No one knows how dimethyltryptamine causes its hallucinogenic effects. Dimethyltryptamine structurally resembles the tryptamine neurotransmitter serotonin. In fact, there is sufficient conformational resemblance between these two molecules that DMT can dock comfortably at serotonin receptors in the brain. Thus research to date has concentrated on serotonin receptors as the key to understanding DMT. But a recent study by Dominique Fontanilla and her colleagues at the University of Wisconsin, published this month in the prestigious journal Science, may change the direction of that research.
The computer magazine PC World recently published a cluster of exposé articles by staff writer Tom Spring, revealing that a number of more-or-less psychoactive plants and plant extracts — many legal and some not — are easily available online. “At a time when authorities are cracking down on illegal sale of steroids and prescription drugs online,” he writes, “substances such as kratom and Mexican prickly poppy, which pack a psychedelic and narcotic-like punch, are flourishing on the Internet.” One doctor with whom he spoke warned, “With some of these substances it’s like playing Russian routlette with your life.”
Among mestizo shamans in the Upper Amazon, the verb icarar means to sing or whistle an icaro, a magic song, over a person, object, or preparation, in order to give it power; water over which an icaro has been sung or whistled and tobacco smoke blown, for example, is called agua icarada. Another term for the same process is curar, cure; that which has been sung over is said to be curado, cured, in the sense that fish or cement is cured, ripened, made ready for use.
I have spoken before about my plant teacher doña María Luisa Tuesta Flores. She was born in September 1940, in the town of Lamas in the province of San Martín, and she died, the victim of sorcery, in July 2006. She had begun her healing career as an oracionista, a prayer healer, and, even after she became an ayahuasquera, her icaros, magic songs, remained inflected with the rhythms and melodies of prayers.
A while ago, I wrote about what I called the telepathy meme — the tenacious idea that ayahuasca opens telepathic communication with others in the group, or allows one to see events that are distant in time or space. This latter is, of course, consistent with the Upper Amazonian idea that ayahuasca is not itself a healer but rather a teacher, which is ingested in order to get information.
Given the current climate of moral panic and the attendant assault on Salvia divinorum — possession of which is now a felony, at last count, in thirteen states, although it is hard to keep up — I thought we might do some thinking about drugs and the law generally. Let us say that I have been arrested for possession of an illegal hallucinogen. Let us say, too, that I possess that substance, not because it is a sacrament in my church, but because I simply want to experience a hallucinatory mental state. Since I cannot rely on the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, are there any constitutional arguments available to me?
Three important conferences on shamanism were held in 2008, two of which were not easy to get to from the United States — the World Psychedelic Forum in Basel, Switzerland, March 21–24, and the Fourth Annual Amazonian Shamanism Conference in Iquitos, Peru, July 19–27. A third conference — the 25th International Conference on Shamanism and Alternative Modes of Healing — was held closer to home, in San Rafael, California, August 30–September 1. If you missed these conferences, there are still ways to access at least some of the presentations.
The quirky television series Weeds was a surprise hit for Showtime. It was the channel’s highest rated series in its first year, and its fourth season premier attracted 1.3 million viewers, Showtime’s highest-ever viewership. Mary-Louise Parker, as the lead character Nancy Botwin, won a Golden Globe for her performance on the show. She also drank ayahuasca.
Since at least the 1970s, a tenacious meme has circulated among a generally progressive youthful demographic, some of whom have now carried that meme with them into their elderhood. The meme states that there is a connection between our ecological crisis and our loss of earth-connected spirituality — a connection to both earth and spirit that we once possessed but have now lost, and which is still preserved for us by some indigenous peoples. Still, the meme says, there is hope. A spiritual awakening is coming, associated with the Age of Aquarius, or the fifth pachakuti, or the culmination of the Mayan calendar in the year 2012.
Significant among the tools used by shamans in the Upper Amazon are piedras, or piedras encantadas, magic stones, sometimes called just encantos, charms; such stones are called inkantos by the Machiguenga and Shipibo. My teacher doña María Tuesta told me that her father was a tabaquero who kept two magic stones, one male and one female, in a jar filled with a mixture of tobacco and water. When doña María was about eight years old, while her father still lived with the family, she saw him work with the stones twice. She could see the spirits of the stones: they both had very dark skin and long black hair.