Cults and Drug Use

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The relationship between cults and drug use is complex and contradictory. Traditionally, cults are groups that diverge from major religions or that form new philosophical/religious systems, often around a charismatic leader. Consequently, at any given time, it may be difficult to distinguish a cult from a newly formed religion. Some cults last and become new religions; some remain cults, some die. The line is hard to draw and open to interpretation, even by social scientists and the clergy who specialize in this field.


Historically, some cults and cultlike groups have sponsored the use of drugs as an integral aspect of ritual. In ancient Greece, for example, the use of ergot (genus Claviceps), a fungus that grows on grains and causes hallucinations, appears to have played a significant role in the rituals of the Eleusinian mysteries, celebrated in worship of the goddesses Demeter and her daughter Persephone. As poets noted, "I have seen the truth within the kernel of wheat"a foreshadowing of the Countercultural Revolution/Love Generation, when a purified ergot derivative (Lysergic Acid Di-Ethylamide, LSD) offered a similar experience. Indeed, the word lysergic means "dissolving ergot."

In Islam, alcohol is forbidden, but medieval Islamic sects were formed to use Hashish (a form of Cannabis sativa, Marijuana). It came into use in the Islamic Middle East only centuries after the Prophet Mohammed (lived about 570 to 632) and his followers founded the Moslem religion; hashish was allegedly used to offer a taste of the paradise to come.

In pre-Columbian America, drugs of a wide variety were utilized in religious rituals; the Native American Church still continues to use the Hallucinogens peyote and mescaline (both derived from the small cactus Lophophora williamsii). Recent court decisions have protected and reaffirmed the right of this church to use these drugs in religious ceremonies. As Preston and Hammerschlag (1983) have noted, this use of hallucinogens is rigidly controlledpart of a transcendent experience, accompanied by rituals of purification, and not lending itself to use on a promiscuous basis.


The 1960s and 1970s were characterized by an extraordinary youth movement of baby-boomers with an intense interest in the cultic and the occultand by a popularization of drug use within mainstream American society. Some of this interest was fueled by the philosophies and practices of Asia, especially Southeast Asia, where the Vietnam War was being fought; some was inspired by the Shangri-La nature of the lands of the Himalayas, where Buddhism was practiced in secluded monasteries and nirvana was sought. As the "Greening of America" proceeded through these two decades, mind-altering joined Alcohol and Nicotine, becoming available on the street, and were no longer confined to the disenfranchised or marginal. There was an increasing juxtaposition of the so-called transcendent religious experience (the mind-expanding experience) with drug use that often became drug abuse.

This juxtaposition had been anticipated by some earlier poets, such as William Blake (1757-1827), Charles Baudelaire (1821-1867), and Arthur Rimbaud (1854-1891), by the illustrator Aubrey Beardsley (1872-1898), and by cult figures such as Aleister Crowley (born Edward Alexander Crowley, 1875-1947). By combining aspects of their own experimentation with hallucinogenic drugs with elements of Transcendental Meditation/Mahareshi (movements based on Buddhism) in their song "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds" (1967), the much adored singing group called the Beatles (the members born between 1940 and 1943, active as a group from 1960 to 1969) both mirrored and promoted the use of hallucinogens as providing a readily accessible transcendental experiencealthough in Buddhism the goal of all existence is the state of complete redemption (nirvana, a state achieved by righteous living, not by drugs). Unlike Aldous Huxley (1894-1963), who combined an interest in Vedanta (an orthodox system of Hindu philosophy) and the use of mescaline, the Beatles and their alleged mentor, the Mahareshi Mohesh Yogi, proclaimed the desirability of enlightening the masses rather than restricting enlightenment to a righteous educated elite.

In literary works of that era, such as Armistead Maupin's Tales of the City (1978), characters routinely advocate and use mind-altering substances (especially marijuana) without any apparent appreciation of their darker potential, which was consistent with the general attitude toward Tobacco and alcohol use at that time as well. In addition, there was no special appreciation that drug use, in and of itself, might encourage cult affiliation, yet this was very much the time of the rapid growth of cults among youth in the United States.

