Doors Open for Intoxication Season at Kew Gardens
It is always sad to see cages in the zoo, but having just seen them at the botanical gardens I’m not sure what to think. Whether they are there to protect the psychoactive plants within from the public or the public from the plants is unclear, but regardless, cages with plants inside are a poignant comment on the logic of the War on Drugs.
Starting on September 20th, Kew Gardens is hosting a month long series of talks and workshops, Intoxication Season, to educate the public about psychoactive plants, and I went along to preview the event. Kew Gardens is magnificent even without psychedelics, but it is a real treat to see salvia divinorum, tobacco plants, witching herbs and alike beautifully displayed (and not all in cages). I smarted to read ayahuasca described as a “dangerous drug” on one of the explanation boards – but if we are going to have a sensible approach to drugs, we need to think beyond our reflexes, regardless of which way they kick.
Ayahuasca is indeed a dangerous drug, when taken out of its context. A few weeks ago a friend asked for my help with a girl who had been found wandering around the park in a daze, after a series of ayahuasca sessions abroad, and then a dose of mushrooms back in London that went wobbly. On meeting her it was clear, as they would say in Brazil, that she had opened some doors without closing them – the rituals involved singing a mash-up of calls to spirits from various different psychedelic and non-psychedelic traditions, along with Brazilian pop music. From a traditional perspective, this is an unthinkably careless way to approach the vine of the spirits. She was quite well when staying with my family for a few days, because we’ve seen this kind of thing before and know how to handle it. But her parents then decided it would be better to take her back, and see an addiction therapist than an ayahuasquero. She stopped eating and then stopped sleeping, and has since been sectioned. Drugs have their dangers, but ignorance is positively hazardous.
The motivation behind the exhibition is to open up a debate by putting drugs back into their contexts – their natural context, as plants in the garden, and their social context, by educating visitors about how people all around the world get their psychoactive kicks. Every weekend until the 12th of October, the rather dapper Bompas & Parr will be running The Connoisseur’s Plant Club workshops, giving their guests mild psychoactives such as the Blue Lotus, which I had the pleasure of tasting (it was indeed a pleasure, listening to the Grandmaster Sam enthuse about his decoction as it breached my blood-brain barrier). They had gone to enormous lengths to cover Health and Safety issues, including taking advice from a battery of experts; our host remarked that if alcohol had been subject to the same scrutiny, we would have had to go without the cocktails that had been served up at the Botanical Bar. Betel nut, kola nut and guarana are also on the menu, but kava-kava and khat are not. Though they are safely consumed daily by hundreds of thousands of people, there are laws to make sure we don’t do the same.
Along with betel nut and kola nut, the mind-expanding David Nutt will be speaking on September 24th, and there will be free talks every weekend: alcohol is the subject of the first. The following weekend is about cannabis, and will feature the UK’s premier historian of drugs, Mike Jay, amongst others. Coffee follows, where the speakers will focus on its environmental and political impacts, and then Dave Luke and Andy Letcher will muse upon magic mushrooms on the 11th and 12th of October.
The series is brilliantly put together by the director of public programmes, Gay Coley, flowing the seasons with a pleasingly pagan aesthetic, with medicines treated in the summer and the darker side subjects of drugs and poisons being covered as the days grow shorter. Along with the news that the ayahuasca conference in Ibiza next week is being supported by UNESCO, it almost feels like public institutions are taking a sensible approach to our psychoactive friends in other phyla. There is a fine line between advocacy and education, the organizers told me. Given a little more education, or a little less noise, it seems that the plants are capable of advocating themselves.