosity of reality; when the world has become magical, filled with wonders, filled with the spirits, filled with meaning; when you have begun to see what was there all along but was invisible to you — then you must accept that your childish anger is, right here and now, as it always was, an ugly spider leaping from your lips, capable of causing great harm.

I have written, here and here, that people in the Upper Amazon consider the darts and other pathogenic objects in a shaman's phlegm to be autonomous, alive, spirits, sometimes with their own needs and desires, including a desire to kill. I now believe that is profoundly true. Our egos are as tricky and autonomous as magical darts. Our envidia, our foolish willingness to destroy relationships of confianza with others, seems to flair up at the slightest provocation. The popular image of the sorcerer in the Upper Amazon reflects this truth: the figure of the evil sorcerer represents all that is the antithesis of proper social behavior. Nobody has the courage to scold a sorcerer, people say, for he would put poison on you and you would die. If you make fun of him, he will kill you; if you are stingy with him, he will kill you; if you refuse to have sex with him, he will kill you. The sorcerer does not eat meat and does not smell any perfume. The sorcerer in fact epitomizes solitary retentiveness and lack of reciprocity — lonely, demanding, querulous, abusive, miserly, and vengeful. Just like my ego.

And that is why self-control is mandatory. Since that inconsequential incident, I have been tempted to try it again — just, you know, to see if it works, just to express my anger, just to be — somehow — powerful. And I cannot do it, ever again.


Two Articles

I just thought I would pass along links to two recent articles people may have missed but are worth looking at.

  • The current issue of Scientific American has an excellent summary of recent work on the mechanisms of hallucinogens, which, using animal models, appears to locate their site of action in pyramidal neurons in layer V of the somatosensory cortex.
  • The London Times has published a fair and informative summary of the history and practices of Santo Daime, even though the article is run under a goofy title and is found — for reasons I do not understand — in the Women's Lifestyle pages of the newspaper.


Sasha Redux

Speaking of psychopharmacologist Alexander Shulgin — which I have done here and here — the prestigious journal Scientific American has just published a remarkably positive short article on his life and work.

Sasha and Ann

Shulgin — familiarly known as Sasha — has always been an anomaly in the scientific community. He was a scrupulous and inventive chemist, and the creator of more than 230 psychoactive substances, most of which he tested on himself. He was a consultant for the DEA, and often served as an expert witness at trial. Yet the DEA raided his laboratory, demanded that he turn over his DEA Schedule I license, and fined him $25,000 for the possession of samples sent to him for quality testing.

Shulgin has had a warm and deeply loving relationship with his wife Ann, with whom he shared many of his chemical creations. Together they have coauthored two massive texts — Phenethylamines I Have Known And Loved: A Chemical Love Story and Tryptamines I Have Known And Loved: The Continuation, known, respectively, as PiHKAL and TiHKAL. In addition to essays ranging from reminiscence to natural history, the books contain the chemical structure and detailed instructions for the synthesis of hundreds of psychoactive compounds, with meticulously detailed accounts of their reported effects at different dosages.

Shulgin is a giant in the field of psychopharmacology, and widely loved and admired for his inventiveness, courage, and sense of humor. It is good to see him get the respect he deserves from the mainstream scientific press.


Ayahuasca is made from the stem of the ayahuasca vine (Banisteriopsis caapi), almost always combined with the leaves of one or more of three compañeros, companion plants — the shrub chacruna (Psychotria viridis), the closely related shrub sameruca (Psychotria carthaginensis), or a vine variously called ocoyagé, chalipanga, chagraponga, and huambisa (Diplopterys cabrerana). It is in fact the companion plant that contains the potent hallucinogen dimethyltryptamine (DMT); but, while DMT is effective when administered parenterally, it is, when taken orally, inactivated by peripheral monoamine oxidase-A (MAO-A), an enzyme found in the lining of the stomach, whose function is precisely to oxidize molecules containing an NH2 amine group, like DMT.

The ayahuasca vine contains three primary harmala alkaloids — the β-carboline derivatives harmine, tetrahydroharmine (THH), and harmaline. Harmine is the primary constituent, followed first by THH and then by harmaline. These three harmala alkaloids are potent reversible inhibitors of MAO-A. Thus, combining the ingredients of the ayahuasca drink allows the DMT to produce its hallucinogenic effect when orally ingested — a unique solution which apparently developed only in the Upper Amazon. Indeed, the MAO-inhibiting β-carbolines in the ayahuasca vine may also potentiate the actions of psychoactive alkaloids other than DMT — for example, nicotine from mapacho (Nicotiana rustica), or the primary tropane alkaloids from toé (Brugmansia spp.).

