STORIES

P. Harmala, the Healing Hallucinogenic Threatening Big Pharma

By Charlie Tetiyevsky on March 7, 2018

The seeds, they came by boat. And having never before seen the light of day this side of the Pacific Ocean, the unassuming desert bush’s small white flowers spilled out of the hands of their dye-seeking farmer and across the western saltlands. Peganum harmala had finally made its way to America.

The plant has multiple names because so many cultures and religions have given it a place of pride among their practices. English speakers refer to it as Syrian or African rue; Persian speakers call it esfand; members of the Pashtun diaspora named it spilani; Yemeni Jews celebrate it as pegam.  

It is said that P. harmala has the power to ward off evil spirits. It protects Moroccans from djinn (demon genies), the Turkish string it up dried in their homes like fairy lights illuminating against the evil eye, and Yemeni Jewish brides are adorned with jewels and headdresses woven with rue leaves for protection. In the Middle East, including in Iran, Afghanistan, Syria and Iraq, these dried capsules are put onto burning coals. They explode in a cloud of fragrant smoke, which is wafted around the sitting "cursed" person, while protective and curative incantations are muttered in the background. 

According to various sources, the plant came from mountainous Iran where, as Luke A. Myers explains in his book Gnostic Visions, people “were known to have believed in a spirit world… and [had] the need to obtain information and knowledge from [it].” P. harmala, the only psychoactive plant in the area, could have offered a way into this spirit realm. 

Per Myers, “The fact that [a major compound in the plant] offers a means to see and experience such a mystical world suggests that if they had been aware of the pharmacological properties and potential of Peganum harmala… they would have made use of it for these very purposes.”

Zoroastrians, perhaps inspired by these practices, built a wise man persona around a plant they called haoma. The identity of the plant, like that of the famous Vedic psychoactive drink soma, is unknown, but scholars suggest that both were P. harmala. Zoroastrians used the plant during a “psychoactive sacrament,” the details of which have been lost to time. As with many Zoroastrian practices, these rituals and the use of Syrian rue were spread to other cultures during antiquity. 

In “Neuropathology of Drug Addictions and Substance Misuse,” H. Umit Sayin goes so far as to suggest that the spread of pagan and Zoroastrian hallucinogen use throughout the Middle East and neighboring regions influenced Abrahamic iconography and beliefs. “Most of the religious figures and images in the ancient and modern religious systems,” he says, “are the result of these hallucinogenic substances… and mind states.” 

P. harmala was and is not the only plant used in these mind-expanding rituals. Syrian rue helps to activate the DMT in ayahuasca, accelerating and increasing its effects. People use the plant to potentiate the effects of "opium, cannabis,… psilocybin, mescaline, ibogaine, dimethyltryptamine,… thujone,… Salvia divinorum, etc. The main purpose of these plants [was] spiritual healing; to contact with spirits; to contact with the souls of ancestors; to reach enlightenment (Nirvana or Satori); to become a master shaman, pagan, or witch; and to reach so-called other realities.” 

There’s copious research on the possibilities of transcendental, ego death-like experiences with hallucinogens and psychedelics. If this was something that the community was seeking in their local pastures, it’s likely that small, spiny Syrian rue was the mysterious resource.

* * *

P. harmala is available freely and cheaply in the U.S., either in seed form or as an ingredient in the dangerous and erroneously named “synthetic marijuana” blends.

Like a lot of natural hallucinogens, this trip tends to start with vomiting. And that’s not accounting for the “abdominal writhing, body tremors,… decrease in locomotor activity, [and] slight elevation of body temperature.”

Despite this, studies suggest the plant is safe in therapeutic doses of roughly up to 10 grams, which is around when this “poisoning” occurs: “a narcotic state interrupted by occasional short periods of excitement [and] hallucinations” that’s accompanied by “accelerated breathing and chronic muscle spasms.” In all accounts, symptoms seem to clear up after a couple of hours and are fully gone after a few days.

A Texas story from 1985 written by Albert Most notes the trajectory of a typical trip, and much like Timothy Leary did with LSD in the Psychedelic Experience, Most stresses setting and preparation. (Most is founder of the Church of the Toad of Light and writer of the guide on the psychedelic toad Bufo alvarius.) Even a good trip, he says, starts with nausea and “the feeling of sinking together with the sensation of flight [which] can be discomforting [and] produce anxiety and encourage a withdrawal from the external world.” 

He suggests a dark place from which to enter into the hallucinogenic stage, a “trance” that begins when, “Your sense of darkness is interrupted by brief flickers of light… colored dots, specks, stars or simple flowers. They give way to undulating lines, circles, grids, simple forms, abstract designs and multi-shaped geometrical patterns [which] give way to slowly moving masses of shapes and colors. Larger shapes take form [and] your unconscious mind projects your fears and desires upon the shapes and colors of your visions. Do not be alarmed if the horizon seems to collapse in a bright flash of light or if your hallucinations turn into frightening animals.  Huge birds of prey, large jaguars and snakes are common…  Observe and enjoy the bright colored imagery as it changes continually in a flowing transformation of dream-like sequences.”

