High Times Greats: Dr. Andrew Weil, Scholar of the Natural Mystic

One of the foremost ethnobotanists in the world, Dr. Andrew Weil, former High Times contributor and author, talks about medicine, the use of natural substances in the healing process, coca leaves, marijuana and toad venom.
High Times Greats: Dr. Andrew Weil, Scholar of the Natural Mystic
Dr. Andrew Weil/ Facebook

The synthetic versus the natural—Dr. Andrew Weil has always been an active proponent of the latter. But he manages to incorporate the best of the two. Whether it be pharmaceutical derivatives versus plant medicines or standard Western allopathic treatment versus alter native systems of healing, Weil breaks new ground by helping to sort out the best remedy for each of his patients.

Few medical doctors can boast of completing an undergraduate degree in botany, investigating the plant sources of pharmaceutical remedies. But Weil attended Harvard in the early ’60s, studying ethnobotany under the renowned Dr. Richard Schultes, the father of Modern Ethnobotany.

After graduating from Harvard Medical School, Weil worked for the National Institute of Mental Health. He initially declined to practice medicine for moral reasons: “If I got sick, I wouldn’t want done to me what I had been taught to do to other people.” Instead, he traveled the globe—particularly South America—learning other healing methods. Only then did he start a private practice in Tucson, Arizona.

Weil spoke to High Times—for which he penned a dozen articles between 1976 and 1983—for this January, 1996 interview with Gregory Daurer.

HIGH TIMES: What first got you interested in plants?

Andrew Weil: I think it’s something I got from my mother, which she got from her mother. As far back as I can remember, I was interested in plants—even though I grew up in a row house in Philadelphia and had very little opportunity to grow things. We had a tiny little plot of ground in the back. But I used to grow indoor plants and gardened outside. And I always dreamed of a time when I’d be able to have a really good garden—which I finally do.

Your studies at Harvard brought you into contact with some very influential people. What did you learn from your botany teacher, Richard Schultes?

That was a major formative influence in my life and work. I became interested in the American tropics and Indians in South America, uses of hallucinogenic plants, medicinal plants and unusual food plants. It started me on a career of research in drug plants of all kinds. It’s unusual for a medical doctor to have a background in ethnobotany, and I’m really glad I got that.

One of the medicinal/hallucinogenic plants you’ve written about is yage. Can you say something about your experiences with it in South America?

Today it is better known as ayahuasca. The interesting thing that’s happened since the time I was studying it is that it’s become very, very popular through Brazilian religious movements, and has also become available up here in North America: members of those groups are bringing it in and using it.

I took it with a number of shamans in South America and had very variable experiences with it. I had the best experience with one shaman in Ecuador—it
was very dreamy, very visual. The visual images were very much influenced by the singing of the shaman. It seemed to me to be a very powerful psychedelic with many potential uses.

You were also at Harvard during the era of Timothy Leary. I understand that you wrote some critical items about him for the campus newspaper. What do you think of Leary?

I was the investigative reporter on the Harvard Crimson who really covered the [Richard] Alpert/Leary psychedelic stories. I always liked Leary. He was a very charming person who genuinely thought that these substances were the most interesting things he’d ever come across. I think he was very naive about the opposition he would receive in promoting them. I think that his leaving Harvard—and Alpert’s being fired from Harvard—was the single event that really spread knowledge of those substances throughout American culture. It was front-page news in The New York Times, and it was the first most Americans had heard of psilocybin.

Your book From Chocolate to Morphine was pulled from several school libraries in the Reagan era for “promoting drug use.” Did that have any effect on your standing as a writer and doctor among your colleagues?

There was a period when there was a really organized attempt to keep me from speaking. This was mostly orchestrated by a group called the National Federation of Parents for a Drug-Free Youth—for which Nancy Reagan was honorary chairwoman—and a Republican Senator from Florida named Paula Hawkins. Hawkins had gone after the book as a part of her campaign for re-election, which she lost. But that group, with the aid of the White House Drug Policy Office, really made an attempt to go after my jobs and keep me from speaking. Those attempts were not really successful—the book has been reissued and continues to be very successful. The National Federation of Parents for a Drug-Free Youth has accepted large donations from a US tobacco company, so I don’t think they’re in much of a position to be taking exception to what I wrote.

At the height of the campaign, Paula Hawkins stood up on the floor of the US Senate and mentioned From Chocolate to Morphine, and said that the worst thing about the book was that it was neutral: that it was not telling kids to say “No!” And I think that’s a great compliment; it was just what I intended to do. I think that the book neither promotes nor discourages drug use—it just tries to give accurate information so that people can make informed decisions. And I’ve always seen that as being my main job.

