Spring 1994 Vol. 04, No. 4 Laying the Groundwork
THE SEARCH for plant sources of entheogens, and their cultural and historical uses, has defined Jonathan Ott’s career, and Pharmacotheon is the culmina-tion of his knowledge and work to date. It also greatly advances the self-publishing movement in psychedelic scholarship that has flourished these past few years. We certainly need all the useful and well-documented information we can get to prepare ourselves for the fin-de-siecle and the Psychedelic Renaissance of the coming millennium.
It appears that Ott has been thinking a lot, since his works of the 1970s, about the use of plant drugs in contemporary society. The 1980s’ War on Drugs is the dominant metaphor for what went wrong with humankind’s attempt to coalesce with mind-altering plants. Ott’s lengthy introduction provides an overview of current drug policy issues, for those readers not familiar with this literature, and it gives him an opportunity to comment on many aspects of contemporary drug use. It is basically a preamble to the compilation of drug research that follows, presented in four parts with five appendices and an extensive bibliography.
Ott classifies his drug chapters by chemical structure, and he uses the term "entheogen" to refer to molecules of the beta-phenethylamine, indole, and isoxazole type. The first appendix, however, describes other plants and their associated substances, including atropine and scopolamine (Datura and others), ibogaine (Tabarnanthe), nicotine (Nicotiana), and the thujones (Artemesia) and tetrahydrocannabinols (Cannabis).
The chapter on beta-phenethylamines focuses primarily on peyote and other cacti, with comments on the debate over natural vs. synthetic sources of drug products. The chapter on isoxazoles covers fly agaric and other fungi. The four chapters on indoles review ergoline-containing plants such as ergot and ololiuhqui (morning glory), Anadenanthera snuffs with their short-acting tryptamines, the beta-carbolines of ayahuasca potions, and the Teonanacatl mushrooms and other psilocybin fungi. Each plant drug chapter provides chemical data (with a listing of plant species that contain psychoactive substances) and information on contemporary use with extensive footnotes at the end.
This is a self-published effort. Computer-generated drawings of chemical structures and line drawings by Martin Vinaver are the only graphic illustrations. The cover is mesmerizing, however, portraying a part of Pablo Amaringo’s 1989 tempera painting "Pregnant by an Anaconda" (which is in his book with Luis Eduardo Luna, Ayahuasca Visions: The Religious Iconography of a Peruvian Shaman, 1991).
One problem with self-publishing activities is the lack of certain checks and balances that prevent or reduce errors and other problems in the technical production of a book. Pharmacotheon is troubled with inaccurate citations in its bibliography, involving mostly minor errors. There are also errors in some of the chemical structures. These errors were found in my perusal of specific sections covering those compounds with which I am most familiar. I have not checked the whole book, and I am not expert enough on all categories of drugs to make a complete assessment of the books accuracy on a line-by-line basis.
Ott’s approach to cooperative financing of the book does present an advantage. Individuals placed orders in advance of publication for hardcover copies, and this revenue-generating process helped Ott publish his book. It removed financial limitations for him, and it allowed him to maintain his political freedom in what he wanted to present and discuss.
Many self-publishing activities are heralding the coming Renaissance. Information-exchange journals, such as Elvin Smith’s The Psychozoic Press, Tom Lyttle’s Psychedelic Monographs & Essays, Jim DeKorne’s The Entheogen Review, the folks in Germany who are publishing Integration, other publications, and of course the MAPS newsletter, need to be encouraged and supported. Books such as Pharmacotheon, Alexander Shulgin’s early version of The Controlled Substances Act, Nicholas Saunder’s E For Ecstasy, and many other books make great additions to a personal library for those interested in psychedelic literature.
A great deal of relevant and important information exists as personal experience, oral history and folklore of various social groups, collective consciousness of drug consumers, and unpublished individual and organized investigated work that must be saved and shared. There is a common theme in all of this cultural knowledge; it clearly portrays elements of healing and spiritual growth in humankinds evolution that have been influenced through the use of certain plants. There is as yet no single definitive source on the various plant substances that are psychoactive in nature. Pharmacotheon joins Richard Schultes and Albert Hofmann’s The Botany and Chemistry of Hallucinogens and Peter Stafford’s Psychedelics Encyclopedia as another useful compendium of psychedelic information. Each has its strengths, but none of them give full coverage to the subject, because they never intended such a massive undertaking. Each work approaches this complex subject from its own perspective. Richard Schultes and Robert Raffauf’s Psychoactive Plants of the World series (published by Yale University Press) is providing a number of monographs that are individually focused on the more famous plant species and categories of drugs. These works as a whole provide depth of perspective, while singular works like Pharmacotheon embody the importance of individual exploration.
It is important to possess a copy of Pharmacotheon and other works of psychedelic literature. Personal experiences need to be complemented with a library of drug literature, for it is distressing to go wanted for information. True contributors to the Psychedelic Renaissance must know the ideas and the literature that came before them in order to learn the lessons of history. That student of plant drug knowledge then can assist in bringing about changes in our conception and use of plants that produce entheogenic effects for the betterment of every society.