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Dennis McKenna Extolls Our Deepening Knowledge of Psychoactive Plants

Dennis McKenna Extolls Our Deepening Knowledge of Psychoactive Plants

Fifty-five years ago, interdisciplinary specialists from around the world came together to share their research on the use of entheogenic plants at a landmark conference titled the Ethnopharmacologic Search For Psychoactive Drugs (ESPD). The findings presented at the gathering were made into a book, a copy of which later fell into the hands of a young science student with an interest in consciousness named Dennis McKenna and helped guide the course of his life.

Although the ESPD symposium was meant to reconvene every ten years, the war on drugs undermined that plan. But McKenna remained inspired. He went on to study botany and conduct extensive fieldwork in the Amazon for his doctoral research on the ethnopharmacology of ayahuasca. For over forty years McKenna has been a vocal advocate for medicinal plants, the Amazon, and the use of psychoactive drugs. In 2018 ​​he founded the McKenna Academy of Natural Philosophy.

This month, the McKenna Academy hosted a 21st century version of the ESPD symposium. In this interview, McKenna discusses ESPD55, current ethnobotanical research and sustainability efforts, and the future of psychedelic medicines. This discussion has been edited for clarity.

Do you think ESPD55 was a success?

I really couldn’t be more pleased. We did a fifty year commemorative symposium in 2017 called ESPD50, which some friends and I put on, but this five year follow-up covered a much broader scope of topics. We also had a larger group this time: 37 presentations covering subjects such as psychedelics in Chinese medicine and Zoroastrianism, and several forums including one devoted entirely to coca, which Wade Davis and Andy Weil spoke on. 

It was all actually quite intense. We had very long days, so we’ll have to be less ambitious next time, but it was a lot of fun and a landmark conference.

Were there any surprises besides presentations going late into the night?

One of the speeches that was outside of the ethnopharmacological focus was by my friend Bruce Damer. He’s a visionary astrobiologist basically, and he has incredible – but very unconventional – theories about the origins of life that are getting a lot of attention. He asserts that a lot of his insights came from combining psychedelics with his own inner visionary state. He can put himself into states of consciousness that are similar to psychedelic states without consuming any substances, so when he combines that internal visionary state with psychedelics, he really gets to some interesting places.

His talk was essentially about combining those different visionary states and using the experiences as instruments for examining nature. They’re like lenses through which you can look at nature and understand processes that are often overlooked, because that is what we are programmed to do, push things into the background. Psychedelics disrupt that, so that in that shifted perspective, you can understand processes in nature that may not be apparent. I thought that was a very good talk.

Wasn’t that his first time revealing that he used psychedelics?

Yes, it was the first time he came out on that.

I enjoyed his talk, as well as Monica Gagliano’s. Both hinted at the need to put the “meta” back into physics. Johns Hopkins was attempting to research the mystical experience a while ago, but then backed away from it a bit, so I’m curious where you think science is currently going with it.

Yeah, they’ve backed away from it a little bit in terms of the way they’re talking about it. They’re not using the words “mystical experience” because that has overtones of religiosity – and God forbid science should get into that – so now they’re talking about “personally meaningful experiences,” which is a much less charged way to look at it. Science is very good at dancing around this issue, but at the end of the day, they’re really talking about mystical experiences.

However, the fact that they are doing this, bringing psychedelics into the laboratory and using them, not only for therapy, but as a tool for understanding consciousness, is very encouraging. I think it’s going to result in paradigm shifts and new understandings of consciousness that will emerge over the next couple decades. Our understanding of consciousness and the mind-brain relationship will change radically, and I even think new technologies such as VR may play a role in this.

Science expelled spirit out the back door 150 years ago, but now it’s going to come storming in the front door and say, “Alright you scientists, what are you going to do about this? How are you going to explain this away?” It’s a fascinating time to be in neuroscience because you have to effectively be a philosopher of science to really understand it, and I’ve always been in favor of that.

Do you see VR as potentially helping the psychedelic movement then? So much attention is given to the metaverse these days, which seems to foster a sense of disembodiment from the world but it seems you think it might help connect us back to ourselves or at least our understanding of ourselves.

Potentially, but I’m not sure. That’s always a safe thing to say. Interestingly, we are working on this herbarium project where we are scanning Amazonian plant specimens and putting them online for the public. But we want to take it to the next level and create a virtual component called “the visionary rainforest,” which would be an immersive environment. The idea is that every herbarium specimen would tell a story about what it is, who collected it and when, its uses if it has any, and so on. We want to integrate all that data, put it in a visual space so that you could fly through a simulation of the rainforest, click on these plants, and learn about them – their collection data, indigenous knowledge, maybe a song or a story about them. It would be a unification of traditional and scientific perspectives.