You’ve stated that cultures that use drugs in a ritualistic fashion have a lesser degree of abuse than those that don’t.

I think there’s a lot of ways which societies can protect themselves from the harmful effects of drugs. One is by using natural drugs in dilute forms rather than concentrated ones. Another is surrounding drug use with rituals that everyone accepts. For instance, I’ve written a lot about the chewing of coca leaf in South America, and contrasted that with the use of cocaine up here. Among South American Indians, the use of coca is highly ritualized. It’s done at particular times, for particular purposes, people think about it in a particular way. It’s not used casually or recreationally.

I read your New Yorker piece about coca. Am I correct that you would like to see coca products introduced into legal markets as opposed to illegal cocaine production?

I’d love to see that. I think coca in its natural form has a lot of beneficial effects. I think its abuse potential is very low, its addiction potential is very low. And it seems to me a shame that we have cut ourselves off from its beneficial uses while at the same time our policies have encouraged the development of a black market in isolated cocaine. So I think if legal markets were developed for coca it would, first of all, be a way of siphoning energy away from the black market for cocaine. And, in addition, I think people who wanted to experiment with stimulants of that kind could be persuaded to use coca products other than cocaine. I think there could be a whole range of them, from coca tea, which is very mild, to extracts that could be dispensed upon medical prescription. Chewing gum. Lozenges. You know, things that were available, say, 80 or 90 years ago.

What are some of the medicinal benefits of coca?

It’s a very good digestive remedy. It’s good for any type of stomach or intestinal disorder. It stabilizes blood sugar, treats motion sickness, has a relaxing effect on the larynx for people who are speakers or singers. It also could be used as an aid to weight loss, because you can chew coca instead of eating a meal and use the energy to exercise. I think it could definitely be useful as a treatment to get people off of cocaine.

One of the recommendations in Spontaneous Healing is the use of hempseed oil—even though it’s not widely available now.

I’m a big proponent of therapeutic oils, particularly those that are sources of what are called omega-3 fatty acids. These are very healthy and hard to get. Certain fish are sources of them. For people who don’t want to eat fish, the main source at the moment is flax seed. Flaxseed oil is not always delicious, and goes rancid quickly. Hempseed oil, I think, tastes better and has a better spectrum of fatty acids. I’d love to see it become more widely available. I think it would be a good thing for people to have in their diets.

Have you ever had to recommend medical marijuana? Given the laws, it must be difficult for a doctor. What’s the protocol?

Yes, I have, and it really depends on the circumstances and the kind of person. I have often recommended marijuana to cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy and suffering from nausea. I’ve also known many nurses who will suggest that to their patients. I also recommend it to patients with MS—multiple sclerosis—who have a lot of muscle spasticity. Again, depending on the person, I might recommend that they experiment to see whether that helps them relax their muscles. I’m not a great fan of using synthetic THC, which I don’t think works as well.

What recommendations would you make to a regular marijuana user to maintain health?

First of all, smoke less. I mean, I see lots of users who smoke all the time, and not only do you get less effects from it, but it increases the rate of respiratory irritation. That’s my main recommendation: Smoke it less frequently.

I also think people who smoke marijuana would do well to take antioxidant vitamins— beta carotene, vitamin C, selenium, vitamin E—because I think it helps reduce the risk of lung cancer, which is a risk for anybody smoking any vegetable matter. Just take good care of your respiratory system. That would be about it, I think.

In Spontaneous Healing you write about people who have rebounded from various illnesses, from back pain to the most serious cancer. Can you comment on the body’s healing system and why you think it’s understudied?

I think the body has a healing system that is not made a part of current medical thinking. It’s obvious, if you cut your finger and watch what happens, that the body can heal itself. And just as you can see that on the surface, it happens at every level of the body. I think whenever people get better it’s because of the operations of those systems. Whenever you give people treatments and they get better, the treatments work by facilitating those systems. And I think it’s very important for both doctors and patients to work from that concept.

I think the reason we don’t take that seriously in medicine is that we’re very focused on disease rather than health and healing. And I think it’s also that Western medicine is very focused on the form and structure of the body, while the healing system is a functional system, rather than a set of structures that you can easily picture.

One of your suggestions for enhancing the body’s healing power is eating certain kinds of mushrooms.

