Ethnopharmacologic Search for Psychoactive Drugs, Volumes I and II, by Dennis McKenna, ed. Santa Fe, NM: Synergetic Press; 2018. Hardcover, 832 pages. ISBN: 978-0907791-68-3. $125.00.
Ethnopharmacologic Search for Psychoactive Drugs is a two-volume compilation of 50 years of research on psychoactive plants and fungi. Volume one contains the proceedings of the first, groundbreaking Ethnopharmacologic Search for Psychoactive Drugs (ESPD) symposium held in 1967. Fifty years later, in 2017, the second ESPD symposium occurred, which covered developments and setbacks in the field during this interval. Volume two, which is the focus of this review, covers the proceedings of the 2017 ESPD symposium.
Prominent experts — including Kenneth Alper, MD; Evgenia Fotiou, PhD; Nigel Gericke, MD; Michael Heinrich, PhD; and Luis Eduardo Luna, PhD; among many others — are featured in this volume, along with individuals with career-long interests in the cultural use of mind-altering plants and fungi across the globe. The book topic likely attracts a wide audience, with greatest appeal to academics and what the text refers to as “underground researchers.” The general public also would find interest in learning about the worldwide diversity of plants and fungi that alter consciousness.
Volume two is divided into four major sections: “Ayahuasca & the Amazon;” “Africa, Australia & Southeast Asia;” “Mexico & Central America;” and “Biosphere.” The “Ayahuasca & the Amazon” section is well-represented, at nearly the length of the “Africa, Australia & Southeast Asia” section, possibly reflecting the editor’s personal and professional experience, as well as the high diversity of plants native to the Amazon. The “Mexico and Central America” section is the shortest, and the “Biosphere” section includes shorter articles that are broad in scope.
The introduction, “What a Long, Strange Trip it’s Been: Reflections on the Ethnopharmacologic Search for Psychoactive Drugs 1967-2017,” provides a social and scientific context for the volume, beginning with a reflection of the psychoactive journey since the first ESPD conference in 1967 and followed by a deconstruction of the “hippie” movement in “A Scientist Looks at Hippies.”
Within the “Ayahuasca & the Amazon” section, “Ayahuasca: A Powerful Epistemological Wildcard in a Complex, Fascinating and Dangerous World” provides an overview of ayahuasca (Banisteriopsis caapi, Malpighiaceae) brew as a traditional spiritual sacrament and a modern mind-altering medicine. “From Beer to Tobacco: A Probable Prehistory of Ayahuasca and Yagé” focuses on many aspects of ayahuasca brew and its admixtures, including those that contain tobacco (Nicotiana spp., Solanaceae). “Plant Use and Shamanic Dietas in Contemporary Ayahuasca Shamanism in Peru” is a personal ethnography of firsthand experience with Peruvian ayahuasca shamanism from the perspective of anthropologist Evgenia Fotiou. “Spiritual Bodies, Plant Teachers and Messenger Molecules in Amazonian Shamanism” explains fascinating shamanic rituals involving ayahuasca admixtures and the diversity of cultural practices among different indigenous groups throughout the Amazon. “Broad Spectrum Roles of Harmine in Ayahuasca” addresses the unique biochemistry of ayahuasca vine, namely its harmine content, and how other components of ayahuasca may demonstrate great potential in treating mental disorders. This section ends with “Viva Schultes — A Retrospective (Keynote),” a touching tribute to the late Professor Richard Evans Schultes, PhD, the father of modern ethnobotany. This article highlights his contributions to furthering the knowledge of Amazonian ethnobotany and psychoactive plants and medicines, while protecting the intellectual property and territories of the indigenous communities he loved.
The “Africa, Australia & Southeast Asia” section reveals the dearth of information on psychoactive species from these areas in comparison to the previous section on ayahuasca and the Amazon.
“Kabbo’s !Kwaiń: The Past, Present and Possible Future of Kanna” provides a comprehensive history of kanna (Sceletium tortuosum, Aizoaceae), a succulent plant from South Africa with potential uses for depression and anxiety. A proprietary kanna extract is now sold globally as Zembrin® (HG&H Pharmaceuticals; Bryanston, South Africa), which contains the active alkaloids mesembrine, mesembrenone, and mesembrenol as serotonin inhibitors. Traditionally, kanna has been used to enhance mood, to increase sense of wellbeing, for its intoxicating and sedative effects, and as a treatment for insomnia and addiction. Notably, Zembrin is also the first documented case of successful prior informed consent with benefits-sharing between an indigenous group and a pharmaceutical company in the commercialization of a traditional psychoactive medicine.
The next chapters address kratom (Mitragyna speciosa, Rubiaceae) from Southeast Asia and ibogaine derived from Tabernanthe iboga (Apocynaceae) roots from West Central Africa as possible treatments for opioid dependence. “Kratom (Mitragyna speciosa) as a Potential Therapy for Opioid Dependence” discusses the controversy surrounding the use of kratom due to the dangers of product contamination, adulteration, or misuse. Kratom is difficult to regulate, as most sales in developed countries currently occur in the online marketplace. The article emphasizes the need for more studies on the phytochemistry and the mechanisms of action. The opioid-like alkaloids (e.g., mitragynine, 7-hydroxymitragynine, corynantheidine) in kratom have the potential to be templates for the creation of new medicines. Human clinical trials could rectify current misinformation about a promising plant that may ameliorate the current opioid addiction crisis.
