Bath Salts and Face-Eating Zombies: Another Tale of the Media’s Drug Ignorance


The “Miami Zombie” or “Miami Cannibal” was the perfect headline to go viral, as it shocked people around the world. For those of you who somehow avoided the media blitz, a naked homeless man was shot and killed by Miami police after he was caught literally chewing off the face of another homeless man on a sidewalk near the MacArthur Causeway. The poor man’s face was unrecognizable by the time he was sent off to the hospital, you can see pictures of him pre-surgery and post-surgery (but please don’t click if you have a weak stomach.)

Finding out victim Ronald Poppo was an alumni of Stuyvesant High School in New York City (my alma mater) piqued my personal interest in the story. How does one go from Stuyvesant graduate to homeless in Miami and victim of a freak cannibal attack? More confirmation that attendance at a ‘prestigious’ school guarantees nothing.

Back to the story. From the very beginning, it was portrayed as a drug-related incident – adding another sensationalist layer to the headlines:

“Cops: New LSD May Be Behind Miami Cannibal Attack” – CBS News

“Apparently LSD Can Turn You Into a Face-Eating Zombie Now” – NY Magazine

The first headlines said attacker Rudy Eugene was high on LSD. New York Magazine reports:

[Armando] Aguilar, president for the Fraternal Order of Police, tells Banana Republican that Eugene exhibited signs he was high on LSD, as well as symptoms for “excited delirium,” a controversial syndrome that supposedly turns drug users (primarily cocaine enthusiasts) into raging and almost unstoppable incredible Hulks. “I’m going by similarities in other cases of excited delirium I’ve researched in the last couple of days,” Aguilar says.

Spoken like someone who’s definitely never taken psychedelics. Remember all those violent hippies in the 1960s?

The story quickly shifted over to ‘bath salts’, a legal high that commonly contains research chemicals mephedrone and MDPV. But the LSD angle still stuck.

“Miami man shot dead eating a man’s face may have been on LSD-like drug” the Guardian reports. Hilarity ensues as one reads the article:

A man shot dead by police as he ate the face of another man may have been under the influence of a potent LSD-like drug called bath salts, investigators believe.

Eugene was naked and Poppo was wearing only a shirt when police arrived, possibly a result of the delirium-inducing drug, which can have effects similar to cocaine and LSD. It can raise users’ body temperature significantly and make them feel they are burning up inside.

“When a person has taken all of his clothes off and become violent, it’s indicative of this excited delirium that’s caused by overdose of drugs,” Armando Aguilar, head of the Miami Fraternal Order of Police, told the city’s WSVN news. “What’s happening is, inside their body their organs are burning up alive.”

Paul Adams, an emergency room doctor, said that synthetic stimulant drugs such as bath salts, named for its powdery substance, can make users feel invincible and give them superhuman strength, but can also trigger aggression, extreme paranoia and hallucinations.

“It’s the new designer drug,” he told the Guardian. “It causes a state of excited delirium, raises the body temperature and causes irritability and confusion, which is heightened when combined with a lack of adequate hydration. You find yourself not making sense, and you don’t control your emotions or your actions.”


How a drug can have “effects similar to cocaine and LSD” is beyond me, as the two drugs have almost polar opposite effects on consciousness and behavior. And “their organs are burning up alive”? Who is this guy?

In fact, “bath salts” (as they are sold in the US) are another name for the legal high that caused a similar (although not quite as sensational) moral panic in the UK a few years ago: mephedrone (sold as “plant food” and commonly called “meow meow” or “mcat”.) A story based on rumor and police statements claiming that a fourteen year old girl had died due to mephedrone led to a swift ban at the end of 2009. Less than a year later the Guardian reported “Mephedrone found not guilty” as it turned out mephedrone was not involved in the incident at all. (Several additional incidents cited as reasons to ban mephedrone turned out to be hoaxes or unrelated to mephedrone as well.) If only newspapers bothered to fact-check against their own prior reporting mistakes before publishing…

Mephedrone’s pharmacology has hardly been studied but it is chemically related to the amphetamines. Users describe effects that suggest its actions are between those of amphetamine (speed) and MDMA (ecstasy); it activates, energises and makes them feel good but is relatively short-lasting. This has been known for years, so articles describing mephedrone as LSD-like should be completely unacceptable under any standard of journalism.

But it’s not. Why? Because unfortunately our media (and police) are about as educated on the effects of drugs and illicit substances as the rest of society. The group of illicit substances that we colloquially label “drugs” have a mind-blowingly vast range of effects on consciousness and often have nothing in common other than their illegality. Only in a society this ignorant could articles like this be published and syndicated again and again with little to no questioning. Not to mention the fact that whenever anyone does something crazy, LSD is the favored scapegoat. Ironic when the heavily over-prescribed (legal) anti-anxiety, anti-depressant, painkiller and ADHD medications all cause various levels of psychosis either in overdose or withdrawal. But the tripped out “Ritalin Cannibal” just doesn’t have the same ring to it.

So that’s it, case closed. Mention “bath salts” to your average person, and it’s likely that the “Miami Cannibal” will be the first thing that comes to mind.

Except that yesterday the coroner’s report on attacker Rudy Eugene was released. Time Magazine reports “The Cannabis Cannibal? Miami Face-Eater Didn’t Take ‘Bath Salts’”. It was found that the only drug in his system was cannabis, confirming earlier reports where his girlfriend stated that he never took drugs other than marijuana. Bath salts were only ever part of this story as pure police and media speculation, based on a complete lack of knowledge as to what effects bath salts generally have on the user.

Inevitably of course, the true story will never get circulated even a fraction as widely as the original was. And so another urban legend is born. Now all there is to do is wait for the inevitable political backlash against bath salts, which remain legal in some states. Not for long!