Most of these are Oriental mushrooms, some of which are used as foods and some of which are only medicines. Some of the ones I recommend are reishi, a Japanese mushroom, and shiitake, the black mushroom in Chinese food. Then there’s enoki, another edible mushroom you can sometimes find in markets here, and another one I use called maitake. A lot of these are good to eat and stimulate the immune system and have anticancer properties.

I understand that in the next couple of days you’re off to the Telluride Mushroom Festival here in Colorado.

Yeah, I think this is our thirteenth annual festival. I’m one of the founders and organizers. It’s great. It’s an amazing collection of people with a lot of diverse interests. There’s some very good experts there on mushroom identification and mushroom properties. We go out and collect mushrooms in the mountains, cook them, try them. We have lots of fun. There’s a family of people who have been coming regularly for a long time. We’re one of the official Telluride festivals. It’s a great event.

In The Marriage of the Sun and the Moon you write about psilocybin mushrooms. What insights have you gleaned from the use of these mushrooms?

Well, you know, I was using these substances a long time ago, mostly in the 1970s. The experiences I had were definitely influential in my view of the human body and its potentials. I also have seen, especially recently, that there’s definitely a dark side to these mushrooms. I’ve seen a lot of bad reactions, either from people taking too much of them or using them in bad settings. I don’t want to minimize that aspect of them. In the past year. I’ve seen a couple of people who’ve had very bad long-lasting effects from using mushrooms. I think, used moderately and intelligently, it’s an interesting experience—it’s just a part of learning about what the potentials of the mind are.

What were the negative longterm effects you were referring to?

One person, a medical doctor, just had a very terrifying experience and said he would never repeat it again. Another person really had the onset of what looks like acute paranoid schizophrenia following a period of eating mushrooms very regularly over several weeks. And I think he’s permanently disabled. So that’s a potential.

As a board member of the Drug Policy Foundation, what kind of recommendations do you make on drug policy? How can we minimize the harm to society from these substances while also recognizing their benefits?

I’ve always said that I think education is our best hope of reducing drug abuse and that the criminal law seems not to work for us. I’m not in favor of sudden legalization of everything. I am in favor of backing away from the use of the criminal laws, the main instrument we currently use. I would favor a gradual dismantling of the laws, starting with the marijuana laws, and at the same time, an emphasis on real education at all levels of society about what are the benefits and risks of these substances. I would also favor curtailing all advertising and promotion of legal drugs.

How would you change the marijuana laws?

I would do it in a stepwise fashion, beginning with, say, you allow people to grow a certain number of plants for their own use or to possess a certain amount of marijuana for their own use. If they have more than that, you fine them or take some sort of action against them. Let’s see how society reacts to that change. I think you have to do it in a gradual fashion. I’d certainly allow medical marijuana use as well.

The first recreational drug you tried was nutmeg?

Yeah. Well, alcohol was the first recreational drug I tried, like most people. And then, yeah, I think the next was nutmeg, when I was a senior in high school. Then I used mescaline; this was about 1960. I experimented with that a number of times. I didn’t try marijuana until about 1964. I think it’s a little unusual to try psychedelics before marijuana.

Have you had any interesting ethnobotanical adventures recently?

Well, I wrote a paper on the use of toad venom. These toads are native to where I live, they’re around my house in Arizona. I’m one of the experts on the use of the Sonoran Desert toad as a psychedelic drug. I’ve only tried it a couple of times myself. It’s not something that I would recommend to a lot of people. But it was very interesting to discover an animal source of a psychedelic and to look at the possible role of that toad in Native American history.

Smoking toad venom produces a DMT-like high?

5-methoxy DMT. It’s not visual. It’s a very, very intense disconnection from ordinary reality, short-lasting if you smoke it.

What’s the word on the new psychedelic 2-CB?

Most people I know who’ve used it have been positive about it. They like it. There’s a percentage of people who don’t seem to feel any effect from it. It’s a derivative of mescaline. It’s visual. Body feelings, sort of dreamy psychedelic states. One of the features of it that I find interesting is that it seems to produce no or little day-after fatigue relative to other drugs of its class. And it would be nice to know why that is, since a lot of these phenylethylamines leave you feeling fairly fatigued. I don’t know why 2-CB doesn’t tend to do that.

In conclusion—and relating back to your book Spontaneous Healing—what’s the future for health care in America?

I think the health-care system is in big trouble and medicine has just gotten too expensive. And I think we’re going to see a lot of hospitals go bankrupt. I also think that this is creating a lot of openness to change in medicine. It’s really opening the possibility of doctors looking at alternatives and things that will save money. So, I think there’s a lot of potential now for seeing new models of medicine develop.

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