Testimony of the Council on Spiritual Practices
[Error Creating Counter File -- Click for more info]
by Robert Jesse
an earlier version of which was presented to the
Committee on Drugs and the Law of the Association of the
Bar of the City of New York, 10 October 1995
The Council on Spiritual Practices
is concerned primarily with religious experience
and only secondarily with plants and chemicals or policies towards them.
The drug laws, by contrast, and the agencies that enforce them,
are concerned mostly with the substances
and little with the religious uses to which some are put.
I invite you to consider the impact that the drug laws inadvertently have
on the free exercise of religion,
affecting people for whom certain prohibited substances are
an essential feature of their spiritual practices. That impact
effectively constitutes religious persecution, even though most of the people
conducting it have no desire to persecute and no idea that they are doing
The substances of interest here are those known in the medical
community as hallucinogens and elsewhere as the psychedelics.
These drugs are sharply dissimilar from drugs such as cocaine and heroin;
several of them have been shown to be very low in addiction potential
and overdose risk (Gable 1993), and to be of very low organic toxicity.
The risks of injurious behavior and of psychological harm from the
altered-consciousness experience, which are not negligible in
unsupervised casual use, appear to be minimized when they are used
in ritual settings (Cohen 1960; Strassman 1984). It is
the ability of these substances to catalyze religious experience that is of
interest to CSP;
to emphasize this, we use the word entheogen, coined
from Greek roots signifying "to realize the divine within" (Ott
1993:103-105), to describe them when used for spiritual purposes.
For as long as we know of, there have been at least a few people in every
culture, the mystics and the saints, who were able through prayer,
meditation, or other techniques to bring upon themselves mystical states of
consciousness (James 1902), also called primary religious experience.
In some cultures, this direct experience of the sacred was
available to everyone, or to members of special bodies of initiates,
through the sacramental use of psychoactive plants and preparations.
There is now substantial evidence that the Eleusinian Mystery rites,
performed annually near Athens for almost two thousand years,
featured a mystical revelation brought on
by the drinking of an entheogenic brew (Wasson et al. 1978).
The Sanskrit Rg Veda,
one of the oldest religious texts known,
praises a mind-altering substance called soma,
which Wasson (1968) identified
as the psychoactive mushroom Amanita muscaria.
Both in the New World and in the Old, ritual use has long been made of
another class of potentially entheogenic mushrooms:
those containing psilocybin.
In Mesoamerica, the entheogenic cactus peyote was used
in spiritual practices as early as 300 B.C.
To this day, indigenous peoples in Russia, Africa, Mexico, South
America, and North America, including an estimated 250,000 to 400,000
American Indians in the U.S. (Franklin and Patchen 1994), use a variety of
psychoactive sacramentals classified as Schedule I controlled substances in the
United States. I will return to the Native Americans presently.
Over the last century, as Western ethnobotanists rediscovered some of the
traditional sacramental substances and as chemists isolated their active
principles, this knowledge slowly circulated among the intelligentsia.
Aldous Huxley took mescaline,
the principal psychoactive component of peyote, in 1953 and
described his awakening experience in The Doors of Perception.
By that time, another wave had been set in motion. In 1943, Albert Hofmann
(1983) discovered the psychoactivity of LSD. Within a few decades, potent
chemical means for facilitating primary religious experience were within easy
reach of many people. It must be acknowledged that probably most
contemporary users of hallucinogens take them with no explicit ritual
surround or spiritual intention, though even then, the fire from heaven has
sometimes been known to descend unbidden.
The religious import of the entheogens is confirmed in accounts by and
of religious leaders and members of traditional entheogen-using cultures
(Furst 1972, 1976; Schultes and Hofmann 1979; Dobkin de Rios 1984).
