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Drugs altering states of consciousness


As long as humans have existed, they have tried to use or find drugs to create a bond or bridge between the physical life and the invisible spiritual world. In order to create these bonds, drugs alone were not enough. A person with specific gifts was usually chosen to create the interface between the living and the dead. This was the shaman or medicine man/woman. Today around 120 different hallucinogenic plants have been identified world wide. Some of these have very specific properties.

Throughout the human history healers and shamanism have played an important part of human medicine and culture. Through their sometimes ridiculed behaviour, we have managed to perceive a deeper understanding of the psychology beyond cure. We have discovered that healing can occur despite our disbelief and rejection. Shamans of Indian tribes in the Amazons, Dalai Lamas state oracle, the dream walker among the aborigines of Australia or the Swedish “Nåjd” ( in sami noadi – wizard ), generally share the same rites and values. They all claim to be in contact with a different reality. During their healing or practice, they are generally considered to be in an altered state of consciousness. Usually through an initial intense phase of excitation they suddenly faint or dissociate, and experience what Pavlov would have labelled reciprocal inhibition. They suddenly start to speak with a different voice or claim to be in contact with another dimension of spirits or healers.

The ancient Hebrews used meditation with chanting, breathing exercises and fixation on the Hebrew letters of the alphabet that spelled their name for God, to induce an ecstasy state called Kavanah. These ritualistic practices are very similar to auto-hypnosis. In the Talmud, Kavanah implies relaxation, concentration, and correct attention (motivation).

People such as fire-walkers, and priests who use the religious practices of laying on of hands to make people faint to the floor, are using auto-hypnosis to bring about an altered state of consciousness by the use of suggestion and expectation.

Guarani Shaman holding cross and rattle. The cross is a religious symbol that predates the arrival of Christianity. Paraguay

Eastern techniques survived for millennia, practiced through Qi Gong in China and Prana massage in India. In 2,000 BC the father of Chinese medicine, Wong Tai, wrote about the technique involving incantations and ‘the passing of hands’.

The laying on of hands has always been present, although with different contexts. When you are touched by the Queen, you might subconsciously strive for this “healing touch”. Today even doctors and nurses practise the Therapeutic Touch, Kahuna Healing, Reiki, Shiatsu, Prana Healing and Bioplasma Therapy.

The purpose of this paper is to outline some specific drugs that are or have been used in order to achieve altered states of consciousness. We will revisit shamanism in other papers.

Research in to hallucinogens during the 1950s and early 1960s produced around 1000 papers out of more than 40 000 patients. During the 1960s substances like psilocybin, mescaline, and LSD became criminalised in many countries. Despite the medical potential in these drugs, research was abandoned as a consequence of criminalisation2. There is now some evidence to suggest that hallucinogens can be used as psychiatric treatments.

In a study 2012 by Norwegian researchers3, 21 000 users of psychedelics was assessed. LSDmescaline, peyote and psilocybin was associated with a lower risk of mental illness. This raises the question why these drugs are illegal. Further research is absolutely necessary.


This drug also called yagé  is used in South-America, particularly by indigenous Amazonian people. Leaves from shrubs containing dimethyltryptamine (DMT) are mixed with various plants and  Banisteriopsis caapi vine. The latter contains monoamine oxidase inhibitor (MOAI). In psychiatric pharmacologic practise MAO-inhibitors should never be mixed with SSRI (Serotonin Specific Reuptake Inhibitors). Ayahuasca should never be taken together with antidepressants. A wash out period of at least 2 weeks are required. When using the drug people report spiritual awakening and revelations, and access to other spiritual dimensions. Ayahuasca has been widely used by local shamans in South-America.














Cohoba and Yopo

Cohoba, a potent hallucinogen made of ground tree seeds of  cojóba tree (Cojoba arborea) , was the mind-altering substance of choice for Taino “behiques” (shamans). The powder was placed on a special carved pedestal and inhaled through a twin-nasal inhaler such as the Y-shaped pipe (also called Cohoba) below. Yopo (Anadenanthera peregrina) is similar to cohoba and comes from upper Orinoco, Venezuela and adjacent Brazil. The seeds of these trees are roasted gently and then ground into a fine powder which is mixed with the ashes of certain leaves (alkaline substrate).



This drug is associated with intense dissociations and visual hallucinations. The drug (alkaloid) is found in a wide range of rain forest plants like Tabernanthe iboga has been used for centuries in spiritual and shamanistic rituals in Africa. In countries like Gabon, Cameron and Republic of Congo the alkaloid-containing root is used during Bwiti, a spiritual practice. In Western countries the drug is considered addictive and too potent. Ibogaine is considered safe when used against cocaine addictions4 and effective against opioid (heroin) detoxification5. The drug is legal in New Zealand.


                                                                                      Tabernanthe iboga


This drug has been used by anaesthetists to induce sleep. The drug is also used as a painkiller and it has bronchodilating features. The drug has been proved efficient against alcohol addiction and act as an antidepressant6,7. Recent research has shown the drug effective against Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD)8. Ketamine causes mild hallucinations and dissociations (fragmentation of one’s personality).



Lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD)

LSD is a semisynthetic psychedelic drug of the ergoline (alkaloids like ergotamine cause vasoconstrictions of blood arteries) family. The drug seems to cause experiences of altered time and spiritual experiences. LSD  is not addictive and it has an extremely low toxicity compared to its dose. It has shown to be efficient against alcohol misuse9. This drug was synthesised from ergotamine by the Swiss chemist Albert Hoffman 1938. New clinical LSD  experiments in humans started in 2009 for the first time in 35 years. LSD  cause a wide range of effects on the human body as is seen on this illustration.









