Posted on in Healthy Living by Leo Raderman

A Psychedelic Medicine?

Michael Pollan’s How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence marks a watershed moment for so-called psychedelic medicine.

As the book shot to #4 on the New York Times nonfiction list, the best-selling author’s treatise on psychedelics stoked an emerging cultural conversation about these substances to a level not seen since the 1960s. With a flash that began with his NYT Opinion piece, “My Adventures with the Trip Doctors,” Pollan has shed light onto a nascent psychedelic renaissance that encompasses intentions, understandings, and practices so widely varied as to include bureaucrats in Silver Spring, Maryland (home to the Federal Drug Administration), and shamanic elders in the Amazonian jungle alike.

The question now being explored is Can currently illegal psychoactive agents such as MDMA, psilocybin, ibogaine, LSD, ayahuasca, and 5-MEO-DMT be used to facilitate psycho-spiritual healing, especially where traditional pharmaceuticals have failed? The search for answers may demand an uncommon convergence of tradition and science, subjective experience and objective data, patient-initiated self-healing and doctor-prescribed treatments.

Most participants in this renaissance—individuals choosing of their own accord to seek healing through psychedelics—approach them from the vantage point of tradition. More specifically, they experience psychedelics within the tradition of shamanism, which understands them to be sacred medicine, activating spirits and energies within and without.

For example, there is a trend of discreet ayahuasca ceremonies taking place around the San Francisco Bay Area and other major cities. At such ceremonies, would be “psychonauts” step into a cultural framework and belief system that holds that certain plants, when ingested, imbue the psychonaut with their particular intelligence and healing potency. The skilled shaman, working within a ceremonial context—often with specific forms of music and sound—assists the plant’s intelligence with his or her own knowing, while calling upon the guidance of other varied spirits, be they human (ancestral), animal, or plant.


Kathleen Harrison, a sacramental medicine elder, writes in Cannabis and Spirituality: An Explorer’s Guide to an Ancient Plant Spirit Ally, “Western culture has rediscovered shamanism as a model, and the concept of plants as a kind of conscious ‘people’ has been revived. Some refer to the soul of the plant, and others to the persona or personality that the species seems to present. This has especially been adopted, or experienced, in the case of powerful psychedelic species.”

It would be more precise to say that a still relatively small slice of Western culture has rediscovered shamanism. From the perspective of mainstream medicine, those participating in the shamanic use of psychedelic medicine indulge in varied kinds of risk, notably, the possibility of having difficult psychological experiences, as well as the risks associated with skirting U.S. laws.

Pollan faced these risks head on in his journalistic and personal exploration, beginning his journey as something of a fearful skeptic and emerging as, if not quite a hopeful evangelist, then at least a vocal advocate for further study. If psychedelic medicine is to become mainstream, it must be made legal. And if it is to be made legal, it must be proven not only effective but also reliable. This is where the cultural convergence begins.

While indigenous shamanic tradition holds vast experience with sacred plant medicines, it is the gathering of data by science that holds the key to widespread adoption. We rely on science to answer critical questions such as How do psychedelics work on our biological systems? What do they do to our brain chemistry? Do they consistently provide relief from particular kinds of mental anguish? And most importantly, Are they safe?

In the last decade, researchers at major universities across the world have stepped up the inquiry into these questions, utilizing imaging technologies like MRI to discern the effect of psychedelics on brain activity, and exploring the use of various psychedelics as treatment for depression, anxiety, addiction, and more. The Santa Cruz-based nonprofit MAPS (the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies) has successfully been leading the charge to gain FDA approval of MDMA for the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder. Similarly, the privately owned British company Compass Pathways is pursuing the use of psilocybin to treat depression. If these organizations succeed, we could see doctors prescribing these substances to select patient populations within the next few years.

