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The Medicalization of Sacred Plant Medicines

The article The Medicalization of Sacred Plant Medicines was originally published on Microdose.

Like many, I’ve watched the recent resurgence of interest…



The article The Medicalization of Sacred Plant Medicines was originally published on Microdose.

Like many, I’ve watched the recent resurgence of interest in psychedelics and welcomed it as a promising development in the mental health field. However, this renewed interest has also brought several possible challenges and concerns that I’ve been thinking about. This includes the ramifications of medicalization and the commodification of these substances.

There is a sacredness to psychedelic plant medicines and the experiences clearly understood by the indigenous and ethnic minority communities that have long used psychedelics as part of their spiritual and cultural traditions. Will these communities be further marginalized or excluded from the new wave of research and clinical trials? Will the medicalization process sanitize the sacredness of the ceremonies and industrialize the use of psychedelics?

This would be a tragedy, not only because it would deprive these communities of their rightful place in the psychedelic renaissance but also because of their unique perspectives, which could offer valuable insights into the therapeutic potential of these substances as a sacred doorway into other realms and perceptions of reality that western medicine has traditionally not understood or accepted.


What are the differences between a medicalized system of psychedelics versus an indigenous one, and why should we be concerned?

Psychedelics have been used for centuries by indigenous and ethnic minority communities as part of their spiritual and cultural traditions. In contrast, the recent resurgence of interest in psychedelics has been driven primarily by the medical establishment. It is, therefore, essential that indigenous and ethnic minority communities are included in the conversation about psychedelics and that their voices are heard loud and clear. In many indigenous cultures, shamanism is a time-honored tradition passed down from generation to generation. Shamanism is the belief that a particular class of people, known as shamans, can communicate with the spirit world. Shamans often use psychedelics like ayahuasca and DMT to enter this alternate reality. These substances allow the shaman to journey to other worlds to bring back knowledge and healing to their community. Shamans have been using the ayahuasca plant to induce powerful psychedelic experiences for centuries. The active ingredient in ayahuasca is DMT, which is a powerful psychedelic compound that can produce profound changes in consciousness.

These consciousness changes are produced through various types of shamanic ceremonies that are dependent on culture and tradition. In some cultures, shamans may use psychedelics to induce a trance-like state to contact spirits or receive messages from the beyond. In other cultures, psychedelic substances may be used in communal ceremonies to promote healing and spiritual growth. During an ayahuasca journey, shamans will often sing special songs known as icaros. These songs are believed to open up hidden universes and facilitate communication with spirits. Some shamans believe that the icaros can even help to heal physical and psychological ailments. While no scientific evidence supports these claims, many people who have experienced an ayahuasca journey report feeling profoundly transformed by the experience. Whether or not the icaros play a role in these transformations is still a matter of debate, but there is no doubt that they are an essential part of the ayahuasca tradition.

Indigenous people have used psychedelics to connect with the environment and the spiritual realm for millennia. For indigenous people, psychedelics are a part of their culture and way of life. The psychedelic experience allows them to commune with nature and their ancestors’ spirits and helps sustain their connection to the land and their cultural heritage.

The medicalization of psychedelics will lead to the exclusion of these indigenous communities and the sacred ceremonies. On the one hand, seeing the new wave of research and clinical trials is a good thing. But, the sanitization and elimination of the sacred container created by shamans and holy ceremonies are concerning. I have already heard of and seen the exclusion of ceremonies, or the creation of a sacred container as something considered unnecessary by medical personnel. This would be a tragedy, not only because it would deprive these communities of their rightful place in the psychedelic renaissance but also because their unique perspectives could offer valuable insights into the therapeutic potential of these substances when sacred space and a spiritual mentor or guide are present. Therefore, indigenous and ethnic minority communities must be included in the conversation and research on psychedelics, so their voices are heard loud and clear.


plant medicine

Other concerns about the medicalization of psychedelics

Will big businesses “muscle in” on the market, leading to high prices and limited access? Will medicalization lead to more regulation and criminalization, making it even harder for people to access these substances? Ultimately, whether or not to medicalize psychedelics is complex, with pros and cons on both sides.

While the medicalization of psychedelics holds great promise for treating various mental illnesses, several potential risks should be considered. First and foremost, there is a risk that medicalizing these substances will lead to more people using them recreationally. This is especially true if the medications are made available without a prescription, and while this may not happen, there are always secondary markets in the drug industry (“ketamine mills” are already an issue of concern in the space).

