If it seems like I am picking on rapé and tobacco a lot these days, I am. However, as someone who has had a 20+ year relationship with tobacco in various forms, coupled with bouts of addiction to this plant, I am not speaking without experience. This post is about that relationship and how a relationship with a plant can go sideways into addiction.
I’m prompted to write this post because it may help others who are experiencing what I experienced. Or, at the very least, it may bring awareness to an issue that I see growing within the plant medicine and spiritual communities. That issue as I see it is the masking of addiction in the language of spirituality, or the outright denial of its existence within the broad category of “medicine” work. If we are to evolve plant medicine work into our Western lives, which I believe is a worthy endeavor, we need to be honest about these parts of our shadow, and need to come clean about addiction and the damage it is causing.
If you have not read my prior posts about rapé, you may want to start there because much of this post deals with rapé. My first post can be found here, and a more recent one here. Certainly, there are other addictions in the plant medicine world to address, but because this is such a vast topic I want to keep it somewhat contained, for now.
Let’s First Map Out What a Nicotine Addiction Looks Like
The words “nicotine addiction” used to bring to mind adults from my childhood that smoked two packs of Marlboro cigarettes a day–the stereotypical “chain smoker.” For the most part, these people have left my field of awareness over the last twenty years as smoking went out of fashion. Today, when I think of nicotine addiction, I’m more likely to think of the people I see sucking on their vape pens all day and those nicotine patches and gums sold at the drug store.
However, even though I tend to think of the above types of nicotine addiction, they were never the type that I experienced and so when I found myself addicted to nicotine I had no frame of reference at first to even realize I was addicted. I also want to be clear that when I speak of nicotine addiction, I am not merely speaking of a physical addiction. I’m including all of the ways in which nicotine hi-jacks our consciousness, which I will share about next.
When It Began
My first dance with nicotine addiction probably began early in life when I had on-and-off again habits of smoking everything from hookah, to cigarettes, to cigars. However, none of these experiences ever drew me in to a degree where I noticed any adverse effects to my life, relationships, or health. So, if I was addicted in the past to these forms of tobacco, I didn’t notice and easily gave them up without thinking about them.
It wasn’t until I was working with other plant medicines (Ayahuasca and Huachuma) that I started to learn about traditions that used tobacco as a medicine. Before this, I always thought of tobacco as a drug, and not a particularly healthy one. But, when I was in the jungle working with a Shipibo lineage, we worked extensively with a jungle tobacco known as mapacho, also known as nicotiana rustica. Mapacho has been used in ceremonial contexts for thousands of years and often considered one of the first plant medicines of the jungle. While in the jungle I certainly smoked a lot of mapacho. Much of my smoking was to keep mosquitos away but I also did work with the plant in prayer and for other shamanic purposes. In these contexts, I loved mapacho, but I never felt any attachment to it. In fact, when I left the jungle I stopped smoking mapachos for many months and never gave it a second thought. It was simply something done in the jungle and then something I didn’t need to do at home.
A Cure for My Sinuses? Sign me Up!
This all changed when I found myself dealing with the most persistent sinus infection of my life. A friend dropped off some rapé and told me it would heal my sinuses. Desperate for relief after months of trying all the methods I could find, including several rounds of prescription antibiotics, I said to myself “what the heck–I have nothing to lose.” When I tried the rapé for the first time, my sinuses instantly opened up and I could breathe. I felt the familiar buzz of the nicotine and overall enjoyed the experience. However, just as quickly as my sinuses had opened, they quickly closed up again. This began a pattern that contributed to my addiction–I would sit with rapé as a way to open my sinuses, believing that I was somehow healing them. They would then close (even worse than before) and I would suffer the inability to breathe until my next rapé session. At first it was once a day, then it slowly became twice a day, then three times a day. The more I worked with rapé, the higher my tolerance became and the more I needed. In some ways, it felt a bit like chasing a high that was no longer so easy to access.
And, before I even realized it, I was in the midst a full-blown nicotine addiction. At the time I would never have admitted that to myself or anyone else because I was in denial. What I would tell myself was that I was working with this sacred “medicine” and it was helping me to heal my sinuses, my emotions, and to connect with God. But, there were times of clarity where I sensed that the plant had actually possessed a part of my consciousness and was driving my actions.
Enter the Rapé Worms
This became more obvious as I started to notice that my thoughts would revolve around rapé all day. If I wasn’t sitting with rapé, I was thinking about the last time I sat with it (I could tell you to the minute how long it has been), or I was thinking about the next time I would be sitting with rapé. I started to call these thoughts the “rapé worms” because they felt like parasitic thoughts that were overtaking my mind against my will.