How Not to End Sex Trafficking: My Day Testifying at the New York City Council

In case you haven’t heard: there’s a new moral crusade on the rise. It began two years ago with a campaign for Craigslist to take down it’s adult advertisement section because it was being used by sex traffickers to advertise their victims. After winning every legal battle in court, Craigslist finally caved to public pressure and took it down. What followed was the inevitable exodus of adult services ads to another website, this time Village Voice owned Backpage.com, another website for classified ads. It wasn’t long before the anti-trafficking crusade was up in arms again.

The pressure has reached critical mass in recent weeks as scathing editorials by Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times have become near-weekly and a petition with a quarter million signatures was delivered by local clergy and council members to Village Voice Media in NYC. The movement is growing nationally with 19 US senators and 51 attorneys general signing on to the cause.

The idea behind this is a simple one. For example take the Brooklyn District Attorney, who has claimed that in two years, 70 percent of the 40 trafficking cases his office dealt with involved ads on Backpage.com. They conclude from this that Backpage is effectively pimping underage/trafficked girls and that the site’s adult services section needs to be taken down.

The thought on this issue seems to stop there. Firstly, it would seem obvious that whatever website is most popular for those seeking adult services is going to be the place traffickers go to advertise their victims as well. The whole discussion around this issue seems to also show a certain naiveté around the prevalence of consensual prostitution, which makes up the vast majority of the ads placed on Backpage.

Aside from that, it is clear from what happened after Craigslist was shut down that this is really a game of Whac-A-Mole. With the advent of the internet as a marketing tool, we are dealing with a new era for the sex industry (as for any other industry), and shutting down one website at a time is simply not going to solve the problem.

Not only is it not going to solve anything, it’s actually a dangerous tactic for several reasons. Any website that cooperates with law enforcement and is proactive about screening its advertisements for any hint of coercion or underage sex (as Backpage does) is an opportunity to monitor a world that law enforcement can’t usually access. Assuming that these ads will eventually all move to a new website (even the District Attorneys attacking Backpage admit they will), there is no guarantee that this new website will have the rigor or interest in pursuing this on the scale Village Voice Media does, never mind the funding to do so. There are an estimated 5000 adult advertisement websites that advertise sex workers/escorts in the United States, and an increasing number of them are not on US shores. Therefore not only might they not take a principled stand on this issue (as Village Voice has) – but they may not be under US jurisdiction either. Many prosecutions of sex trafficking cases use information obtained from Backpage via subpoena, something not possible with an off-shore company.

This all doesn’t bode well for the future protection of victims of sex trafficking. And it’s only the beginning of the problem with the cause to shut down Backpage. While taking down Backpage may make some feel better, there is no evidence that doing so will help victims of trafficking. What we do know is that it will have many unintended and dangerous consequences for those involved in the sex industry by consent.

Backpage is a low-cost advertising site that has allowed many people in the sex industry to break away from a pimp or madam, get off the streets or out of a house, and work independently.

What happens when you shut down an advertising site that services so many people? Further marginalization leads to increases in violence, HIV and other STIs, stigma and discrimination. Without sites such as Backpage it is much harder for sex workers to screen their clients and negotiate their terms of service, such as condom use. Closing down low-cost advertising sites makes it harder to be independent and forces sex workers to rely again on third parties, leading back to exploitation and trafficking.

Having heard little discussion of these and other consequences in the crusade to shut down Backpage, I spent the day at City Hall yesterday waiting for a chance to testify on the proposed City Council resolution recommending the closure of Backpage’s adult services advertisements. I was joined by the wonderfully bright and articulate Kate D’Adamo, a community organizer from the Sex Workers Outreach Project of NYC. Chairing the panel were Councilwoman Melissa Mark-Viverito, Councilwoman Julissa Ferreras, Councilwoman Margaret Chin and Councilman Brad Lander.

It wasn’t so much a hearing as a lynch mob. Cameras rolling, I watched as members of our City Council practically lined up to abuse Village Voice attorney Liz McDougall (who came to testify by choice). She was interrupted, insulted and accused repeatedly – while her sensible and sensitive responses to their questions went completely ignored. I couldn’t help but wonder: knowing that the city has no power to shut down Backpage (the resolution is just a strong recommendation), surely the opportunity to sit and talk with Backpage’s attorney about these issues would have been better spent in an in-depth discussion of what Backpage could do to improve it’s current efforts to curb trafficking? Unfortunately all that ensued was finger-pointing, angry raised voices and public humiliation. Having spoken to Ms. McDougall I feel it’s obvious that she truly believes that the Village Voice is doing the right thing here (and I agree). It’s rare to see a sense of corporate responsibility these days and it was truly painful to watch her efforts met with sarcasm and bullying.

The rest of the testimony might as well have been a mutual masturbation session as City Council members, District Attorneys, and anti-trafficking organizations congratulated each other on having the courage to ‘stand up’ on this issue.

Except all I saw in that room was cowardice and politics. It is pure sleazy politics to not stand up and admit (as at least one council member is said to have done privately) that shutting down Backpage will probably not help the trafficking situation. It is pure cowardice to hide behind an easily passed resolution to be able to say you’ve done something about trafficking – instead of pushing for the funding for programs that would really help the populations most at-risk from this kind of abuse.

There are some real and tangible changes our society can make, as my fellow SWOP member Kate D’Adamo explained to the City Council:

“According to the John Jay College study The Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children in New York City, 95% of the youths interviewed said they exchanged sex for money because “it was the surest way to support themselves.” And we are not talking about a missing population who is isolated in their quest for support. 68% had visited at least one youth service agency. And while 87% expressed a desire to leave the sex trade, the barriers can feel insurmountable at times. 60% said they would require stable, legal employment, 51% identified educational needs, and 41% required stable housing before this was possible.

