Quick Note: The New York Times and Entheogens

Quick Note: The New York Times and Entheogens February 12, 2012

Entheogens, psychoactive substances used in “a religious, shamanic, or spiritual context,” once popularly known as “psychedelics,” are often sensationalized, misunderstood, and are usually banned from being used legally. Despite the United State’s policy of religious freedom, there are only two instances where entheogens have been able to win legal protection (peyote for Native American ceremonial purposes, and  ayahuasca by the União do Vegetal). So any attempts to demystify and contextualize their use to a broad audience can only help change the tone of the conversation. Enter Hamilton Morris, and his Vice.com web series “Hamilton’s Pharmacopeia,” profiled on Friday by the New York Times.

Hamilton Morris

“Through documentary footage “Hamilton’s Pharmacopeia” tries to expand viewers’ knowledge of drugs and temper a subject that can be romanticized. Episodes run as shorts or sometimes as multipart serials, chronicling Mr. Morris’s travels, obsessions and encounters with figures on the fringe of culture. Unlike his father, who has an understated off-screen presence, Mr. Morris is in front of the camera as interviewer and host. His narration is filled with monologues on sub-subcultures and scientific evidence.

His work is driven by research, not by aesthetics or any filmic lineage. In most episodes the stories that emerge feel exploratory, with failures and complications incorporated, not hidden, in the final edit. Mr. Morris spent several miserable nights in a Brazilian village waiting for a frog that didn’t arrive and in Reykjavik discovering that the liberty cap mushrooms he planned to ingest were out of season. It’s a raw, earnest approach used across much of Vice’s programming, including the widely viewed series, “The Vice Guide to Travel.”

Famed entheogen guide Erowid gets a nod in the NYT article, and most interestingly, notes that Morris will “depart from drugs entirely” in future episodes, “widening the purview to include all the ways people alter consciousness.” This seems like an important step, because it puts entheogens in the context of just being one of many different tools used to change our consciousness and achieve altered states.

I personally know many modern Pagans who use, or have used, entheogens within a ritual context. It’s a small but expanding population within our communities, though most still prefer to avoid potential entanglements with the law, and use legal methods of attaining an altered state. That said, the responsible use of these substances within a religious context should be allowed, and the ongoing harassment of practitioners who have fought hard for legal recognition needs to end. In my mind, legal entheogens are an inevitable eventuality, the question is not “if” but “when.” This article, and Hamilton’s work, helps to change perceptions and misconceptions for when that day arrives.

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  • Baruch Dreamstalker

    I have long thought the Drug War on “recreational” substances a violation of the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment.

  • Malaz

    Esquire Magazine brings us

    “Legalize Everything”…


  • I’d be interested in the other things he explores- drumming or ecstatic dance perhaps? Both have long and complex histories. There are other things that could be explored but those come to my mind first. Thanks for the update 🙂

  • kenneth

    It’s a violation of every aspect of the Bill of Rights and of the very concept of limited government and personal autonomy which underlies the main body of the Constitution itself.

  • In addition to the Native American Church, which is racially restricted, there is the Peyote Way Church of God, which has successfully defended the spiritual use of Peyote for people regardless of race in Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, Nevada, and Oregon.

  • Baruch Dreamstalker

    Geographically that’s an interesting cluster plus outlier.

  • Thelettuceman

    Legalize ALL the things!

  • AnonGuest

    Seems like half the decisions the courts upheld that have infringed on the Bill of Rights regarding seizures and searches (like “No Knocks”, etc.) have had the “Drug War” as initial motivation. The US goes about picking and choosing which drug lords get its support and can run without interference and to whom they’ll pay profits and which they’ll go after.
    And marijuana been a sacred substance in Hinduism for centuries.

  • Baruch Dreamstalker

    Ignor previous comment. I always mix up Oregon and Washington.

  • Actually I think I left one out: Minnesota.

    The Church is based in Arizona, and the people who are most active in it are based there or in nearby states.

    The states listed at the Church’s website (here – scroll down for the “state-by-state breakdown”) are: AZ, NM, CO, MN, NV, O. These are the only states with with explicit, legislative exemptions recognizing the right of an individual to possess Peyote providing that the individual belong to “a bona fide religious organization”. More specifically, these are the only states (so far) with exemptions that are not explicitly tied to the Native American Church, but rather apply to any member of any “bona fide religious organization” for which Peyote use is “an integral part of the religious exercise” and is done “In a manner not dangerous to public health, safety or morals.” Those quotes are from the Arizona law and according to the Church website the other states have equivalent wordings in their laws.