The question is: Apart from inhibiting MAO, do these β-carbolines contribute to the nature or quality of the ayahuasca visionary experience?

The accepted wisdom answers no. A study of the ayahuasca drink used by the syncretic religious movement União de Vegetal in Brazil, for example, concluded that the harmala alkaloids “are essentially devoid of psychedelic activity” at doses found in the drink.

Alexander Shulgin

A number of experiments with harmine — the primary β-carboline in the ayahuasca vine — would seem to bear out this assessment. The chemist Alexander Shulgin has reviewed the self-experimentation literature and concluded that harmine has inconsistent effects, which have in common that not much either pleasant or interesting happens — pleasant relaxation and withdrawal in one case; dizziness, nausea, and ataxia in another. Researchers who have self-administered harmine have reported an increase in belligerence, fleeting sensations of lightness, transient subjective effects, mild sedation at low doses and unpleasant neurological effects at higher doses, and, indeed, no “notable psychoactive or somatic effect.” Some researchers have expressed doubts that harmine is psychoactive at all.

Jonathan Ott gives several accounts of his own experiences with ingesting infusions of the ayahuasca vine or other β-carboline-rich plants without DMT additive plants. During one shamanic ceremony, he drank an infusion of the ayahuasca vine mixed only with a small number of guayusa (Ilex guayusa) leaves, which contain caffeine but no tryptamines, which he intended to counteract the soporific effects of the drink. According to Ott, the caffeine content was insufficient for that purpose; he had to fight off sleep. He could see, he writes, why β-carboline-enriched infusions had been used traditionally as sedatives.

Jonathan Ott

However, there are two reasons to question the common wisdom. The first is the work of Claudio Naranjo, who administered harmaline — not harmine — to 35 volunteers, by mouth and intravenously, under laboratory conditions. Harmaline, he reports, was “more of a pure hallucinogen” than other psychoactive substances, such as mescaline, because of the number of images reported and their realistic quality — what Naranjo calls their “remarkable vividness.” “In fact,” he writes, “some subjects felt that certain scenes they saw had really happened, and that they had been disembodied witnesses of them in a different time and place.” The volunteers often described landscapes and cities, masks, eyes, and what are elsewhere called elves — vividly realized animal and human figures, angels, demons, giants, dwarfs. If this study is credible, there are grounds to believe that, among the β-carbolines, at least harmaline, at sufficient doses, has independent hallucinogenic properties, phenomenologically not dissimilar to those of DMT.

Shulgin’s review of the self-experimental literature with regard to harmaline provides some confirmation of the reports of Naranjo’s volunteers. A 500-mg oral dose produced nausea and a complete collapse of motor coordination — “I could barely stagger to the bathroom,” one person reports — along with eyes-closed eidetic imagery, and “tracers and weird visual ripplings” with open eyes. It is even more interesting to look at the effects of Syrian rue (Peganum harmala), which contains pretty much equal quantities of harmine and harmaline, as opposed to the proportionally much smaller amount of harmaline in the ayahuasca vine. Oral ingestion of ground Syrian rue seeds caused intense eyes-closed hallucinations of “a wide variety of geometrical patterns in dark colors,” which evolved into more concrete images — “people’s faces, movies of all sorts playing at high speeds, and animal presences such as snakes.” Oral ingestion of a fivefold greater dose, as extract, caused “zebra-like stripes of light and dark” — visual effects which had “a physicality unlike those of any other entheogen I’d experienced.” In a second trial at the same dose, the participant saw “strange winged creatures” and traveled to “jungle-like places, full of imagery of vines, fountains, and animals.”

Now, the amount of harmaline in any sample of ayahuasca vine or drink is extremely variable; it is a matter of controversy whether any infusion of the ayahuasca vine contains enough harmaline to cause the effects reported above. Jonathon Ott, whose views deserve respectful attention, says that the amount of harmaline in a single 200-ml drink of ayahuasca would be insufficient to produce the effects reported by Naranjo.

