Have you ever wondered how pharmaceutical companies discover and manufacture new medicines? One way has been sending scouts around the world, hunting for plant medicines that are used in Indigenous cultures. University of Wisconsin-Madison historian Lucas Richert tells the story of how one company went bioprospecting for peyote buttons.
A text version of this interview ran in Nautilus Magazine. Here's an excerpt — you can read the full version on the Nautilus website.
Steve Paulson: Some 100 years before Timothy Leary turned the counterculture onto psychedelics, early pharmaceutical companies were bioprospecting, contacting Indigenous people in search of wonder drugs. How did the American pharmaceutical companies get started in the psychedelics business?
Lucas Richert: In the 1800s, new pharmaceutical companies were looking for raw materials with which they could create medicines for the marketplace. So if you’re the founder of a company, you are going to go to different parts of the world to try to identify plants you don’t have in your own geographical area. You’ll go to Mexico. If you can afford it, you’ll send people to Africa. Then you’ll get these plants into a lab, identify the alkaloids, and try to create a medicine.
Peyote, or mescaline, as we know it, is a good example. Peyote is part of the cactus family in northern Mexico and it’s been used by Indigenous groups for millennia. We have cave paintings that testify to its use in sacramental and in ritual settings. If you’re a pharmaceutical company like Parke-Davis, which is based in Detroit, you’ve got free agents around the globe—scouts, if you will. In the mid 1880s, they heard that individuals in Texas and across the border in Mexico were using this cactus, mashing it up, putting it into alcohol, putting it into water, and getting a bit of a buzz. So executives at Parke-Davis were stroking their chins, thinking, this is potentially a moneymaker for us. We have a series of letters actually talking through how Parke-Davis is going to buy bushels of these cacti and get them to their labs in Detroit. How much are these bushels going to cost, how much is it going to be for a specific cactus “button?” How is it going to be used? And you’ve got these individuals in Texas who are negotiating price.
SP: Who are they negotiating with?
LR: Local Indigenous people or local moneymen, local prospectors. But what happens ultimately is that these cactus buttons are given and are sold to Parke-Davis, which then creates a mixture that they call analonium. This analonium is a cocktail of cactus flesh plus belladonna, a toxic herbaceous plant, and Digitalis, commonly known as foxglove. They start selling it, first in 1889, but then afterward, in their catalogs, in the stores they were working with.
SP: And of course they are stripping out all of the Indigenous culture and tradition, medicalizing it, and making a huge profit from it.
LR: So this process of pharmaceuticalization and medicalization, as you rightly call it, doesn’t build Indigenous communities into the profit. It doesn’t include them in decision-making. It’s, “We are taking this plant-based material and we are using it for our purposes. We’re not going to compensate you in any way and that’s just the price of doing business.”