||Entheobotany Seminar, Palenque, Mexico
Luc Sala: Food of the Gods. The substances that all through the ages have helped us alter our awareness, our perception of reality. Terence McKenna is a writer, a speaker and, in fact, an activist, and -- what’s your feeling when I say 'drugs'?
Terence McKenna: Well, 'drugs' is a word which has polluted the well of language. Part of the reason we have a drug problem is because we don’t have an intelligent language to talk about substances, plants, psychedelic states of mind, sedative states of mind, states of, uh, amphetamine excitation. We can’t make sense of the problem and the opportunities offered by substances unless we clean up our language. 'Drugs' is a word that’s been used by governments to make it impossible to think creatively about the problem of substances and abuse and availability and so forth and so on.
Luc: In the minds of the people, the word ‘drugs’ which was once used as ‘healing medications’ and still drug companies that make, I don’t know, Tylenol, are considered very legitimate, yet …
Terence: Well so, it’s a kind of a paradox, isn’t it? ‘Drugs’ means that which cures us and the greatest social problem of the generation. So there, right there, you see schizophrenia involved in thinking about drugs. Apparently, there are ‘good’ drugs, sanctioned by science and medicine, and ‘bad’ drugs, uh, used by brown people in strange rites and growing in unusual plants in distant parts of the world. Uh, this kind of thinking – because it’s naïve – leads of course to social problems and bad politics and bad social policy.
Luc: Your stance has been to, at least, look for what you call those strange plants and strange substances in strange places you have been. You originally were a botanist, or you still are?
Terence: Yes, and from the time I was very young I was fascinated with the idea of extremely dramatic changes in consciousness, from which one recovers after a few hours, induced by plants. And I discovered through the writing of Aldous Huxley and other people that this was a world-wide religious and cultural phenomenon that my own Catholic middle-class upbringing had, uh, had completely overlooked and denied. And I’ve been fascinated with it ever since. You know, it’s a bit like sexuality: It’s something which the Calvinist intellect would just prefer didn’t exist but, in fact, the phenomenon of being human beings in animal bodies with a relationship to nature makes it important for us to address these altered states of consciousness and the plants, the substances, and the cultural institutions that come into being around these things.
Luc: Your thesis in many books has been that these substances have had a far greater influence on culture and still have, and will have, than most people would like to accept or like to see.
Terence: Yes. I mean, to my mind, human history is the story of one substance after another distorting or transforming human values and society. A perfect example would be sugar. Most people don’t even think of sugar as a drug and yet, we may think that cocaine distorted moral and political values in Latin America, but sugar brought back slavery. Slavery actually died with the Roman Empire. Nobody worked agricultural products with slaves in the Middle Ages. It wasn’t until, uh, the early 1400s that the Portuguese began producing sugar and they used up Jews and prisoners and so then they started buying human beings from African -- from Arab traders. And the pope was in on the deal and everybody was in on the deal. I mean this is drug corruption of the central institutions of society on a massive scale. Uh...
Luc: But, that has gone on ‘til our days. We have alcohol, we have tobacco.
Terence: Well, this is my very point, that every society chooses a small number of substances – no matter how toxic – and enshrines them in its cultural values then demonizes all other substances and uses -- and then persecutes and launches witch hunts against those users whenever some political pretext requires witch hunts and persecutions. So, it’s an old game and it’s been played in many places. Hopefully, part of the advancement of society toward ideas of universal human rights and that sort of thing, it certainly must include the idea of the universal human right to take responsibility for and to alter your own state of consciousness as you see fit. Uh, I don’t think we can even pretend that we are on the edge of a civilized dialogue until we grant that people’s minds – like their bodies – must be a domain free from government control. In American law, we have the notion of ‘life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.’ If the pursuit of happiness means anything, it must mean the right to use and experiment with substances and plants.
Luc: But do we need, say, more research or do we know all we need to know about entheogens or hallucinogens?
Terence: No, no. We need endless amounts of research. The fact that these things have been illegal in most countries for fifty years means there is a huge lag in understanding the impact of these things on human beings. How many people have taken MDMA? And yet, MDMA has not been thoroughly studied by science. How many people have smoked DMT? Same thing. In a way, by making these drugs illegal, we’re setting ourselves up for a potential catastrophe someday, when some side-effect is overlooked because the drugs were not rationally reviewed with an eye – not toward keeping them out of the hands of the public – but with an eye toward public safety and educating the public in safe use of these things. We -- the state should not in the matter of drugs, anymore than in the matter of sex, act as the secret agent for the agenda of the Church. And that’s what’s happening. People want to stimulate themselves. They want to explore their consciousness. They want to sedate themselves. Who are we to stand in their way with a moral ideology, uh, and the long heavy arm of the law to interfere with that. It distorts civilized values? That’s the bottom line: drug repression, uh, distorts civilized values and political discourse.
Luc: Many people emphasize that the bad effects of using, I don’t know, LSD, DMT. Do you think there are positive effects, in general, and are there positive effects yet to be discovered?
Terence: Well, yes. I mean, anyone who has actually been around people using psychedelics know they have tremendous therapeutic potential, tremendous potential to launch people into confrontations with aspects of their personality or their history that they are in denial of. The people who hold that these, uh, psychedelic substances have no application have very little actual personal experience with them. It’s the old story of: ‘My mind is made up. Don’t confuse me with facts.’ [laughs]
Luc: Would psychology be further ahead, would you have learned more about the way the human mind works on itself and in interaction with others if the research, say, on the use of LSD, or ibogaine, or many, many of these substances would have proceeded in an orderly and, what you could call, scientific manner or way?
Terence: Yes. I think it’s a great tragedy of 20th century science that the original excitement about exploring consciousness and mental illness, generated by the discovery of LSD, gave way to establishment paranoia and, uh, repression of drug-using populations. The excitement in psychology when LSD was first introduced was like the excitement in the physics community when the atom was smashed. And everybody thought, "Well, now, we’ll understand mental illness, schizophrenia, uh, the memory" so forth and so on. And, instead, the government lost its nerve because it saw that these substances have a potential for deprogramming people, uh, to institutional values. And that was so terrifying that all the promise for mental illness and creativity studies and so forth and so on was sacrificed to institutional paranoia about the fact that drugs might actually cause people to wake up to some of the abuses and scams that were being run by late modernism and, uh, capitalism.
Luc: Clear! Thank you, Terence.
Terence: Thank you. [laughs]