Claudio Naranjo

Yet the accepted wisdom is challenged by ethnography as well. Among mestizo shamans, an ayahuasca drink made solely from the vine is sometimes ingested orally for hallucinogenic effects of a particular “dark” nature. In addition, ayahuasqueros, virtually universally, say that it is the ayahuasca vine that provides the fuerza, the power, and DMT-rich plants such as chacruna that provide the luz, the light, in the ayahuasca experience. In Colombia, the shamans say that the companion plant brilla la pinta, makes the visions brighter; among the Shuar, the companion plant is not considered to have any hallucinogenic effects, but rather is believed to make the visions clearer, and is in fact occasionally omitted. The great ethnobotanist Richard Evans Schultes reports that certain Colombian Indians smoke leaves of the ayahuasca vine; under certain circumstances, my teacher don Roberto Acho recommends the smoking of the bark.

Schultes himself, at Puerto Limón, drank an infusion derived solely from ayahuasca bark: the visions he experienced were blue and purple, he reports — slow undulating waves of color. Then a few days later he tried the mixture with chagraponga. The effect was electric — "reds and golds dazzling in diamonds that turned like dancers on the tips of distant highways.” As my teacher don Rómulo Magin told me, visions with the ayahuasca vine alone are dark and dim; the chacruna makes the vision come on like this: whoosh! he said, moving his closed hand rapidly towards my face, the fingers opening up as it approached. Luis Eduardo Luna, one of the leading investigators of Amazonian mestizo shamanism, reports that often a larger amount of the ayahuasca vine is added to the ayahuasca drink than is needed for MAO inhibition, precisely because of its ability to produce strong visual hallucinations.

There is also some reason to believe that THH may have some role in the hallucinogenic effects of the ayahuasca vine, either by itself or acting synergistically with other β-carboline compounds. Indeed, in 1957 Hochstein and Paradies had already conjectured — “astutely,” in the words of Jonathon Ott — that harmaline and THH might have “substantial psychotomimetic activity in their own right.” Strikingly, among members of the ayahuasca-using União de Vegetal church in Brazil, experienced users seem to prefer ayahuasca drinks where THH concentrations are high relative to harmine and harmaline. They explain that such drinks deliver more “force” to the experience. It is therefore surprising that so little research has been done on THH. Alexander Shulgin, in his search of the self-experimentation literature, found only a single and entirely unhelpful report. “More studies on tetrahydroharmine,” he says, “are absolutely imperative.”

Similarly, additive and — especially — synergistic studies of harmala alkaloids have not been performed. The ethnographic evidence strongly suggests that interactive effects are important and are yet to be investigated.


The War on Drugs

This blog has previously touched on what I called the war on coca leaves. There also now appears to be a war on the psychoactive plant Salvia divinorum, long used by indigenous Mazatec shamans in Mexico, and recently of interest to a wider range of users as a legal hallucinogen.

At least it was legal until now. Despite the fact that the plant appears to have little potential for either abuse or addiction, and tastes awful, an increasing number of states have passed, or are considering passing, legislation to prohibit the use or possession of the plant. Florida state representative Mary Brandenburg, for example, has introduced a bill to make possession of Salvia a felony punishable by up to five years in prison.

Just another day in the War on Drugs.

Actually, the term War on Drugs is a misnomer. There is no war on penicillin or triamcinolone. Rather, the substances targeted by the War on Drugs have one thing in common: they have psychoactive effects that many people want to experience. These effects may be those, like hallucinations, that the state does not want anyone to experience; or those, like empathy, that the state does not mind people experiencing, but only by means that the state approves. Here are some thoughts about the war.

The War on Drugs is very expensive. So far this year the war has cost $13 billion, with an average annual cost of about $40 billion. That means that the War on Drugs has cost, oh, say, about a trillion dollars — give or take a few hundred billion — in the twenty-nine years since the 1979 crackdown. The War on Drugs has now cost about twice as much as the war in Iraq.

The War on Drugs fosters violence. Prohibiting something that people want inevitably creates a black market in the prohibited item. Black markets, in turn, are inevitably violent, because, being outside the law, legal mechanisms for dispute resolution are unavailable. If you sell me adulterated heroin, I cannot sue you; if you take my money but deliver no cocaine, I cannot complain to the police. While the state monopoly on force is available to enforce ordinary business agreements and prevent fraud and robbery, the only enforcement mechanism available in a black market is what lawyers call, with unconscious irony, self-help.

