More than a decade after he first discovered the cache in the Cueva del Chileno high in the Bolivian Andes, Jose Capriles of Pennsylvania State University has discovered that a thousand year old pouch found in the cave contains the richest cache of ancient psychedelics ever found in Central America!
In researching my new book “ESCAPING FROM EDEN” I took some time to plumb the rich contents of the Mayan creation myth, recorded in the Popol Vuh. Its narrative of human origins makes perfect sense of this recent find.
The Popol Vuh asserts that when human beings first emerged we enjoyed a greater perceptual field than we do today. In other words we could remote view. We could sense realities we might consider spiritual or other-worldly. We could interact with ancestors and entities belonging to other dimensions. The mythology then claims that these capacities for higher consciousness were then lost – or, rather, deliberately inhibited.
It would make sense that the peoples whose roots were in the culture of that mythos should look for tools and modalities – including botanical ones – to switch those inhibitors off!
On the basis of my research, the stories of the Popol Vuh and psychedelic botanical pursuits are natural partners.
A little more surprising is to find a Christian pastor endorsing the (in moderation) use of psychedelic botanicals. Yet in the USA pot-smoking churches are on the rise. Marijuana and similar botanical substances have been part of the liturgy of community and worship in Rastafarian , First Nation American and Aboriginal Australian communities. However it has shocked many to find a growing band of pastors like Grant Atwell, Steve Meyers and Craig Gross, who extol the benefits of marijuana within the Christian frame.
Craig Gross – Pastor of XXX Church in (of course) California
In the early liturgies of the Eucharist, Christian believers used to praise God weekly “for filling the Earth with plants for food and medicines.” I just wonder if pastors like Atwell, Meyers and Gross may be tapping into a paradigm with some ancient roots even in the heritage of the Christian family.
What was suspected at the time has now been admitted by one of President Nixon’s senior officials – John Ehrlichman. Ehrlichman, Nixon’s senior policy advisor went on record, admitting that the decision to criminalize users of Cannabis in the USA was engineered a means of rounding up the leaders of the Civil Rights and anti- Vietnam movements. He said, “The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. You understand what I’m saying. We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”
“Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”
Senior Policy Advisor to President Nixon – John Ehrlichman
Up to that point there had been a range of evangelical engagement with Hippy culture – think Billy Graham, think the Jesus people. But when the Nixon administration criminalised this particular plant among the many with which God has filled the Earth for foods and medicines it seems a lot of us lined up to support the criminalization. But on what grounds? Surely not those more lately admitted to by John Ehrlichman?
Now that we can see how disastrous that policy has been (just look at the US prison population after this change – in particular after the Reagan-Bush administration introduced mandatory sentencing in 1984) we might want to review our positions on cannabis on a basis that’s more moral, theological, and health-oriented. Unless, that is, we still want to round up anti-war protesters and black rights campaigners!! So with a few question marks I am happy to see pastors like Atwell, Meyers and Gross putting this out there. I hope it helps people and pushes a positive conversation into wider circles.
Many appear to confuse the question of how helpful or unhelpful a drug like cannabis may be with the question of whether anyone who uses it should be criminalized. For instance should the late Olivia Newton John have been criminalized and jailed for what she did?
Olivia Newton John was first diagnosed with breast cancer in 1992. She finally died because of the cancer in 2022 at the age of 73. Yet for most of her thirty-year journey with cancer Olivia looked incredible – healthy and radiant. When asked how for thirty years she had thrived (to use her own word) with cancer, she was very clear: a near vegan diet and the continuous use of Cannabis and Marijuana. I applaud Olivia for her openness in sharing her commitment to this approach and am thankful for the courage her openness gave others to self-medicate in these ways. I have Christian believing friends whose logic would be that Olivia Newton John should have died in jail.
It is often repeated that cannabis is a gateway to other drugs and to mental ill health. After thirty years of continual use of cannabis and marijuana, Olivia Newton John was not mentally ill. And I never heard her dscribed as an addict. Thinking about it soberly, I am not at all convinced that the dangers of cannabis relative to substances like nicotine and alcohol have been rightly represented. I have known far more people whose lives have been ruined by nicotine and alcohol than by cannabis. From my work in U.K. Hospitals I do know that a huge proportion of injury through accidents and violence are driven by alcohol. By contrast I don’t think I have ever seen it through cannabis. I have worked in wards of people suffering amputations and lung disorders through tobacco. Never through cannabis. I am not insisting there are no risks around cannabis use. I am just telling you what I have seen – in abundance – and what I have not seen.
