Interview by Chris Simunek
HT.COM BONUS:: Get your shroom on at the Telluride Mushroom Festival in Colorado.
Dr. Andrew Weil is the best-selling author of Spontaneous Healing, Eight Weeks to Optimum Health, The Natural Mind, and From Chocolate to Morphine: Everything You Need to Know About Mind-Altering Drugs (with Winifred Rosen). Internationally recognized as one of the leading authorities on medicinal herbs, mind-body interactions, and "Integrative Medicine," Dr. Weil advocates that health must be addressed on the physical, mental and spiritual levels. Founder and director of the Program of Integrated Medicine at the University of Arizona’s Health Sciences Center, he has recently established a nonprofit organization, the Polaris Foundation, "to advance the cause of Integrative Medicine through public policy, education, and research." He was a HIGH TIMES contributor from 1975-1983. You went to Harvard in the ’60s, correct?
What year did you graduate?
1964. And then I went to Harvard Medical School and graduated in 1968.
Did you study psychoactive plants?
I majored in biology and botany, and definitely was interested in psychoactive plants, medicinal plants.
At the time was that a popular field? Were there other people at Harvard studying that?
No. The man that I studied under, Richard Schultes, was the great expert in the country, but that whole field of ethnobotany was—then nobody knew what it was—and there was no interest in rainforest stuff, it predated all that.
What’s your average MD’s knowledge of the biological sources of the pharmaceutical drugs that they prescribe?
Very little. I mean, I’m trying to change that. The doctors in my program at the University of Arizona get a lot of background in botanical medicine, but I think that average physicians know very little of it.
Have you found any prejudice from academic communities, considering your frank discussions of drugs and your own drug experiences?
You know, I think I pushed the establishment’s buttons in other areas so much that that is kind of insignificant today. Occasionally, in recent years, when I’m on national talk shows, they will try to embarrass me with questions about my past and previous books, but I stand by all that I’ve written, and I don’t think that I’ve ever been hurt by that.
Speaking of your past, when did you first get involved with HIGH TIMES?
Well, I had a fellowship between 1971 and 1975, when I did a lot of my travels in South America, and I was writing monthly newsletters. A lot of those were published in HIGH TIMES in the mid-’70s. They used to run them as monthly columns.
Did you know the founder, Tom Forçade?
Yes, I did.
What was he like? What was your relationship with him?
He was intense. [Laughs.] I wasn’t a personal friend of his, but I knew him professionally and I found him interesting. That’s all I can say: He was intense.
Your contributions died out about the same time as they started doing those romantic cocaine centerfolds.
Was that coincidence?
Probably. I think it was both that, and that I had moved on to other things, you know? I was beginning to become interested in alternative medicine, and I stopped writing those newsletters. So, it was probably not unconnected that the magazine went off in a different direction and I went off in a different direction.
Are there potential medical applications of psychedelic mushrooms?
There is a study going on at my institution at the moment looking at the use of psilocybin in treating obsessive-compulsive disorder. And that’s been the first federally sanctioned human study with psilocybin since forever. I think there are potential applications in not only psychiatric medicine, but physical medicine.
I read something about a mushroom trip you took in the Amazon with a curandera [shaman] who considered Psilocybe cubensis to be the "gran remedio cure of all ills."
I think their sense is that all disease originates on the spiritual level, and that by taking mushrooms in the proper context with a trained shaman, you can often correct things on that level that translates into physical cures. I’m sympathetic to that viewpoint. I think there are mental-emotional-spiritual components of disease that regular medicine doesn’t often address. And I don’t think that the only way to do that is with mushrooms or drugs, but I think that that aspect of health and illness has to be looked at.
What about detrimental side effects of psychedelic mushrooms?
I don’t think that they’re benign. I think that if you take too many of them, they can be very unpleasant, they can be scary. I think, on a purely physical, medical level they’re like the other true psychedelics, they’re very safe. They just don’t do a lot to the physical body.
I don’t think there’s any.
R. Gordon Wasson theorized that the plant "soma" in the Rig Veda is mushrooms.
I don’t believe that. I have a very strong opinion on that, and I don’t believe it. Wasson made the case that this was Amanita muscaria based on linguistic grounds. I think he was dead wrong. I think there are much better candidates that probably were indole-containing plants.
Do you have a theory as to what it was?
I’ve reviewed a number of arguments, and I’m not really qualified to say. But there are some really good theories out there as to how people could have made a plant preparation that was LSD-like, which I think is much more likely than Amanita muscaria.
Why is it that many people who use psychedelic mushrooms have a similar experience, characterized by an awareness of their part in the grand scheme and an empathic communication with nature?
Right. It’s hard to tease apart the pharmacological effects from the effects of set and setting. I think that in this culture, mushrooms have a reputation for that sort of thing, so people go into it often with that expectation. And it may be the expectation, as much as the drug, that produces that kind of result.
So you don’t think there’s something innate in us that is only brought out by the drug?
I think there is something innate in us. And I think the drugs can be a trigger of that. But I think other things can be triggers as well. That was really the point of The Natural Mind, that that is inside.
From a physician’s perspective, what is a hallucination? What happens to your body to produce a hallucination?
Well, some activity in the brain that is simulating an external perception so that you are perceiving something that is not there. So, it could be something originating in the brain that is reproducing what would happen if an external stimulation acted on the same brain center. These drugs seem to act on various neurotransmitter pathways—dopamine, noradrenaline—so it’s probably activity within those areas. If you have visual hallucinations, there is some activity going on in the visual cortex of the brain. If you have an auditory hallucination, there’s something in the auditory center of the brain.