Drugs and other mind-altering substances have been used in a sacred context for millennia. These include wine, tobacco, hallucinogens, soma, haoma, hashish, and many others. Indigenous Americans used tobacco as a sacred and medicinal plant. According to Wikipedia:
[R]eligious use of tobacco is still common among many indigenous peoples, particularly in the Americas. Among the Cree and Ojibway of Canada and the north-central United States, it is offered to the Creator, with prayers, and is used in sweat lodges, pipe ceremonies, smudging, and is presented as a gift. A gift of tobacco is tradition when asking an Ojibway elder a question of a spiritual nature. Because of its sacred nature, tobacco abuse (thoughtlessly and addictively chain smoking) is seriously frowned upon by the Algonquian tribes of Canada, as it is believed that if one so abuses the plant, it will abuse that person in return, causing sickness. The proper and traditional native way of offering the smoke is said to involve directing it toward the four cardinal points (north, south, east, and west), rather than holding it deeply within the lungs for prolonged periods.
It is only when drug use is taken out of this sacramental and communal context that it becomes a vice. If a drug is taken to alter one’s consciousness for a sacred purpose – to obtain information or abilities inaccessible to normal consciousness – then it is a rare occurrence, and for a good reason: in the service of one’s community. I have a friend who is studying to be a curandera using ayahuasca, and she is learning from a traditional South American curandero. All the consumption of ayahuasca is in a safe and sacred context, supervised by experts, and assisted by the spirits of ayahuasca.
In Hinduism there is a sacred plant known as Soma, of which it was said “We have drunk Soma and become immortal; we have attained the light, the Gods discovered.” (Rigveda, 8.48.3) The Zoroastrians have a similar substance known as Haoma, which also has a deity associated with it. The two substances are probably the same, as they are derived from the same Indo-European root word.
A substance that is used in a sacred context is called an entheogen:
An entheogen (“generating the divine within”) is a psychoactive substance used in a religious, shamanic, or spiritual context. Entheogens can supplement many diverse practices for transcendence and revelation, including meditation, psychonautics, psychedelic and visionary art, psychedelic therapy, and magic.
As Nimue Brown points out, the reason drugs work is because they mimic existing brain chemistry. That is how drugs like anti-depressants work, and it is also how hallucinogens work. This means that similar (though often much less intense) effects can be achieved by using other ecstatic techniques. Sometimes, however, entheogens can alter brain chemistry and create new pathways for perception.
So, my take on drug use is that we should always ask ourselves why we are taking it, and if there are better alternatives. If I have a bad headache, I will take a painkiller (aspirin is derived from willow trees, after all), but I will also try to ascertain the cause of the headache (e.g. dehydration, lack of sleep, poor posture, lack of exercise). If I have an infection, I will think twice before taking antibiotics, because over-use and mis-use of antibiotics can lead to the bacteria becoming resistant to antibiotics, and therefore more virulent. I will also take steps to restore the natural mix of flora and fauna that should be in residence in my intestinal tract, by taking probiotics. If I needed to perform a powerful ritual, I might consider the use of entheogens, but I would also consider other options. I have never tried ayahuasca because one of its side effects is vomiting, and I dislike vomiting intensely. If I was going to use any other entheogen, I would try to find out the correct rituals to get in contact with the spirit associated with the plant, and ingest the substance in a sacred context. I would also find out all the side effects of the substance in question, and make sure that it was safe to use.
One of the things that has always struck me about the recreational use of cannabis is that a certain amount of ritual has developed around its use. People don’t tend to smoke it own their own; they tend to share it with others. There is an art to rolling up, and the joint is always passed around in a circle. People make sure that no-one who wants to partake misses out. It is a very social activity.
I also think we should consider the ethical consequences of taking illegal drugs. Just as with Prohibition in the 1920s, when illicit alcohol was supplied by criminal gangs, illegal drugs are supplied by criminal gangs who also supply guns and harder drugs. If such drugs were legalised and controlled in the same way as alcohol, the criminal involvement would cease, or at least be massively reduced. The reason I don’t partake of illegal drugs is because they are not fair trade, and buying them means you are giving money to gun-runners and other criminals.
We need, as a society, to have a serious conversation about our use of all drugs – medicinal, recreational, stimulant, and entheogenic. Sadly, when drugs are being discussed, their use as entheogens doesn’t tend to even enter into the conversation. But traditional, shamanic, and Pagan religions have always used mind-altering substances for sacred purposes. If this is done in a sacred manner, with appropriate safety precautions, relatively infrequently, for genuine purposes, then there is nothing wrong with it, and it is part of the panoply of ritual techniques available to magical and shamanic practitioners.
The ethics of personal drug use is an ongoing topic at the Patheos Public Square. Click through to read responses from Pagan writers Nimue Brown, Peg Aloi, and John Beckett, as well as from writers of other traditions.