2nd International Congress: Modified States of Consciousness

Winter 1995 Vol. 05, No. 3 Clinical Trials and Tribulations

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The Second International Congress for the Study of Modified States of Consciousness was held in Lerida, Spain from October 3rd to the 7th, 1994. The first Congress, organized by Dr. Manuel and Donna Torres from the United States and Dr. Joaquin Munoz Mendoza and Nicola Kuehne from Mexico, sponsored by INAH (Instituto Nacional de Antroplogia e Historia) was celebrated in November of 1992 in San Luis Potosi, Mexico. The conference was the beginning of the creation of a network of international investigators from the arts and sciences whose research is dedicated to these areas of inquiry. It was a stimulating environment for personal interchange across disciplines, borders, and continents.

The Second Congress, sponsored by the Instituto Prospectiva Antropologica and the Institut d’ Estudis Ilerdencs, proved to carry on the legacy, bringing together botanists, psychiatrists, chemists, pharmacologists, anthropologists, philosophers, lawyers, art historians and artists. As in the first Congress, Spanish and English were the official languages of the conference. The President of the Organization Committee from the hosting country of Spain, Dr. Josep Ma Fericgla, anthropologist and director of the Institut de Prospectiva Antropologica who has spent extensive time among the Shuar of Ecuador, along with the help of Dr. Jace Callaway, Chemist and Neuropharmacologist from the University of Kuopio in Finland, involved in an ayahuasca study in Brazil, spent countless hours organizing the Congress. Their efforts were key to the overriding success of the conference, and were greatly appreciated by all the participants.

Keynote Address

The opening keynote lecture was presented by chemist and ethnobotanist Dr. Jonathan Ott, who resides in Mexico and is a researcher for the company Natural Products. Dr. Ott provided a diachronic view from prehistoric to present times of entheogenic plants found and used by humans in the Old World and the New World. Numerous papers were presented during the five days of the conference. The interpretation of modified states of consciousness was very broad. What follows is a summary of the majority of papers which addressed modified states of consciousness facilitated by entheogenic substances.

Dr. Alexander Shulgin, Chemist from the University of California, Berkeley, provided a background of the molecular biochemistry of entheogens, with special emphasis on beta-carbolines and dimethyltryptamines. This set the stage for the following papers on the ayahuasca research project in Brazil conducted by Dr. Jace Callaway, Dr. Charles Grob M.D., from the Department of Psychiatry at Harbor-UCLA Medical Center, and Dr. Dennis McKenna from Botanical Dimensions. An overview of the project was presented in slide, video, and a talk by a member of the Unio Do Vegetal (UDV) who helped facilitate the study. The research project set out to scientifically study the long term and acute effects of dedicated ayahuasca use among members of the UDV in Manaus, Brazil.

Ayahuasca Project

Dr. Callaway discussed the main chemical components of the ayahuasca "tea", harmala alkaloids from the vine Banisteriopsis caapi and dimethyltryptamine (DMT) from the shrub Psychotria viridis. Of special interest, as pointed out by Callaway, is that the compounds in ayahuasca have an indole structure in common, which through several mechanisms influence the actions of the central nervous system, and in fact are chemically similar to the neurotransmitter serotonin (5-HT).

Dr. Charles Grob presented the findings of his ethnomedical research in the project. Both experimental subjects and controls were administered a psychiatric diagnostic interview, open-ended life story interviews, neuropsychological testing, personality testing, and receptor binding studies. The experimental subjects were administered a standardized dosage of ayahuasca and were monitored closely over the following six hours for acute medical parameters, neuroendocrine challenge test and phenomenological assessment. The most interesting of the preliminary results from the data, Dr. Grob explained, were statistically significant differences between the experimental and control groups, where the experimental group showed a higher rating of short term memory than the control group. His preliminary interpretation of the data indicates that long term ingestion of ayahuasca within a religious context does not cause behavioral or neuropsychological deterioration.

Members from two different religious ayahuasca-using groups from Brazil, the UDV and the Santo Daime, gave various presentations about the history and philosophy of their prospective religions, as well as social, political, and economic aspects of each constituent religious group.

Shuar Study

In addition, Dr. Josep Ma Fericgla presented the findings of a psychological study he conducted among members of the indigenous Shuar culture of Ecuadorian Amazon who had consumed ayahuasca. One test instrument, the SRQ (Self Report Questionnaire), detected over half the population suffered from probable cases of emotional distress, which frequently manifested in psychosomatic symptoms of gastrointestinal discomfort, nervousness, fatigue and migraines. The PERI test (Psychiatric Epidemiologic Research Instrument) detected that nearly all of the people interviewed probably suffered from psychotic disturbances. Clinical psychiatric interviews with these individuals, however, did not demonstrate symptoms that would suggest schizophrenia. Dr. Fericgla concluded that the PERI is neither a valid nor appropriate instrument for this population. Shuar who consume ayahuasca on a more frequent level are men, and they consume ayahuasca in a strict ritual shamanic context which provides meaning and purpose in their lives. In respect to the SRQ results, those who suffer from emotional distress probably do so because of the incredibly rapid changes affecting these people, the pressures from outsiders and from within to acculturate and adapt the ways of the Western world.

