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O Uso Ritual das Plantas de Poder [The Ritual Use of Plants of Power]
by Beatriz Labate & Sandra Goulart (Eds.)
Editora Mercado de Letras 
Book Reviews
Reviewed by Renato Sztutman, 2/20/2012

[Both Alcohol and Drugs in the History of Brazil and The Ritual Use of Plants of Power are covered in this review]

A New Light on the Issue of Drugs

Two collections of articles analyze historical, political and anthropological aspects of the use of psychoactive substances

In an apartment in the west of São Paulo, young people gather to drink wine and smoke dope. When the joint reaches the young woman sitting at the head of the table, she exclaims: “Thank you. I’ve quit drugs. And this is a political act”. She warns the others of the responsibility of consumers for the harm caused by drug trafficking. Many who are at the table agree with the girl. Others are outraged, complaining: “I won’t give up my enjoyment. This is also a political act”. The discussion continues for hours on end without any consensus.

Thorny discussions like this, despite the conclusions they can lead to, have a reason: to reveal in a seemingly trivial habit a social problem, and to situate daily thoughtless acts in a larger context of relationships. If the ethical and political significance of drug use inevitably becomes obvious, so does the ignorance of most citizens of the “drugs issue”. Even those who consider themselves users are very badly informed on the properties of substances and often reproduce prejudices that they think have been surpassed.

What, after all, is the concept of drugs with which we operate? Has the repudiation of drugs, those that alter consciousness, always existed in different times and places? Since when has this prohibition, in Brazil and the world, existed? Why are some substances, such as alcohol and tobacco, allowed, and others, such as marijuana and LSD, prohibited? What do other societies, for example, Indian and African, have to say about taking drugs?

I would like to comment on two collections of articles, which seem to throw light on these issues. They are Alcohol and Drugs in the History of Brazil, edited by historians Renato Pinto Venancio and Henrique Carneiro, and The Ritual Use of Plants of Power, edited by anthropologists Beatriz Caiuby Labate and Sandra Goulart.

The first collection, which includes 14 articles, focuses on historical approaches. The history in the West of the idea of drugs as harmful, contrasting with the idea of food as being necessary, is examined, and the history of prohibitionism in Brazil and the war on drugs and certain alcoholic beverages (such as cachaça cane rum), which started in the first decades of colonization and still continues today, is described.

The second collection, with 15 articles, is located in anthropological discussions on the appropriation by various groups, indigenous people, rural peasants, and urban dwellers, of the “plants of power”, an expression that seems to contain the meaning that certain so-called “traditional” peoples give the psychoactive substances. The idea of “ritual use”, though it may seem vague, is central here: it is not just any use, but one which is socially programmed.

Although distinct in regard to themes and approaches, the two collections have many points in common. The first is the need to break down the boundaries between food, drugs and medicine; between what is legal and illegal, and to deconstruct ideas such as “harm” and “marginality”. This is made possible both by historical reconstitutions and ethnographic discussions. If we see the notion of drugs as something that must be eradicated from social life as a historical construct, we can find times and places where this notion never existed.

These findings, which appear in different ways in both collections, make a critique not of drug consumption but rather of prohibition, from the point of view of defending an ethical principle – the right to do what one wishes with one’s own body – and what seems more important to me, the right to develop other forms of consciousness.

It is important to state that one of the organizers of Alcohol and Drugs in the History of Brazil, Henrique Carneiro, and both the organizers of The Ritual Use of Plants of Power are researchers at the Centre for Interdisciplinary Studies on Psychoactive Substances (NEIP), whose purpose is to carry out scientific research on drugs. As the opening text on its site states (, if the target of its action is the idea and practice of prohibition, its mission is to “problematize the issue of illegal drugs, calling attention to the political and social effects of the combat of such substances, which is, in fact, a combat directed at social groups, individual habits, and age-old practices.”

Drugs and Drug

The concept of drugs—or psychoactives—that we usually use is elastic and polysemic. It includes intoxicants (alcohol), excitants (coffee and cocaine), and sedatives (opium). It also includes recognized synthetic plants or substances, for example, hallucinogens, psychedelics or entheogens.

“Hallucinogen”, according to Goulart, Labate and Carneiro, in the “Introduction” to The Ritual Use of Plants of Power, is a misnomer, because it describes the experience as illusory and misguided. “Entheogen” would be the preferred term for certain researchers in the area, as it introduces its religious use, meaning, in Greek, something like “to bring God into oneself”. “Psychedelic” points to the lay use of these substances and thus to the world of Western counterculture that erupted in the 1960s and which was reborn, in another guise and with other values, in the last decade of the twentieth century.