The War on Drugs fosters corruption. Black markets are inevitably corrupt, because, while they operate outside the constraints of law, they must operate under the surveillance and with the tacit approval of law enforcement. This means that black markets inevitably attempt to corrupt — by bribes, extortion, or intimidation — police, prosecutors, and judges, so that the black market can continue to operate despite prohibition of its product. This corruption then inevitably becomes more widespread. An official corrupted by money or favors from the drug black market becomes susceptible to bribes, intimidation, and extortion regarding other illegal enterprises; and corrupt officials also inevitably involve their peers and subordinates in their corruption.

The War on Drugs creates risks for consumers of drugs. Black markets are anticompetitive and monopolistic, so they inevitably create risks for their consumers, because they operate without constraints on dangerously substandard products. Participants in a black market compete, not on the basis of price or quality or features, which might benefit the consumer, but on the basis of firepower and access to protection, which does not. And consumers who purchase black market products necessarily do so without accurate consumer information, which black markets have no incentive to provide. Thus, in addition to being violent and corrupting, black markets inevitably rip off their consumers, who have no recourse, either legal or competitive, for overpriced or dangerously adulterated products.

The War on Drugs causes crime. Costs necessitated by black market violence and corruption are passed along to the consumer. Monopolistic black market ventures and cartels are not constrained by competition, can create artificial scarcities, and can fix prices. Yet the demand for psychoactive substances remains relatively inelastic, so that higher drug prices in turn correlate, not with less use, but with increased crime to pay the higher prices. These increases in crime tend to be sporadic and unpredictable, and therefore more difficult to control, since the logistics of black markets tend to preclude steady supplies of prohibited products.

The War on Drugs hurts police work. The police have been harmed by the War on Drugs not only by the violence and corruption of the black market, which take the lives and integrity of police officers; but also by distorting the police mission and making police work more difficult. There is, of course, the diversion of resources and attention from other crimes — robbery, rape, murder — to violations of the drug laws. There is also the increasing militarization of the police to deal with the violence inherent in the black market. This militarization is symbolized by the increasing use of SWAT teams to enforce no-knock warrants, with armed police kicking in doors — and, with distressing frequency, the wrong doors — in cases of alleged possession. I know of few police officers who would not, in a minute, trade enforcement of the drug laws for an opportunity to do real police work.

The War on Drugs hurts police-community relations. The War on Drugs plays a significant role in the disintegration of relationships between police and community, as friends and relatives of community members are arrested and incarcerated for minor drug offenses such as simple possession, and the police are increasingly viewed as both corrupt and hostile, and perceived by many community members as just another gang. At the same time, as laws against drugs are widely perceived to be violated with relative impunity, and prohibition visibly fails to reduce the violence and corruption of the black market it creates, there is lessened respect for law in general — a climate of lawlessness symbolized by ubiquitous gang graffiti, residential streets abandoned to drug dealers, the romanticizing and glamorizing of drug violence, and the other "broken windows" of social breakdown. Moreover, to the extent that alcohol and nicotine are legal, and those arrested for drug offenses are overwhelmingly young African American males, there is a widespread perception that the War on Drugs is grounded in generational, class, and, in particular, racial considerations that have nothing to do with addiction or safety.

The War on Drugs overburdens the courts and correctional system. In 2006, there were 1,889,810 arrests for violations of the drug laws, most for simple possession or petty sale, including 829,625 persons arrested for marijuana violations. Courts are swamped with drug cases, at great cost in money and time. To save these costs, plea bargains are common, with consequent overpunishment of minor offenses and underpunishment of more serious ones, and a general erosion of trust in the justice system. And it is clear that the correctional system, including the probation system, is heavily burdened by the need to process and house large numbers of nonviolent offenders — overwhelmingly young African American males — convicted of drug possession or low-level sales. Today, drug criminals comprise over half of federal prisoners, and nearly one-quarter of state criminal offenders. Largely because of the War on Drugs, the US prison population has doubled since 1982 to more than 800,000. Not having to house these nonviolent offenders would sufficiently reduce the number of prison inmates to a point where corrections officers could actually deal, more effectively and safely, with the truly violent offenders who remained.

