The Ultimate Guide to Psychedelics: DMT, LSD, Mescaline, and More
By Robert Anthony
DISCLAIMER: The information shared in this post is provided for educational and harm reduction purposes only and should not be construed as medical or legal advice. The possession and use of psychedelics are illegal in many countries, and violating these laws can carry significant legal penalties. Some users of psychedelics experience long-term psychological, emotional, and physical harm. If you are considering using psychedelics, consult your local, applicable laws and a qualified healthcare professional first.
Whether from plants, animals, fungi, or chemistry – psychedelics like DMT, LSD, mescaline, and psilocybin have inspired fear, adulation, and respect since time immemorial.
Traditionally used for shamanic and spiritual purposes, psychedelics were first introduced to the West through Richard Evans Schultes’ ethnobotanical research, R. Gordon Wasson’s LIFE magazine account of a Mazatec mushroom ceremony, and the serendipitous discovery of LSD by Albert Hofman. After that, people of varied backgrounds, from scientists to CIA agents to hippies to psychotherapists, experimented with psychedelics. At their peak in the 1950s and 1960s, millions of people experimented with psychedelics for the first time.
This early wave of psychedelic exuberance quickly gave way to moral panic. Only a few short years after Timothy Leary urged young people to “turn on, tune in, and drop out,” the U.S. government made nearly all psychedelics illegal with the passage of the Controlled Substances Act of 1970. Scientific research was halted, criminal penalties for possession and use were expanded, and all psychedelic use (whether recreational, therapeutic, or spiritual) was forced underground.
The freeze on psychedelic research took nearly 20 years to thaw, with Dr. Rick Strassman’s DMT study officially breaking the ice in 1990. From there, a slow revival of human psychedelic studies gradually picked up steam with new discoveries made possible thanks to modern imaging and analytical techniques. This “third wave” of psychedelic research confirmed what many users had already known, which is that psychedelics hold incredible promise for promoting health, healing, and spiritual growth.
Psychedelics are now more popular and widespread than ever, resulting in a growing demand for psychedelic services. Providers of such services include therapists, facilitators, and integration coaches who can support users before, during, and after their psychedelic experiences. However, with the return of psychedelics to the cultural mainstream comes the return of irrational exuberance and the possibility of another prohibitionist backlash.
The use of psychedelics carries genuine risks. Unfortunately, news agencies are all too eager to cover horror stories that often result from improper set and setting, adulterated drugs, or otherwise irresponsible use in general. In addition, new issues have emerged from corporate interests, such as the patenting of psychedelic medicines, sustainability concerns, and other consequential concerns.
- What are Psychedelics and How Do They Work?
- Psychedelics in Prehistory
- How Were Psychedelics Traditionally Used?
- The Origin and Meaning of the Term Psychedelic
- M.K. Ultra, Merry Pranksters, and the 60’s Psychedelic Revolution
- The Beginning of the Modern Psychedelic Renaissance
- MDMA and MAPS: A Return to the Psychotherapeutic Model
- Michael Pollan Takes Magic Mushrooms Mainstream
- Psychedelic Decriminalization and Commercialization
- Tripping in the Psychedelic Renaissance
- Psychedelic Movies and T.V. Series
What are Psychedelics and How Do They Work?
Most psychedelics belong to a family of naturally occurring organic compounds called indole alkaloids. Nearly all forms of life, including animals, plants, bacteria, and fungi, produce indole alkaloids, which perform various functions. Some indole alkaloids are deadly poisons, others are used to treat sexual dysfunction, and many are powerful psychedelics.
Some of the simplest indole alkaloids are the tryptamines. They possess a characteristic “indole ring” structure, which features pyrrole and benzene molecules fused together like a pentagon and hexagon joined on one side. There are over 1,500 known tryptamines, and this list includes the psychedelics DMT, 5-MEO-DMT, psilocybin, and the neurotransmitter serotonin.
Due to their structural similarity to serotonin, psychedelic tryptamines can bind to serotonin receptors throughout the body. These receptors are concentrated in both the digestive tract and the brain, but those in the brain are particularly relevant to psychedelics. Key among these serotonin receptors is a subtype known as the 5-HT2a receptor. Serotonin’s action on 5-HT2a is believed to modulate ordinary waking consciousness, and when a psychedelic doppelganger displaces serotonin, ordinary waking consciousness gives way to the psychedelic experience.
