It was freshman year, and I was bored with some friends on Telegraph. Happy High Herbs, a vendor of herbal remedies and supplements, had just opened, and the fluorescent troll painted on the storefront beckoned to us. “Something to do,” it said. When we went inside, we told the proprietors we wanted to get as high as legally possible.
We found ourselves at the Big C that night, crouching inside a haphazard teepee of eucalyptus branches someone had built, chewing the salvia leaves we purchased earlier from Happy High. They were bitter, it was dark, the city lights danced in the distance — but we didn’t get high at all. We just felt kind of sick and then hiked back down to our dorms.
Later, I learned about a people indigenous to Mexico called the Mazatec who chew salvia to enter different states of consciousness during healing rituals and celebratory festivals. In videos, it’s obvious they’re having powerful visionary experiences. But my friends and I weren’t affected in the least, and we chewed a lot of the stuff. Smokers of salvia in the United States do report powerful hallucinogenic experiences, but it’s mostly unpleasant stuff about being stuck in an infinite shopping mall — a far cry from the way it is talked about by its original users.
There’s a major difference in the ways indigenous peoples experience the plant medicines they consume. Maybe it has to do with the way they consume them.
Herbal medicines have long been available in Berkeley. Before Happy High, there was Lhasa Karnak. Judging from Lhasa Karnak’s customers, most people buy medicinal teas and spices from the store, or maybe some nutritional supplements. Ask the employees, though, and they’ll tell you about the throngs of desperate students who come to the store around finals week, hoping for an herbal edge on their inclement exams.
There’s debate as to the efficacy of the herbal medicines in question, but in the looming shadow of finals, many are willing to suspend their disbelief.
Arguments against such herbal supplements are usually founded on dismissing their efficacy as result of the placebo effect, stemming from belief instead of a direct biochemical cause. We’re usually reminded, “Hey, it might be the placebo effect, but the placebo effect isn’t to be sniffed at; it’s still pretty powerful.” Conversation often stalls here, because it is difficult to deny the power of the placebo effect, and there are many reports of remarkable results from what are deemed to be biologically inactive “medicines.”
The question is: Are the people who profit from selling what can sometimes amount to little more than placebos providing a valuable service to their customers, allowing them to harness their hopes and beliefs, or are they essentially scam artists?
Places such as Lhasa Karnak still sell their herbs primarily as a means of treating illness, while other stores, such as Happy High Herbs, seem to be capitalizing on the hopeful student’s notion that an herbal supplement can have immediate cognitive or emotional effects — when the ones that actually have more noticeable effects have been made illegal.
The herbs at Happy High are packaged with inflated claims as to their potential effects, although the results of trying them are usually disappointing.
So if the actual experiences are so underwhelming, where do these claims come from? Usually, they’re from the indigenous people who discovered the plant in question — Mayans, Siberians, Mazatecs — you name it; an herb store has probably appropriated it. For these peoples, the plants in question often have a deep cultural and mythological context to support them. In South and Central America, many cultures view the plants as being personified in a spirit; to use the plant is to commune with another entity. Plants are a part of the stories through which these cultures understand the world, not just a bagged and labeled commodity.
Happy High Herbs unites the indigenous medicines of the entire globe under one roof, with their traditional uses tersely indicated on a little tag or vaguely alluded to by an employee who has read a few books. While a store such as Happy High Herbs isn’t making these appealing claims about the power of its herbal products in a void, the pretext for them comes from a traditional culture we may never really understand.
That’s where it comes back around to the placebo effect. Maybe some people have a conviction strong enough to be really affected by herbal medicines, but it seems most don’t. If we accept an herbal treatment’s efficacy to be to some extent a function of belief, then we have to also start to take into account the beliefs of the peoples who originally found it effective as a medicine.
The placebo effect alone isn’t enough to dismiss herbal medicine or condemn its purveyors, but staying conscious of it means examining the contexts in which these herbs originally were used.
While we may never be able to get as high as an indigenous people does on their herb of choice, staying conscious of the role of belief and tradition in our own medicine might help us make it more effective in the long run. If we want to harness the power of the placebo effect, we may do well to learn something from them: that the potency of a medicine isn’t only about the material but also about how it’s administered.