Mescaline is a naturally occuring alkaloid found in the peyote cactus, (Lophophora williamsii), Peruvian torch (Echinopsis peruviana) and other Cactaceae plant families. Peyote has ~ 30 active ingredients, most of them alkaloids. Like many poisonous plants Peyote is extremely bitter, but indigenous people like Huichol, Tarahumara and numerous others have found that if sundried and eaten whole, Peyote triggers spectacular phenomena within the central nervous system.  This drug has been used for almost 6 000 years by native Indians. In Peru the San Pedro cults have a tradition of preparing decoction as a tea given at night whilst the patient was diagnosed by the shaman. The following morning the patient was sent away high up into the mountain to find healing waters in different lakes11.

Mescaline has been used against depression and alcoholism.  Mescaline causes cross-tolerance with other serotonergic psychedelics such as LSD and psilocybin. The drug causes an altered sense of time, thinking, self-awareness, and with visual colourful experiences. It activate serotonergic serotonin  5-HT2A and 5-HT2C receptors. Mescaline is considered illegal in many countries, but mescaline-containing plants are legal and dried cactus can be bought and sold legally.
















Metylenedioxymethamphetamine (MDMA)

The Esalen Institute in Big Sur, California, USA, surprisingly concluded during a meeting with experts 1985, that the drug’s efficacy and safety was reported to be positive. MDMA or ecstasy was criminalised in most countries under a UN agreement 1985. The drug cause euphoria but also hallucinations by releasing neuro-transmitters like dopamine, norepinephrine and serotonine ( 5-HT2A receptors). MDMA also triggers release of hormones like oxytocin and vasopressin (antidiuretic hormone). All this cause hyperthermia (fever) and can cause dehydration. The drug has been used to retrieve traumatic childhood memories, and a recent study has shown benefits in subjects with Post-Traumatic-Stress-Disorder (PTSD)1.


Metylenedioxymethamphetamine (MDMA)


Mushroom was used by Vikings before battle and fungi and mushrooms have been used for thousands of years as a natural source of hallucinogens. Psilocybin seems effective against OCD, cancer related anxiety, and it improves general mood and anxiety. In a study at John Hopkins School of Medicine 200611, hallucinogen-naive participants reported spiritually significant states, a sustained positive attitude and a change of behaviour observed by community workers. Participants also reported that the psilocybin experience was spiritually one of the most significant events in their lives.

Datura seeds


Datura species are herbaceous, leafy annuals and short-lived perennials which can reach up to 2 m in height. The leaves are alternate, 10–20 cm long and 5–18 cm broad, with a lobed or toothed margin. The flowers are erect or spreading (not pendulous like those of Brugmansia), trumpet-shaped, 5–20 cm long and 4–12 cm broad at the mouth; colours vary from white to yellow, pink, and pale purple. The fruit is a spiny capsule 4–10 cm long and 2–6 cm broad, splitting open when ripe to release the numerous seeds. The seeds disperse freely over pastures, fields and even wasteland locations.


All Datura plants contain tropane alkaloids such as scopolamine and atropine, primarily in their seeds and flowers as well as the roots of certain species such as D. wrightii. Because of the presence of these substances, Datura has been used for centuries in some cultures as a poison. A given plant's toxicity depends on its age, where it is growing, and the local weather conditions. These variations make Datura exceptionally hazardous as a drug.


In some parts of Europe and India, Datura has been a popular poison for suicide and murder. From 1950 to 1965, the State Chemical Laboratories in Agra, India, investigated 2,778 deaths caused by ingesting Datura. A group called Thugs (practicers of thuggee) were devotees of an Indian religious cult made up of robbers and assassins who strangled and/or poisoned their victims in rituals devoted to the Hindu goddess Kali. They were known to employ Datura in many such poisonings, using it also to induce drowsiness or stupefaction, making strangulation easier.


Due to the potent combination of anticholinergic substances it contains, Datura intoxication typically produces effects similar to that of an anticholinergic delirium (usually involving a complete inability to differentiate reality from fantasy); hyperthermiatachycardia; bizarre, and possibly violent behavior; and severe mydriasis (dilated pupils) with resultant painful photophobia that can last several days. Muscle stiffness, urinary retention, temporary paralysis, and confusion is often reported and pronounced amnesia is another commonly reported effect.


In Pharmacology and Abuse of Cocaine, Amphetamines, Ecstasy and Related Designer Drugs, Freye asserts: Few substances have received as many severely negative recreational experience reports as has Datura.


The overwhelming majority of those who describe their use of Datura find their experiences extremely unpleasant both mentally and often physically dangerous. However, anthropologists have found that indigenous groups, with a great deal of experience with and detailed knowledge of Datura, have been known to use Datura spiritually (including the Navajo and especially the Havasupai). Adequate knowledge of Datura's properties is necessary to facilitate a safe experience. The Southern Paiute believe Datura can help locate missing objects. In ancient Mexico, Datura also played an important role in the religion of the Aztecs and the practices of their medicine men and necromancers


Yopo (Anadenanthera peregrina)





Ayahuasca cooking


Many mushrooms contain psilocybin

datura seeds.jpg

Datura seeds

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