17. The ritual use of psychoactive plants in Catalonia.


Universitat Rovira i Virgili

According to international drug law, changes in the schedule of controlled drugs should be based on scientific evidence. However, social actions significantly contribute to many of these changes being made. There are several cases worldwide where changes in drug policies resulted from the activism of those who benefited from drug use. Biomedicine, as a source of evidence to base drug policy decisions on, is limited. Thus, other approaches are needed that show how drugs are being used in society.

Field research involving radical participation methods was conducted inside a phenomenological community of rural Catalonia, where ancient psychoactive plants (APP), such as ayahuasca or cannabis, are ritually integrated and regularly used in the community. The findings suggest that self- and/or community-controlled use of psychoactive plants may benefit both the individual and society by reducing potential harms and strengthening bonds between community members.

Evidence from ethnographic field work should be considered alongside evidence from biomedicine when drug policy decisions are made. The field work offers a clearer picture of what is happening in society, outside of the drug research laboratories and other data sources.


The use of psychoactive substances is normal among human beings from a global historical perspective. Societies differ only in terms of which drugs are defined as acceptable at a given moment, which depends more on norms and power relationships than the pharmacological properties of the substances (Kushner, 2010). Legal or illegal, most substance use is unproblematic and only a small percentage of users engage in misuse. However, those problematic users are the ones that law enforcement and clinicians tend to be in contact with and on whom policies are based.

It is therefore important to consider other evidence in addition to insights from biomedicine, in order to develop future drug policies that will address drug use in a just and effective manner.

The international community and national governments are addressing drug use within a drug control framework, which assumes that psychoactive substances are intrinsically harmful to individuals and societies, reducing traditional plants and the rituals that accompany them to mere psychoactive compounds in terms of their potential harms, while failing to consider their potential benefits for individuals and communities, including their role as community cohesion enhancers (Sánchez & Bouso, 2015). There is a bias in drug policy decisions, if biomedicine is considered the only valid source of evidence. Biomedicine focuses on finding the harms produced by drug use, mainly in terms of addiction and its societal costs. However, the concept of addiction is questioned within biomedicine itself (Puerta & Pedrero, 2017; Alexander, 2008; Peele, 2007), and addiction and other harms are only a small part of the possible effects of drugs. For most people who use psychoactive substances, the usage represents only one aspect of their lives and patterns of use are well-regulated and do not inevitably lead to harmful consequences (Grund et al., 1993). Other effects, such as strengthening community bonds, are described in the anthropological literature, which considers different settings and contexts (Wadley, 2016).

We are witnessing an increase in the use of ancient psychoactive plants (APP) such as cannabis, tobacco, coca, mescaline-containing cacti, and the DMT (N,N-Dimethyltryptamine) containing decoction popularly known as ayahuasca (Aixalá et al., 2019). We consider “Ancient Psychoactive Plants” (APP) to include psychoactive plants that have a history of use in rites of passage or as medicines, and which have been integrated into society with a symbolic meaning for the individual and a formative function within the society. The use of APP was (and still is) a social activity that strengthens social bonds and, over time, results in a structured social network (Grund et al., 1993). We group together various plants under this expression not with an assumption of shared properties in terms of pharmacology, toxicology or mechanisms of brain action (safety, potential harms or benefits, inducing altered states of consciousness, addiction potential, etc.), but to retain the understanding of these plants that exists in the researched community. Cannabis, tobacco, ayahuasca and coca all have very different mechanisms of action and effects, including abuse potential, but they are all used as sacraments in the researched community without much attention given to the biochemical differences among these plants.

APP have been extensively studied in various scientific disciplines such as epidemiology, neuroscience, pharmacology, addiction studies, sociology, anthropology, and ethnobotany (Wadley, 2016). Although there has been interest in the indigenous cultures and religious groups that use APP such as Santo Daime (Talin & Sanabria, 2017; Apud & Romaní, 2017), the ritual use of APP as a spiritual practice in contemporary society has received little attention. Our work is part of a larger study of which the quantitative part has already been published (Oña et al., 2019). The ethnographic part related to the use of cannabis is presented here with the following aims: to present a previously undocumented community that developed around the use of ancient psychoactive plants; to emphasize the importance of including ethnographic research as evidence for policy makers; to respect human rights when designing public policy on the use 6of drugs in a variety of contexts; and to highlight that self- and/or community-controlled use of drugs has less harmful effects (and even beneficial ones for the individual and society) than their use under coercive surveillance and legal prosecution. We believe that understanding lifestyles and behaviours has a practical value in relation to policy development and public health.

We focus on the practices involving APP, particularly with cannabis, that occur in ritualistic settings and are largely absent from ethnographic and qualitative studies. The fourteen-months-long fieldwork was carried out between February of 2018 and April of 2019 in a phenomenological community in rural Catalonia called Wonderland (“País de las Maravillas”). We employ this invented name used by the community members with their permission.
We utilized anthropological research methods to investigate the motives and regimes of use from the perspective of the users themselves. Ethnography intends to understand a phenomenon where it occurs and the logic of actions within a concrete social context. Only by being there, right in the middle of the occurrence, interacting and observing, can one obtain not only deep knowledge on the subject but also recognize possible interventions or improvements (Romaní, 1997). Ethnography offers us a flexible, reflexive, and creative process of data collection and interpretation. It requires daily recording of fieldnotes, close and intimate familiarity with the researched group, and intense involvement in the social practice under investigation over an extended period of time. Active collaboration and a dialogue between equals makes the categories of ‘informant’ and ‘expert’ disappear (López-Pavillard, 2015).

We employed “radical participation” (Goulet & Miller, 2007), a method of experiencing what informants experience with the aim of gaining a first-hand intersubjective understanding that improves the interpretation and analysis of data obtained through fieldwork. It differs from participant observation in terms of the intensity of the personal and experiential involvement, where more intense involvement is essential for the production of reliable ethnographic data and for the researcher to be taken seriously by the informants (Fotiou, 2010; López-Pavillard, 2015). Radical participation is active participation not only in the everyday life of the informants but in the rituals as well. Anthropologists researching the use of psychoactive plants frequently report that taking these substances is of crucial importance for establishing credibility and trust between the researcher and informants (Dawson, 2010; Harner, 1980; Luna, 1986; Fotiou, 2010) and to understand the spiritual and cultural worldview of the subjects.

Additionally, the fieldwork included carrying out semi-structured, in-depth narrative interviews. The analysis draws on scientific and policy reports related to the observed phenomena.

By utilizing a relational approach (Menéndez, 2010) that incorporates diverse actors in hegemonic terms, we aimed to reduce the degree of bias.


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