Humans have a long history of utilizing psychedelics for spiritual purposes. And cannabis is just one of the many naturally occurring psychoactive substances that have helped form our religious traditions, inform our understanding of the metaphysical, and have revealed our sacred relationship with the natural world and the rest of the universe. This primal awareness has often been neglected, lost, or even suppressed among modern civilized cultures, as ancient ways of living have continuously become supplanted by society, progress, wealth, and industry.
Today, we’re beginning to see the reemergence of spiritual communities that declare the use of one or more entheogenic plants as a religious sacrament. A long list of Entheogenic Sects and Psychedelic Religions can be found on the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) website, and more will likely emerge as our society continues to shift in perspective on the use of cannabis and other psychedelics. Some may feel that those who make such claims are merely making excuses for illicit drug use, or trying to circumvent laws that prohibit the use of such substances. However, here in the United States, many Native Americans have been doing this very thing for thousands of years. In fact, a law called the American Indian Religious Freedom Act was passed in 1978 to protect both the sacred lands and spiritual practices of Native Americans, including the use of peyote in religious ceremonies.
Just a few years before the American Indian Religious Freedom Act was passed, the infamous Controlled Substances Act was signed into law, prohibiting the use of various substances, including cannabis and peyote. The Native American Church (NAC) was given an exemption from this law, but the possession of the sacred plant was made illegal, even for those who were members of the NAC. And according the Peyote Way Church of God, an all race Native American Church in Arizona, “Although peyote is listed as a Schedule 1 controlled substance in the act and under Schedule 1 of the federal act, a separate federal regulation (21 cfr 1307.31 (April 1, 1989)) exempts the non drug use of peyote in bona fide religious ceremonies of the Native American Church. In light of Employment Division v. Smith 494 U.S. 872, 108 L. Ed.2d 876, 110 S.Ct 1595 (1990), states should consider including in Schedule 1 an exemption similar to that found in 21 cfr 1307.31 (Uniform Controlled Substances Act (1990) (U.L.A.) sec, 204 “comment”.)
Currently, there are only fourteen states with laws on the books that offer an exemption for members of the Native American Church to partake in their sacramental rite. Granted, the use of peyote as a religious sacrament is primarily found in the Southwestern states, where the cacti more readily grow. Even though federal regulation of this sacred plant offers exemption for “non drug use of peyote in bona fide religious ceremonies of the Native American Church,” the states must design their own legislation for the allowance of peyote use. Unfortunately, only a few have done so, which leaves members of the Native American Church vulnerable to prosecution in the other states that haven’t issued exemptions.
The laws governing peyote use in America are about as confusing as regulations that cover cannabis. Although it is still prohibited on the federal level, about half the states have medical marijuana provisions and a few now have laws allowing for its recreational use. However, cannabis is also a sacred herb and should have been given a federal exemption for religious sacramental use long ago, just like peyote. But instead, we are now faced with a hodge podge of laws among various states that allow its use for specific reasons for some, and a several states now recreational markets, even though it’s still technically a federal crime.
The sacramental or religious use of any naturally occurring psychoactive substance should be allowable for all humans. Anyone who has ever partaken of cannabis, psilocybin mushrooms, ayahuasca, or peyote has probably had the realization that these substances possess healing powers and help teach us how to look beyond ourselves and engage more fully with the world around us. As medical and psychological research delves more deeply into the beneficial effects of psychedelics, it’s becoming more and more clear that these compounds are helpful for many different reasons. Research cited by an article published by Psychology Today in 2012 has made the following observations:
“Psychedelic drug users endorsed more mystical beliefs (such as in a universal soul, no fear of death, unity of all things, existence of a transcendent reality, and oneness with God, nature and the universe). Psychedelic drug users also said they placed greater value on spirituality and concern for others, and less value on financial prosperity, than the other two groups. This accords with findings from another study (Móró, Simon, Bárd, & Rácz, 2011) that found that psychedelic drug users regarded spirituality as more personally important compared to users of other drugs and non-drug users.”
The spiritual use of mind altering plants has been an integral part of the human experience for thousands of years. It could even be said that these sacred plant teachers have literally brought humanity into conscious awareness and have shaped our religious and spiritual teachings. Perhaps they are even the reason why we’ve thrived on this planet and continue refine and develop our understanding of the universe, while we continually seek to determine and define our place within it.