Inside the movement to decolonize psychedelic pharma
Updated: Nov 2, 2020
María Sabina, a traditional Mexican healer, has gone down in psychedelic history as the woman to introduce magic mushrooms to the world.
A curandera from the Mazatec tribe of the Sierra foothills of Oaxaca, Sabina led healing ceremonies and rituals using hallucinogenic Psilocybe mexicana mushrooms (known to her as the “holy children”), which her peoples have used for thousands of years. Sabina was an extraordinary healer known for her ability to cure serious illnesses and connect with the divine. Her reputation spread beyond her tiny village of Huatla de Jimenez, and eventually word of her healing mushroom ceremonies reached all the way to R. Gordon Wasson, vice president of J.P. Morgan and ethnobotany enthusiast. In 1955, Wasson tracked down Sabina and (with the help of a persuasive local official) convinced her to allow him to come to her village with a photographer and participate in a healing ceremony.
His journey became the subject of a famous Life magazine cover story, “Seeking the Magic Mushroom,” which introduced psilocybin to the Western world—including to Timothy Leary, who was “turned on” by Wasson’s journey and traveled to Mexico for his first of countless psychedelic trips, bringing the mushrooms back with him to research at Harvard.
That’s where the story tends to leave off, but it certainly isn’t the end. After Wasson’s article (and subsequent book) was published, Sabina’s village was inundated with tourists seeking a glimpse of God. Once regarded as a leader of her community, Sabina was blamed for the disturbance and her people began to turn against her, believing that she was selling their traditions for personal gain. Her house was burned down and her son murdered. Local officials, accusing her of selling drugs to American tourists, regularly raided her home. In 1985, she died in poverty.