While these all seem like lofty goals, they are clear, decisive places to start that we know will have a huge impact on this population. The most frequent request for services? Stable, long-term housing, most acknowledging that the typical 90-day maximum stay does not provide enough time for them to get on their feet. In 2007, before the financial crisis, one study identified 4000 unaccompanied youth in New York City every single night, and even this number is low. This number does not include youth with their family in the shelter system. It does not include youth who have not tried to connect with the system in some way in order to be counted. It does not include the increase in homeless and housing unstable persons which occurred during the financial collapse a year later. To meet this need, the city funds just over 300 shelter beds. And while 45% of the population of youth engaging in the sex trade is male, and half of street-based youth identify as LGBTQ, the vast majority of these beds have gender restrictions. This year, Mayor Bloomberg is seeking to cut this number even further. Funding emergency shelter services could be a silver bullet into this issue, and it would be a solution which preserves the agency, the rights, and the autonomy of this population.”

I’m afraid to say our testimony fell on deaf ears. The council members present had already made up their minds a long time prior to this hearing. We were briskly thanked for our testimony and spared a single question or follow-up, unlike the many hours of questions we sat through during every testimony prior to ours. The message, in our eyes, was clear. Our ideas are not popular and the voices of the sex workers on whose behalf we were speaking are not exactly important in the political world. A depressing day indeed.

In the meantime, with it’s long-held tradition of standing up for marginalized groups and civil liberties, the Village Voice doesn’t look likely to back down anytime soon. And I’m proud of them. Shutting down Backpage’s adult section would have many unintended consequences. As well-meaning as the anti-trafficking campaigners are, it’s one of those cases where the road to hell is paved with good intentions. The problem of sex trafficking is complex and deserves a thoughtful, multi-level approach to prevent its occurrence and facilitate the rescue of its victims. In addition, sex workers’ voices (those working with agency and by consent) need to be heard when considering a policy that will affect them more than anyone else. Yesterday may have been disappointing, but we can’t afford to back down when there is so much at stake.

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Spring is in the Air: #Occupy

Occupy Wall Street is back in the news after a march to Liberty Plaza this past weekend celebrating it’s six month anniversary led to violence between the NYPD and protesters. While this writer was unable to attend, all accounts report undue force against protesters, who were given little notice to evacuate the park before things got heavy. Read more at the Huffington Post.

In light of what is now a much-anticipated “American Spring” it seems appropriate to have a look at where we left off in November when Occupy encampments were forcibly dismantled across the nation.

Here are a few things you might have missed this winter:

Keith Olbermann gave one of his more stunning tirades against New York City Mayor Bloomberg following the raid that took apart the original occupation in Liberty Plaza. Listening to it now amid reports of new violence, his words have renewed relevance.

Naomi Wolf’s article “The shocking truth about the crackdown on Occupy: The violent police assaults across the US are no coincidence” went viral upon its publishing. She gives very strong reason to believe the Occupy crackdown in cities across America was a coordinated effort involving Federal agencies such as the Department of Homeland Security. (For those skeptical read her response to critics where she details her own arrest at #Occupy as well as further documents how she came to this conclusion.)

“Are the Occupy protesters just a bunch of hippies?” asked Patrick Kingsley in the Guardian, pointing out the ludicrousness and inconsistency of media criticisms of #Occupy.

No, answers Matt Taibbi in his blog for Rolling Stone, “Woman Gets Jail For Food-Stamp Fraud; Wall Street Fraudsters Get Bailouts.” In an example that is the epitome of what’s wrong with our nation, a mother of two who was ineligible for food stamps due to a past criminal drug offense lied about her history in order to feed her children and got caught. She paid the government back for the full amount of her fraud (a whole $4000). The judge didn’t feel she was punished enough so she ended up with a three year jail sentence. A stark comparison with the repercussions of corporate fraud on Wall Street ensues.

The examination of police brutality, corporate rule and corrupt politics in America could send us on a never-ending journey of pessimism. So if you’re craving some positive inspiration, have a look at TDT’s last post featuring a film that speaks to the soul of this movement, “Occupy Love”.

To end on a lighter note, I leave you in the capable hands of George Carlin. One can only wonder what he would have to say if he was still with us now in these changing times.

Hope that’s helped warm you up to this early spring. The weather’s ripe for revolution so keep updated on www.occupywallst.org/ for news of this global movement for change.

Occupy Love: Because We Are the 100%

News for February 2012

“A profound shift is taking place all over the world. Humanity is  waking up to the fact  that the current system that dominates the planet is failing to provide us with health, happiness or meaning.  The dominant paradigm is based on separation, as exemplified by the financial system, and the corporate emphasis of profits before people.” – Occupy Love

Taking a moment to present to you the trailer for a very important documentary currently raising funds for completion. “Occupy Love” is a film looking at the bigger picture of the Occupy movement that made headlines last fall, arguing that the revolution is not only worldwide – the revolution is love.

The Indigogo campaign has raised almost $40,000 of its $50,000 goal, with 6 days left. So if the following video speaks to your heart, as it did to mine, you know what to do.

More from Occupy Love:

“Our headlong rush towards infinite growth is destroying our communities, our ecology, and threatening our very existence.  The climate crisis is hitting us with droughts, extreme weather, floods, sea level rise and more, yet corporate lobbyists block any attempts at mitigation.  Unemployment is at an all time high, and the gap between the wealthiest 1% and the remaining 99% is growing alarmingly.  

People are losing their homes, and the quality of life for the many is plummeting, while the few are raking in absurd profits.  Wall Street is making dangerous bets, greed is running rampant, and entire economies are collapsing.  Governments have been bought by the corporations, and many of us had lost hope.  Until now.



This crisis has become the catalyst for a profound transformation:  millions of people are deciding that enough is enough –  the time has come to create a new world, a world that works for all life.  We have experienced an extraordinary year of change, from the Arab Spring, to the European Summer, and now, erupting into North America: the Occupy Movement.  