While most of the “classical” psychedelics, such as LSD, DMT, and psilocybin, exert their effects through 5-HT2a receptor activation, this is not exclusively the case. Phenethylamines, such as mescaline, MDMA, and 2-CB, all bind to both serotonin and dopamine receptors, giving them a more physical and embodied effect when compared to tryptamines. Ibogaine, another indole alkaloid, can bind to the μ-opioid receptor, which makes it uniquely suited to treating opioid withdrawals.
With one or more brain receptors occupied by a psychedelic molecule, users may experience various effects, including perceptual hallucinations, heightened emotions, entity encounters, ego dissolution, mystical and other non-ordinary states. A trip can last for just a few minutes with something like vaporized DMT or up to 12 hours with oral ingestion of mescaline or LSD. The intensity of the experience largely depends on the specific drug used, the dose consumed, and the user’s unique biology, expectations, and experience level.
Early psychedelic researchers had to make inferences about the effects of psychedelics on the brain; however, modern imaging technology, like functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), allows scientists to observe them directly. By measuring cerebral blood flow (CBF), fMRI shows which parts of the brain are becoming more or less active while under the influence of a psychedelic.
Compared to a normal brain, a brain under the influence of psychedelics will show decreased activity in key brain regions such as the hypothalamus, posterior cingulate cortex (PCC), and the medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC). Coordinated activity in these brain regions is responsible for the construction of our ego, and by uncoupling them, psychedelics allow new patterns of brain activity to emerge.
Despite the common fear of a “permatrip,” there is no evidence suggesting that a psychedelic experience will continue indefinitely. Eventually, enzymes such as monoamine oxidase (MAOI) degrade psychedelic drugs into non-intoxicating compounds, such as serotonin, while other neurotransmitters reassert their effects, resulting in the restoration of normal waking consciousness. That said, the effects of psychedelics don’t end when the trip does.
In the immediate aftermath of a psychedelic experience, neurotrophic growth factors like brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) rise, causing brain cells to branch out and connect in new ways (such changes in the brain are called neuroplasticity). This boost in brain connectivity may explain the psychedelic “afterglow” reported by many users and may also explain some of the antidepressant and anti-addictive effects psychedelics can confer.
Psychedelics in Prehistory
Whether it’s reindeer eating amanita mushrooms, cats chewing catnip, or baboon-like mandrills eating iboga root (prior to engaging in territorial battles, no less), the fact that animals intentionally alter their consciousness is well-documented, if not well-reported. It is likely then that our ancestors, who first emerged on the African continent approximately 2 million years ago, would have indulged in drugs as well. In fact, the universality of drug-seeking behavior is so common in animals that it has even been referred to as “the fourth drive” on par with hunger, thirst, and sexual gratification.
In addition to simple pleasure, the working theory for why the intoxication drive exists is that consuming psychoactive substances confers a meaningful adaptive benefit. For example, nibbling a plant with aphrodisiac properties may improve reproductive success, purgatives may help clear parasites, and psychedelics could inspire creative thinking and problem-solving. Early humans would have had plenty of options to choose from with an ancestral homeland replete with psychedelic species such as iboga, DMT-containing acacias, and psilocybin mushrooms. However, pinpointing the exact date of our collective first trip is nigh-impossible and leaves much room for speculation.
One guess, the so-called “Stoned Ape” hypothesis, posits that psychedelics were part of our prehistoric diet right from the start. As the story goes, our early ancestors happened upon Psilocybe cubensis growing from the dung of grazing animals and, correctly assuming they were edible, partook of the fruiting fungi. According to the father of the Stoned Ape hypothesis, the late psychonaut, author, and orator Terence McKenna, this early exposure to mind-expanding drugs catalyzed human evolution and brought us “out of the animal mind and into the world of articulated speech and imagination.”
Whether or not psychedelic mushrooms made us human, we’ll likely never know, but what is known for sure is that humans have been using psychedelics for a very long time. Mushroom-like objects can be seen in Algerian cave paintings that are believed to be 7,000 years old, and even more explicit depictions of psilocybin mushrooms were found in a 6,000-year-old Spanish cave. In South America, numerous “mushroom stones” have been discovered as well as caves littered with 8,000-year-old bits of the mescaline-rich San Pedro cactus.
