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Book Review : A Sober Look at Man's Long Use of Drugs

August 25, 1987|LEE DEMBART | Dembart is a Times editorial writer.

Plants of the Gods: Origins of Hallucinogenic Use by Richard Evans Schultes and Albert Hofmann (Alexander van der Marck: $16.95; paperback, 192 pages)

"Plants of the Gods" is the only book I can recall whose title page contains a "Caution":

"This book is not intended as a guide to the use of hallucinogenic plants," it says. "Its purpose is to offer scientific, historical and cultural documentation concerning a group of plants, which are or have been of importance to many societies. Ingestion of some plants or plant products may be dangerous."

That said, Richard Evans Schultes, professor emeritus of biology at Harvard and a member of the National Academy of Sciences, and Albert Hofmann, a retired Swiss research chemist and discoverer of LSD, present a sober but fascinating account of the widespread use of hallucinogenic plants by primitive peoples around the world, particularly in the Western Hemisphere.

The book is beautifully illustrated with photographs and diagrams of 91 hallucinogenic plants, with pictures of aboriginal people in magical and religious ceremonies that involve these substances and with photographs of various artifacts and paintings that have been produced under their influence.

In addition, the wide margins are sprinkled with quotations and glosses that provide further commentary about these plants.

Fourteen major hallucinogenic plants are explored in depth. In the section on cannabis (marijuana), for example, the authors begin with history:

"Democritus reported that it was occasionally drunk with wine and myrrh to produce visionary states, and Galen, about AD 200, wrote that it was sometimes customary to give Hemp to guests to promote hilarity and enjoyment."

They go on to discuss the anthropological and sociological information that is known about the use of cannabis for millennia and reach a neutral, evenhanded conclusion:

"It may be some time before all of the truths concerning the use in our times and society of this ancient drug are fully known. Since an understanding of the history and attitudes of peoples who have long used the plant may play a part in furthering our handling of the situation in modern society, it behooves us to consider the role of cannabis in man's past and to learn what lessons it can teach us: whether to maintain wise restraint in our urbanized, industrialized life or to free it for general use."

'Plants of the Gods'

They also write of the ceremonial uses of peyote (mescaline), mushrooms (psilocybin), ergot and Morning Glory, whose active ingredient is similar to LSD. And they discuss medicinal uses of many hallucinogenic plants, and they note that marijuana is used today to help overcome the side effects of chemotherapy on cancer patients.

"Plants of the Gods," which is a new edition of a 1979 book, also contains a fair amount of pure science--chemical structures and the like and speculation about why these substances have the effect on people that they do.

Much of the writing is academic and flat, intentionally, no doubt, given the subject matter. Schultes and Hofmann understate their case, which seeks to encourage rational thought about a subject that is full of emotion. They bend over backward not to seem wild-eyed.

At the same time, they have great respect for hallucinogenic substances, which, they argue, have value for modern societies as well as for primitive ones.

"The ability to create new and different images of the world is why hallucinogenic plants were, and still are, regarded as sacred," they write. As a means of intensifying a person's internal conflicts and bringing them to the surface, the authors endorse the use of hallucinogens in psychiatry through what is called "psychedelic therapy" but note:

"Hallucinogenic drugs, as an adjunct to psychoanalysis and psychotherapy, are still the subject of dispute in medical circles. However, this applies also to other techniques, such as electroshock, insulin treatment and psychosurgery, all of which carry far greater danger than the use of hallucinogens, which, in expert hands, may be regarded as virtually without risk."

In the end, they wind up quoting with approval the words of Louis Lewin, a German toxicologist who did research on hallucinogens early in this century and who concluded:

"From the beginning of our knowledge of man, we find him consuming substances of no nutritive value but taken for the sole purpose of producing for a certain time a feeling of contentment, ease and comfort.

"On this plane meet artist and sybarite; the savage from some distant land or from the Kalahari Desert associates with pets, philosophers, scientists, misanthropes and philanthropists; the man of peace rubs shoulders with the man of war, the devotee with the atheist.

"The physical impulses which bring under their spell such diverse classes of mankind must be extraordinary and far-reaching."

They go on to urge continued research into hallucinogenic compounds and botany, chemistry, pharmacology, medicine, psychology, psychiatry, ethnology, history and sociology.

At a time of public hysteria over the use of drugs, it takes guts to bring out this book, "Caution" or no.

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