The relationship of such cults to drug use is paradoxical. Deutsch (1983) has noted that prolonged drug use may encourage this type of cult affiliation, and many cult groups offer themselves to the public and to vulnerable persons as quasi-therapeutic contexts where the person will be able to transcend the need for drugs. This aspect of cult-appeal turned thousands of lost and confused free spirits and flower-children into vacant-eyed smiling cultists who signed over to the cult all their worldly goodsto spend their days wandering the streets, airports, and bus or train stations, seeking donations for their cult by shaking bells and tambourines or by offering flowers to passing strangers. Rigorous training programs, called "brainwashing" by parents of the lost children and by other skeptics, were fashioned to strip cultists of free will and substitute nodding acquiescence.


One charismatic cult leader was the Reverend Jim Jones, leader of the People's Temple. His claim of curing drug abuse was only one of the lures. After moving around the United States for a while, he brought his followers to an isolated spot in South America, where one of the former substance abusers mixed for them a massive batch of poisoned Kool-Aid for the cult's final eventa basically unexplained mass suicide.


The People's Temple was not uniqueorganizations such as Narcanon (that is, narcotics anonymous) have stated that their treatment of substance abusers reflects the dianetics-based teachings of L. Ron Hubbard (born Lafayette Ronald Hubbard, 1911-1986), an American science-fiction writer, whose Scientology movement expanded in the 1950s when he moved to England (he was subsequently banned from re-entering England in 1968). Scientology is a quasi-philosophical system that claims to improve mental and physical well-being as followers advance within the cult, by undertaking (and paying well for) a series of courses.


Intense religious commitment is a significant aspect of much of the twelve-step recovery movement. Accordingly, there is concern that this level of commitment to a program can lead to a kind of cult affiliation. Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), the oldest, most constructive, and most respected of the Twelve-Step programs, is not considered a cult. Still, Rebhun (1983) and many others have noted the danger that drug-treatment programs can turn into cults such as Synanon. Synanon was not unique; the history of residential drug-treatment centers includes a number of authoritarian and hierarchical organizations. Recovering substance-abusers often find it very difficult to leave the protection of the Therapeutic Community to become independent members of mainstream society. Often times program staff really help individual members overcome drug problems and other problems. Yet other times, a false resolution of these problems comes through fusion with an authoritarian and charismatic leader who will ostensibly provide the continuity and structure for which the substance abuser hungers.


Drugs and other mind-altering substances have formed an integral part of some cultic/religious rituals from very ancient times. In the mid-to-late twentieth century, the structure provided by groups that mobilize intense religious or quasi-religious feelings has sometimes enabled vulnerable individuals to transcend their personal difficulties. However, the very intensity of the substance user's object hunger may enable the transformation of otherwise viable or valuable organizations into cults or cultlike groups.

(See also: Religion and drug use )


Deutsch, A. (1983). Psychiatric perspectives on an Eastern-style cult. In David A. Halperin (Ed.), Psychodynamic perspectives on religion, sect, and cult. Littleton, MA: James Wright-PSG.

Preston, R., & Hammerschlag, C. (1983). The Native American Church. In David A. Halperin (Ed.), Psychodynamic perspectives on religion, sect, and cult. Littleton, MA: James Wright-PSG.

Rebhun, J. (1983). The drug rehabilitation program: Cults in formation? In David A. Halperin (Ed.), Psychodynamic perspectives on religion, sect, and cult. Littleton, MA: James Wright-PSG.

Reich, C. A. (1970). The greening of America. New York: Random House.

Wasson, R. G., Hofmann, A.& Ruck, C. A. P. (1978). The road to Eleusis: Unveiling the secret of the mysteries. New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich.

David A. Halperin

Revised by James T. McDonough, Jr.