What a Long, Strange Trip it’s Been:  Reflections on the Ethnopharmacologic Search for Psychoactive Drugs, 1967-2017

In 1967, a landmark symposium entitled Ethnopharmacologic Search for Psychoactive Drugs was held in San Francisco, California, under the sponsorship of the National Institute of Mental Health. A volume of the symposium proceedings, recognized as a classic of ethnobotanical literature, is long since out of print. This symposium was the first time that an interdisciplinary and international group of specialists, ranging from ethnobotanists to neuroscientists, gathered in one place to share their findings on a widespread topic of interest at the time: the use of psychoactive plants in the context of indigenous and non-Western societies. Follow up symposia were planned to be held about every ten years, but the War on Drugs intervened and none were ever held. In the 50 years since that first symposium, significant discoveries in ethnopharmacology have been made, and the field continues, more relevant than ever. In 2017, with the help of many colleagues, I organized a 50th Anniversary commemorative symposium in the spirit of the original, meant to focus on some of the new discoveries as well as on-going work in this field. Generous donors underwrote the costs of presenting the 50th anniversary symposium that, in June 2017, brought together a stellar cast of interdisciplinary specialists for a four-day symposium at the spectacular Tyringham Hall in Buckinghamshire, UK. The 1967 symposium was closed to the public. The 2017 presentations were accessible to more than 400,000 people through Facebook live streaming. Pre-orders enabled us to publish the 50th Anniversary symposium, together with a new, high resolution reprint of the original 1967 symposium volume, in a boxed set as a high-quality collector’s edition. In this presentation I will review the genesis of this project, some of the significant discoveries in ethnopharmacology in the last 50 years, and speculate a bit on the future direction of psycho-ethnopharmacology.

Dennis McKenna, PhD

Founding Board Member and Director of Ethnopharmacology, Heffter Research Institute

Dennis McKenna’s professional and personal interests are focused on the interdisciplinary study of ethnopharmacology and plant hallucinogens. He received his doctorate in 1984 from the University of British Columbia, where his doctoral research focused on ethnopharmacological investigations of the botany, chemistry, and pharmacology of ayahuasca and oo-koo-he, two orally-active tryptamine-based hallucinogens used by indigenous peoples in the Northwest Amazon. Dr. McKenna received post-doctoral research fellowships in the Laboratory of Clinical Pharmacology, National Institute of Mental Health, and in the Department of Neurology, Stanford University School of Medicine. He joined Shaman Pharmaceuticals as Director of Ethnopharmacology in 1990 and relocated to Minnesota in 1993 to join the Aveda Corporation as Senior Research Pharmacognosist. He joined the faculty of the Center for Spirituality and Healing at the University of Minnesota in 2001. He is a founding board member of the Heffter Research Institute and serves on the advisory board of non-profit organizations in the fields of ethnobotany and botanical medicines. He was a key organizer and participant in the Hoasca Project, an international biomedical study of ayahuasca used by indigenous people and syncretic religious groups in Brasil. He recently completed a project, funded by the Stanley Medical Research Institute, to investigate Amazonian ethnomedicines for the treatment of schizophrenia and cognitive deficits. In 2017, he organized a 50th Anniversary commemorative Symposium, The Ethnopharmacologic Search for Psychoactive Drugs: 50 years of Research (1967-2017). He is the managing editor of the symposium volume that resulted.

Order the symposium volume from Synergistic Press.