This is a revolution rooted in compassion,  direct democracy, and shared power, as opposed to the “power over” model of the corporate world view.  The new story is one of Inter-dependence.  Love is the movement.  As the Occupy cry goes: “We are unstoppable. Another world is possible!”

To learn more and contribute to this campaign please visit Indiegogo.

Occupy Love: Because We Are the 100%

“A profound shift is taking place all over the world. Humanity is  waking up to the fact  that the current system that dominates the planet is failing to provide us with health, happiness or meaning.  The dominant paradigm is based on separation, as exemplified by the financial system, and the corporate emphasis of profits before people.” – Occupy Love

Taking a moment to present to you the trailer for a very important documentary currently raising funds for completion. “Occupy Love” is a film looking at the bigger picture of the Occupy movement that made headlines last fall, arguing that the revolution is not only worldwide – the revolution is love.

The Indigogo campaign has raised almost $40,000 of its $50,000 goal, with 6 days left. So if the following video speaks to your heart, as it did to mine, you know what to do.

More from Occupy Love:

“Our headlong rush towards infinite growth is destroying our communities, our ecology, and threatening our very existence.  The climate crisis is hitting us with droughts, extreme weather, floods, sea level rise and more, yet corporate lobbyists block any attempts at mitigation.  Unemployment is at an all time high, and the gap between the wealthiest 1% and the remaining 99% is growing alarmingly.  

People are losing their homes, and the quality of life for the many is plummeting, while the few are raking in absurd profits.  Wall Street is making dangerous bets, greed is running rampant, and entire economies are collapsing.  Governments have been bought by the corporations, and many of us had lost hope.  Until now.



This crisis has become the catalyst for a profound transformation:  millions of people are deciding that enough is enough –  the time has come to create a new world, a world that works for all life.  We have experienced an extraordinary year of change, from the Arab Spring, to the European Summer, and now, erupting into North America: the Occupy Movement.  



This is a revolution rooted in compassion,  direct democracy, and shared power, as opposed to the “power over” model of the corporate world view.  The new story is one of Inter-dependence.  Love is the movement.  As the Occupy cry goes: “We are unstoppable. Another world is possible!”

To learn more and contribute to this campaign please visit Indiegogo.

Santa and His Reindeer Were Tripping:So Have Yourself A Psychedelic Little Christmas

The modern version of Santa Claus as we know him can largely be attributed to Coca Cola’s marketing executives. But where does this strange legend of a ruddy faced merry soul and his flying reindeer really come from?

The figure of Father Christmas evolved out of centuries of pagan traditions, whose elements were first officially cobbled together in the poem “Twas The Night Before Christmas” or “A Visit from Saint Nicholas” in the 1820s by author and professor Clement Clark Moore of Albany, New York. Although Christmas is a Christian holiday, most of the symbols and icons we associate with Christmas celebrations are actually derived from the shamanistic traditions of the tribal peoples of pre-Christian Northern Europe. (The word ‘shaman’ comes from Siberian Tungus word ‘Saman’, the name they give their spiritual healers.)

The Mushroom

But first we need to introduce a new character into our Christmas tale, the amanita muscaria mushroom, otherwise known as ‘fly agaric’. The amanita muscaria often seen illustrated in magical fairytales, children’s storybooks, cartoons and of course, Christmas cards and ornaments. The little red and white mushroom or ‘toadstool’ has gained celebrity status over the years for good reason (little known that reason may be). When consumed, it evokes an intense psychedelic experience. Fly agaric is one of the most potent psychedelic mushrooms on the planet, containing the active ingredient muscimol.

Eating the amanita causes visions and altered states, which have been used by tribal peoples to gain insight and transcendental experiences. The hallucinations usually include sensations of size distortion and flying. One of the side effects of eating amanita muscaria is that one’s skin and facial features take on a flushed, ruddy glow (sound familiar?). Those who indulge in the magic fungus tend towards states of euphoric laughter. “Ho, ho, ho!”

Origin of the Phrase, “To Get Pissed”

The active ingredients of amanita muscaria are not metabolized by the body, and therefore remain active in urine. In fact, it is safer to drink the urine of one who has consumed the mushroom than to eat the mushroom directly, as many of the mushroom’s toxic compounds are processed and eliminated on the first pass through the body.

It was common practice among ancient people to recycle the potent effects of the mushroom by drinking each other’s urine. The mushroom’s ingredients can remain potent even after six passes through the human body. Some scholars argue that this is the origin of the phrase “to get pissed,” as this urine-drinking activity preceded alcohol by thousands of years. (For those not familiar with the expression, “getting pissed” is English slang for getting drunk.)

Someone who had eaten fly agaric may drink their own urine to prolong the state of hallucination, or offer it to others as a treat. Drinking the urine of one intoxicated by fly agaric has only a slightly less intoxicating effect than eating the fungus itself. Filip Johann von Strahlenberg, a Swedish prisoner of war in the early eighteenth century, reported seeing Koryak tribespeople outside huts where mushroom sessions were taking place, waiting for people to come out and urinate. When they did, the fresh piss was collected in wooden bowls and greedily gulped down. This method of ingestion was much less likely to cause the vomiting often associated with eating the mushroom itself.

How did ancient peoples gain this knowledge? Why, from the reindeer of course.

The Reindeer

There are many indigenous peoples who used the amanita muscaria as their sacrament. Best documented are the Sami (Lapps) of northern Finland, Sweden, Norway and Russia and the Tungusic and Koryak peoples of Siberia. All of these groups live in the Arctic Circle and are traditionally reindeer herders.

Reindeer were the sacred animals of these semi-nomadic people, as they were the source of food, shelter, clothing and other necessities. As it happens, the reindeer have a particular fondness for amanita muscaria, even seeking them out from underneath the snow. When they eat the mushrooms they become stupefied, staggering and prancing around while under the influence.

