The Catholic Church's Surprisingly Central Role in the Idiotic Idea of Drug Prohibition

By the time Teresa Sanchez Cepeda Davila y Ahumada had turned 14, she had already known grievous sorrow. Her father, a Jewish convert to Christianity who lived in Gotarrendura, Avila (recently annexed as part of the newly unified kingdom of Spain), had disappeared early from Teresa’s life after the Spanish Inquisition questioned the sincerity of his conversion and condemned him. Then, when her mother fell ill and died, the girl went to the only place left to her: a nunnery.


Disgusted by the ostentatious wealth and church corruption she found there, the girl took solace in her daily communion with the only family she had left: her heavenly Father and Jesus his son. Through daily intensive meditative prayers, as Teresa later recalled in her autobiography, she was able to cultivate a state of mind which made it possible for the Holy Spirit to seize her, for her own ego to be swept away in stages and finally for herself to be subsumed in the ecstatic bliss of perfect communion with God’s angels, and sometimes even Jesus himself.

The writing reads like superstitious hocus-pocus to the secular readers of today, but Teresa approached her study with the meticulousness of a scientist and insisted that her insights could be used by any devoted Christian to find the same blissful connection to God as she had found. Though some of her rivals in the Church initially condemned her insights as diabolical in their origins, Teresa’s writings and church reforms eventually gained such broad acceptance within Catholic circles that the Jewish girl of humble origins — also known by posterity as Saint Teresa of Jesus, or simply St. Teresa — nearly became the patron saint of Spain after her death in 1582. She would have shared the honor with St. James, one of Christ’s original 12 apostles.

Is the popularity of St. Teresa’s instructions on meditative prayer based entirely on mass delusion? Were her experiences of divine bliss, which she describes in such detail, based on mental illness, the product of a fervent belief and an active imagination? Or could St. Teresa’s meditations, derived through years of careful study and trials, actually deliver the goods in a way modern science can describe And what does all this have to do with drug prohibition? 

The Church Meets New World Entheogens

At the same time Teresa Davila struggled against the patriarchal authorities of her church, Catholic missionaries in New Spain were calling for backup. The enterprises of the Spanish Crown, fueled by extensive silver mines in Peru, had exceeded even the wildest of expectations. Such was the sheer magnitude of material wealth extracted from the New World that the Spanish silver dollar rapidly displaced the gold doubloon as the global trading currency of choice.

The Church was lagging behind. Missionaries in modern-day Mexico wrote to Rome, describing a mixed record of success: the indigenous populations of New Spain had taken to the Catholic faith in the sense that they showed up dutifully to mass and took communion, but exhortations to abandon their traditional faith, which often included the ritual ingestion of entheogenic plants or mushrooms, fell on deaf ears. As historian Isaac Campos details in Home Grown: Mexico and the Origins of the War on Drugs (University of North Carolina, 2012), this theological conflict was like an irresistible force meeting an unmovable object: papal authorities could not tolerate any conversion of the native population which was less than total; any leniency in allowing native tribes to continue their traditional rites would leave the devil a foothold.

But the papal leadership failed to appreciate the scope of the challenge. New Spain, as Campos points out, was home to the richest cornucopia of native entheogenic plants and fungi to be found anywhere on Earth, including peyote cactus in the north, ayahuasca vines in the south and various strains of psilocybin mushrooms growing throughout the isthmus, to name a few.

The culture of the nation of indigenous tribes known as the Mexica grew to match the abundance of their surroundings. For the Mexica, the divine was not to be found in some ethereal place beyond the sky but rather in nature, growing inside the sacred button of a cactus or the cap of a holy mushroom. Thus the Catholic communion, in which indigenous converts were instructed to eat the blood and body of their new god in the form of bread and wine, bore a close enough resemblance to their traditional rituals that mass became assimilated easily into the local routine.

