Sunday, November 2, 2014

The Church of the Tree of Life

Psilocybe mushrooms -- one of the legal mind-altering substances promoted by the Church of the Tree of Life

As the 1960s drew to a close, the Brotherhood of Eternal Love and other psychedelic sects remained outlaw organizations. Their sacraments of choice – LSD and cannabis – were more popular than ever as recreational drugs, but were still highly illegal, lacking the unique protected status of peyote within the Native American Church. Threatened with harsh legal penalties for mere possession, much less open usage, of the hallucinogens, spiritually-oriented trippers became far more circumspect and considerably less idealistic about their inner explorations.

Frustrated by the situation, many in the psychedelic underground began gathering information about psychoactive substances that had remained legal. Eventually a small book called Legal Highs was published that described a cornucopia of plants, fungi and synthetics that packed the mind-altering punches of the better-known drugs, but were licit and relatively easy to obtain. Published by a Manhattan Beach-based firm, and written as a taxonomy-style handbook, Legal Highs described the names, active ingredients, usage, effects and contraindications of materials ranging from LSD-like Hawaiian Baby Woodrose seeds, to mescaline-bearing San Pedro cactus, to the African aphrodisiac Yohimbe. It became an underground bestseller, and can today be found online as a public textfile, its information still used by self-styled 21st century alchemists.

Legal Highs and similar works publicized obscure but non-proscribed psychedelic drugs
In Legal Highs’ introduction, author Adam Gottlieb stated, “It may be of some interest to some readers that the Church of the Tree of Life has declared as its religious sacraments most substances in this book.  Because these substances were legal at the time of the Church's inception and incorporation, their use cannot be denied to members through any future legislation without directly violating the Constitution's guarantee of religious freedom.”
The San Francisco-based Church of the Tree of Life aimed to be to the still-legal psychoactive substances what the Native American Church was for peyote. Incorporated in 1971 by life-extension expert John Mann, it existed largely as a legal entity to protect the use of the drugs mentioned in Legal Highs. If any of these materials became illegal, it was reasoned, a religious-use exemption for Church members could be grandfathered in with the new statutes, much as the peyote exemption had been for American Indians.

Unlike the Native American Church, the Church of the Tree of Life had neither ethnic strictures for membership, nor set theological doctrines. Spiritually libertarian, it maintained that the psychoactive substances were God’s gifts to humanity, and that consenting adults had the right to use them in whatever manner they desired, so long as their actions didn’t impinge on the rights of others. The Church didn’t officially recognize LSD, cannabis or other Schedule One drugs as sacraments, but promulgated the use of legal alternatives like morning glory seeds, kava, calamus root, damiana, and other non-proscribed substances as tools for consciousness expansion. Membership was open to anyone who agreed with these general principles; an SASE sent to Church headquarters on Columbus Avenue in San Francisco would return with a membership card and the latest issue of Bark Leaf, the Church newsletter.

1972 First Edition of The First Book of Sacraments

The Church of the Tree of Life described its Eucharistic entheogens in a little book called The First Book of Sacraments. Published a year before Legal Highs, it not only anticipated much of the practical information in that work, but also discussed the importance of ritual practice as a way to sanctify using the substances and to gain spiritual wisdom. The book also featured an essay on “Sacraments and Magic” by Frater C.A., which examined the use of the drugs in the context of Western ritual magick. A list of suppliers was included as well.

One of the Church’s prime sacramental sources was the Inner Center of Hermosa Beach. A popular item in its mail-order catalog was 5-MeO-DMT, a legal variant of the short-acting tryptamine DMT, which produced a brief yet powerful psychedelic trip. The chemical was sprayed onto parsley or oregano leaves, which would then be smoked like marijuana to produce an intense, almost otherworldly state.

Another big seller was morning-glory seeds, offered in an untreated state (the seeds contained a close chemical relative of LSD, and many seed companies had taken to spraying them with methyl mercury to prevent spoilage and/or discourage trippers). Perhaps influenced by the Church, around this time California hip-culture fair vendors began to offer “Utopian Bliss Balls,” Medjool dates packed with lysergic Hawaiian baby woodrose seeds and herbal supplements, as a legal psychedelic alternative to the infamous Orange Sunshine tablets that the Brotherhood of Eternal Love had handed out at rock festivals and hippie festivals just a few years earlier.

By 1972, the Church claimed 1,500 members. Although many joined mainly to obtain the promised legal status as entheogenic religionists, as well as connections for non-proscribed drugs, some members took the psychedelic path quite seriously, and sought to create rituals that would reflect the sect’s non-denominational, counterculture sensibilities. Impressed by the aesthetics of Mexico’s peyote-eating Huichol Indians, some Bay-Area Tree of Lifers tried to develop a ritual that would combine the Huichol’s creativity with the spiritual power of Native American peyotism. Not much came of the efforts – one Church member told psychedelic researcher Peter Stafford that the resulting rite was “somewhat hokey,” and didn’t capture the essence of the hallucinogenic vision quest.

Largely because it remained relatively small and low-key, and concerned itself mainly with obscure psychoactives that lacked the notoriety of the Schedule One drugs, the Church of the Tree of Life survived well into the 1980s unmolested by the War on Drugs or popular opprobrium. But most of the post-Sixties psychedelic culture was just too closeted and individualistic to maintain a stable, organized religious institution dedicated to the mind-expanding experience, and the sect vanished around 1990. Still, the work it did investigating legal entheogens, and their use in sacred contexts, lived on in such academic groups as the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) and the Council on Spiritual Practices (CSP), which treated hallucinogens as powerful, life-changing substances worthy of study. And much of the Internet-based public-domain information about both legal highs and psychedelic spirituality can be traced to the Church’s pioneering efforts in publicizing consciousness expansion through little-known psychoactive substances – scraps of the Flesh of the Gods that had somehow escaped John Law’s notice.


Legal Highs, by Adam Gottlieb (Berkeley, CA: Ronin Publishing, 1994). Online text available here
The First Book of Sacraments of the Church of the Tree of Life (San Francisco: Tree of Life Press, 1972)
Psychedelics Encyclopedia, by Peter Stafford. (Berkeley, CA: Ronin Publishing, 1993)