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Drug Use in Religions

Several religions have used certain types of drugs throughout history as part of spiritual ceremonies, rituals, and traditions. For the adherents of these faiths, drugs are thought to bring important visions and to help people connect to the spiritual world or to a higher power. Other religious groups hold strict values against drug and alcohol use because they feel that drugs can come between a person’s relationship with a higher power.

Religions That Use Drugs

  • The Native American Church is a religious group that emphasizes honesty, family, faithfulness in marriage, economic independence, and prayer for its members.2 The church was chartered in 1918 and currently has around 250,000 members. It has 80 chapters throughout the United States.2,3 Peyote use is an integral part of certain ceremonies. But members are encouraged to abstain from using alcohol.2
  • Rastafarianism was founded in the 1930s in Jamaica. Followers revere Haile Selassie as their messianic God, and believe that he will one day return to lead the black community back to an Ethiopian homeland. Rastafarians, or Rastas, feel that the black community has been suppressed by slavery and colonization. Members are encouraged to follow a strict vegetarian diet and avoid alcohol, but the ritualistic use of marijuana to increase spiritual awareness is permitted. One famous Rasta, Bob Marley, was pivotal in spreading awareness of the religion through his music during the 1970s. The religion has over 1 million members around the world.4
  • Hinduism is one of the world’s oldest religions and currently has more than 900 million followers, the majority of whom are from India. Hindus believe in one supreme God with multiple deities associated with him. They also believe in reincarnation based on karma, or how a person lived in a previous life.5 In general, the religion disapproves of illegal drug use, but cannabis and a plant-derived intoxicating drink called Soma (not to be confused with the modern day muscle relaxant of the same name) have historically been used in worship.6
  • Bwiti is a religion followed by the Babongo people of Gabon on the west coast of Africa. It is the official religion of Gabon and is practiced by people living in the capital city of Libreville and in the country’s forests. Followers believe that all beings, including animals and plants, contain a spiritual essence. The hallucinogenic drug iboga is sometimes used in Bwiti spiritual ceremonies.7

Drugs Used

  • Peyote is derived from a small, spineless cactus plant that contains the hallucinogenic drug mescaline. The crown or top of the cactus is cut, dried, and then either chewed, ground into a powder and swallowed, smoked with cannabis or tobacco, soaked in water, or brewed in tea. The effects of peyote include euphoria, distorted senses, hallucinations, distortions of space and time, and altered body image. 1,8 The drug is used by members of the Native American Church in the southwestern United States and the Huichol Indians in Northwestern Mexico as part of religious ceremonies.2
  • Ayahuasca is a hallucinogenic drink derived from Amazonian plants containing DMT, a drug that can cause hallucinations.1 Some South American tribal communities use ayahuasca in religious rituals.9 More recently, tourists have traveled to the region to experiment with the drug.
  • Psilocybin, also known as magic mushrooms or shrooms, is derived from fresh or dried mushrooms found throughout the United States, Mexico, and South America. Users may ingest the drug orally by brewing the mushrooms in tea or combining them with food to mask their bitter taste. The drug’s effects can include hallucinations, difficulty differentiating fantasy from reality, and anxiety.1,8 The drug is used by some indigenous cultures throughout Mexico and Central America, including the Mazatec Indians of Mexico, as a part of religious ceremonies.10
  • Cannabis, or marijuana, is a plant grown throughout North and South America, Asia, and the Caribbean. The drug is typically smoked, mixed with food, or brewed in tea. Its main ingredient, THC, is responsible for its pleasurable effects, including euphoria, relaxation, and enhanced sensory experiences.8 Marijuana has been used throughout history by some religious groups. Rastafarians refer to the drug as “wisdom weed” or “holy herb” and consider it to have great religious significance.4 Some followers of Hinduism also use marijuana for religious purposes.6
  • Salvia divinorum is a plant native to Southern Mexico and Central and South America. Salvia may be ingested by chewing, smoking, or vaporizing its leaves or drinking the plant’s juices. Salvinorin A, the main ingredient in the drug, can cause hallucinations, distorted sensory experiences, and perceptions of vivid colors, shapes, movements, and bright lights. 1,8 The drug has been referred to by the Mazatec shamans in Oaxaca, Mexico as “leaves of the Virgin Mary” and used for religious and medicinal purposes.11
  • Kava, or Piper methysticum, is a plant native to the Pacific Islands. Kava extract is made from the part of the plant that grows beneath the ground. The effects of kava can include changes in mood, a sense of well-being, and muscle relaxation. The drug can also cause hallucinations that may last 1 to 2 hours.3 Some cultures in Oceania and the Pacific Islands use the drug in spiritual rituals.
  • Ibogaine is a psychoactive drug derived from the bark of the Tabernanthe iboga plant in Africa. The root bark is pulverized and then swallowed with water. Ingesting the iboga plant can lead to euphoria, excitement, confusion, visual hallucinations, anxiety, and sensory synesthesia, or a blending of sensory experiences.10 The Babongo people of Africa worship the drug as a source of spiritual knowledge and use it as part of religious ceremonies.7
  • Fly agaric mushrooms come from the Amanita muscaria plant and are the oldest known hallucinogenic mushrooms used by man. Tribes in Northeastern Siberia, Mexico, and Guatemala, and Native Americans in the United States and Canada use the drug. In Europe, Christians have also used fly agaric mushrooms for religious purposes.13

Why Are Drugs Used?