Cave paintings aside, one of the most conclusive pieces of evidence demonstrating ancient psychedelic use was discovered in a dry river valley in Bolivia. Anthropologists were excavating a prehistoric trash heap, and among the rocks, turquoise beads, and sheep dung, they found an unusual object. They found a small pouch made from three fox snouts sewn together. Inside were llama bone spatulas, snuffing tubes, a colorful woven headband, and other pieces of apparent drug paraphernalia.
Radiocarbon dating indicated that the pouch was at least 1,000 years old. Moreover, when the objects inside the pouch were analyzed by liquid chromatography-mass spectrometry (LCMS), an even more incredible discovery was made. The results of the analysis showed that the pouch contained the “largest number of compounds recovered from a single artifact from this area of the world, to date.” Specifically, the researchers found traces of cocaine, benzoylecgonine (a cocaine metabolite), harmine, bufotenine, dimethyltryptamine (DMT), and possibly psilocin.
No single plant contains both cocaine and psychedelics, so these results would have required a variety of plants (and possibly fungi) to have been present. Erythroxylum coca is the obvious source of cocaine, but the psychedelic compounds could have come from various sources. Both DMT and bufotenine can be found in the seeds of Anadenanthera peregrina, which is traditionally prepared into a psychedelic snuff called yopo. DMT alone can also be found in the leaves of Psychotria viridis, but since DMT is orally inactive, a monoamine oxidase inhibitor (MAOI) would be required to activate it. Just such an MAOI was present in the form of harmine, possibly sourced from Banisteriopsis caapi, making it likely that the pouch had once contained the psychedelic admixture ayahuasca.
To acquire these various psychedelic and psychoactive compounds, the pouch’s owner would have had to travel vast distances or, lacking that ability, had access to merchants and traders who did. In addition, the paraphernalia itself was expertly crafted and adorned with creative embellishments like anthropomorphic figurines that would have required significant skill to produce. Taken together, it is reasonable to conclude that the owner of the pouch belonged to a society with a well-established and sophisticated understanding of psychedelic and psychoactive drugs. All this effort, intentionality, and organization speak to how deeply rooted our drive to alter consciousness is and why the story of psychedelics continues to this day.
How Were Psychedelics Traditionally Used?
While there is no one “true” or “authentic” way of consuming psychedelics, prior to the American psychedelic revolution of the mid-20th century, most psychedelic use was confined to indigenous spiritual and shamanic traditions. In these traditions, a shaman, maestro, or some other individual proficient in the collection, preparation, and application of psychedelic plants would typically consume them in a ritualist fashion to make contact with alternate dimensions, entities, and ancestor spirits.
Ceremonial healing was often the purpose of partaking in psychedelics within indigenous traditions, but this was not always the case. A shaman may also use psychedelics to locate a lost object, shoot magical darts at his or her enemies, or gain knowledge directly from the plants themselves. It’s also worth noting that the shaman would often consume psychedelics on behalf of a patient or community member who, contrary to most Western conceptions of psychedelic ceremonies, remained sober throughout the experience.
The impact of colonial oppression and persecution on indigenous psychedelic traditions further complicates the question of “traditional” psychedelic use. When European colonialists first encountered indigenous groups that used psychedelics such as peyote, psilocybin mushrooms, and ayahuasca, they treated them as religious blasphemies and prosecuted users harshly. This early form of prohibitionist thinking was an extension of the medieval and Spanish Inquisitions that swept through Europe before coming to the New World.
The direct effect of colonial brutality was the creation of syncretic folk traditions that fused Christian iconography, saints, and concepts like the holy trinity with pre-colonial psychedelic ceremonies. This was done in order to protect and preserve indigenous traditions by disguising them as Christian worship. Examples of syncretic psychedelic traditions include the Brazilian União do Vegetal (UDV) and the Native American church.
Perhaps not surprisingly, both the UDV and Native American churches, who managed to survive centuries of colonial oppression, once again found themselves prosecuted by modern-day prohibitionist forces. This time, it was the U.S. government and DEA who attempted to suppress their free exercise of religious rights. However, in a case that went all the way to the Supreme Court of the United States, the UDV was granted its right to continue using the ceremonial consumption of ayahuasca (or “hoasca” as it’s referred to within the UDV) during their church services. Similarly, the Native American church petitioned the Supreme Court, which ultimately ruled to allow them to continue consuming peyote as a religious sacrament.