Reindeer also enjoy the urine of a human, especially one who has consumed the mushroom. Reindeer will seek out human urine to drink, and some tribesmen carry sealskin containers of their own collected piss, which they use to attract stray reindeer back into the herd.

When Georg Steller, and explorer, visited Kamchatka in 1739 he noted that reindeer were sometimes intoxicated. The Koryak people sometimes tie up the animals until their condition subsides and then kill them. All who eat the flesh become intoxicated. Jonathan Ott, an American author, suggested in 1976 that use of the fly agaric in the midwinter festivals of deepest Siberia may have inspired some of the imagery of Santa Claus.

The World Tree

These ancient peoples also share a belief in the idea of the World Tree. The World Tree was seen as a kind of cosmic axis onto which the planes of the universe are fixed. The roots of the World Tree stretch down into the underworld, its trunk is the “middle earth” of everyday existence, and its branches reach upwards into the heavenly realm.

Amanita muscaria grows only under certain types of trees, mostly firs and evergreens (Christmas trees) in a symbiotic non-parasitic relationship with the roots. The cap of the mushroom is the fruit of the larger mycelium beneath the soil which exists in a symbiotic relationship with the roots of the tree. To ancient people, this mushroom was literally “the fruit of the tree.”

The North Star was also considered sacred, since all other stars in the sky revolved around its fixed point. They associated this “Pole Star” with the World Tree and the central axis of the universe. The top of the World Tree touched the North Star, and the spirit of the shaman would climb the metaphorical tree, thereby passing into the realm of the gods. Could this be the true meaning of the star on top of the modern Christmas tree, the reason that the super-shaman Santa makes his home at the North Pole?

The feeling of flying experienced on fly agaric easily accounts for the legends of shamanic journeys using winged reindeer to transport their riders up to the highest branches of the World Tree.

The Yurt

Some of these peoples lived in dwellings made of birch and reindeer hide, called “yurts.” Somewhat similar to a tee-pee, the yurt’s central smoke-hole (supported by a birch pole) can also be used as an entrance. The shamans of Siberia were responsible for bringing the mushrooms they collected from under the sacred evergreen trees to the houses of the the people on the winter solstice (a few days before our modern celebration of Christmas on December 25th). Sometimes dressing in the colors of the mushroom (red with white trim) and carrying a huge bag full of mushrooms that were picked and dried during the previous season, the shaman would go door to door to give the community the mushroom experience.

If the main door to the houses were snowed over (which they often were during the winter time), the shaman would enter the houses through the smoke-hole in the roof or the chimney. Climbing down the chimney-entrances, they would share out the mushroom’s gifts with those within.

The Amanita muscaria mushrooms are often dried before ceremonial consumption, reducing the mushroom’s toxicity while increasing its potency. Families would often hang them in socks around the fireplace to dry, ready to be shared on the morning of the solstice.

In the initiations of shamans in Buryatia, a tree will actually be erected inside the yurt. Sometimes the shaman literally climbs the tree, other times drumming at the base and only ascending with his spiritual being. As the shaman ascends the tree in his ecstatic state, he describes his journey to the upper world. To journey to this upper world requires the ability to fly, so the shamans often change themselves into birds or ride upon a flying deer or horse to make the journey. The magic flight of Santa Claus through the midwinter night sky is a superb expression of the basis of all shamanism – ecstasy, or the flight of the spirit.

In Popular Culture

In Victorian times travelers returned with intriguing tales of the use of fly agaric by people in Siberia, Lapland, and other areas in the northern latitudes. One of the first was reported by the mycologist Mordecai Cooke, who mentioned the recycling of urine rich in muscimol in his A Plain and Easy Account of British Fungi (1862). Patrick Harding of Sheffield University points out that Cooke was a friend of Charles Dodgson (Lewis Carroll), the author of the fantastic children’s story Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865). “Almost certainly, this is the source of the episode in Alice where she eats the mushroom, where one side makes her grow very tall and the other very small,” Harding says. “This inability to judge size—macropsia—is one of the effects of fly agaric.” It is also interesting to note that, in central Europe, the fly agaric has been adopted as the symbol of chimney sweeps.

Controversy

There are some historians, such as Ronald Hutton, who refute the connection between the amanita muscaria and the legend of Santa Claus. “The Santa Claus we know and love was invented by a New Yorker, it really is true,” Hutton says. “It was the work of Clement Clarke Moore, in New York City in 1822, who suddenly turned a medieval saint into a flying, reindeer-driving spirit of the Northern midwinter.” Moore brought that beloved Santa Claus to life in his poem, “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” otherwise known as “The Night Before Christmas.”

From Wikipedia, “Hutton claims that reindeer spirits did not appear in Siberian mythology, shamans did not travel by sleigh, nor did they wear red and white or climb out of smoke holes in yurt roofs. Finally, American awareness of Siberian shamanism postdated the appearance of much of the folklore around Santa.”

But reindeer were very important in Siberian mythology, they even put antlers on their headdresses to symbolize the protective spirit of the reindeer. The Chuchki and Koryaks of Siberia do train reindeer to pull them on sledges. Hutton is right that shamans do not exclusively wear red and white, but this picture of a Kamchatkan (Northeast Siberian) shamaness with fly-agaric mushrooms proves this is a real phenomena. (Photo by Emanuel Salzman).



Whether or not the smoke hole was used as a second entrance to the yurt, the connection between the shaman and the smoke hole of the yurt is well documented. The dwelling of the shaman was easy to recognize due to the top of the tree placed inside poking through the smoke hole. During ceremony, the shaman would climb the tree to shamanize, calling deities and ancestor spirits from the top of the yurt.