It was in observing these “rapé worms” (better known as “intrusive thoughts” in psychology) that I started to understand what it meant to be possessed by the spirit of a plant. The spirit of tobacco had possessed me and I felt totally powerless. The only thing I could do was justify my actions to myself and continue to do what the plant was telling me to do. At many points I tried to stop but unlike my experiences with other tobaccos in my past, I could not let go of rapé. If it was in my reach, I’d find any excuse to take it and then shame myself for having succumbed.
At some points, I just totally let go and indulged fully in all of my cravings. At the height of my rapé addiction, I was sitting with rapé sometimes every 3 hours throughout the day and I would plan my days around it. If I happened to wake up in the middle of the night (something I later realized was caused by my addiction to rapé) I might go sit with rapé then. First thing in the morning? Time to sit with rapé. The medicine became my go-to for everything. Tired? Sit with rapé. Needing to feel an emotion deeper? Sit with rapé. Needing to purge (aka needing to empty my bowels)? Sit with rapé. Just bored and wanting to connect with prayer? Sit with rapé. You get the idea.
Misery Loves Company
One of the tell-tale-signs of being addicted to rapé that I can now see clearly in others is that one will invariably start offering it to other people. I find it fascinating how the tobacco plant is able to hi-jack human consciousness to spread its addictive properties to others. So, in the midst of my addiction, I began introducing friends to rapé, serving it in ceremonies and singing its praises. I became one its greatest ambassadors! And, at the time, I believed it was helping me.
Addiction: When the Cure Becomes the Cause
At some point I knew clearly that my relationship with rapé was no longer one in which rapé was supporting my healing, or helping me grow as a human. Rather than helping my sinuses, it was now causing me sinus issues. What started as a crutch became something that was further crippling me. But at the same time, my physical addiction to rapé was significant. Because nicotine has dramatic effects on all aspects of our physiology, the regulation of hormones, and even blood sugar, when one is deep in an addiction with nicotine, stopping brings about a lot of pain–headaches, emotional numbness, lack of energy, hunger, etc. Thus, the cure for all these things was simply to have some rapé. So, I wasn’t able to just stop. As Gabor Mate says, “addiction is when the cure becomes the cause.” Or, as I might re-word this, “addiction is when the cause becomes the cure.”
Now, it wasn’t all bad. I had some incredible emotional healing through my work with rapé, but I also found myself stuck in patterns that should have been much easier to break free of than they were at the time. In hindsight, I realize that my addiction to nicotine was having a big impact on all aspects of my life. At some point I realized that my relationship with rapé was mirroring some of the other dysfunctional relationships in my life and I knew I needed to end it. The only way I was able to do this was to get rid of all the rapé in my possession and endure the weeks of pain that followed. Having now gone through nicotine withdrawal several times, I am very familiar with the process. I actually now realize that it takes many months to fully free oneself of a nicotine addiction and any amount of nicotine taken in the interim interrupts the processes.
Truth be told, I gave up rapé several times before it stuck. The final time, I gave all my rapé to a friend and went off for a week-long retreat to work with Iboga. This is the sledgehammer approach and very fitting for me. Using Iboga to get over a nicotine addiction is literally like using a sledgehammer to kill an ant. But, it works, and I felt free of my tobacco addiction after working with Iboga. I also learned far more about myself with Iboga than I ever thought possible, but this is a story for another day. Today, I still go back and forth on my relationship with nicotine. I sometimes partake in ambil, a way of working with tobacco in the form of a paste/jelly, but usually after a week or so I sense myself developing an unhealthy pattern and let it go. It’s much easier for me these days to work with tobacco occasionally and I attribute a lot of this to my overall physical health and the work I have done on integrating aspects of my shadow (particularly the parts that loved to experience shame, misery, and pain). If you need help in this regard, the work of Carolyn Elliot is excellent, but I digress.
Nicotine Addiction is A Real Issue
Some people may say to the above story–so what? Lots of people have nicotine addictions. To which I would reply–Yes! But, in the plant medicine world how many of those people know they have an addiction? Herein lies the issue. In the plant medicine world what I experienced might often be viewed as just being out of alignment or not having right relations with the plant. In other words, it would be minimized or trivialized without acknowledging just how difficult it can be in the midst of an addiction to “realign” oneself or bring the relationship into balance.
