A New Opposition Front in the Drug War-By Salim Muwakkil

Criminalizing peaceful people who use psychoactive drugs to deepen their spiritual life is criminal itself, some groups are arguing

A new front has opened in opposition to the war on drugs–a religious front.  Several newly formed groups are contesting our prohibitionist, anti-drug strategies because they restrict religious freedom and “cognitive liberty.”

Drugs alter consciousness and “the right to control one’s own consciousness is the quintessence of freedom,” reads part of a manifesto of the Journal of Cognitive Liberties. The journal is one of many projects of the four-year-old Center for Cognitive Liberty & Ethics, a California-based, non-profit group that promotes intellectual freedom. The group defines cognitive liberty as “the right of each individual to think independently and autonomously, to use the full spectrum of his or her mind and to engage in multiple modes of thoughts and alternative states of consciousness.”

The group is involved in several projects designed to raise issues of cognitive liberty in relation to the war on drugs. In the journal’s Summer 2000 edition, center co-director Richard Glen Boire wrote “the so-called `war on drugs’ is not a war on pills, powder, plants and potions, it is war on mental states–a war on consciousness itself– how much, what sort we are permitted to experience, and who gets to control it.” Boire argued that much of the motivation for the war on drugs is an attack on “entheogenic” drugs (roughly, God evoking) that provoke “transcendent and beatific states of communication with the deity.”

With this point, Boire lends his argument to a growing movement of Americans devoted to the use of entheogens. One branch of this movement calls itself “neo-shamanistic” and seeks out shamanic inebriants that have been used for centuries. They cite examples like peyote cactus and psilocybin mushrooms among Native Americans, ibogaine among indigenous Africans, soma in India and ayahuasca in the Amazonian rain forest.

Others are just spiritual seekers who argue that criminal sanctions on the use of these psychoactive sacraments restrict their religious freedom. Some make the argument that the state takes its cue from organized religions, which historically have demonized entheogens because they lessen the need for a clergy to connect God to humanity.

Many of the substances they champion (psilocybin, peyote/mescaline, LSD, marijuana, etc.) are the same drugs that were called psychedelic during the 1960s. These substances are now called entheogenic to distance them from the hedonistic excesses of the ’60s drug culture.

Along with some newly discovered substances (Salvia divinorium, phalaris grass, ibogaine, ayahuasca/yage, etc), some of which are still precariously legal, this fledgling movement is taking the spiritual high road in its opposition to the drug war.

Another one of the groups leading the charge is the Council on Spiritual Practices. Founded by Robert Jesse, 43, a former vice president of Oracle, the group focuses on evoking “primary religious experiences,” which they believe can be evoked by many practices, including fasting, meditation, prayer, yoga and ingesting entheogenic drugs.

The group’s signature text is “Psychoactive Sacramentals: Essays on Entheogens and Religion,” which explores many facets of entheogenic use. The book is an account of a 1995 conference held at the Chicago Theological Seminary that was devoted to the subject of entheogens and religion.

The council also has published Huston Smith’s book, “Cleansing the Doors of Perception: The Religious Significance of Entheogenic Plants and Chemicals,” a text that tackles the issue of drugs and spirituality in a series of wide-ranging essays.

Smith, 83, is a religious scholar and author of many books, including “The World’s Religions,” the most widely used textbook on its subject for more than 30 years. He also has produced three series for public television: “The Religions of Man,” “The Search for America” and (with Arthur Compton) “Science and Human Responsibility.”

In other words, Smith certainly is no fly-by-night bohemian just looking for a high. “I was extremely fortunate in having some entheogenic experiences, while the substances were not only legal, but respectable,” Smith said, talking about his early experimentation with LSD, in a 2001 Salon magazine interview. “It seemed like only fair play that since I value those experiences immensely to do anything I could to enable a new generation to also have such experiences without the threat of going to jail.”

Criminalizing peaceful people who use psychoactive drugs to deepen their spiritual experience or widen their cognitive horizons is criminal itself, these groups argue.

Their arguments are catching on.


Reprinted with permission from The Chicago Tribune