This spiritual significance is corroborated by the accounts of scores
of Western authorities (Metzner 1968; Roberts and Hruby 1995),
including physician and church founder John Aiken (1970);
Walter Houston Clark (1969), professor of psychology of religion at
Andover Newton Theological Seminary; Harvard theologian Harvey Cox (1977);
retired MIT theologian and scholar of comparative religion Huston Smith
(1964, 1992); Jesuit scholar David Toolan (1987); and David M. Wulff,
professor of psychology of religion at Wheaton College (1991). A landmark
scientific study, the "Good Friday Experiment" conducted under the
sponsorship of Harvard University by physician and minister Walter Pahnke in
1962, also strongly supports the thesis that the entheogens facilitate
mystical consciousness and are compatible with Christian worship (Pahnke
1963; Pahnke and Richards 1969; Doblin 1991).
In the religious persecutions of the European early modern age, whether the
struggle was Catholic against Lutheran, Calvinist against Anabaptist, or
Anglican against Unitarian, the central issues tended to concern the efficacy
of various sacraments. The same issue has resurfaced in the suppression of
entheogenic practices. It's not surprising that people take very seriously
disagreements about what can actually bring them closer to the divine.
But Americans decided two centuries ago that such arguments are too important
to be settled by force or by majority vote (Madison 1787).
They are best left to the decisions of spiritual communities
or to the individual conscience.
The First Amendment and a variety of statutes, administrative practices, and
judicial decisions all protect religious freedom in this country. The
fundamental principles of that corpus of law are that 1) the state may not
treat any particular religion preferentially and that 2) you can live your
religious life pretty much as you choose so long as you don't infringe the
rights of others or interfere too much with state interests.
The entheogens present a complex problem for those who want to make good on
our nation's promise of religious liberty. The classical form of religious
persecution involves banning certain activities expressly because of their
religious intent or content. That kind of persecution is relatively easy to
identify and remedy. With entheogens, the present burden on religion comes in
the form of a general ban on substances that are sometimes used spiritually
and sometimes not. To relieve the burden, an exemption must be granted from
the laws of general applicability that impose the burden.
Native American Use of Peyote
This complex problem has been thoroughly explored in the instance of the
Native American sacramental use of peyote. As the peyote religion spread
among tribes in the U.S. in the late 1800s, it was met with explicit
government persecution in the form of rules forbidding Indian use of peyote
and, for example, "old heathenish dances." Since then, numerous
contradictory federal and state legislative, regulatory, enforcement, and
court actions have variously supported and denied Indian use of peyote
(Peregoy et al. 1995).
The most prominent failure to accommodate this religious practice was
the 1990 Supreme Court decision in Employment Division v. Smith,,
which held that the First Amendment does not protect
the religious use of peyote by Native Americans.
The court reached its decision by changing prior standards
to make it much harder to get relief from laws of
general applicability that burden religious activity. A broad coalition of
religious bodies responded swiftly by advocating new federal legislation,
leading to the enactment of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993
(PL 103-141; Carmella 1995). Finally, in 1994, the Federal
government enacted the American Indian Religious Freedom Act Amendments
(PL 103-344), providing consistent protection across all fifty states
for the traditional, ceremonial use of peyote by American Indians.
What price, if any, does society pay for the granting of this religious
liberty? The House of Representatives Committee on Natural Resources
reported recently that "Medical evidence, based on the opinion of
scientists and other experts, including medical doctors and anthropologists,
is that peyote is not injurious;" (HR 103-675 1994:7).
Indeed, with a long history of use and several hundred thousand people
currently active in the Native American Church, the incidence of
peyote-related harm appears to be vanishingly small (Bergman 1971).
What is more, the Committee also reported that "Spiritual and social
support provided by the Native American Church has been effective in
combating the tragic effects of alcoholism among the Native American
Accommodating Other Entheogen Practices
So U.S. law now accommodates one racial group practicing one religion using
one controlled substance. Yet there are also non-Indian religious groups and
individuals in this country for whom entheogens play a central sacramental
role. They are less well-known at least in part because, in the absence of
protections, their worship potentially subjects them to fines, forfeitures,
and imprisonment. How could we respond to a non-Indian group that wishes to
use peyote in its religious practices? Or to a group that wants to use some
other plant or chemical for similar purposes?
It is possible to hold the view that people ought to be permitted to use some
controlled substances for religious purposes without holding the libertarian
view that everyone ought to be able to use any drug for any purpose.
On a more practical level, you can believe that it is safe for people
to take peyote and therefore to permit peyote taking,
without also believing that another drug is safe and should be available.