Hutton’s final claim that awareness of Siberian shamanism came after the evolution of our Santa Claus is irrelevant. The date of the 25th of December, for example, is pagan in origin although for most of the last two thousand years most Christians were not aware of that fact. Traditions and ideas regularly evolve without public knowledge.

But don’t take my word for it. I leave you in the capable hands of the BBC. Merry Christmas!

Occupy Wall Street Evicted: Is This What Democracy Looks Like?

Last night a battle cry went out across Facebook, Twitter, Livestream and the rest of the social networking world. Occupy Wall Street was being taken down, protesters kicked out of the park while the sanitation team and police department tried to both literally and metaphorically sweep them away. After an hour or two of staring at our laptops fixated, the opportunity seemed not to be missed. Down at Occupy Wall Street, First Amendment rights were being challenged as we watched the work of our bravest and loudest voices being torn apart.

With subways to the Lower East Side closed in coordination with the police raid, we set off on foot to march from Brooklyn to Foley Square, where hundreds of Occupy Wall Street protesters and their supporters had congregated to regroup and plan the next course of action.

Tribal drums kept the pulse of the crowd steadily beating even after a long emotional night with no sleep. We marched at 9am to an open plaza at 6th Avenue and Canal St. Police in riot gear lined the march every step of the way, mostly blank, unsmiling and unsympathetic faces. Only once did we see a few short-lived smiles as we chanted “N. Y. P. D., it’s us that pay your salary.”

The people’s mic was in fine working order as the next possible moves were outlined. Some would stay and maintain a presence in the new plaza. But the Occupy Wall Street movement now had a court order signed by Judge Lucy Billings, giving us the right to reenter Zuccotti Park.

Off we went, marching again to Re-Occupy Wall Street. Time to test the boundaries between the ‘legal world’ and the ‘real world.’

Feet aching, bladder bursting, throat parched but who could be distracted when history was in the making?

Onwards, through the streets of Manhattan. Passersby stopped to stare and take pictures as we avidly encouraged them to join in. “We are the 99%!”

The energy was intoxicating. “Who’s streets? Our streets!” This, surely would be democracy in action. The will of the people, working peacefully and lawfully to organize and demand their rights. I suddenly became aware of the fact that marching along the street behind an American flag for the past few hours had felt completely natural. Perhaps patriotism isn’t just for Tea Partiers after all. We too have a vision of a better America.

The closer we got to Zuccotti Park, the more important it became to stay vocal. “The people, united, will never be defeated!” The overwhelming police presence was enough to put a damper on this first-time protester’s spirit. “They’re here to protect and serve”, I try to remind myself. So why do they look at us like we’re the enemy?

Yet I can’t help but feel sympathy for our ‘boys in blue’. “You’re sexy, you’re cute. Take off your riot suit!” They’re in the same boat. They too are the 99%. Perhaps at the right moment some of them too will feel emboldened to risk mutiny, joining us on the other side of the barricades. What a day that would be.

I was looking forward to encountering the media upon our arrival, the dismantlement of OWS being by now front page news. Yes, there were video cameras everywhere I looked – more often than not held by men in NYPD uniforms, apparently the only organization allowed to get real and up-close footage of the event. An eery conspiratorial shudder ran down my spine. Suddenly I realized my neighbor’s V for Vendetta mask served as more than just an iconic statement.

Liberty Plaza was before us. We walked up to the police barricades expectantly, copies of our precious court order in hand. But it would seem the laws of this country don’t necessarily apply to everybody. We were not allowed in, and anyone who didn’t keep in motion as we circled the park risked arrest.

And so we continued walking, chanting, talking, drumming, waiting. No, revolution doesn’t come easy. But somehow after today I know that when it does, the taste will be ever so sweet.

For this weary writer, revolution will start again tomorrow. Sleep now beckons, full of dreams of a better world now seemingly within our grasp.

Till Thursday November 17th, the International Day of Action. We will be celebrating two months of Occupy Wall Street, calling upon the 99% to participate in a day of non-violent direct action and celebration. “We are the 99%!” See you there!

For the latest news and streams of the Occupy Movement please visit:

http://www.occupywallstreet.org
http://www.livestream.com/occupynyc
http://www.globalrevolution.tv/
http://www.ustream.tv/theother99

21st Century Religious Persecution:Police Raid Tantric Sex Temple in Arizona

‘Sacred sexuality’ isn’t a phrase you hear everyday. Indeed, our porn culture is so dominant that it hardly seems possible to conceive of sex in a spiritual light. One could say this is the result of being brought up in society whose most prominent religions treat sex as dirty and shameful unless for the sole purpose of procreation.

However, the separation of sex from the sacred is a relatively recent (and mostly Western) social norm. A brief study of ancient goddess-worshipping cultures such as Sumer, Babylon, Crete, and Canaan makes it astonishingly clear that in those times, sexuality was at the heart of spirituality and religion. Some archaeologists prefer to use the term ‘fertility cults’ rather then giving these traditions recognition as legitimate religions, yet another reflection of Western bias. These ‘fertility cults’ were widespread across the Near and Middle East for thousands of years in goddess (or should that be Goddess?) worshipping cultures that celebrated and honored the creation of life – namely, sex.

Originating in India, Tantra is another ancient belief system that celebrates sexuality and connects the carnal to the ethereal. These ancient Indian books (over two thousand years old) teach that sexual energy can be harnessed to achieve union with the divine. These traditions show a very ancient connection between sex and religion, sometimes pre-dating the rise of Judaism or Christianity.

Freedom of religion is one of the most frequently cited aspects of the 1st Amendment of the American Constitution. The signing of the Bill of Rights was a landmark in history for the rights of the individual to his or her own spiritual practices, free from prosecution. Those very rights came in question last week when the police raided the Phoenix Goddess Temple in Arizona, leading to the arrests of more than 18 people affiliated with the temple on charges of prostitution. They are still hunting the other 19. Among those arrested was the temple’s Founder and Temple Mother, Tracy Elise.

