Dennis McKenna on his ethnopharmacology conference 50 years in the making

Dennis McKenna is an ethnopharmacologist, research pharmacognosist, lecturer, and author. He is the brother of well-known psychedelics proponent Terence McKenna and is a founding board member and the director of ethnopharmacology at the Heffter Research Institute, a non-profit organization concerned with the investigation of the potential therapeutic uses of psychedelic medicines.

On June 6-8, Psymposia worked with Dennis on — this is a mouthful — the Ethnopharmacologic Search for Psychoactive Drugs II: 50 Years of Research.


Psymposia: For someone who doesn’t know, what exactly is ethnopharmacology?

Dennis: There’s an informal definition, which is basically the study of medicines and poisons used in traditional or indigenous societies.

A more formal definition is: “The interdisciplinary scientific investigation of biologically active substances used or observed by humans in traditional societies” in the words of Bo Holmstedt. This definition is more accurate, because it’s not always about plants, and it’s not always about medicines that people ingest. Arrow poisons, for example are important topics that fall under the scope of ethnopharmacology.


EPSD50 is the 50th anniversary of the original 1967 symposium. What happened there?

It was a closed conference. It was the first time at a group of investigators working in a variety of disciplines ranging from chemistry, pharmacology, neuroscience, and anthropology got together to share their research. It was not aimed at the public; it was aimed at specialists in the discipline. The book that resulted from it was a landmark publication, for those that were in the field, and it was very influential at the time.


What influence did it have on you?

It made me aware that there was a scientific framework, an actual set of interdisciplinary fields, that were specifically related to these studies. And that this work was important; it wasn’t just about seeking out the next exotic hallucinogen. These discoveries had real significance, for example for the discovery of new psychoactive medicines that had therapeutic use, or potential for therapeutic use. The conference took place before there was widespread stigma and condemnation of psychedelics. But the conference wasn’t limited to psychedelics.


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What are you most excited about for ESPD50?

It’s been 50 years since the last one. A lot of work has been accomplished since then. The original idea was to hold follow up conferences every ten years or so. But then the war on drugs came along, the public’s, and the government’s, attitude changed, and the followups were never held. But the work continued, and many significant discoveries have been made over the last 50 years that were either not on the radar, or barely on the radar, for the first conference. Ethnopharmacology is an important field, especially with respect to psychoactive medicines used traditionally. Some of these point the way to the medicines of the future. It’s time to take another look at the current state of the art, where it’s going, and where it should be going. I hope that this conference will refocus attention on ethnopharmacology, especially for young people who may be considering careers in this field. It’s far from dead; there is more work to be done than ever.


How do you envision the future of ethnopharmacology?

Well just that, as I said above. But also I want it to focus the discussion on the need to preserve biodiversity, and preserve traditional knowledge, and investigate that systematically, and provide incentives to prevent the decimation of these habitats and the disappearance of this knowledge. You can’t develop a cure for schizophrenia, say, if it’s found in a plant that grew in a rainforest that you cut down last week! Billions, if not trillions, worth of undiscovered ‘blockbuster’ drugs lurk in the rainforests awaiting discovery (not just rainforests, obviously). We make unwise decisions about the use of these resources that don’t make sense, even from the perspective of cold, calculating capitalism.


As an ethnopharmacologist, how do you react to the “plants only” crowd in this movement?

Well I think that plants have their place, but it’s short-sighted to insist that only plants are valid medicines. Plant compounds provide ‘ideas,’ molecular templates for structures that medicinal chemists (who are after all, totally natural!) can use to develop analogs that may be improvements in some ways on the natural compounds.

There is also concern about ‘biopiracy,’ the appropriation of traditional knowledge without providing any compensation to the cultures that are the keepers of the knowledge. This is a real problem, but it’s a moral, ethical problem. Drug companies that turn to traditional medicines to find new patentable compounds should also see ways to give back tangible benefits to the traditional cultures that have used those plants.

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