From the Newsletter of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies
MAPS - Volume 7 Number 4 Autumn 1997 - pp. 3-4

Native American Church Peyotism and the Treatment of Alcoholism
John McClusky, M.S.W.
Arizona State University
Department of Social Work

The almost thirty year freeze on research into the beneficial uses of psychedelics is slowly starting to thaw. Human subject studies have been approved by the FDA for Phase 1 safety studies of ibogaine (a derivative of a West African plant iboga) which may turn out to be an important new treatment for heroine and cocaine addiction. Ketamine (a general anesthetic, which at sub-anesthetic doses facilitates altered states of consciousness), has been shown to facilitate abstinence from alcohol in chronic alcoholics (Krupitsky 1992, 1997). Research is now underway in Peru to study ayahuasca, a mixture of two Amazonian plants that may also be of use in the treatment of addictions.

From time immemorial, indigenous peoples have used mind-altering plants to facilitate spiritual growth and healing. Early petroglyphs in Northern Africa indicate mushroom rituals (circa 12,000 B.C.) and early Indian Vedic texts mention soma, a mind altering substance, also believed to be a mushroom.

In the Northern American Continent the use of mushrooms dates back before written history as well as the use of the peyote cactus (Lophophora williamsii). Indigenous peoples as far back as 6,000 years ago probably used peyote. That's when we find the first traces of man in the deserts of Mexico. Peyote's use can be traced from central Mexico to the Southern areas of Texas in the 1800s. By the end of the 1800s the ritual use of this cactus had spread to the central parts of the United States and started to be used widely as a pan-Native American religion. Today the Native American Church of North America is the largest pan-Native American religion in North America. Its ceremony is rooted in the native concept of holistic health and harmony with nature. The use of peyote in a structured religious setting, with the guidance of a socially sanctioned healer, has been reported by some authors to be a powerful treatment for alcoholism among Native Americans and a way of bringing balance back into the lives of its participants.

Unfortunately, to date there have not been any controlled studies of the use of peyote in this setting to treat alcoholism or other addiction disorders. Most of the literature has consisted of anecdotal accounts of its effectiveness (Albaugh & Anderson,1974; Bergman, 1971; Pascarosa, & Futterman, 1976; Pascarosa, Futterman & Halsweig, 1976). The closest research that has been done in this area is with LSD back in the 50s and 60s. Virtually all double-blind controlled studies that have been done with LSD in the treatment of alcoholism have met mixed reviews by the scientific community. There has been short term or "afterglow" improvement in patients which diminishes with time (Halpern, 1996). It is important to note that most of these studies only measured drug effect with no appropriate clinical direction and support. (Smart & Strom, 1964; Hollister et al., 1969; Ludwig et al., 1969; Mottin, 1973).

The Native American Church, on the other hand, offers a combination of elements that used in conjunction with one another, form the basis of a holistic treatment model that takes the entire individual into account. Peyote is seen as a medicine by the native peoples who use it. They believe that the controlled religious use of this medicine will allow them to see the truth about their lives and that the peyote spirit is able to give them guidance and direction. If you sit quietly and still the mind the voice of the spirit will come through and give you guidance. If the insights that you receive are not immediately apparent there are elders and spiritual leaders who can interpret such matters. Peyote is another one of the herb medicines in the Native American pharmacopoeia. It is viewed as a healing agent and a psychic integrator. It has the ability to integrate mind, body, spirit, and emotion in a safe, socially sanctioned, religious setting.

The main elements of the ceremony have been variously described as the master or guide, the ritual group session and the psychotropic drug. Through the use of these elements, heightened susceptibility to suggestion, cathartic expression and managed states of consciousness can be achieved. This in turn leads to the lowering of defense mechanisms and the breaking down of denial systems, which is a major component of any treatment for substance abuse.

There has been some mention made in the literature of the pharmacological addiction-blocking effect of peyote. In a 1977 article in Clinical Toxicology, Dr. Kenneth Blum lays out a possible rationale for the addiction-blocking qualities of peyote. His assumption is that certain metabolites of peyote (isoquinolines) are identical to the metabolites produced by heroin and alcohol. Dr. Blum did some of the pioneering work into the connection between opiate addiction and late stage alcoholism. He has said that his exploration into this area was left hanging with the loss of research funding for all such projects in the late 70s. He believes there is a connection between peyote and its use as an addictive blocking treatment for alcoholism but also admits that more work needs to be done (Personal Conversation, 1996; Blum, Futterman, & Pascarosa, 1977).

The debate over the mechanism for alcoholism has gone back and forth within the scientific community. Isoquinolines and endorphins have been the two main substances studied over the past twenty years, with a recent growing interest in a dopamine connection. The question is divided and research into the pharmacological effects of peyote is sorely lacking.

Here in Arizona, the Peyote Foundation, with the cooperation of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), local Native American Church leaders and myself are planning a study to measure the effect of Native American Church peyotism on alcohol abuse. The details of the patient recruitment and exact research design are in the planning stages now. This would be the first controlled study of the effects of Native American Church Peyotism on alcohol abuse: a first step in affirming or denying the many anecdotal reports of sobriety achieved through participation in the Church.


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