Reports on other substances

Another paper related to ayahuasca re-search was presented by Dr. Francesco Festi, from the Museo Civico de Rovereto, Italy, who addressed aspects and perspectives on the role of European Phalaris in the reproduction of the "ayahuasca effect". His colleague, Dr. Giorgio Samorini, from the Museo Civico de Rovereto, Italy, who collaborated with him on the paper, presented an enthralling account of his own Iboga initiation experience among the Buiti of Gabon in Africa. This particular initiation rite (tove si) is one that is central to Buiti who want to become priests. Preparation for this ritual requires days of fasting, meditation with nature, and sexual abstinence, followed by the rite itself. The participant is fed small doses of Iboga numerous times for an 8-20 hour period, putting the participant into a near-death state. The participant remains in this coma-like state for more than 60 hours and is constantly monitored by a crew of native Iboga specialists. The visionary experience ends with the novice gaining consciousness and a series of complex rites to help the participant regain the normal functions of his body and reintegrate into the everyday world. Dr. Samorini explained that although the Buiti have adopted the ritual use of Iboga in their religious practices, the entire religious complex is a more recent syncretic religion which embraces Christianity. The traditional use of Iboga originates with members of the pygmy culture, and he plans to conduct research with them in the future.

Papers on other substances that induce modified states of consciousness included discussions of: Kava and its use in Melanesia, by Dr. Kirk Huffman from the Vanuatu Ethnological Museum in Melanesia; Cannabis: the chemistry of its ecology and evolution, by David Pate from the International Hemp Association in Amsterdam; Salvia Divinorum, discussed by Dale Pendell of Kuksu Herbarium in the U.S.; and MDMA: an analysis of 3,4-Methylenedioxymethamphetamine from a psychopharmacologist’s perspective, by Geri Dharma Rose Defrese, M.S. from the College of Osteopathic Medicine of the Pacific in Pomona, California. Ms. Defrese’s presentation discussed MDMA as a promising clinical tool for the uncovering of repressed memories secondary to abuse, for the treatment of amenable chemical dependency, and for the treatment of severe emotional and physical pain that coincide with debilitating physical diseases such as arthritis and cancer. She reviewed the chemical make up of MDMA and its pharmacological effects, stating that Dr. David Nichols considers MDMA to be in a class of drug which produces "a touch within (entactogenic)" effects. She cautioned that MDA analogues of MDMA, PCP (phencyclidine or "angel dust"), methamphetamine or mixtures of these with MDMA, often ingested at "raves" can be harmful, especially if the users do not realize the correct dosage of the drug or the precise dose of the capsule or tablet. She concluded by stressing the importance of the collaboration of scientists and physicians in creating human studies for the introduction of MDMA into psychiatric use.

Shamanism Discussed

The theme of the keynote lecture by Dr. Jonathan Ott divided entheogenic plants into Old and New World species. This lay the foundation for speakers later on during the week to address the use of these plants in conjunction with shamanism. Dr. Christian RŠtsch presented a paper and slide presentation of the history of psychedelics and Old European shamanism. New World use of entheogenic plants and shamanism was discussed by Dr. Constantino Manuel Torres from Florida International University in Miami, Dr. Bonnie Glass-Coffin from Utah State University, and Dr. Stacy Schaefer at the University of Texas-Pan American. Dr. Torres presented a paper on his most recent research in the archeological zone of San Pedro de Atacama in northern Chile, which focused on the symbolism of cameloids, particularly llamas, and their significance to snuff tablets in which they are inconographically depicted. These snuff tablets, which have been found with numerous San Pedro de Atacaman mummies dating to approximately 600 to 780 A.D., appear to have been associated with shamanism and shamanic powers. A chemical analysis of the powdery remains on the tablets shows the presence of dimethyltryptamine, 5- methoxydimethyltryptamine, and 5-hidroxy-dimethyltryptamine (bufotenine). The traces of bufotenine in the samples suggest that they came from the plant species Anadenanthera.