But to abandon the powerful plant and fungal teachers which already grew abundantly throughout their homeland to exclusively commune with a god who seemed to appear only weakly (if at all) through stale bread and weak wine—for the majority of Mexica “converts,” that simply wasn’t in the cards. The Church would have to try a new strategy. What it chose to do, according to Campos, ended up initiating the global drug war—four centuries ago.

Endogenous and Exogenous Euphoria

Suppose for a moment that the most intimate rituals of traditional Mexica animism — plant-based, nature-centric, democratically available, locally administered by female herbolarias — and Catholicism — denying and dominating nature, hierarchically structured, patriarchal — work in almost exactly the same way. Mexica spiritual leaders insisted to Catholic missionaries that their practices helped them commune directly with their gods; St. Teresa insisted in her autobiography that her Catholic prayers helped her commune directly with Jesus and the angels. Are we to dismiss both claims categorically out of hand? Or might there be an underlying truth common to both cultural narratives?

Modern science has identified an endogenous analogue for practically every known exogenous drug and vice versa. What this means, at least in theory, is that any psychoactive drug which can be ingested from a plant, fungus or other external source only works because it is activating a receptor in the body which evolved to be activated by other drugs which occur naturally in the body.

Many of these endogenous drugs are potent euphoriants (dopamine, serotonin, oxytocin) or stimulants (norepinephrine aka adrenaline), which activate endogenous receptors corresponding to feelings of reward, bonding or panic, as the Darwinian need may be. Put another way, the drugs we take from outside and the drugs we make on the inside are like two sets of similar keys; a different color from each other, perhaps, but they turn the same lock.

While I won’t endeavor to guess what kind of endogenous trip made St. Teresa think she was speared through the heart by an archangel, I do feel quite comfortable speculating that the Spanish saint, like millions of other Catholics throughout history, dosed on healthy quantities of anandamide, discovered in 1992 by the same laboratory that discovered THC and CBD and named after the sanskrit word for bliss. If you’re ever out of cannabis, or if you’ve never tried the herb but are curious to know what a cannabis high feels like, meditate. Or better still, do about an hour of gentle yoga, focusing carefully on your breath.

Yogi scholars have written extensively about the sacred bliss — ananda — a yoga practitioner can attain using only her body and her breath. These kinds of meditative religious practices cultivate a closer connection to the divine in part because the anandamide produced through yoga and meditation activate the same receptors as THC.

Only One Sanctified Path to Bliss

The successful adoption of the meditative practices of St. Teresa and other mystics proves that devout access to anandamide and other bliss-producing endogenous drugs was not alien to the Catholic faith; on the contrary, at the time of the ascendancy of Teresa’s writings in papal doctrine the Church was effectively the largest endogenous drug distribution cartel on Earth.

Catholic mass, while devoid of psychoactive substances, nevertheless knows how to invoke a sense of divine awe, through monumental cathedrals and other public works, the mysterious opacity of a service conducted in a language too ancient for lay attendees to understand, and the hierarchical assumption of divine access paired with terrestrial authority to punish —which just happened to buttress the idea of the Church as a dominant political power. Rome potentially had much to lose by the arrival of a strong rival on its periphery.

By contrast, the Mexica, while no strangers to dominating political hierarchies (the Aztec empire that ruled them was as ruthless as any in Europe), enjoyed a natural democratic buffer against a similar corruption of their religion. No power of either church or state could hope to wipe out the vast tapestry of entheogens all around them; any practitioner with rudimentary knowledge could return from a gathering expedition, stocked for weeks of rituals to come. Hierarchical co-option was impossible.

In the end, the Inquisition found only one solution. In June 1620, a new papal bull went into effect in New Spain, declaring that excommunication would await any Christian who accepted any of a long list of prohibited entheogens from a native, and that worse punishment awaited any native found dealing such drugs to anyone. It was the first anti-drug law in the New World. 

The pope finally found a way to eliminate his competition in New Spain. The global drug war had begun.

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