I also know I am not alone in having such a deep experience with rapé, though I did feel alone in naming what I experienced an “addiction.” Others I know in the plant medicine world have or are still having similar relationships with rapé where they are using this medicine multiple times a day, every day. This is part of the culture, and fueled by influencers and the commercial market developing around these plants. Until this is named for what it is–addiction, dependency, misalignment, etc. it will remain in the collective shadow. I believe strongly that there needs to be light brought to this issue before we can collectively heal it.
Advertisements by Four Visions Marketplace: A Case Study
The commercial marketplace for rapé also needs to become part of the solution. Perhaps it says more about my interests than anything else, but I am constantly bombarded with advertisements on social media for rapé. The main advertiser is Four Visions Marketplace (www.fourvisionsmarket.com). I have ordered various tobacco items from Four Visions over the years and have no complaints as to the quality of their products. And, as far as sellers go, they do seem to provide a lot of educational resources. I say this to be clear: I am not picking on Four Visions. I am just using them as an example because they are one of the most visible marketers of rapé.
First the obvious: None of the rapé or other tobacco products sold by Four Visions come with any of the standard warnings that accompany other nicotine products. The lawyer in me questions this of course, and I assume (without knowing) that this is because they are not following import and taxation laws applicable to tobacco. Perhaps they don’t have to either because the species of tobacco in rapé and ambil (nicotiana rustica) is not the same species we call “tobacco.” However, I’ve never looked at the legal aspect to this, so I’m not really sure. It could just be that they have been flying under the radar. And, to be clear, I am not in favor of government regulation–I just think that if these products came with the same warnings that accompany other tobacco products, the users might give a second thought.
Apart from this, one thing I find interesting about the way Four Visions markets their rapé is the language they use when describing how to develop a “relationship” with it. Rapé can be incredibly addictive and lead to dependency, but these types of warnings are absent from the Four Visions website. If one navigates to the resources section of the Four Visions website, there is a discussion of rapé and what might be viewed as a warning about injury, which I have pasted below. I have added bold text to the following quote for emphasis of certain parts.
Hapé is a very powerful plant, that has the power to heal, and when abused and not treated with respect, can cause harm. Hapé, or rapé,’ is pronounced ‘haa-pay’ in English. It is used for deep connection to the spirits, animals and Mother Nature, it is very cleansing and powerfully healing for the body, mind, and soul. Hapé is made with small tobacco leaves NOT grown for commercialization or genetically hybridized with high amounts of nicotine, thus it has none of the negative properties that commercial cigarettes have. Instead, it is grown and made in deep reverence for the tobacco and for Mother Earth. Tobacco is a very powerful plant, that has the power to heal, and when abused, it can kill and cause detrimental harm. In this way it is a plant that is very revered by the Native people, and is said to be a Grandfather medicine, full of ancient wisdom and the ability to carry our prayers to Creator.
This sacred medicine takes days to make and is a very labor intensive process made in a ceremonial way, out of various Amazonian healing medicinal plants, leaves, trees and seeds from native lands.
Source as of August 24, 2023: https://fourvisionsmarket.com/free-resources/hape-resources/
Let me explain why the above is misleading. First, rapé is made with the leaves of nicotiana rustica, which while considered a tobacco, is not the same species of tobacco used in cigarettes or most other tobacco products. That species is called nocotiana tobacum. Four Visions is implying that the tobacco used does not have “high amounts of nicotine” which is not true. Nicotiana rustica naturally contains 17-20 times more nicotine than the plant we call “tobacco” in the U.S. and rest of the world. So, a more honest statement would be to mention that while the tobacco species used is perhaps grown without the commercialized processes of other tobaccos, it is naturally much higher in nicotine than commercial tobaccos. Also, to state that this tobacco has “none of the negative properties that commercial cigarettes” have is false. I detailed at length in a prior post how the process of making rapé involves burning and creating ash, a process that produces many of the same harmful and carcinogenic compounds as the combustion of a cigarette. You can read my post about this here. Some people argue that because the rapé isn’t smoked, this is also healthier, but I wouldn’t be so quick to jump to this conclusion. There are injuries and deaths with rapé and longterm studies on health simply have not been done.
Moving on, and to their credit, Four Visions does acknowledge that you might die from rapé. I don’t think most users understand this is a possibility. But, in scouring the page, I could not find any mention of the possibility of becoming addicted. Instead, they turn the tables and place the blame for any harm on the “abuse” of this medicine. When dealing with a highly addictive alkaloid like nicotine, it’s easy to tell people not to “abuse” it but much harder in practice. This would be like saying that “abusing” heroin is harmful, and forgetting to mention that heroin is incredibly addictive and easy to abuse.
