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Experts debate benefits, risks of hallucinogenic drugs BY FAYE FLAM Knight Ridder Newspapers
PHILADELPHIA - (KRT) - Long before Timothy Leary and Ken Kesey and the counterculture generation discovered hallucinogenic drugs, the Indians of western Mexico were using peyote to commune with their gods.
Anthropologist Peter T. Furst, who spent 30 years among the Huichol people, says that Indian shamans have been using hallucinogenic plants as a doorway to the divine for thousands of years, likely following a tradition carried by their ancestors over the Bering Strait.
And now, some U.S. scientists are exploring how these substances might be used by doctors to battle anxiety, mental illness and alcoholism.
"These compounds hold tremendous potential for helping us understand how the brain functions, and they have untapped potential for healing," said Charles Grob, a psychiatry professor at UCLA Medical School.
Some early studies suggest that LSD can ease the sense of dread that people feel when they are dying. "There were some very interesting and promising results," said Grob. He recently secured approval from the Food and Drug Administration to continue this line of inquiry using the milder drug psilocybin, the active ingredient in hallucinogenic mushrooms.
"We're really on the threshold of a new era of formal and very tightly controlled sanctioned studies with hallucinogens to study their safety and efficacy," Grob said.
In Philadelphia, a new show on peyote-inspired Huichol art opened this month at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Anthropology and Archaeology. Furst, curator of the exhibition, said these are religious images, created with the ritual use of the cactus plant.
"There's a difference in nature between people who use this for religion and those who are part of our counterculture," said Furst, 81. A German-born Jew, he moved to England and then the United States in the 1930s. A vaguely European accent gives him a serious, professorial air.
After writing for Stars and Stripes during World War II, Furst worked as a journalist for United Press before studying cultural anthropology. He made a specialty of studying shamanistic peoples and wrote numerous books, including "Hallucinogens and Culture."
He maintains that nearly all hunter-gatherer societies practiced shamanistic religions, which often used hallucinogens or other mind-altering techniques to see gods, the underworld, the meaning of life.
Though he left the Penn museum a few years ago to live in Santa Fe, Furst returned this month for the opening of the exhibit, "Mythic Visions," a display of a Huichol artform known as yarn painting. In depicting complex arrays of dancing deer, snakes and other figures, the artist tries to evoke the visions he experiences with peyote.
Small bands of Huichol travel for 300 miles to a desolate spot deep in the Chihuahuan desert to hunt for the squat, round peyote cactus. Furst said he participated in Huichol peyote hunts and ceremonies and found the plant extraordinarily unpalatable.
Furst suggests the Huichol once lived in the peyote-rich region but moved to avoid enemies or find more food.
Many other native North Americans used peyote as well as some more potent and dangerous drugs. An herb called datura has been used for coming-of-age ceremonies, Furst said.
Archaeological finds in Texas show remnants of peyote that date back around 7,000 years. Even earlier finds show a hallucinogenic seed associated with remains of giant mastodons and other Pleistocene animals that go back at least 10,000 years.
Furst said he believed it was likely the Huichol and other tribes brought a tradition of hallucinogen use from Siberia before they entered the Americas more than 15,000 years ago.
Others see evidence for shamanism in early Europe. "Shamanism emerged at least 40,000 years ago and is reflected in Paleolithic rock art," said Michael Winkelman, an anthropologist from Arizona State University. "Not all societies depended on hallucinogenic plants but where they found them, people built up institutions around these substances," he said. "They are seen as a source of divine inspiration."
When the Spanish invaded Mexico, they labeled peyote the "diabolic root," Furst said, and tried to stamp out its use. In the 1960s, peyote achieved a cult following. After a long legal battle, Furst said, peyote was legalized in 1994 in the United States for members of certain American Indian religions.
Arizona's Winkelman said he believes there is something in human biology that makes us want to reach for such altered states. And one infamous incident known as the Good Friday Experiment seemed to show you didn't have to practice shamanism to have a spiritual experience with hallucinogens.
On Good Friday 1962, some researchers at Harvard gave a small group of divinity students either psilocybin or a placebo. Psilocybin, then legal, works much like peyote. "Eight of the nine people who got the drug reported they had had the most profound spiritual experiences of their lives," Winkelman said.
People use the term hallucinogen loosely to apply to many mind-altering drugs, but peyote belongs to a small family that shares similar modes of action on the brain. They include psilocybin, LSD, and morning glory seeds.
The chemical structure of these resembles a critical messenger molecule in the brain known as serotonin, said David Nichols, professor of medicinal chemistry and pharmacology at Purdue University. When serotonin is created in the brain it works by attaching, lock-and-key fashion, to molecules called serotonin receptors.
The brain has 14 different types of serotonin receptors, said Nichols, and the hallucinogenic substances dock in just one of these, called the 5HT2a receptor. "You get the overstimulation of one receptor at the expense of the others," he said.
Hallucinogens act on receptors in the frontal cortex, sometimes called the executive part of the brain because it's used for higher reasoning, he said. They also act on a part of the brain called the thalamus, Nichols said, which works to help us distinguish what's novel and important. That may explain why people on LSD can become mesmerized by a flower or by their own hand.
Studies like the Good Friday Experiment ended after psilocybin and other hallucinogens were made illegal in the late 1960s and early '70s, but a handful of scientists today are looking at ways these types of drugs might help people.
John Halpern, associate director of substance abuse research at Harvard University and McLean Hospital, is investigating the possibility that peyote prevents alcoholism in American Indians.
In a study he plans to publish within the next several months, he compared cognitive and psychological health measures among Indians who were alcoholics, those who regularly used peyote, and those who used no drugs or alcohol.
Halpern said he can't reveal his study's results yet, but he will say he sees no evidence that peyote damages the brain. "There's no history of it being addictive, or trafficked or abused," he said. Peyote can be dangerous if people use it to get stoned and then do stupid things, he said, but that's not what happens in religious ceremonies.
"I've never seen any harm coming from this. In fact it's just the opposite - it really brings families together," he said.
Others, such as David Murray of the Office of National Drug Control Policy in Washington, see more serious risk. Working among the Navajo, he said, he found long-term peyote use was "counterproductive to education and social mobility."
Because the peyote comes from a natural plant, he said, "you're taking in a powerful chemical stew," with some toxins in addition to the psychoactive ingredient. "It is, without question, a risky undertaking."
Quote: motaman said: Because the peyote comes from a natural plant, he said, "you're taking in a powerful chemical stew," with some toxins in addition to the psychoactive ingredient. "It is, without question, a risky undertaking."