Dr. Bonnie Glass-Coffin presented an ethnographic study of female shamans in Peru who utilize the hallucinogenic San Pedro (Trichocereus pachanoi) cactus. Much is known about male shamans in Peru who use San Pedro in their curing ceremonies, but relatively little is known about the female healers. Dr. Glass-Coffin, who has attended more than 80 healing ceremonies where San Pedro is an essential ingredient to the ritual, explained that women healers emphasized that San Pedro is essential for their entry into and manipulation of modified states of consciousness and this was a key component of their healing abilities. The female shamans with whom she worked were described, followed by a discussion of the way each woman constructed her mesa (altar) and officiated over healing ceremonies.

One of the other few papers which discussed women’s roles in shamanism and the use of entheogenic plants was presented by Dr. Stacy Schaefer, who works among the Huichol Indians of Mexico. The focus of her paper: Huichol Women, Pregnancy and Peyote, examined the biochemical aspects of peyote consumption during pregnancy, as well as the cultural beliefs and traditions Huichols have regarding this activity. Very little research has been conducted in this field of inquiry. The only scientific articles she was able to locate were published in the 60’s and early 70’s, involving laboratory tests where pregnant mice, hamsters, and monkeys were injected with mild to extremely large doses of mescaline, which is also the active hallucinogenic ingredient in peyote (Lophophora williamsii). Afterwards, the animals were sacrificed and examined. Dr. Schaefer argued that this kind of research was not representative of peyote consumption among pregnant humans. She discussed the beliefs and personal experiences with which Huichol women provided her. The women consume peyote at various stages of their pregnancy, at anywhere from 3 months all the way to 9 months. Those women who are shamans or are training to be shamans must, like their male counterparts, consume large quantities of peyote, even when pregnant. Some women intentionally consume peyote to induce labor, which, according to Schaefer’s consultants, quickened the delivery and made for relatively little pain or discomfort. In conclusion, she emphasized the need for further research that addresses women, children and the use of entheogenic plants.

Entheogens and the law

The final sessions of the Congress were devoted to entheogens and the law. Jerry Patchen, a lawyer based in Houston who, along with his wife, Linda, has been involved with the Native American Church for over 20 years, represents members of the Church in the court of Law. Mr Patchen provided a historical overview of the use and jurisprudence of peyote in North America and how this has affected the Native American Church. In bringing the audience up to date, he was extremely pleased to announce that a few days earlier, President Clinton had signed into federal law H.R. 4230, which amends the American Indian Religious Freedom Act to provide for the traditional use of peyote by Indians for religious purposes and for other purposes. This amendment is an important victory for Native American Church members, because previous interpretation of the American Indian Religious Freedom Act did not specifically address the ritual use of peyote. The legal status of this was left up to the discretion of the states, some of which were not sympathetic to Native American peyote traditions. Now, the federal ruling regarding peyote supersedes any state laws to the contrary. Other papers which addressed legal policies and mind-altering substances were presented by: Dr. Miquel Prats from the Institut de Criminologia in Spain on the evolution and penal regulation of drug trafficking; J. Tarinas Fabregas from Spain on the prohibition of entheogenic substances in history; and Dr. Prieto Rodriquez, affiliated with the Universidad Nacional de Educacion a Distancia in Spain, who spoke on the evolution of the penal legislation of drugs and the unjustified criminalization of cannabis.

Art exhibition rounds out week

To round out the humanistic side of the conference, the art exhibition Alteridades, Alter-nations was open all week. Fourteen artists from 11 countries expressed through the visual arts the meaning and significance of entheo-genic substances in their personal lives. The exhibition was coordinated by Dr. Luis Eduardo Luna from the Swedish School of Economics in Finland, who gave an introductory talk followed by an opening reception. Four artists represented were Donna Torres, Mark Modic, Pablo Amaringo, and Anita Hemmila. The large oil paintings of Donna Torres combine elements of growth and vegetation, desert and wilderness, technology, and domestic elements; depicting in utmost detail aspects of her life working with her husband, Manuel Torres, in the Chilean desert community of San Pedro de Atacama, and in Miami, Florida, where they reside 9 months out of the year. Mark Modic from Slovenia, who has published many books of his artwork, had one painting of a human figure with an archery bow directed towards the sky, above which was the chosen theme and logo for the official stationary and announcements about the Congress. Pablo Amaringo, a shaman and director of the Usko-Ayar Amazonian School of Painting established by Dr. Luna in Pucallpa, Peru, depicts his ayahuasca visions in paintings. Anita Hemmila from Finland, uses yarn and wire on canvas to express movement, dance and inspiration she has personally experienced. In addition, Marc Franklin from the U.S. provided a slide presentation of his photographic project: Living Psychedelic Pioneers: A Study through Portraiture of Twentieth Century Consciousness.

The III International Congress for the Study of Modified States of Consciousness will be held in San Francisco, California in the fall of 1996. Further notice of the conference will be announced once the organizers, place, and dates are chosen.