I publicly confess to consuming alcohol and, years ago, tobacco, so I have experienced the depressive and stimulative effects of those two legal substances. But I have never taken a chemical to alter my mind (do horse radish or kimchi count ?) in the way described by University of Minnesota ethno pharmacologist Dennis McKenna, an authority on use of hallucinogenic plants by indigenous cultures.
McKenna teaches at the U’s Center for Spirituality and Healing, and he took me on a tour of a University of Minnesota greenhouse where researchers grow all kinds of plants, including ones that can produce psychedelics. You can hear my report from that tour in a new edition of Minnesota Sounds and Voices this afternoon as part of All Things Considered.
The mind altering and expanding effects of mescaline (from some kinds of cactus), psilocybin (from a special mushroom), ayahuasca (a tea brewed from South American vines and leaves) and others as McKenna describes them, can be profound. He’s a proponent of expanding research into the therapeutic benefits of psychedelics to build on some early results which show they may help people break their addictions to tobacco or alcohol or help people cope with post traumatic stress disorder.
But use of most of the substances is strictly off limits, illegal, ever since President Richard Nixon and Congress declared a war on drugs back in 1971.
McKenna is among a small but growing number of scientists encouraging the federal government to fund research into psychedelics. People have used plants for thousands of years to treat a range of conditions, and recent treatment results from some chemicals derived from plants are nothing short of miraculous.
However, McKenna points out that less than ten percent of the plant life on earth has been examined for possible beneficial uses, and he believes we have much more to learn.