A Matter of Value essay

In the 1980s, Dr. Andrew Weil went on an expedition into the Amazon in search of various forms of mushrooms. Although we commonly eat mushrooms, most mushrooms, many mushrooms are psychoactive drugs and most are poisonous. In the lectures he gave upon his return to the US, he commented that most societies temper their use of drugs through their cultural and religious practices such that drug abuse is not a problem. He went to the Columbian and Peruvian Amazon to harvest and study sacred mushrooms and how the Amazonian Indians use them.

One of the central foci of his study was a variety of Amanita, the Amanita muscaria mushroom also known as “fly agaric”. His noticed that despite the common use of Amanita, the Indians of the Amazon do not have the drug problems and addictions common to drug users in the West. Amanita is a hallucinogenic mushroom commonly used by the Indians in religious rituals. Dr. Weil made some of the same comments and observations about how South American Indians use hallucinogenic mushrooms as Wade Davis makes.

Davis says that the Amerindian uses hallucinogenic plants “in a highly structured manner that places a ritualistic framework of order around their use. ” Both Davis and Weil point out the use of hallucinogenic plants ritualistic practices connected with spiritualism and religion. While people in Western society generally use drugs, including hallucinogens, in a haphazard manner and for escapism, the Amerindians generally use hallucinogens in ways connected with their religious rituals and practices, and in ways that tend to restrict the use of hallucinogens merely as a means of escapism—an escape from reality.

Rather, they are more likely to seek passages into other realities and then return to the present. Wade points out that hallucinogens are poisonous. Likewise, Weil stated that despite that fact that the mushrooms we generally buy in the store taste good, most mushrooms are bitter, taste bad and are very poisonous. To get the hallucinogenic effect, you must consume high doses of mushrooms, and if you consume much beyond that necessary for the hallucinogenic journey, you end up with a permanent journey into death. It is the poisonous effect that allows for the hallucinogenic effect.

As Wade states it, “remembering that the difference between hallucinogen, medicine and poison is often a matter of dosage. ” Peyote is among the most commonly used hallucinogenic mushrooms in the Mexican Indian societies. Just as Weil pointed out about mushrooms in general, peyote is bitter and has many active compounds, especially alkaloids. Alkaloids are complex chemical structures called amines but with a complex chemical ring. The most common amine most people know of are “amino acids” but alkaloids are not like amino acids in structure, and in fact, most amino acids do not have the ring structure common to alkaloids.

The amino acids that do, tryptophan and tyrosine, break down into compounds such as dopamine, dopa and adrenalin that act at the very same regions in the brain where alkaloids act. Thus, this appears to be how mushrooms produce their effects. Perhaps we in “civilized” society could learn something about ourselves if we were to take a cue about our drug use by tearing a page from the way the Amazonian Amerindians use hallucinogenic compounds. In his report after returning from an expedition into the Amazon mushroom hunting, Andrew Weil describes the hallucinogenic effects of using mushrooms.

He states that, “I closed my eyes and began to see visions that were somewhere between images in the mind’s eye and actual movies projected on the inside of my eyelids. At first there were shadowy patterns that tended to multiply themselves in infinite regressions, but these soon resolved themselves into very clear images of mushrooms. ” (Weil, 1975) The Amerindians realized that consuming sun dried cactus gives rise to psychoactive effects similar to those Weil describes.

The effects can be obtained by drinking, smoking, eating or taking the cactus as snuff. Again, Indians generally use these hallucinogenic compounds as part of ritual and ceremony rather than recreation, and they generally take part in such ceremonies at specific times. Perhaps we could also learn to temper our use of drugs, not psychoactive drugs, but all drugs, and in so doing, we could be better served by the drugs that we so commonly use today, especially alcohol which is so commonly abused that few people pay attention to its medicinal value.Certainly, we could learn a lesson from the Amerinds about how to use drugs with respect.


Weil, A. “Mushroom Hunting. ” J of Psychedelic Drugs. Jan-Mar 1975: 7(1). (http://www. cs. org/publications/CSQ/csq-article. cfm? id=487) Davis, Wade (1985). Hallucinogenic Plants and Their Use in Traditional Societies – An Overview. Cultural Survival Quarterly, 9(4). <http://www. cs. org/publications/CSQ/csq-article. cfm? id=487> 5 May, 2007.