Secondly, there is a risk that medicalizing psychedelics will lead to more people self-medicating rather than seeking professional help, which could result in people taking higher doses than necessary and/or not receiving the proper counseling and support.

So there are risks that should not be ignored; yet the potential benefits of medicalizing psychedelics are many and could eventually outweigh these risks.


Brave New World

The 21st century has brought many new challenges, from the proliferation of digital devices to the rise of anxiety and depression. While many factors contribute to these problems, one of the most significant is how we interact with our environment. Finding moments of stillness and connection can be challenging in an increasingly fast-paced world full of distractions. Psychedelics can help to address this issue by promoting mindfulness and awareness of ourselves with the environment and each other. It has been found that using psychedelics promotes prosocial behaviors and connection to the environment.[1] Through the use of techniques such as breathwork, they can also help us to focus on the present moment and connect with each other and our surroundings more profoundly. In doing so, psychedelics have the potential to improve our collective mental health and well-being.[2]

Psychedelics could play a role in alleviating mental health conditions in a Brave New World-like society. In a world where people are overworked and stressed out, psychedelics could be used as a medication to help people relax and focus. For example, LSD could be used to help people forget their troubles for a few hours and allow them to focus on the present moment. In a society where people constantly worry about the future, psychedelics could provide an escape.

Psychedelics could also be used to treat mental health conditions that are difficult to treat with traditional medications. For example, psilocybin mushrooms could be used to treat depression that has not responded to other treatments. Psychedelics are effective in treating mental health conditions, and they could play a role in helping to calm a stressed-out society.

The use of psychedelics has been controversial since they were first introduced in the 1950s. While some believe these substances can be used safely and effectively to treat certain mental disorders, others argue that they are too dangerous to be used medicinally. However, there is a growing body of evidence that suggests that psychedelics can be valuable tools in the treatment of mental illness.

For instance, a recent study found that psilocybin-assisted therapy effectively reduced anxiety and depression in cancer patients. In addition, other research has shown that psychedelics can help relieve PTSD, OCD, and addiction symptoms. Given the growing body of evidence favoring medicalizing psychedelics, it makes sense to further investigate their potential therapeutic benefits.[3] Psychedelics have been used for centuries by indigenous people for ceremonial and spiritual purposes. These substances can induce powerful altered states of consciousness that can be both healing and transformative.



Micheal Pollan sitting with indigenous leaders on How to Change Your Mind


The case can be made for indigenous practices to be incorporated into the use of psychedelics, especially since indigenous cultures have long understood the importance of these substances as a rite of passage. Sacred indigenous practices such as mindfulness and deep breathing can enhance the psychedelic experience and help to facilitate personal growth and healing. By incorporating these traditions into their ceremonies, indigenous people have been able to maximize the benefits of psychedelics and create powerful healing experiences.[4]

When it comes to psychedelics, western medicine has a history of picking and choosing which traditional practices to incorporate into its framework. It is often difficult to balance the scientific study of these substances with their spiritual significance in indigenous cultures. In some cases, as in the medicalization of ayahuasca, contemporary researchers have worked closely with the traditional healers who developed and mastered the use of these plants. In other cases, as with psilocybin mushrooms, western scientists have studied the effects of the substances without any reference to their traditional use. In either case, it is important to consider the implications of medicalizing plant medicines without keeping the indigenous traditions that gave rise to them.

More potential issues? When drugs are placed in the hands of doctors and pharmacists, they can become much more expensive than when they are available from the “underground”. Another danger is the loss of sacredness and reverence for these plants. In many indigenous cultures, plants that contain psychedelics are considered holy and are used in sacred ceremonies. When these ceremonies are incorporated into western medicine, they can lose their spiritual significance, which can diminish our appreciation for these plant medicines and lead to misuse.

Ultimately, it is essential to consider the issues around medicalizing psychedelics. We must be careful not to over-commercialize these substances or lose sight of their spiritual significance. If we want to fully benefit from the therapeutic potential of plant medicines, we need to respect the cultures that developed them.


Authors Note: This paper is written as a discussion paper for furthering the conversation around psychedelics. The author does not condone the use of psychedelics and advises that anyone considering their use should speak with a medical professional first.



Editor’s Note: This piece is part of a series produced by guest contributors to expand the voices on our site and in the greater conversation. While Microdose supports the education and exploration of these topics, the facts and opinions presented in this work are the author’s alone.

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