An entheogen is a drug which has a history of religious or shamanic use. Most entheogens are hallucinogens, although some are mood-altering substances. Entheogens are all derived from plants and other natural sources, a key difference between entheogens and synthetically compounded drugs. The use of entheogens is controversial in some cultures, primarily out of concern that these drugs can all be used for recreational as well as religious use, making it difficult to determine when someone is using such drugs for religious or personal reasons.
The use of psychoactive substances to communicate with the divine appears to be ancient, judging from archaeological evidence. Many early human cultures used a variety of substances in an attempt to communicate with God or the Gods, and this tradition evolved as human cultures became more complex. Entheogens were most typically taken by priests and shamans, or by groups of religious celebrants at specific festivals and events, and often taboos banned the use of such drugs in a non-religious context.
Some examples of entheogens from around the world include: kava, ayahuasca, peyote, mead, henbane, psilocybin, blue lotus, tobacco, fly agaric, hashish, and cannabis. As can be seen from this list, some entheogens began to be used in a secular context at some point in history. Tobacco, for example, was introduced to Europe by explorers who met Native American tribes who used it, and mead was a common beverage in the medieval era. Other entheogens have become restricted substances in many societies.
Like other hallucinogens, an entheogen can profoundly alter brain chemistry. The safety of entheogen use is largely dependent on how the drug is grown, harvested, and handled, and the individual levels of mind-altering compounds in the plant. People respond very differently to entheogen use because these drugs cannot be carefully compounded and controlled like their synthetic counterparts, and adverse reactions have been known to occur. Prolonged entheogen use can also have adverse health effects.
Many cultures list entheogens as controlled substances, reflecting the fact that they have no apparent medicinal value, and they can be quite dangerous. In regions where there is a legitimate historic use of entheogens, people from cultures and religions which use these drugs may be allowed to carry and use limited amounts. Especially in regions where religions freedom is valued, the use of entheogens by qualified individuals is protected by law, but penalties for selling the drugs to outsiders can be severe.