“The Ibogaine Project: Urban Ethnomedicine for Opioid Use Disorder” shows clinical evidence of ibogaine’s efficacy for opioid detoxification. Traditional use of T. iboga as a spiritual sacrament offers a compelling twist on healing addiction in modern society.
Following these chapters is “Psychoactive Initiation Plant Medicines: Their Role in the Healing and Learning Process of South African and Upper Amazonian Traditional Healers,” a compelling comparison of psychoactive plant rituals essential to shamanic healer initiation in Southern African and Amazonian indigenous traditions. The use of plants as spiritual learning agents here suggests that a neural disruption is necessary for perceptatory change followed by behavioral modifications.
Then, “Psychoactive Australian Acacia Species and their Alkaloids” explores several Australian Acacia species (Fabaceae), which are called wattles in Australia, and their psychoactive constituents are compared to ayahuasca. These psychoactive acacias have diverse traditional medicinal uses: cessation of smoking, pain relief, fish poison, alkaline ash sources for tobacco chewing, and as coffee (Coffea arabica, Rubiaceae) and tea (Camellia sinensis, Theaceae) substitutes. Many discoveries of new alkaloids from the genus Acacia in general, as well as those from native Australian species specifically, are covered. Lastly, the chapter mentions how the commercialization of native Australian acacias for bark extracts exploits vulnerable wild populations.
The section’s keynote, “From ‘There’ to ‘Here’: Psychedelic Natural Products and Their Contributions to Medicinal Chemistry,” discusses the promise of psychoactive plants and fungi in the discovery, creation, and modification of novel, therapeutic, and entheogenic compounds, as well as the gained benefits of understanding the mysteries of human consciousness and neurobiology. This psychedelic natural products compilation combines the science and the sacredness of keystone psychoactive substances and species such as psilocybin (derived from various species, including Psilocybe cubensis, Hymenogastraceae), peyote (Lophophora williamsii, Cactaceae), ergot (Claviceps purpurea, Clavicipitaceae), and ololiuqui (Rivea corymbosa, Convolvulaceae). This portion concludes with a summation of major chemical groupings derived from such species like tryptamines (DMT, 5-MeO-DMT, bufotenine), phenethylamines (mescaline), and ergolines (ergine).
“Mexico & Central America” is the smallest section of all with three articles.
“Fertile Grounds? – Peyote and the Human Reproductive System” focuses on the traditional use of peyote for women’s reproductive issues including childbirth and afterbirth. Traditional uses of peyote in babies and children have been documented and are considered safe. Furthermore, there is a cultural belief that peyote consumption throughout all stages of pregnancy and childbirth aids individuals in attaining healing abilities to eventually become a healer for the people.
“Mescal, Peyote and the Red Bean: A Peculiar Conceptual Collision in Early Modern Ethnobotany” detangles the misidentifications and misconceptions of three formerly confused psychoactive species: maguey (Agave spp., Asparagaceae), peyote, and Texas mountain laurel (Dermatophyllum secundiflorum, Fabaceae).
“Reflections on the Peyote Road with the Native American Church — Visions & Cosmology” is written by an esteemed attorney who has long represented the Native American Church (NAC), Jerry Patchen. Patchen presents a historical overview of peyote use as a religious sacrament by the NAC, which represents many Native American nations, and the long struggle to legalize peyote for religious use. As a non-Native American, he describes his personal experiences with peyote cultural rites as some of the most transformative experiences of his life within this community. The NAC continues to successfully fight for the religious freedom to partake in the ingestion of the holy sacrament peyote.
The final section pertains to the “Biosphere,” which is decidedly broad in scope and composed of articles that did not fit into the other categories.
“Phylogenetic Analysis of Traditional Medicinal Plants: Discovering New Drug Sources from Patterns of Cultural Convergence” describes the field of phylogenetic ethnopharmacology, in which cultural data is merged with analyses of psychoactive plant families in order to predict bioactivities with potential medicinal benefits.
“Ethnopharmacology Meets the Receptorome: Bioprospecting for Psychotherapeutic Medicines in the Amazon Rainforest” reports on Amazonian psychoactive species with potential to treat pressing neurological disorders such as schizophrenia, Alzheimer’s disease, and dementia. Approximately 40% of studied species and their compounds have been shown to exhibit CNS activity in vitro.
“A Preliminary Report on Two Novel Psychoactive Medicines from Northern Mozambique” reports on Aeschynomene cristata (Fabaceae). This is the only known member of this genus that has been reported to possess psychoactive effects, and laboratory studies are pending.
The volume concludes with “Ethnopharmacology: From Mexican Hallucinogen to a Global Transdisciplinary Science,” which attributes Mexican indigenous traditions as early contributors to the social explorations and scientific study of psychoactive drugs and to the field of ethnopharmacology as a whole. The authors suggest Salvia divinorum (Lamiaceae) was the first psychoactive plant that sparked widespread public interest in the topic.
While the fields of ethnopharmacology and ethnobotany have evolved, the original inspiration comes from psychoactive plants and fungi, and this relationship remains valuable throughout time.
—Lan Truong PhD Candidate Biology
The City University of New York
New York, New York