Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Is Herbalism in Danger of being Outlawed?

European regulations on herbal commerce. Codex Alimentarius. FDA rules on "Good Manufacturing Practices" for herbal products.

It seems like every few weeks I am reading about a law or regulatory regime that opponents fear will mean the end of herbalism as we know it.

Some of these threats have a degree of reality to them -- the "Good Manufacturing Practices" regulations, for example, have caused some small tincture makers to go out of business and created significant problems for others. (Paul Bergner has a great article giving a balanced view of these regulations in the current issue of Plant Healer Magazine.) Others are largely overblown -- I have yet to read any convincing evidence that Codex Alimentarius actually threatens anyone's attempts to sell herbal products.

But none of them actually threaten to stamp out herbalism -- because stamping out herbalism is impossible.

What they do threaten to do is make it more difficult for companies that sell herbal products to do business. And certainly this is a real problem. I'm not in favor of any kind of government regulation of herbs prepared in traditional ways (though I would love to see supplement companies required to disclose whether they use toxic solvents in extracting plant constituents like Quercetin!) And most herb companies make a tremendous contribution to the herbal community through education, through support of conferences like the Traditions in Western Herbalism Conference and organizations like United Plant Savers, and by providing practitioners and the general public with high quality, sustainably grown and harvested herbs.

But if all the herb companies in the country were shut down by government edict tomorrow, herbalism would not die.

People would continue growing herbs in their backyards and carefully and respectfully gathering herbs from the forests, fields, mountains, deserts, and swamps around them. They would continue giving Elderberry syrup to sick children and Chaga decoctions to people with cancer. And the people in each community who devoted their lives to working with plants would continue to share their knowledge with people who wanted to learn and to help people who were sick and in pain just as they always have.

Paul Bergner points out that the jailing of herbalists like Nicholas Culpepper and Samuel Thomson failed to break their spirits or keep others from continuing their work.

And if you want to look at how successful governments have been in outlawing plants take a look at Cannabis or Poppies or Coca.

To me the core of herbalism is about helping people take their health in their own hands and connecting them with the living world around them by spreading knowledge about plants and about the workings of the human body. And the approaches to herbalism that excite me most are those that involve people working with plants that grow in their own bioregion -- something I am increasingly trying to do in my own practice, though I will likely always still work with a few beloved allies that can't grow where I live.

In this society, such ideas and practices are somewhat subversive. And I don't think we can expect a society so based on domination and control to make it easier for us to teach self reliance and mutual aid. But I also think its important to remember that no system of government, no matter how totalitarian, has ever succeeded in preventing people from healing themselves and each other with plants.

And as long as people are working with plants as medicine, herbalism will be alive and well.

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