Like a virtual version of Pharmako/Poeia?

Yeah, exactly. Except related not only to psychoactive plants, but all plants of the rainforest. It’s a part of this larger project the Academy is working on called BioGnosis, which we did a forum on at the conference. The vision is to partner with the University of Iquitos to turn their herbarium collection into a world class resource for Amazonian plant research, which includes developing the digitized version of the herbarium, creating the interactive virtual rainforest we just discussed, and releasing a documentary series about Amazonian ethnomedicine and the position that it occupies among the Amazonian people in the 21st century.

I’ve been working with the curator of the herbarium collection, Luis Eduardo Luna, who also spoke at the conference, for over forty years. He and his colleague, Dale Millard, who is an amazing naturalist and ethnobotanist, have been collaborating on a garden or a repository for these sacred psychoactive plants. They’re basically putting together a living collection. So the herbarium project we’re partnering on will take place in Iquitos, but the ethnobotanical garden will be in Brazil at the Wasiwaska Research Center. I think these two alliances, a living collection and a collection of specimens, is very complimentary.

The idea of all this is to make people realize the value of these plants. Not just monetarily, but culturally and environmentally. These species are essentially in danger because the Amazon is in danger. This project is a way to try to preserve the knowledge, as well as the species, and slow down the changes happening in the Amazon. We’re actually trying to raise $10 million for this, which is a lot of money, but compared to what it costs to buy, say an F35 fighter plane, it’s actually a very small amount. It all depends on how you value things.

Some of the presentations expressed concern about use, cultivation, and reciprocity of entheogens. Do you think sustainability and preservation efforts like BioGnosis can support the wave of interest that’s currently threatening some of these plants with extinction?

Yes, that is definitely a concern. We had two people from the International Center for Ethnobotanical Education, Research, and Service present at the symposium. ICEERS is doing wonderful work, and they basically asked the question, “Can you love something to death?” because they’ve noticed the friends of the plants are starting to become a problem.

These things are getting very popular. Not only are they being over harvested, but it’s putting a lot of pressure on the cultures that are the stewards of these plants, so we have to seek solutions. ICEERS has basically adopted ayahuasca and iboga and is advocating and partnering with others, such as the Indigenous Medicine Conservation Fund, to preserve the knowledge and habitats of these plants.

There’s also the issue of ayahuasca tourism. I’ve participated in the tourism, I’ve helped organize retreats, and I’ve seen people come away from these retreats enormously helped, but we need to find ways to avoid the negative impact that psychedelic tourism is starting to have on indigenous communities. I believe ayahuasca is one of those medicines that can heal the soul of the world, but there’s not enough of it. In the current atmosphere, we can’t possibly produce enough to serve the millions of people that could potentially benefit from it, so we’re trying to support the development of sustainable and fair trade production infrastructures in these indigenous communities. If we can foster the creation of alliances between indigenous villages producing ayahuasca and the admixture plants and communities in the northern hemisphere that want to offer this medicine, that could be the best of both worlds. The indigenous communities would benefit, but they wouldn’t have the disruption of ayahuasca tourism. This would be a long-term project, but it’s something that we’re trying to push forward.

Do you see this as a way to help combat some of the other changes, like deforestation, that are happening in the Amazon?

I’ve been going to Iquitos and South America since 1981. I first went there to do my graduate work, and I often wondered, “What will this look like fifty or a hundred years from now?” Currently, there’s a very short-sighted approach to the so-called development of the Amazon. It’s changing radically in terms of its ecology because vast amounts of it are being burned for monocultures or palm oil plantations. 

But there have been numerous studies that show that if you leave the forest intact and focus on non-timber products, which can be harvested sustainably, then hectare for hectare, they’re worth ten or even 100 times more than timber or soybeans or other products that involve deforestation. Ayahuasca can be part of this sustainability effort, because although it’s not a tree, the vine can attain enormous sizes. A typical old mother plant can weigh three or four tons and be 1500 feet long. We have one of those on the Big Island of Hawaii that I planted in 1976. It’s an enormous plant and truly a mother plant in every sense of the word.