Further down the page, Four Visions begins to discuss how to use rapé. They recommend starting slowly, but go on to state that (emphasis added):
[I]n time, your ability to do this will grow and you’ll be able to use this as a tool to organize and center yourself whenever necessary. After you are applied, sit for 5-10 minutes in meditation.
Dosages can be increased after prolonged use once one becomes more accustom to working with this medicine and has built a relationship with the plant and this specific hapé. In all forms, to allow your intuition to guide you as you open up to this powerful plant ally and allow the hapé to guide and teach you how it wants to be prayed with.
Here is my Translation: Once one develops a tolerance for the alkaloids (including the high amounts of nicotine) one will need to increase the dosage to obtain the same results. And, once one is addicted to this medicine, just allow one’s intuition and cravings to be the guide in how and when to use the medicine. This is not an addiction–it’s a sacred relationship so there is no need to be too conscious about your usage.
Addiction vs. Sacred Relationship
The natural response to the above observations may something like the following: “But the tribes that make these rapés use them daily and they are not addicted.” This is an excellent point because it speaks to the need for using consistent and clear language around this issue. While the tribes may not consider their “relationship” with rapé an addiction, this doesn’t mean they are not “addicted” in the way we use that word. I’ve inquired of a friend who went through a rapé initiation with the Yawanawá tribe. I asked point blank: “Are they addicted?” Her answer was very clear: “Yes, absolutely.” The thing is, they don’t have the same conception of addiction and because rapé is a part of their culture, their frequent and daily use is fully integrated into their lives in a way that is not possible with those living in the Western world.
So, when Four Visions speaks in terms of developing a “relationship” with rapé one must read this in the cultural context of tribal life vs. our modern lives. One might be able to develop a relationship that is not dependent or disruptive, but this may be a challenge because nicotine is a highly addictive alkaloid. Even the tribes that make this medicine are functionally addicted to it. What may begin as a weekly ritual can quickly become a daily one, and then a multiple times a day ritual. When the relationship reaches a point where rapé and thoughts of rapé are ever-present, one needs to question what type of relationship has really developed and who is abusing who. Of course, Four Visions is in the business of selling rapé so their incentives are to sell more, and addicts make for reliable customers. I have no idea of the motives here and I have no bones to pick with Four Visions, but I do not find their website to be very honest in terms of the potential harms that can result from beginning a relationship with rapé.
Thought experiment: Substitute a vape pen for rapé in your mind and ask whether one can have a sacred relationship with their vape pen?
Addiction vs. Medicine Work
Where is the line between addiction and medicine? How can we understand when the use of a plant “medicine” like rapé is helping or contributing to the very issues at play in a person’s life? What responsibility do medicine carriers have in educating people about the nature of addiction and how this looks when one is working with plant medicines? These are all questions I believe need to be discussed.
I want to acknowledge that this is a big topic and we have only scratched the surface. In doing so, I fully understand that this may have been triggering to some people. Please know that I am not sitting in judgment of anyone and this is why I have shared part of my own story of addiction above.
If you are questioning whether you are addicted to rapé or another substance, here are some questions to ask yourself:
- Can you give up whatever the medicine is and have no thoughts about it?
- If so, for how long? Can you go one day, one week, one month, or one year?
- If you can’t give up whatever it is for any amount of time, then you know you are in a relationship of dependence.
- If you have tried to give up whatever the substance is and failed, this is a clear sign of dependence. There is no need to second guess yourself.
- If you try to give up the medicine and think about it, dream about it, or find ways to access it despite having sworn off of it, then you are in an addictive relationship.
Help is available in many places if you need it. For some people, a 12-step program might be incredibly supportive. Underlying every addiction is something much deeper. If there is a lesson in all of this, at least for me, it was in discovering aspects of myself that were easy to ignore. As I mentioned in this post, I turned to Iboga for help in my addiction. Please note that I am not endorsing this approach. Iboga can be incredibly dangerous and is not something to approach lightly.
In getting over any addiction, proper mineral balancing and working with the emotions is key. Many people find themselves in the grips of addiction as a result of severe mineral imbalances. There are free resources available from the Root Cause Protocol website for those needing help in balancing their minerals. I also offer support in this regard when my schedule permits. Until next time!