Moving away from these definitions, we must be alert to changes in meaning of the word drug over the centuries. This is what Henrique Carneiro proposes in the first chapter of Alcohol and Drugs in the History of Brazil. Looking at the initial phase of colonization, Carneiro shows that the word “drug” included all kinds of spices, without making distinctions between the realm of food and that of medicine. Food and drugs are, he declares, the main products of the material culture of a people, and are also ways of obtaining pleasure, which will always have an element of self-restraint. What we now call drugs are thus as important in human history as is food. Mushrooms, cacti, alcohol, tobacco, marijuana, coffee, opium, etc. are, first and foremost, “food for the spirit” to the extent that they comfort, anesthetize, stimulate, produce mystical trances, and promote forms of sociability, such as rituals and festivals.

The distinctions between drugs and food, vice and necessity, and medicine and poison may be found in history. The articles in Alcohol and Drugs in the History of Brazil show, for example, that modern mercantilism has favored the commerce of certain substances such as wine and tobacco, suppressing the use of others, which began to be associated with addiction and marginality and have been regarded as harmful to health.

The drug problem is thus seen as being encircled by the normalizing activity of medicine, which developed mainly in the nineteenth century, as Michel Foucault has pointed out. This is, for example, the focus of the article by Maurício Fiore, “Medicalization of the Issue of Drug Use in Brazil”, which uses medical discourse on drugs in a larger discursive field that involves conflicting representations. The figure of the drug user oscillates between the criminal and the sick person, with the State, when not isolating them, at least treating them, in order to place them back in society and on the road to abstinence. Fiore studies present day events to examine how public policies, even the most enlightened ones, still feel the weight of the stigmatization of drug use, which is reflected in huge controversies that are both medical and political.

In the same book, Thiago Rodrigues’s article, “Drug Trafficking: a Historical Outline”, takes a different turn, focusing on the geopolitical front. The author points out that the marketing of psychoactive drugs in the international context was promoted in the 19th century, by states that are prohibitionist today. If these countries formerly created the need to consume and establish new markets, they later took up a moral discourse, associating trade in psychoactives with minorities and converting a geopolitical problem into a matter of public health and safety.

The article by Henrique Carneiro, in the collection The Ritual Use of Plants of Power, develops the same argument, showing that in countries like Germany and the United States, many psychoactive drugs were secret objects of scientific research for military use. The CIA, in its search to develop mind control techniques, appropriated methods such as hypnosis and the use of psychoactive drugs. Carneiro points out that in this context, LSD was appropriated in service to the State. CIA agents took acid as an obligatory part of their training. Over time, this consumption went beyond the boundaries of the CIA and became popular with the American elite. The result was the banning of LSD in 1966 and its criminalization in 1968, the year of election of Nixon, the sponsor of the great “war on drugs”.

The Traditional and the Modern

If Western, Christian and modern society is marked by the strong stigma of drugs and their users, other experiences, in other times and cultures, may show a quite different scenario, for example, of the religious use and the positive associations of altered states of consciousness. This is the subject of the articles in The Ritual Use of Plants of Power.

In the Preface, anthropologist Jean Langdon writes in an autobiographical tone on the emergence in the 1960s of discussions on the consumption of psychoactive substances, by focusing on the contact between the counterculture movements that appeared on the American scene and ethnographic studies on indigenous peoples, which discussed subjects such as shamanism. Langdon is known for her research on ethnomedicine based on her fieldwork with shamans of the Siona, an indigenous group that inhabits the region of the Putumayo River in Colombian Amazonia, which was also visited in 1953 by beatnik William Burroughs. Like Burroughs, Langdon became fascinated by the effects of consumption of yage (ayahuasca) during the healing sessions conducted by local shamans.

Langdon examines the centrality of shamanism in indigenous social life and says that we should stop thinking of it as an endangered archaic religion and understand it as a dynamic system of knowledge that allows us to rethink certain assumptions of our science. In shamanic practices, the experience of altered consciousness is considered a means to gain true knowledge, and in this sense, the value of a huge variety of plants such as ayahuasca, pariká, jurema, peyote and coca is revealed.

“Master Plants”, by Luis Eduardo Luna, focuses on Peruvian vegetalismo (mestizo shamanism). The articles in this second collection highlight different ways of appropriating plants of power, not just in the context of Amazon Indians, but also among Peruvian mestizos or peasants, the Peruvian vegetalistas; the settlers from the Northeast of Brazil in Acre, in the extreme west of Brazil; the caboclos, who have mixed Indian and European blood, in the northeastern Brazilian backlands; and the urban world, the New Age middle-class, or just those curious for mystical experiences.

