The topic of stimulants and recreational use of certain plants in today's society is hotly debated - yet it is frequently little understood by those who discuss it. The attitudes presented tend to be a confused mesh of prejudice and ignorance. The main reason for this confusion is the arbitrary terminology and the corresponding stigmatisation.
The truth is that the segregated differences between plants are often rather narrow, while the actual nature of a plant is much more fluid. A common kitchen variety of a plant, such as celery for example can be either a vegetable (roots or stems) or a herb used for flavouring (seeds, leaves). However, used in the correct way it can also be a medicinal agent.
In the case of stimulants we first have to define the terminology. Generally speaking a stimulant is any agent that affects the nervous system in some way (psychoactive). In the world of psychopharmaca the term usually refers to some kind of amphetamine, but in terms of phytopharmaceuticals it could include just about any plant, as all plants affect consciousness directly or indirectly.
Normally the type of plants classified as stimulants are strong drugs, inebriants, which bring to mind illegal drugs used by 'social degenerates'. Yet, these types of plants should properly be classified as medicinal plants since all of them also have powerful medicinal properties. Stimulants on the other hand tend to act much milder, but can be just as addictive - and they can also be found in just about anybody's kitchen cupboard.
The most common stimulants are plant derived substances such as coffee, tea, sugar or cocoa and tobacco. The social and political impact of these plants throughout history is immense, yet rarely even considered when we talk about psychoactive plants. If it had not been for the sweet tooth of European aristocrats for example - would slavery have gone to the extremes documented in the history of sugar plantations of the New World? Or, consider coffee - it has fuelled the world economy for centuries, and not just as a trading commodity: Would 'life in the fast lane' have evolved the same way without coffee to hasten our days along, with no time left to smell the flowers on the way? And if one was to take a close look at the coffee habits among stock brokers, we might gain an new perspecitive on the jittery jumps that mark the wild rides of stock exchanges around the world. In fact, the stock exchange was born as and in a coffee house, at Lloyds of London, where securities on coffee shipments were first traded. The coffee house in time closed down, but Lloyds survived and grew into one of the biggest and most successful financial houses in the western world. Meanwhile, the boiler room at the stock exchange, coffee fuelled as ever, continues to thrive. In London, where this new concept of coffee-house /business centre first arose, different coffee houses attracted different types of business men. The number of coffee houses grew rapidly, from just a handful to over 2000 in just 50 years. To keep up with the gossip and trading that went on at different establishments 'correspondents' at each coffee house compiled gazettes with the latest news for those who could not be there in person. And that was the beginning of modern journalism as we know it...
The drama still continues. The plantations, where these crops are grown as cash crops today have come along only a very small way since the days of slavery - in West Africa for example, it is mainly children from the age of 3 to 15 who work in the Cocoa plantations - for pennies or nothing at all. While we satisfy our 'chocoholic' cravings these children are robbed of their childhood - and will probably never even taste a chocolate bar. Cash crop economies perpetuate poverty in developing nations while supplying the 'fuel' that keeps the 'developed world' running smoothly. Meanwhile, the ecological balance is also destroyed as the immense biological diversity of rainforests is replaced by monoculture crops that neither feed nor sustain the local population. Furthermore, the considerable CO2 impact, not only in terms of fertilizer use, but also in terms of shipping and processing required to turn the raw materials into nice, appealing supermarket shelf ready packages to be distributed around the world.
The social role of stimulants is not just to provide energy or mental fuel. Rather, they directly impact the social fabric of our society. Stimulant use is often ritualised and as such performs some specific social function such as gratification or reward, or atonement to the mental 'vibrational' frequency of one's associated social group, confirming social bonds and reinforcing social status. The Japanese tea ceremony represents just one extreme, where the ceremony itself and all the little innuendos and gestures that go with it are far more significant than the actual brew itself. The morning coffee/cigarette breaks at the office, where important gossip is exchanged contribute greatly to harmonizing the 'mental wave length' of the attendants.
If you find this argument a little too far out, just try to participate in such a ritualised stimulant sharing without actually partaking of the same substance, e.g. going out to the pub with a drinking crowd without partaking of any alcohol. Or, try abstaining from all such stimulants for a period of perhaps 6 months and observe the mental changes that will set you socially apart from your environment (unless you live in a community of purists, which would be an excellent study ground to experiment with the reverse approach).
Stimulants affect everybody's life, one way or another, though mostly completely unconsciously. Many social changes could be affected globally if we chose to deal with this topic in a more conscious way. But who wants to start the day without their beloved cup o' Joe? And what would we (or our children) do without that soothing candy bar to help us through the day?
These pages provide information on the role of stimulants in our cultures, the history of these plants and the social, political or spiritual significance these plants had or have today. They also provide resources for fair trade organizations and organic growers who aim to limit the destructive consequences of cash crop plantations.
Please keep in mind that these pages are an evolving project. The resource pointers are by no means complete, but are revised on a regular basis. If you have any resources you would like to share, please contact Sacred Earth.
© Kat Morgenstern, Aug. 2002, revised 2011
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