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News > Culture

75 Years Since LSD Discovery, Thousands Since Use of Entheogens

  • An Aztec mural depicting the use of Ololiuhqui, a seed containing LSA.

    An Aztec mural depicting the use of Ololiuhqui, a seed containing LSA. | Photo: Museo Nacional de Antropologia of Mexico/INAH

Published 19 April 2018

LSA is an Ergine closely related to LSD, and Indigenous communities in Mexico have used it since inmemorial times.

Today 75 years ago, Swiss scientist Albert Hoffmann took a small dose of Lysergic Acid Diethylamide (LSD) for the first time, throwing him into a rather extraordinary experience that we might never be fully able to understand.


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But even if he is the first (known) person to have taken LSD, other cultures have been using similar substances centuries earlier for ceremonial and healing purposes, always in a responsible and respectful manner.

Hoffman discovered the semi-synthetic drug by accident and decided to try it on April 19, 1943, just as the rest of Europe was immersed in war. While doing research looking for a vascular-targeting agent, the Swiss scientist remembered that years ago he had synthesized a drug out of Ergot, a fungus found in many grasses and cereals, including rye.

He decided to take a small dose of it after he accidentally got in contact with it, opening the way for a whole new scientific research field, besides all the personal and spiritual possibilities for the common people.

Psychologists, pharmaceutical companies, the CIA and hippies alike were interested in it. As the counterculture movement in the United States developed and LSD was getting highly accessible, the psychedelic got itself a bad reputation. In 1965, the U.S. government abandoned its projects with the drug and made it illegal for its alleged unpredictability and mind altering properties, which they considered dangerous.

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The prohibition of LSD and other psychedelic substances is related to misinformation and misuse. Western cultures struggled to deal with them, as their properties allowed for new mind-opening perspectives, while at the same time they do represent a real danger if not used correctly. That, for the U.S. government and now most of the countries in the world, is something society can't deal with, and they would rather prohibit them.

But what happens then with cultures that have been using these substances, found naturally in plants or fungi, for centuries, in their traditional customs for ceremonial or health purposes and making up a fundamental part of their perspective on the world (and beyond)?

Indigenous cultures in Mexico have been using the seeds of different related plants for these purposes, preparing them in a special way to induce a trance-like state in which they can communicate with forces they wouldn’t normally be able to in order to cure people, according to their traditions and beliefs.

Ergine, d-lysergic acid amide or LSA, is a close relative of LSD and is naturally found in a number of plants and fungi all around the world. Along with lysergic acid hydroxyethylamide, LSA is the main component of Ololiuhqui (Nahuatl for “round thing”), the seeds used by several Indigenous cultures in Mexico for ceremonial purposes.

Psychedelic art attempts to capture the visions experienced on a psychedelic trip. Picture: Nicholas Darinzo, Wikimedia Commons.

LSD only differs from LSA in the replacement of two hydrogen atoms for two ethyl groups. LSA is significantly less potent than LSD, but the context and quantity of its use make up for it.

Its use by Indigenous communities in Mexico is widely documented. The seeds are extracted mainly from two different plants, which get different uses and names depending on the culture using them.

Among others, the Chinantec, Mazatec and Zapotec people in Oaxaca, southern Mexico, cultivate a plant called Rivea Corymbosa (or Turbina Corymbosa) out of which they obtain round, brown seeds they prepare for their ceremonies. The Chinantec name for this preparation is called Amukia, which means “medicine for divination.” They usually use thirteen seeds grounded, which is then drunk with water, but reports say that “westerners” or “mestizos” need to take much higher doses.

Among the Nahuatl people, the black small seeds from Ipomoea Violacea are known as Tlitliltzin, the Nahuatl term for “black.” The Zapotec and Chatin people of Oaxaca also used these seeds, which they call Badoh Negro or Badungas, in Zapotec.

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When the Spanish came in contact with Indigenous people in Mexico and their use of these plants, they didn't hesitate in accusing them of devil-worshipping.

Several reports from the conquest period describe the use of Ololiuhqui by Indigenous people, being at the same time amazed and disgusted because of their own prejudices.

"Ololiuqui... deprives all who use it of their reason. The natives communicate in this way with the devil, for they usually talk when they become intoxicated with Ololiuqui, and they are deceived by various hallucinations which they attribute to the deity which they say resides in the seeds...” says a Spanish report quoted by Hoffmann and Shultes in their book Plants of the Gods.

In 1651, Francisco Hernandez, the physician of the king of Spain, wrote that “formerly, when the priests wanted to communicate with their gods and to receive a message from them, they ate this plant to induce a delirium. A thousand visions and satanic hallucinations appeared to them... they consult it as an oracle to learn many things... especially those beyond the power of the human mind to penetrate...”

Hernandez then goes on describe the use of the seeds, fully skeptical of its properties.

“If a doctor who does not drink Ololiuqui wishes to free a patient of some trouble, he advises the patient himself to partake... The doctor chooses the day and hour when the drink must be taken and establishes the reason for the patient's drinking it. Finally, the one drinking Ololiuqui must seclude himself in his room... No one must enter during his divination... He believes the Ololiuqui is revealing what he wants to know. When the delirium is passed, the doctor comes out of seclusion reciting a thousand fabrications, thus keeping the patient deceived.”

A "Morning Glory" flower, another name for the "Snake's Herb." Photo | Frank J. Gualtieri Jr, Wikimedia Commons.

Despite the colonization process the region now known as Mexico went through, the spiritual beliefs and practices of the Indigenous people survived, and the use of Ololiuhqui is still present especially among the peoples in Oaxaca and surrounding areas.

Its current use combines elements of their precolombina traditions with Catholicism, and now the plant is sometimes called “Mary's Herb” and the Ololiuhqui itself “Seed of the Virgen.”

The modern state's reaction to LSD was similar to those of the Spanish people when they found out about Ololiuhqui. It was complicated for them to understand, and they decided to go against it instead. Now, the prohibition of psychedelics is hampering a diversity of research projects that could help people get cured from a number of diseases, including depression and addictions, according to supporters of legalization of the substance.

Hoffmann -and counterculture- met with rejection and prejudices that Indigenous cultures have had to deal with for centuries. Indigenous use of entheogens, which are substances used for spiritual reasons, usually face discrimination by “mestizos” fueled by misinformation and prejudice over the use of substances that they simply call “drugs,” making them fall in the same category as other synthetic substances that have no spiritual purpose.

Even though Indigenous communities in Mexico are still allowed to use these entheogens according to their own customs, just as the Native American Church is allowed to use Peyote in the U.S., their use still faces high levels of discrimination especially when involving non-Indigenous people, let alone research opportunities.

Now, after the paranoia that led to prohibition has softened, there are new opportunities for research in a significant number of fields and there are already a number depression treatments based on LSD. This is just one of the possibilities that Hoffman saw that April 19, when he took just a small dose and rode a bike home.

The Indigenous people of Mexico have known it for years, and Hoffmann just wanted to share that knowledge, obtained by western-oriented scientific research, with the rest of the world.

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