Peyote may have medicinal benefits

Experts are debating the benefits, risks of hallucinogenic drugs

PHILADELPHIA — 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.

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.

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.

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.

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