Thus, the right to free exercise of religion could be honored by granting
narrow exemptions for the use of only some substances in carefully
circumscribed religious contexts. Such exemptions would support the
anti-drug-abuse objectives of the current drug laws. If a religious group
without a demonstrated safety record were to seek an exemption, Government
might reasonably ask a number of questions, for example:
One accommodation mechanism would be to allow applicants to document
their proposed entheogen use and, if they satisfy reasonable
safety requirements, receive an exemption. This could be done at the
denominational level or by licensing qualified "entheogen practitioners," who
would then serve spiritual communities or individuals. Licensees would grow
or obtain, store, and be accountable for the supervised use of the authorized
substances. Simple reporting requirements would allow government to monitor
the prevalence and safety of entheogen use and to make policy adjustments as
- Is the group working with a substance of reasonable safety?
- Does it draw a reasonably sharp line between ritual and recreational
- How is informed consent obtained?
- What safeguards does it incorporate in its practices to protect
- What is its policy regarding minors?
These are very important details calling for careful thought,
but they are details.
The main question we ask you to consider is whether the current
laws, which forbid all Americans except Indians to use scheduled psychoactive
sacramentals, are justifiable in light of Constitutional traditions and a
realistic assessment of the risks associated with the entheogens.
Quotes Without Comment
I have argued that every human being is born with an innate drive to
experience altered states of consciousness periodically -- in particular to
learn how to get away from ordinary ego-centered consciousness. I have also
explained my intuition that this drive is a most important factor in our
evolution, both as individuals and as a species. Nonordinary experiences are
vital to us because they are expressions of our unconscious minds, and the
integration of conscious and unconscious experience is the key to life,
health, and spiritual development, and fullest use of our nervous systems.
-- Andrew Weil, M.D. The Natural Mind. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1972,
"There is evidence that spirituality is an element in recovery from
addiction," said Dr. William Miller, research director for the Center on
Alcoholism, Substance Abuse and Addiction at the University of New Mexico.
Dr. Miller cited data on how AA members who make strong commitments to the
spiritual basis of the program gain sufficient "meaning in life" to displace
the need for alcohol.
AA founder Bill Wilson, an alcoholic himself, started the movement after
being freed from alcohol craving by a sudden religious experience one day in
the 1930s in New York.
-- Larry Witham. Physicians Research Religious Ecstasy as Cure for Addicts.
The Washington Times, Sunday 23 April 1995, p A3.
Bill [Wilson, founder of A.A.] first took LSD... [on] August 29, 1956....
Bill was enthusiastic about his experience; he felt it helped him eliminate
many barriers erected by the self, or ego, that stand in the way of one's
direct experience of the cosmos and of God. He thought he might have found
something that could make a big difference to the lives of many who still
suffered. (p 371)
-- Alcoholics Anonymous. Pass It On: The story of Bill Wilson and How
the A.A. Message Reached the World. New York: Alcoholics Anonymous World
We are aware of man's fallibility and will be protected in our studies by
that understanding and recognition of the First Cause of all created things
and the laws that govern them.
We therefore approach the study of these psychodelics [sic] and their
influence in the mind of man anxious to discover whatever attributes they
possess, respectfully evaluating their proper place in the Divine Economy.
We humbly ask Our Heavenly Mother the Virgin Mary, help of all who call upon
Her to aid us to know and understand the true qualities of these
psychodelics, the full capacities of man's noblest faculties and according to
God's laws to use them for the benefit of mankind here and in
-- Monsignor J. E. Brown. Introduction to LSD Experience (letter).
Vancouver: Cathedral of the Holy Rosary, Archdiocese of British Columbia, 8
Aiken, John W. 1970. The Church of the Awakening. In Bernard Aaronson and
Humphry Osmond, eds., Psychedelics: The Uses and Implications of
Hallucinogenic Drugs. New York: Anchor Books.
Bergman Robert L. 1971. Navajo peyote use: its apparent safety.
American J. Psychiatry 128(6):695-699.
Carmella, Angela C. 1995. The Religious Freedom Restoration Act.