One Erowid user described her experience with psilocybin and P. harmala: a lethargy that “encourages laying back and paying attention to the visions. [There’s] a voice that helps to interpret the visions [and] an inkling that I’m experiencing ‘ancientness.’ It’s very hard to put a finger on it.” 

Experiences like hers and other religious accounts suggest that there is something to the psychotherapeutic potential of Syrian rue, both because of modern research into hallucinogen therapy and the impressive range of medical applications for P. harmala

Some argue that small doses of the plant can be “therapeutic” and “stimulate” the brain. PhD student Michael Doty of Sofia University decided to conduct his own study to fill the gap in research on the possible psychiatric benefits of the plant. Instead of tripping and having the traditional mystical experience, he decided to break clinical precedent and treat the plant like LSD and psilocybin, making an extract and taking a sub-perceptual dose of the substance every day for 12 days. The student designed an 18-day study (with six control days) that would have participants record their EEG in the morning and self-report on their mood via the 60-question Positive and Negative Affect Schedule (PANAS-X).

The sole participant in the study dropped out after two days, leaving only the lone researcher—“a 34-year-old male... with a history of depression, anxiety, and PTSD”—to toil away as his own guinea pig. Day after day, he placed a dropper of the Syrian rue tincture onto the back of his tongue, perhaps curiously wondering if its storied antidepressant qualities would take hold.  

Seemingly much to his pleasure, it did. By the end of his study, Doty reported a reduction in negative feelings and calmer reactions to stressors. But imagining that his results are in any way significant or unbiased is impossible. He suggests that this is a landmark study for the future of P. harmala as an alternative to benzodiazepines; the scientific community would suggest he run a study with more than the researcher as a subject. 

Despite the fatal flaws of his experiment, the student has a point: Research needs to be conducted exploring P. harmala’s psychotropic qualities. But presumably the initial trials that need to be done wouldn’t so much resemble a Google employee’s morning microdosing routine as they would previous studies of LSD and MDMA. This would involve exploring the effects of various doses and controlled hallucinogenic trips overseen by lab coat gurus in a structured way, which naturally requires the participation of large research teams and facilities. It’s only after these sorts of studies are done, presumably, that microdosing would be explored in a context outside of holistic or non-Western medicine. Or one-person studies.

* * *

Parsi Zoroastrians referred to P. harmala as the “king of healing herbs” because of its surprising medicinal powers. It’s a proven antiviral, antibacterial, antifungal, antimicrobial and anticancer agent. It’s “one of the most frequently used medicinal plants [for treating] hypertension, diabetes and cardiac disease worldwide” and can decrease blood pressure. It’s also been used to treat Parkinson’s, snake bites, convulsions and pain. Studies are exploring its potential in aiding alcoholics.

As long as there is any interest in mental health research (frankly, at the moment, there seems not to be), psychiatric studies that include human trials can’t be far off. Holistically, it has been used to treat conditions such as nervousness, possibly by acting on benzodiazepine receptors, and depression, acting as a monoamine oxidase inhibitor (MAOI).

What would it mean if there were suddenly a freely available, cheap alternative to costly anxiolytics

and antidepressants? This type of licit substance, like cannabidiol (CBD), offers a way to avoid pharmaceuticals, doctors and insurance when trying to treat certain disorders. 

Understandably, this has left Big Pharma displeased. Powerhouse cannabis-medicine company GW Pharmaceuticals lobbied in late 2017 to keep CBD Schedule I when South Dakota was trying to reclassify the cannabinoid as Schedule IV. The company’s move was an attempt to monopolize the CBD market by requiring products to be FDA approved, thus reducing the number of natural alternatives to drugs like GW Pharmaceuticals’ Epidiolex. The legislation to move CBD into Schedule IV passed anyway.

If P. harmala gains any steam, it’s only reasonable to expect that similar pushes will be made by drug companies to monetize and restrict access to the plant. This is complicated, of course, by the nature of the plant already being legal. It would be a much larger struggle to make P. harmala illegal than it would be to attempt to keep existing legislature classifying CBD as Schedule I. And considering that GW Pharmaceuticals failed at that, too, it might mean that Syrian rue really could offer an alternative to medicines manufactured and controlled by pharmaceutical companies.

What a strange journey for such a generic, scrubby bush to have taken, to travel from the rituals of ancient Iranians to a New Mexico farm, from the popping ceremonies of the Middle East to the recipe for ayahuasca. It’s unclear where P. harmala is going to go next, but the current interest in holistic psychiatric treatments suggests that it might finally find its heyday—be it in research or homemade stovetop homeopathic tinctures. 

Charlie Tetiyevsky is a poet and non-fiction writer working out of Los Angeles. They can be found on Twitter @charlie_gfy and Instagram @charliegfy.

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