Years and years ago, when I was tiny, I made a short film for the BBC about Salvia divinorum
, a Mexican plant which was in those days gaining some notoriety as a legal high. Imagining myself, with youthful hubris, as a sort of latter-day Aldous Huxley circa Doors of Perception
, I pitched it to my editor by saying that I'd only make the film if I was allowed to get off my tits on the stuff personally in front of the camera. Since my editor rarely bothered to even look up when I went into his office, and since I did all my own filming anyway, he basically just waved his hands at me until I went away, which I decided to interpret as carte blanche
to go ahead.
You can see the results on a young, beardless me here
. During the long research period while I was setting up various aspects of the filming, this book became my Bible. I actually read quite a few works on hallucinogenics and legal highs, but most were either obscurely medical or uncritically new-agey – this one is the perfect balance, giving excellent ethnographic details of the different peoples or tribes that have used the substances concerned, with comments on mythology or folklorish import where relevant, but also providing details on the chemistry at work and the neurological effects produced (where known).
To take salvia as an example: we have an interview with a ‘shamanic healer’, details of where the plant grows, how the leaves are prepared for use, some background on the Aztec drug pipiltzintzintli which may have been the same thing, several beautiful illustrative photos, and a sidebar on the chemical composition of active ingredient salvinorin-A (C₂₃H₂₈O₈).
The original authors are the grand-daddies of hallucinogenic research: Richard Evans Schultes more or less invented the field of ethnobotany single-handed, while Albert Hofmann was the main discoverer of LSD and the first to identify (and synthesise) psilocybin. Their original work came out in 1979; this gorgeous 1998 version has been brought up to date by the German ‘ethnopharmacologist’ Christian Rätsch. It's so good-looking it's practically a coffee-table book.
As for the mind-altering chemicals themselves, truthfully I've never had any kind of transcendent experience with them. However, I am grateful to have had the unusual pleasure of being able to charge a bong to BBC expenses.