There have been no shortage of news reports on the raid. Not one has left open the possibility that the interdominational temple’s neo-tantra practices were in earnest; sexual ceremonies and tantric teachings as part of their religious belief system. The idea of sacred sexuality has no place in our society. Instead there are endless puns, jokes and quotation marks around every spiritual term used to describe their sacred sexuality.

Putting aside for the moment the actual temple in question, where in our society do we have room for this ancient tradition? And how could genuine believers in sacred sexuality practice their beliefs without the donations that all religious organizations rely upon to survive being conflated with illegal prostitution?

Nevertheless, the temple remains accused of being a front for a whorehouse.

“They were committing crimes under the guise of religious freedom,” Phoenix police spokesman Steve Martos said. “It’s a sad situation when people are trying to hide behind religion and church to commit a crime.”

So let’s take a look at Tracey Elise, the founder of the temple in question. Here we see her being interviewed earlier this year about the Phoenix Goddess Temple. Does this look like a madam covering up her illegal activity? (Excerpt from full interview here.)

No indeed she is adamant, evangelical even, in defense of practicing what she says is perhaps the world’s oldest religion: worship of the Goddess, the female aspect of the divine.

As taken from the Phoenix Goddess Temple website:

“Our temple is an open source for all who wish to better know the Great Mother and her unique gifts for healing body, mind and soul. We seek to help women, men and couples discover their own divine connection between soul, light body and sacred vessel. We offer group classes and one-on-one teachings and training, play shops and internships, all designed to bring HER wisdom back in this modern era. Our teachings are body centric, emanating from the resonating vessel, which is your own Sacred Self. We see the beauty of every person’s story in every age, body shape, color and gender. Our healing practices make use of the gifts of the Goddess, tools for transformation that have been with humanity since the very beginning.”

But mainstream media would have you think differently. ABC news reports:

Police obtained a search warrant after initiating several undercover deals and determining that the Temple Goddess employees had been trained to use evasive vocabulary. “For example, ‘johns’ were not ‘johns.’ They were called ‘seekers.’ Sexual intercourse was called ‘sacred union,’” Martos said.

So what would have convinced police that these were sacred unions being sought out by seekers, rather than whores being sought by johns? The fact that other activities held at the Phoenix Goddess Temple include yoga classes, study groups, and High Holy Day celebrations? Or the fact that there are people who have testified to receiving healing sessions at the temple regardless of the fact that they couldn’t afford the suggested donation?

Testament to the actual goings on at Phoenix Goddess Temple can be found in the occasional comment left on news reports by those who have experienced temple life first-hand (buried in a sea of abuse left by those who haven’t.) One attendee of the church comments:

“The “donations” are actually donations, left in a basket at the end of a session, not counted and verified, and not required. The Temple also holds many educational events, (also on a donation basis), seminars and trainings, religious services, as well as social events. The vast majority of these stress communication, connection, outward focus, and clarity of intention; rarely do any of these events involve nudity or sex.”

Another says:

“I know Tracy, and many of the goddesses, and have attended several rituals at the temple, as well as having attended the Daka – Dakini Conference in Sedona 2 years ago. The event was attended by Practitioners from around the globe, and I have had the opportunity to experience these people, meet them where they live, on their terms, in a non-judgemental environment of acceptance…I know from firsthand experience what Tracy and the goddesses’ intentions were, and it is simply this: to spread love and connection to others, to make the world a more whole and peaceful place. To them, it IS a legitimate religion. Upon opening in their present location, they extended an invitation to the mayor of Phoenix, as well as the city council. They gave many TV, radio, and print interviews, operating in a signed, clean, well-lit building on a major thoroughfare about 3 miles from city hall. They are most certainly not “disguised”, and if anything, their downfall is rooted in being TOO visible. I call upon those of you with courage and love for freedom and people to be of support to these women, who practiced and operated in love and good faith. I, for one, am chilled to the bone at the sight of masked, bodyarmored, helmeted, police militias armed with assault weapons and battering rams storming into a church filled with women in chiffon, armed with nothing more than candles and incense. How long will it be before those heavily armed government agents come for you and yours, because your beliefs fall outside of the traditional judeo-christian ethic?”

This case is a landmark in history for the sacred sexuality community in the United States. But it seems to be going unnoticed. In the meantime, Tracy Elise and many others face criminal charges for practicing their religious beliefs. Tracy Elise’s bail has been set at an unprecedented one million dollars.

God Bless America.

(Possibly) The Greatest Speech Ever Made

Onwards, with a little inspiration from Charlie Chaplin. “The Great Dictator” was Chaplin’s first talking picture, a controversial film that took on Hitler, fascism, and the Nazis. The speech Chaplin wrote for the end of the film (here edited with different visuals) leaves us with a powerful message that over seventy years later, still resonates deeply.

In Pursuit of Personal Liberty: Why I Write About Drugs and Prostitution

As a child in school, I was fascinated by the fact that only a few generations back, it was considered normal for a person to own slaves, for women to be denied the vote, for gay sex to be a crime worthy of imprisonment. At the outset, it is almost inconceivable that good people could have bought into a belief system that condoned such things. The vast majority of people living back then must have been so normalized to this oppression that they couldn’t see past their social norms to the greater injustice of it all. In fact, some of most ‘enlightened’ thinkers and leaders would still have been blinded to their own racism, sexism, and bigotry – all the while seeing their society as the new pinnacle of progress.

Carrying on from that idea, it seems only logical that a few hundred years in the future, people will view our society in a completely different light as well. They will most likely see themselves as more advanced than us, just as we see ourselves now. What aspects of our culture are so ‘normal’ to us that we fail to recognize their unfairness or backwardness? What laws are on the books, what beliefs are commonly held, that form our society’s blind spots?