As legal research on psychedelics and efforts toward their legalization move forward, an important question goes not only unanswered, but also for the most part unasked: Can cannabis, the most prevalent and by far most popular form of plant medicine (already legal for medical use in 32 states and fully decriminalized in 11) be considered a psychedelic? During a recent Harvard Medical School panel called “Psychedelic Medicine: From Tradition to Science,” Rick Doblin, the founder and executive director of MAPS, answered with an unequivocal yes, saying, “I believe cannabis is a psychedelic.”

Doblin is not alone in his understanding that cannabis has “mind-manifesting” properties similar to, if not as extreme as, those of other plants сarrying the psychedelic moniker. It has a long history of use as a sacred medicine in other cultures. Chris Bennett, a cannabis scholar, writes in Cannabis and Spirituality that the “Chinese pharmacopeia RhYa, compiled in the fifteenth century BCE, contains the earliest reference to cannabis for shamanistic purposes.” Bennet goes on to detail references to the spiritual use of cannabis during the formative eras of Taoism, Hinduism, and Tantric Buddhism. To this day, he notes, “It is in current religious use among indigenous peoples in the Americas, including the Tepecanos of Northwestern Mexico, who call it Rosa Maria and occasionally use it as a substitute for peyote in their religious rituals.”

In the United States cannabis has a long history of (illegal) recreational use. Recently it has been recognized as having potential medicinal value in the treatment of specific conditions ranging from chronic pain to anxiety disorders. A third approach remains largely unexplored, as in the United States today, the spiritual, shamanistic use of cannabis is all but lost: We now have an opportunity to re-sacralize cannabis, to partake of it as sacred medicine, as a psychedelic medicine.

The eminent psychiatrist Stanislav Grof, an early pioneer in psychedelic research and a founder of Transpersonal Psychology, coined the term “holotropic” to reference a subset of experiences in expanded states of consciousness. In holotropic states Grof observes an “inner healing intelligence” emerges that guides us “toward wholeness.” With regard to using psychedelic medicine to elicit holotropic states, Grof strongly emphasizes the importance of 1) prior-to-experience preparation, 2) the process of the experience itself, and 3) the postexperience integration conducted afterward.

Taken in the context of cannabis, one can smoke a joint to help offset the monotony of a routine task, enhance the thrill of playing video games, or add to the exuberance of live music at a concert. Such uses are unlikely to engender holotropic experiences, but smoking the same joint with a healing intention, within a well-held ceremonial space, very well might.

Grof’s counsel on the importance of preparation, process, and integration should not be underestimated—they promote beneficial experience, while helping to abate the potential of the kinds of psychologically trying incidents that some people report when using cannabis. Cannabis as psychedelic medicine, like all plant medicines, is both most powerful and safest when used with an experienced guide holding space.

Sound healing is an increasingly popular modality of deep listening and delivery of vibrationally appropriate music and sound. When buttressed with the holotropic practices designed by Grof to keep safe people entering expanded states of consciousness, it offers an opportunity to explore cannabis in a contemporary ceremonial space. In my personal experience with ceremonies combining the elements of community, intentionally crafted music and sound, and cannabis, participants frequently report deep healing experiences.

Those who facilitate the use of cannabis within a ceremonial, shamanistic, or neo-shamanistic framework are contributing to a cohering narrative begun by indigenous cultures that paints a picture of the soul of the plant. They understand that cannabis has the potential to help people process and clear heavy or negative energy, and experience a deeper sense of connection to themselves, others, and in many cases, Spirit itself. They know cannabis is capable of acting as potent medicine for healing and transformation. And of course they counsel prudence as regards frequency and dosage—too much of either generally not being a good thing.

Given that the plant now can often be found legally in many of the US states (federal law notwithstanding), the re-sacralization of cannabis represents an important opportunity worthy of deeper investigation as we move further into an expanding psychedelic renaissance, pursuing effective, safe, and accessible psychedelic medicine.

Leo Raderman is the co-founder and CEO of The Gift Psychedelic Society TheGift.Works, a global community advancing the research, understanding, and safe and legal practice of psychedelic medicine and other integrative holotropic therapies. He also is founder of The Sonic Shamanic, conducting sound and medicine ceremonies with the intent of promoting healing and transformation.

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