Back in 1998, I was part of a team of academics, medics, journalists and psychonauts who created a TV documentary series called Sacred Weeds.
Over the years, the series has since become something of a cult item. First shown on Channel 4 in the UK and syndicated around the world, Sacred Weeds examined a different psychoactive plant or fungus – Blue Lily, Henbane, Fly Agaric, Salvia Divinorum – in each of its four hour-long programmes.
The premise was simple. Each of the ‘weeds’ is used in shamanic rituals somewhere in the world. Our job was to investigate their properties using research, anecdote, laboratory testing, and finally self-administration.
Everything was carefully regulated. There were psychiatrists; risk assessments; special import licences; an American ethnobotanist called Daniel Siebert; and a resident cultural archaeologist, Dr Andrew Sherratt. We hired out Hammerwood Park, a near-derelict old stately home near East Grinstead that had once been Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page’s retreat. We stayed there, slowly working our way through the weeds: their histories, their mythologies, their effects.
I was chronicling the production, as well as participating. I remember everything about my own turn as guinea-pig very clearly. But I only discovered the programme on YouTube recently. I present ‘my’ episode – in which I took my turn to be lab-rat for the Salvia Divinorum test – in its entirety at the top of this post. And if you just want to know what a brush with Salvinorin A looks like (how it feels is an entirely different ballgame) the crucial point in the test is below.
In posting this, I hope I can steer a few people towards the Sacred Weeds DVD. Its on-sceeen graphics are of their time, and for those of us who were there, it feels like there was so much more explored than made the edit.
Still, there’s also an almost Open University seriousness to it that feels oddly fresh all these years later. There are no celebrities undertaking personal journeys. It’s not in a challenge format. People speak, and finish what they say, before the camera moves on. And for me, it’s that – and not the on-screen taking of psychotropic drugs – that feels most edgy today.