The article by Beatriz Labate is of great importance here. In discussing the problem of legalizing the use of ayahuasca by certain religious groups, she looks at the difficult use of the term “tradition”. Even among the indigenous groups, as she and other authors stress, the ritual use of ayahuasca may be less “authentic” than we think, as it shows the result of a long history of exchanges with non-indigenous populations.

Beyond the problem of authenticity, Labate introduces us to the complex world of the ayahuasca religions, which merge indigenous, sertanejo (backcountry), and Christian elements. In an article written with Gustavo Pacheco, and included in Alcohol and Drugs in the History of Brazil, Labate shows that the ayahuasca religions, particularly Santo Daime and the União do Vegetal, began in Amazonia and include ayahuasca shamanism (which is a synthesis between the indigenous and rubber tappers’ worlds), rural Catholicism of the Northeasterners (with African roots), and esoteric culture of European origin.

In this intense process of inventing traditions, there is a considerable field of dispute between the emerging religions, with each defending its own ideal of authenticity.

This longing for the traditional reverberates in the legal discussion that tends to disqualify the urban uses of substances such as ayahuasca. As shown by Labate, the division between “traditional uses” and “modern uses” ends up harboring a certain prohibitionist discourse, which gives a supposed naturalness and superiority of rights to the former in detriment of the latter.

Labate analyzes, for example, the case of the use of peyote in the United States: the law allows it to be consumed only by certain groups defined as “traditional”. If the sense of “traditionalism” is constantly reworked, and if, increasingly, religious and lay groups expand and claim legitimacy, we must rethink the different meanings of the term “drug” and thus the very specific sense of the policy of prohibitionism.

Political Action

The ideas in the two collections presented here make clear the politicization—at different times and places—of the use of psychoactive substances. Alcohol and Drugs in the History of Brazil highlights how this ban cannot be dissociated from the stigmatization of certain groups that are claiming their place in the world, a claiming that tends to occur within a movement to reappropriate certain “damned” substance, such as caium, the corn or cassava beer of the Tupinambá Indians along the coast of Brazil in the sixteenth century, and the sugar cane rum of both the Quilomba Maroon settlements and the “excluded” state of Minas Gerais in Brazil in the 18th century.

In The Ritual Uses of Plants of Power , we can see how such cults as that of jurema in the Northeastern backlands of Brazil are strongly associated with the processes of the recovery of indigenous identities, which have been suppressed throughout the years. The North American political sphere is covered through discussion of the psychedelic 1960s, represented by figures such as Timothy Leary, who, defending freedom of conscience, stood up against the repression and expansionism of the United States.

Both collections call attention to the fact that the discourse on the use of psychoactive substances should be placed at the center of current debate. Behind the “drug issue” lie fundamental conceptions of the relationship between the individual, society and the State. The study of indigenous societies and certain religious groups helps us to understand that certain uses can be controlled without the mediation of a prohibitionist jurisdiction, and, in these cases, they may still prove to be endowed with great positive qualities, promoting sociability and developing other forms of awareness and therapy. The study of the various forms of appropriation and circulation of these substances also allows us to understand a political dynamic that involves both the exercise of power and its questioning.

The studies presented here may not solve the dilemma raised at the beginning of this text but they do at least indicate that, in order to constitute a political act, it is first necessary to break the taboos and unknowns that surround the so-called “drug issue”. This would be a start.

The Books

  • Álcool e drogas na história do Brasil [Alcohol and Drugs in the History of Brazil]. Edited by Renato Pinto Venancio and Henrique Carneiro. Articles by Renato Pinto Venancio, Henrique Carneiro, Luiz Mott, among others. São Paulo, Alameda Casa Editorial / Ed. PUC Minas, 2005.
  • O Uso Ritual das Plantas de Poder [The Ritual Use of Plants of Power]. Edited byand Beatriz Labate and Sandra Goulart. Articles by Henrique Carneiro, Jean Langdon, Robin Wright, Edward MacRae, among others. Campinas, Editora Mercado de Letras, 2005.

Renato Sztutman is a Professor of Anthropology at the University of São Paulo and a member of NEIP, the Interdisciplinary Group for Psychoactive Studies (

Originally Published In : Portuguese in Trópico in 2005: Nova luz sobre a questão das drogas

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