Somehow commonly used and over-used addictive and health-damaging substances (the most prevalent of which is, arguably, processed sugar) are perfectly legal. As I mentioned before the historic reason cannabis was singled out by Nixon had nothing to do with a comparison of its health benefits and dangers against sugar, tobacco and alcohol. It also had nothing to do with cannabis as a “gateway.”
The policy designed with the pure purpose of halting the Civil Rights and anti-Vietnam war movements. The direct line could be seen from cannabis culture to those protest movements based on feelings rooted in an experience of oneness and low anxiety – qualities which make populations very difficult to manage. That the use of cannabis was prevalent among the leaders of those movements was seized upon as a device which could be leveraged for a political purpose. So why did the churches jump on board so readily?
My observations in British hospitals lead me to ask whether the often repeated associations of Cannabis with mental ill-health result from its use in general or
- its excessive use in adolescence
- its excessive use in adulthood, or
- the damage done by drugs used by addicts after they have moved on from Cannabis
- Mike Farrell, Director of the University of New South Wales National Drug and Research Centre of Australia assert that the psychotic risks of cannabis use are in fact “very low.“
- The Australian Alcohol and Drug Foundation does not even list psychotic symptoms as a side effect of cannabis. It claims the greater danger comes from smoking carcinogens in the tobacco it is smoked with.
Let’s be clear: nobody is arguing for excessive consumption of cannabis.
Have we been conned?
It is simply a statement of fact that cannabis was not illegalized for health reasons. How the law has been used in the USA does more than anything else to discredit it. Canada has legalized it. Canberra, Australia has legalized its possession. Now Mexico’s government is considering the legalization of Cannabis (and other drugs) as a way of destroying the criminal trade built on the historically toxic combination of marketability and illegality.
We now know we were cynically conned by the tobacco industry – and the doctors it employed – aso to the health dangers posed by smoking. We now know the sugar industry conned us by publishing fake research about the dangers of foods with natural fats. Is it possible we have also been conned about cannabis? Frankly, it’s hard to get past that Ehrlichman quote that the Nixon administration knew it was “lying about [the dangers of] drugs.” It is difficult to overlook the appalling legacy of the Nixon-Reagan-Bush policy.
No one is arguing for the overuse of cannabis. But our laws illegalize any free use of cannabis. I have yet to hear a single sensible, health, social or theological argument for that.
If you need reassuring, personally, I don’t use cannabis recreationally or medically. Neither do I worship with weed in my faith community. But I have plenty of close friends who do. And I write this because I have heard more than enough of ignorant, self-righteous reactions among people of faith that when considering the legalization of drugs like cannabis. I believe the time is long overdue for a more honest and thoughtful engagement with the subject. We are living through an era where demonizing the other has become the cultural norm in our discussion of ideas. Seekers of truth need to sound a prophetic note by charting a different course.
As to the question of worshipping with weed, phenomenologists of religion have long noted the association of psycho-effective substances with shamanic protocols, the ancient sources of the Bhagavad Gitas and inspirations central to Western thought through the writings of Plato. Indeed Plato openly referenced the psycho-affective kykeon as a key inspiration behind some of his most central concepts. What about the Judaeo-Christian tradition?
Consulting YHWH in the Hebrew Scriptures was rather more like the consulting of other “deities” than we often imagine. Follow the instructions surrounding the ark, the tent of meeting, the anointing of the priests and the composition of holy incense and it is hard to escape the presence of psychedelic emblems such as hybrid creatures (notwithstanding the 2nd Commandment) and the use of cannabis products within the oil poured over the priests and inhaled from the incense.
We are unsurprised when we find these associations in indigenous religions elsewhere in the world and immediately understand that the psycho-affective properties of the substances must be associated with the religion’s associated beliefs and experiences. Those experiences include a profound sense of oneness (think the Peace Pipe among First Nation Americans) contact with the ancestors, discernment of the Dreamtime or the Sidhe (if you were an ancient Celt.)
Is it possible that the pages of the Bible record hints of a similar cultural use of psycho-affective botanicals in Judaeo-Christian heritage? Could it be that Pastors Atwell, Meyers and Gross might be keying into something with theological roots deep in the Bible? Could it be that the cultural roots of Biblical practices lie not a million miles from those of the prehistoric brothers and sisters who left that ancient cache in Cuevo Del Chileno all those years ago?!