It was from this point of view that I entered into my study of sociology. Taboos have always fascinated me, and sex and drugs are certainly two of our society’s most common ones. But regardless of a society’s acceptance or nonacceptance of certain taboos, once the government becomes involved in legislating them we are looking at a human rights issue.

One could chart the progress of human rights as modern society came to recognize, one group at a time, that regardless of gender or race all humans are born with certain inalienable rights. Since then we’ve examined more closely issues of personal liberty. The sexual revolution, the invention of birth control, abortion rights, and the retraction of anti-sodomy laws all progressed the idea of the individual’s right to his or her own choices, as long as they do not interfere with the well-being of another.

Looking back to drug policy and the sex industry, both issues concern the rights of consenting adults to make these very choices.

The ‘War on Drugs’ and the laws that come with it are very recent inventions. A hundred years ago there was little or no regulation of any substances. As it stands now, the government allows you to alter your consciousness through the intake of any number of prescription drugs or substances like alcohol, nicotine or caffeine – but not through others like marijuana, magic mushrooms, coca leaves, or peyote cactus. This seems random at best, an attack on cognitive liberty at worst. In the scheme of human history drug prohibition is but a tiny blip. Possession or sale of illegal drugs (many of which were sacraments in religious rituals not so long ago) will now land you with a jail sentence and a criminal record.

Prostitution might be the ‘oldest business in the world’ but it wasn’t always demonized and stigmatized in the way it is today. In fact, similar to the use of certain hallucinogenic and narcotic plants, prostitution was seen as sacred in many societies of the past. The idea of the sacred whore might seem like an oxymoron from a modern Western point of view. Indeed many anthropologists object to the term ‘sacred prostitute’, even while admitting to the existence of priestesses devoted to a goddess who accepted payment donated to the temple in exchange for sex. If that’s not prostitution then I’m not sure what is. In those times, the priestess was seen as an incarnation of the great goddess. In her role as priestess she was a teacher of the mysteries, of the healing and restorative power of sexual energy. Maybe what we need to look at is why we have imbued the word ‘prostitute’ with such strong negative connotations that today our society cannot bear to associate the word with anything spiritual or positive.

There are some who will object to the idea that past (and often considered more ‘primitive’) civilizations’ acceptance of sacred drug use and prostitution should bear any weight in the argument to permit them today. So let’s look rationally at the crux of these issues and get past the initial reactions we’ve all been programmed to have when we hear words like ‘drugs’ and ‘prostitute’ in news headlines.

The idea that two consenting adults agreeing to exchange sex for money can be a crime (as it is in the US) is moralistic, and (ironically) out of step with the very principles of a capitalist system. Any number of goods and services are exchanged for money under capitalism, regardless of whether we’d prefer if those services were granted for free by loved ones instead (nursing, childcare, etc). Sex and companionship shouldn’t be any different. We can’t seem to get past the idea that prostitution is selling one’s ‘body’ ‘ or ‘self’ – as if selling manual labor that involves the rest of your body is somehow different from physical labor that can involve one’s genitals.

Yes, we can all agree that the seedier side of the sex industry needs a serious clean-up, that some horrible things like trafficking and coercion do occur (indeed these are the only times the media reports on the sex industry). But exploitation and trafficking are already illegal, we don’t need anti-prostitution laws to stop them. The simple act of prostitution doesn’t pose any inherent danger to society, unless of course the government is enforcing Judeo-Christian ‘morals’ as law. In which case, we should surely start imprisoning adulterers again too.

Most illegal drugs, whether cocaine (from the coca leaf) or magic mushrooms, originate as a plant in the natural world. In fact human use of mind-altering drugs originates from copying animals in the wild who sought out these plants, after witnessing the unusual effects they had on animal behavior. Some now argue that the desire to consume psychoactive plants is an evolutionary drive that is fundamental to all animals. How can it be illegal for a person to ingest a plant that grows naturally (often sprouting like weeds) on our planet?

A more mature discourse about illegal substances and prostitution will inevitably lead to a healthier culture around them.

Anti-prostitution laws are a reminder that our supposedly free society still has a heavy hangover from it’s Puritanical past. Perversely, we have no problem with someone paying two ‘actors’ to have (often unprotected) sex with each other on camera (pornography), but to pay someone to have sex off-camera is strictly prohibited. These laws make the lives of working girls more dangerous, leaving them in vulnerable situations and unable to go to law enforcement to report true crimes like rape, theft, or violence. They also dehumanize women in the sex industry, feeding exactly the stigma and belittlement that allows some men to justify abusing them (as in their eyes prostitutes don’t need to be treated with the same respect as a ‘normal’ women.)

The American prison population is now five times what it was in 1971 when President Nixon declared a “War on Drugs”. The US has the highest incarceration rate in the world. Of the nearly 2.3 million Americans currently imprisoned, drug offenders constitute 50% of those in federal prison and 20% of state prisoners.

As Terence McKenna once said, “If the words life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness’ don’t include the right to experiment with your own consciousness then the Declaration of Independence isn’t worth the hemp it was written on.”

So lets look again the next time we hear the local news report on a new ‘prostitution sting’ – in other words, the round-up of women who were only trying to make a living, who will now suffer public humiliation and criminal charges. Or when police brag of a huge ‘drug bust’ – imprisoning ‘dealers’ while doctors and pharmaceutical companies make their fortunes peddling legal heroin and speed in the form of prescription drugs.

Not only do these laws infringe on personal liberty, they also perpetuate a criminal underworld of gangs, pimps and violence. The harms often associated with illegal drugs and the sex industry are the product of the black market we ourselves create by forcing these activities underground.

So let it be our own children and grandchildren who gasp reading their history textbooks, incredulous at the idea that in the ‘old days’ people really thought it was okay to lock someone up for the crime of consuming a plant, or selling a sexual service.