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The Stigma Surrounding Hallucinogens Took Root in Western Colonialism

This stigma surrounding hallucinogenic substances has taken many forms since the times of colonialism.

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By Andrew Lepore | United States

For thousands of years, Aboriginal people have been using natural hallucinogenic substances to induce altered states of minds, for spiritual and medicinal purposes. Despite a growing counter culture, and with Western medicine finally starting to recognize the legitimate medical benefits, these substances are still stigmatized by a large part of the population.

Scientific research from recent years showing the ability to treat and even cure ailments From PTSD to addiction to anxiety. Some substances have even been proven to stimulate NeuroGenesis (the growth of brain cells). With promising new research coming out seemingly every day, and the proven benefits for ailments across the board, why are these substances so stigmatized?

A stigma and fear of these substances has existed in the west for hundreds of years, and its roots can be traced all the way back to the colonization of the new world. When the first westerners encountered and conquered the cultures who used these substances as religious ceremonies, the missionaries followed. These missionaries, backed by the power of the state, were attempting to convert the aboriginal people, forcibly if necessary.

They wanted to use religion as a means to corral the various tribes. When the missionaries witnessed the strange rituals undertaken by the locals and heard of their ability to “contact” the gods and dead ancestors through the consumption of substances, they were viewed as heresies and abominations.

The goal of the church also was to be the medium between the individual and god; if the natives believed they could contact the gods simply through the medium of a substance, there would be no need for the church. As the state and the church were intertwined, the interest of the church is the interest of the state; therefore resisting the church was resisting the iron fist of the state.

“Missionaries who followed the explorers into the new world inevitably tried to stamp out local religions and replace them with Christianity. When the Spaniards first encountered Peyote in the new world, they associated it with the aztecs bloody sacrificial rites and called it ‘the devil’s root.’ The holy office of the inquisition enacted the first anti drug policies in the new world, and the use of Peyote was condemned as being superstitious behavior contrary to the Christian beliefs. In attempts to stop use of the Cactus, the Spaniards tortured and killed many natives. Though In some cases, the natives were able to resist the missionaries and some non-christian religions remained.”

Excerpt from The Encyclopedia of Psychoactive Substances: Magic In Bloom

This played out in many theatres across the globe, From North and America to Africa. in most cases, the Missionaries got what they wanted. Thousands of years of accumulated knowledge on native substances were wiped out with the extinction of certain peoples and their culture.

Though some cultures were, at first, either inaccessible to westerners or resisted conversion and the traditional use of these substances continue for them to this day. These are the cultures which have provided us the knowledge on the substances which we now know most about, such as the South American cultures who use Ayahuasca, the African Bwiti tribe who use Iboga, and some Native American religions who use Peyote Cactus.

This stigma surrounding hallucinogenic substances has taken many forms since the times of colonialism. In the early stages of the United States and in the 1800’s, the use of these substances was associated with Native Americans, who at the time were viewed as “savages”.

Aside from conquest, the West had little contact with hallucinogenic substances. This was until the 40s and 50s when there were breakthroughs in the understanding and cultivation of these substances, namely the discovery of the hallucinogenic effects of LSD and isolation of psilocybin from mushrooms.

These discoveries led to the growth of the counterculture 60’s and 70’s that glorified the use of hallucinogens as party drugs, and the substances quickly started becoming associated with hippies, drug abuse, and doing dumb stuff. This added stigma resulted in the sweeping psychedelic bans of the late 60’s when consumption and distribution of many of these substances was made illegal.

The cause of the stigma is no longer due to religious implications, or differences in culture with those we are conquering, but has manifested itself in the form of drug prohibition. Most people don’t know this, but drug prohibition doesn’t just stop people who are using hallucinogens recreationally from getting it, it makes any treatment and most research on the effects on humans illegal. This long-lasting stigma has had a lasting and impacting effect, as even hundreds of years later, mainstream western medicine is only recently coming around the corner to recognize the benefits.

Over the last decades, some amazing abilities of these substances have been coming to light.from their unique ability to stimulate neurogenesis (the growth of the brain cells is cells) and the formation of new neural pathways. To their ability to treat, even to cure addiction. And to their ability to reboot the brain in depressed and anxious people, even to the point of curing PTSD.

With more and more promising research coming out of the woodworks, many are starting to look past the stigma that has surrounded these substances for almost 500 years. The stigma surrounding these substances is not only logically unjustified but morally unjustified, as it has led to the imprisonment of thousands of innocent people simply for the possession of benign substances.

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