The War on Drugs erodes civil liberties. The proliferation of SWAT-enforced no-knock warrants in cases of alleged possession is just one aspect of the erosion of civil liberties. Because of the War on Drugs, we are rapidly becoming a surveillance society. According to an article in Time magazine, over 400,000 US government workers, and employees of one-quarter of Fortune 500 companies, are required to undergo drug tests. In 1989, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia wrote that such mandatory urinalysis for US Customs Services employees is “an invasion of their privacy and an affront to their dignity." But that was a dissent, which meant the Supreme Court ruled the other way. And, in fact, because of the demands of the War on Drugs, the Supreme Court has consistently upheld wiretapping, searches of travelers and their luggage, search warrants for private residences based on the tip of an anonymous informant, police stops of vehicles on the highways, and surveillance of US mail. Justice Thurgood Marshall — in, of course, another dissent — felt the need to remind the Court that there is "no drug exception to the Constitution." Similarly, Democrat Peter Rodino, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, futilely opposed a provision of the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 which allows federal prosecutors to introduce evidence that had been obtained illegally without a warrant, as long as law- enforcement officials seized the material in good faith. "All day long we've been fighting the war on drugs," he said. "Now it seems that the attack is on the Constitution of the United States."

The War on Drugs hinders scientific research and medical practice. The deformation of social priorities caused by the War on Drugs is epitomized by the debate over the benefits and costs of medical marijuana, where unanswered scientific and medical questions are drowned out by issues of drug policy. The legal climate makes physicians reluctant to prescribe narcotics for relief of chronic and intractable pain, even in hospice settings. In addition, there has been a thirty-year hiatus in serious research on the psychotherapeutic use of hallucinogens and hallucinogenic amphetamines, which might have have been tested in research and therapy in disorders as varied as schizophrenia and alcoholism. And there is no doubt that exploration of other questions of potential importance — the influence of psychoactive substances on artistic creativity, for example, or their effect on spirituality — has been obstructed by fear of legal repercussions.

And what are the benefits? Proponents of the War on Drugs maintain that the war is working, at least in the sense that it makes psychoactive substances more difficult to obtain, and that, by thus limiting their use, it helps prevent both undesirable psychoactive effects and addiction. Even if this claim were true, it is hard to see how this purported benefit is worth the costs, both economic and social, of the war. But I think that the claim faces serious empirical challenges.

The War on Drugs has not made drugs harder to obtain. Indeed, between 1981 and 1998, the price of heroin and cocaine actually dropped, while levels of purity rose — the opposite of what would be expected if the War on Drugs had created a scarcity. Most high school students know where to obtain marijuana, and some slightly smaller number know how to obtain such psychoactive substances as LSD and MDMA. According to a 1999 survey by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, almost 90 percent of twelfth graders participating in the survey said that marijuana was "very easy" or "fairly easy" to get, over 47 percent said the same about cocaine, and more than 32 percent said the same about heroin.

The War on Drugs has had little effect on rates of addiction. According to the Drug Policy Forum, in 1914, when drugs like cocaine were available in grocery stores, the addiction rate for all drugs was estimated to be around 1.3 percent of the population. In 1979, when the War on Drugs crackdown began, the addiction rate was still 1.3 percent. In 1998, after nineteen years of war, the addiction rate still stood at 1.3 percent. There is little reason to believe that, if the War on Drugs was halted, the addiction rate would change in any significant way.

The War on Drugs punishes rather than helps addicts. If some psychoactive substances are addictive, in a physical sense, by producing intense cravings for additional use, we have to ask how such addictions are best managed, and at what economic and social cost. If these substances are as addictive as proponents of the War on Drugs maintain, and therefore demand for them completely inelastic, then it is difficult to see how making them more expensive and less safe serves any interest other than punishing the addict. It is even more difficult to see how incarceration for possession or petty sales provides the personal and social help an addict needs to quit. We could offer a lot of educational, counseling, and rehabilitation services with $40 billion a year, and buy a few submarines as well.

The War on Drugs does not distinguish recreational from spiritual uses. It is difficult to generalize among Schedule I psychoactive substances, especially without taking into account the social and cultural setting in which they are used. Does the Schedule I controlled substance dimethyltryptamine have a high potential for abuse? Apparently not, at least based on the experience of Santo Daime and the União do Vegetal churches. Is mescaline addictive? Certainly not, at least based on the experience of the Native American Church. Apart from the attractions, physical and spiritual, of rave culture, in what sense — if any — are hallucinogenic amphetamines such as MDMA addictive? Even the legal but apparently highly addictive nicotine — and even in very high doses, such as are used as a hallucinogen in the Upper Amazon — does not appear to cause addiction when its use is limited to a ceremonial context.