  • The Native American Church views peyote as a gift from God. Its purpose is to heal, teach righteousness, and connect with God more directly. Peyote rituals combine Native American and Christian doctrine. During all-night peyote rituals, the drug is eaten or brewed in tea and passed around from member to member.2,3
  • Rastafarians view marijuana as sacred and use the drug during Rastafari reasoning sessions to enhance community between members and experience religious and calming visions. Reasoning sessions are communal meetings that involve meditation. Prior to using marijuana, members collectively pray with one another. The drug is then smoked from a cigarette or chillum pipe.4
  • The Amazonian peoples of South America use ayahuasca to connect with the spiritual world and for learning and healing purposes. According to the Peruvian government, ayahuasca is an important aspect of the Amazon peoples’ culture and is considered a “teacher” and “wisdom plant.” Shamans supervise ayahuasca spiritual ceremonies to provide support and ensure safety, since users may become physically ill. Typically, participants are unable to move for 4 to 6 hours after taking the drug and lie down to listen to music and chanting.9
  • The Mazatec shamans of Oaxaca, Mexico use salvia divinorum in religious ceremonies and for healing purposes. Salvia is used by the Mazatec shamans to predict the future and receive divine answers related to family, friends, and enemies. Salvia is also used to manage physical conditions such as headaches. During rituals, the drug is crushed up to extract its juices and then eaten or drank with water.11
  • Marijuana is used in Hinduism to promote spiritual experiences. Hindus associate cannabis with the god Shiva, who is believed to have given the drug to humanity as a sign of gratitude.6 It was first mentioned in The Vedas, a scared Hindu text, as far back as 14000 BC. Cannabis was named a sacred plant and considered a source of happiness, joy, and freedom and a means to relieve anxiety. The drug is often consumed as a drink or mixed with nuts, spices, milk, or yogurt.14
  • The Bwiti people of Africa use iboga during religious ceremonies. The drug is considered a source of spiritual knowledge and is believed to be the Tree of Knowledge from the Garden of Eden in the Old Testament. Bwiti shamans use iboga to see into the future, speak with animals and plants, connect with the departed, and cure sickness. Iboga may also be used during 3-day initiation ceremonies symbolizing the transition to manhood.7
  • Pacific Islanders use kava during religious rituals and ceremonies to improve family relationships, affirm one’s rank in society, and communicate with spirits.12 The drug has been used for over 2,000 years.15 Kava extract is prepared by softening the roots with water or coconut milk and consuming the liquid.
  • European shamans and tribes in Siberia use fly agaric mushrooms during religious ceremonies. The drug is depicted next to the Tree of Life in a fresco in an old French Church, suggesting that it has been used since the beginnings of Christianity. 13

Religions That Forbid Drug Use

  • Islam opposes alcohol and drug use, unless it is medically indicated. Muslims believe that drugs impair a person’s ability to serve Allah because they act as an escape from reality. They believe that non-prescribed drugs move people away from God and are related to the work of Satan. The Qu’ran states “Satan desires only to create enmity and hatred between you by means of liquor and gambling and to keep you back from the remembrance of Allah and from Prayer” (Surah 5:91-92). Tobacco is not specifically forbidden, but its use is strongly discouraged.16
  • The Seventh-Day Adventist Church is a Protestant Christian church that encourages its members to abstain from drugs, alcohol, and tobacco and to help alleviate worldwide drug problems. According to the church, it is a member’s responsibility to “engage in whatever brings our thoughts and bodies into the discipline of Christ, who desires our wholesomeness, joy, and goodness” and “since alcoholic beverages, tobacco, and the irresponsible use of drugs and narcotics are harmful to our bodies, we are to abstain from them.”17
  • The Mormon Church, or the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, believes that consuming alcohol, illegal drugs, tobacco, and caffeine and abusing prescription drugs are harmful to the body and conflict with the Lord’s “Word of Wisdom.” The Word of Wisdom describes healthy practices to attain spiritual and physical blessings. It encourages a diet rich in fruits and vegetables, grains, and meat in moderation. Although the church strongly encourages complete abstinence from illegal drugs, it offers help for members who find themselves addicted. 18
  • Jehovah’s Witnesses adhere closely to the principles of the Bible, including that members avoid any “practices that pollute our minds and bodies,” such as smoking, misusing drugs, or becoming intoxicated.19 Jehovah’s Witnesses believe that moderate alcohol use is not a sin, but that overdrinking is harmful and displeasing to God.20 In some cases, abstinence from alcohol is recommended, such as if a person cannot control his or her drinking.
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