Religion & Values in Public Life 3(2), Cambridge, MA: Harvard Divinity
School, Winter 1995.
Clark, Walter Houston. 1969. Chemical Ecstasy. New York: Sheed &
Cohen, Sidney. 1960. Lysergic Acid Diethylamide: Side Effects and
Complications. J. Nervous and Mental Disease 130(1).
Cox, Harvey. 1977. Turning East: The Promise and Peril of the New
Orientalism. New York: Simon and Shuster.
Dobkin de Rios, Marlene. 1984. Hallucinogens: Cross-cultural
Perspectives. University of New Mexico Press.
Doblin, Rick. 1991. Pahnke's "Good Friday Experiment": A Long-Term
Follow-Up and Methodological Critique. J. Transpersonal Psychology
Franklin, Virgil and Jerry D. Patchen. 1994. The Jurisprudence of Peyote in
the United States. The Entheogen Law Reporter, ISSN 1074-8040, Winter
Furst, Peter T. 1972. Flesh of the Gods: The Ritual Use of
Hallucinogens. Prospect Heights, IL: Waveland Press, reissued 1990.
Furst, Peter T. 1976. Hallucinogens and Culture. Novato, CA:
Chandler & Sharp.
Gable, Robert S. 1993. Toward a Comparative Overview of Dependence
Potential and Acute Toxicity of Psychoactive Substances Used Nonmedically.
Am. J. Drug and Alcohol Abuse 19(3), pp. 263-281.
Hofmann, Albert. 1983. LSD: My Problem Child. Los Angeles: J. P.
House of Representatives, Committee on Natural Resources. American Indian
Religious Freedom Act Amendments of 1994 (report). HR 103-675.
Huxley, Aldous. 1954. The Doors of Perception. London: Chatto &
James, William. 1902. The Varieties of Religious Experience.
Madison, James. (1787). Federalist No. 10. In Clinton Rossiter, ed., The
Metzner, Ralph, ed. 1968. The Ecstatic Adventure. New York:
Ott, Jonathan. 1993. Pharmacotheon. Kennewick, WA: Natural Products
Pahnke, Walter Norman. 1963. Drugs and Mysticism: An Analysis of the
Relationship between Psychedelic Drugs and the Mystical Consciousness
(doctoral dissertation). Cambridge: Harvard University.
Pahnke, Walter N. and William A. Richards. 1969. Implications of LSD and
experimental mysticism. J. Transpersonal Psychology 1(2), Fall
Peregoy, Robert M., Walter R. Echo-Hawk and James Botsford. 1995. Congress
Overturns Supreme Court's Peyote Ruling. NARF Legal Review 20(1),
Boulder, CO: Native American Rights Fund.
Roberts, Thomas B. and Paula Jo Hruby. 1995. Religion and Psychoactive
Sacraments: A Bibliographic Guide. San Francisco: Council on Spiritual
Schultes, Richard Evans and Albert Hofmann. 1979. Plants of the
Gods. New York: McGraw-Hill.
Smith, Huston. 1964. Do Drugs Have Religious Import? The Journal of
Smith, Huston. 1992. Forgotten Truth: The Common Vision of the World's
Religions. Harper San Francisco.
Strassman, Rick J. 1984 Adverse Reactions to Psychedelic Drugs: A Review
of the Literature. J. Nervous and Mental Disease 172(10):577-595.
Toolan, David. 1987. Facing West from California Shores: A Jesuit's
Journey into New Age Consciousness. New York: Crossroad.
Wasson, R. Gordon 1968. Soma: Divine Mushroom of Immortality. New
York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.
Wasson, R. Gordon, Carl A. P. Ruck, and Albert Hofmann. 1978. The Road
to Eleusis. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.
Watts, Alan. 1962. The Joyous Cosmology: Adventures in the Chemistry of
Consciousness. New York: Pantheon.
Wulff, David M. 1991. Psychology of Religion: Classic and Contemporary
Views. New York: John Wiley & Sons.
Copyright © 1997 by the Council on Spiritual Practices
Published in Entheogens and the Future of Religion, R. Forte, Editor.
San Francisco: CSP 1997.