Hallucinogens in Africa

I have argued here, here, and here that the Upper Amazon is the center of a larger culture area uniquely characterized by the use of psychoactive plants and mushrooms in the practice of shamanism.

A number of people offered the counterexample of iboga (Tabernanthe iboga) in the Bwiti religion as a shamanic use of a hallucinogen outside this extended culture area.

Now, there is no question that psychoactive plants and fungi are widely used in indigenous cultures around the world. The question we are asking, however, is not whether they are used, but whether they are used by shamans for shamanizing. And that raises a number of considerations. Sometimes, of course, psychoactive plants or fungi are used outside any ceremonial context at all, for recreation, say, or to alleviate fatigue; sometimes they are used in a ceremonial context that is nonshamanic, as part of an initiation ritual, for example; and we find, surprisingly often, that they are used, not by shamans, but rather by people who are imitating shamans. We also have to look carefully at the reliability of the reports we have received about a psychoactive plant or fungus claimed to be used by shamans, and at its relevant physical effects, to see whether those effects are consistent with the demands of the shamanic performance.

The Bwiti religion, a revitalization movement in West-Central Africa, uses the hallucinogenic plant iboga in its initiatory rituals, primarily in order to contact the spirits of dead ancestors, and to provide the experience of passing over to the land of the dead. Massive amounts are taken during the initiation ceremony, and smaller amounts at other ceremonies thereafter, to keep awake and relax the body. At these lower doses, iboga does not act as a hallucinogen, but rather as a stimulant. Indeed, the original use of iboga was apparently to relieve fatigue while hunting and as an aphrodisiac. This ability to suppress fatigue is of value at Bwiti ceremonies other than initiation, where participants must dance all night; low doses of iboga lighten the body, they say, so that it can float through the ritual dances.

At initiation, however, the dose is from fifteen to fifty times the normal threshold dose, with the intention to “break open the head.” The purpose of this massive ingestion at the time of initiation is to see the bwiti. The term refers first to a superior deity and, at the same time, the ancestors in the realm of the dead, and the great deities of the Christian pantheon. Thus the plant offers revelations and power to the initiate; upon return to the normal state, the candidate is questioned by the initiated men to see whether the vision was sufficient for admission.

Anthropologist James Fernandez obtained reports from thirty-eight people regarding the content of these visions; eight people told him that they heard many voices, a great tumult, and recognized the voices of ancestors; thirteen said they heard and saw various ancestors, who walked with them and told them about the land of the dead; eight said that they walked or flew over a long, multicolored road, or over many rivers, which led them to the ancestors, who then took them to the great gods.

Two features of these interviews are striking. First, the accounts of the visions are clearly stereotyped; for example, the relatives who serve as guides through the visionary landscape are often white, clothed in white, or change to white, because white is the color of the dead. Second, nine people told Fernandez that they saw and heard nothing. Many members of Bwiti have undergone initiation more than once, presumably because of just such lack of significant visionary experiences. Subsequent initiations may involve larger doses, sometimes with untoward results.

There is no doubt that iboga, at sufficient dosages, acts as a hallucinogen, and that Bwiti initiation candidates seek visions of a specific type by ingesting it in massive quantities. But there seems to be very little about this use that has much to do with shamanizing.

At the same time, sorcerers are said to drink iboga before demanding information from the spirits, and iboga is said to be used in sorcery, like an invisible rifle, to cast spells. In addition, religious leaders reportedly eat iboga for an entire day before asking their ancestors to give them advice. I have no information about the level of such consumption, or whether the dose might be hallucinogenic, or what other ritual acts might be involved. Such uses might well qualify as shamanic.


More Legal Stuff

I have written previously on the legal status of ayahuasca in the United States. In response, I have received claims to the effect that, while possession or sale of DMT may be a felony, it is legal to possess plants containing DMT, such as chacruna. I have struggled to find the source of this contention — which has achieved the status of folklore — and I think I have found it.

In 1980, the United States ratified the United Nations Convention on Psychotropic Substances, in support of an international effort “to prevent and combat abuse of [psychotropic] substances and the illicit traffic to which it gives rise.” The treaty classifies substances according to their degree of safety and medical usefulness, with Schedule I representing substances that are considered particularly unsafe and lacking any medical use. Among these substances is dimethyltryptamine (DMT). Parties to the convention — more than 160 nations in all — must, under Article 7(a), prohibit “all use except for scientific and very limited medical purposes,” with the following provision under Article 32(4):

A State on whose territory plants are growing wild which contain psychotropic substances from among those in Schedule I and which are traditionally used by certain small, clearly determined groups in magical or religious rites may, at the time of signature, ratification, or accession, make reservations concerning these plants, in respect of the provisions of article 7, except for provisions relating to international trade.

Under this provision, the United States made a reservation for religious use of peyote by the Native American Church, and Perú made a reservation for the use of DMT “by certain Amazon ethnic groups in magical and religious rites and in rites of initiation into adulthood.” Neither the United States nor Brazil ever made a reservation for DMT.

International treaties are recognized by the Constitution as being the law of the land. But, where the provisions of a treaty, such as the 1971 United Nations Convention on Psychotropic Substances, conflict with the provisions of a statute passed subsequent to the treaty, such as RFRA, the Supreme Court has held that the statute, to the extent of the conflict, supersedes the treaty.

Now the Convention provides that “a preparation is subject to the same measures of control as the psychotropic substance which it contains,” and defines preparation as “any solution or mixture, in whatever physical state, containing one or more psychotropic substances.” The District Court in New Mexico held that the ayahuasca drink at issue in that case was not, technically, a "preparation" of DMT, and therefore fell outside the treaty. But the Supreme Court, pointing to the plain language of the Convention, held, contrary to the District Court, that boiling constituted preparing, and held that the ayahuasca drink indeed fell within the scope of the Convention.

The Court did not have to further examine the implications of the Convention, however, because, the Court said, the prosecution had failed to show — indeed, even to submit evidence for — a compelling state interest in applying the Controlled Substances Act, which implements the Convention, to the sacramental use of the ayahuasca drink by the UDV. It is unclear what the outcome would be if the prosecution, in the next case, undertook to make such a showing.

But what if you are arrested for possession of the chacruna leaf? Here is where it gets interesting. The official commentary to the Convention notes that natural hallucinogenic materials, such as plants, are not listed in Schedule I, and that “plants as such are not, and it is submitted are also not likely to be, listed in Schedule I, but only some products obtained from plants.” Are you protected by the commentary to the Convention? The Supreme Court provided little guidance on that issue. The commentary, the Court held, was irrelevant to the case before it, since what was at issue was the ayahuasca drink, not the leaves from which it was made.

However, as the Tenth Circuit has pointed out, this commentary to the Convention does not constitute particularly strong evidence one way or the other. It was not written by the negotiators or signatories to the Convention. Rather, it was drafted by a single author, published five years after the Convention was negotiated, and is, at best, ambiguous on the question whether a preparation like the ayahuasca drink, as opposed to the chacruna from which it is made, is covered by the Convention. The commentary is thus just not the sort of "negotiating and drafting history" or "postratification understanding of the contracting parties" that courts have traditionally used as evidence of the signatories' intent.

Still, the interpretation of an international treaty by the United States agency charged with its negotiation and enforcement — that is, in this case, the Drug Enforcement Administration — is usually given great deference by the courts. It is, of course, likely that the DEA would argue against any natural plant exemption to the Controlled Substances Act.

So, the question is not settled. But I would not bet my liberty on the outcome.

NOTE: This blog entry does not constitute a legal opinion or legal advice. Laws change, and situations differ. If you have any questions, consult a lawyer experienced in this field.