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In the Amazon, these old plants are becoming rarer and rarer. You have to move deeper into the jungle to find them because of overharvesting, and that’s not viable. We need to find ways to cultivate these plants. There’s nothing inferior about cultivated plants, by the way. There is a mindset that the old ones are better, but there’s no scientific data that really supports that. So, communities have to collaborate. Ayahuasca is in a unique place because you can’t really develop it the way you can psilocybin for example, which is another very promising psychedelic that could potentially heal millions of people. But production is no issue, you can easily grow mushrooms by the ton. Ayahuasca is more difficult to grow, but it is a plant that could benefit the world.

I often say that these things are medicines for the individual soul as well as the collective soul and ultimately, the soul of the planet, so we have to find ethical ways to bring those forth to the people. That is part of the mission of the McKenna Academy and there are many other organizations like ICEERS that share that mission.

Wade Davis said in his closing speech that the psychedelic movement isn’t about science or indulgence, it’s about the transformation of the human spirit. Do you feel that psychedelics are helping to bridge the gap between medical science and the human spirit?

I think that in general, psychedelics are the challenge for medicine here because medicine has been trying to exorcise spirit out of the practice for over a hundred years. Cartesian dualism left us with the conclusion that we’re just complex machines. It’s all just chemistry. There is no spirit. If you apply the right monkey wrench, you can fix the machine. That’s how medicine has viewed pharmacotherapy for so long. Then along come psychedelics, which have always been around but not really used in a medical context, and now medicine is getting interested in them. Psychedelics are basically medicines for the spirit, so these are soul medicines that science is adopting and using, but it challenges a lot of assumptions that there is no life force or soul or anything of that sort. In the end, it’s an illustration of how little we know about consciousness and how little we know about the mind-brain interface.

For example, does the mind create consciousness or the brain? We know that the mind and the brain are intimately related, but there’s controversy over what generates consciousness. Maybe the brain is an antenna as much as it is a generator. We know if we look at a TV, miniature people aren’t running around inside that box. It’s a signal coming from outside. Psychedelic experiences and consciousness in general may be something like that, where the brain taps into some field of consciousness. These are the hard problems of consciousness research.

So this whole Cartesian dualism that we’re faced with, with its artificial separation, isn’t really reflective of reality. Psychedelics have disrupted that whole notion. They make you aware of the impoverishment of that duality, but it doesn’t make it any less complex. I mean, what does it mean to say we are all one, or it’s all one, we’re not separate from the cosmos? And what are the implications of that in terms of our understanding? I’m finding panpsychism pretty appealing as an explanatory model. I think that idea has merit, that consciousness or mind, or however you want to characterize it, is really a fundamental component of reality at every level, the most complex and the least complex. Even electrons are conscious in some sense.

Was there anything that gave you hope for the future or that you would like readers to know?

What gives me hope for the future, as always, is the enthusiasm of young people. One of our forums was for emerging investigators, younger investigators that are doing really interesting work. I have great faith in the younger generation. I’m an old fogey. I won’t be here much longer…well, hopefully I’ll be here long enough to stir up trouble, but young people have to lead the charge, and I have great hopes that they will do that.

During the symposium, the McKenna Academy recognized a few people for their work. One person was Giuliana Furci who founded Fungi Foundation. She’s doing amazing work with fungi and actually went to the UN on behalf of fungi saying that they need a place at the table as much as plants because they’re just as important to the biosphere.

We are in a very critical situation with the biosphere, with the collapse of ecosystems and so on. I mean, the earth is going to survive, but civilization may not. We can look back at the history of life on this planet and look at eras where things were much worse than they are now, but the planet always pulled through. There were times where 90% of life on earth went extinct, but that opened up an era where new species then proliferated and flourished, and life became more diverse. That’s the way life works.

So we have to realize that we are part of the solution, but we aren’t the entire solution. The rest of the earth, what you can call the community of sentient species on the planet, understands the situation that we’re in. We’re not alone in this. The planet will respond itself, so it’s not a useful message to say the situation is hopeless. It’s not hopeless, but it’s going to change. It will change radically, but, you know, that’s what life does. My father always said, “Where there’s life there’s hope.” Life is very clever, so I think we have to avoid the temptation to give up. I think there’s a lot of reason to be hopeful.

Will people be able to view the presentations online now that the conference is over?

Yes, all the talks are available and online at espd55.com. We will be opening up registration at no cost. There will be an option to make a donation if anyone would like to support the projects mentioned above, but access to videos will be free. We also plan to publish a book on the findings like we did with the previous conference.

Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that ICEERS was working to develop sustainable supply chain infrastructures for iboga and ayahuasca.

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