Even within indigenous communities that largely avoided contact with European settlers, there is evidence that “traditional use” was a flexible concept. For example, one psychedelic plant may be replaced by another, or a shamanic ritual performed by one individual may give way to social use among multiple members of a tribe. However, if there is one constant among early psychedelic traditions, it’s that they were socially sanctioned experiences grounded in a shared cultural framework. While this did not guarantee the outcome of any given psychedelic ceremony, it did remove the elements of stigma, shame, and isolation often experienced by contemporary psychedelic users.
The Origin and Meaning of the Term Psychedelic
The word psychedelic is a combination of the Greek “psychē” and “dēloun,” which roughly translates to “mind-manifesting.” It was coined in 1956 by Canadian psychiatrist and pioneering psychedelic researcher Dr. Humphry Osmond. At that time, physicians and researchers held a generally reductive view of psychedelics and used derivative terms like hallucinogen, schizogen, and psychotomimetic to describe them.
Osmond had taken an early interest in psychedelics and used both LSD and mescaline with his patients. Initially, his view of psychedelics mirrored that of his peers, and he was a believer in the psychotomimetic model. In this view, psychedelics mimic, albeit temporarily, psychotic states and are thus “psychotomimetic.” Osmond himself viewed this as a potentially positive trait as it could help psychiatrists better understand their patients, allowing them to “study these problems of communication from the inside and learn how to devise better methods of helping the sick.”
As time went on, however, Osmond had difficulty maintaining this view because he witnessed, and personally experienced, that psychedelic experiences generally had positive, expansive, and life-affirming effects on people. Moreover, in the words of one of Osmond’s research partners, Dr. John Halpern, many of the patients “didn’t have a terrible experience. In fact, they had a rather interesting experience.” In other words, psychedelics did not mimic psychoses and were actually creating an altogether different sort of consciousness alteration.
Throughout the late 1950s and 1960s, Osmond and his partner Abram Hoffer used psychedelics to treat over 2,000 patients. They focused particular attention on alcoholism and found that the combination of psychedelics and psychotherapy consistently produced positive results. The pair published numerous research papers on their findings, and one of their readers was the famous writer Aldous Huxley. Huxley, an enthusiastic student of religion and spirituality, was interested in having a psychedelic experience, so he wrote to Osmond and volunteered himself as a “willing and eager guinea pig.”
Huxley and Osmond arranged to meet, and after receiving his first dose of mescaline from Osmond, 400mg dissolved in a glass of water, Huxley proceeded to have his mind blown. He found himself swept away by the qualities of a piece of cloth and had many profound revelations, which he documented enthusiastically in his seminal book The Doors of Perception.
Afterward, Huxley and Osmond continued to write to one another. In one such correspondence, Huxley included the couplet, “To make this trivial world sublime/Take half a Gramme of phanerothyme.” Osmond, in turn, sent Huxley a couplet of his own, “To fathom hell or soar angelic/Just take a pinch of psychedelic.”
The pair agreed that “psychedelic” was the preferred phrase, and Osmond formally proposed its use at the New York Academy of Sciences. While the term never fully caught on with the academic community–hallucinogen still remains the most commonly used descriptor–Osmond’s creation caught fire with psychedelic users and “squares” alike. Moreover, the use of the word psychedelic quickly extended beyond the drugs themselves to include psychedelic music, art, and culture.
In subsequent years, numerous alternatives to psychedelic have been proposed, such as empathogen (empathy-producing), entactogen (connection-enhancing), and entheogen (something that allows one to experience “the god within”), but the term psychedelic continues to be the most popular word for consciousness-altering drugs like DMT, LSD, mescaline, and psilocybin.
M.K. Ultra, Merry Pranksters, and the ’60s Psychedelic Revolution
In Asia, Africa, South America, Mexico, and many other parts of the world, the traditional use of psychedelics continued in relatively unbroken lineages from ancient to modern times. In the West, however, the influence of the Catholic and Protestant churches meant that those who engaged in shamanic practices and used plant medicines were more likely to be prosecuted as sorcerers, witches, and devil worshipers than to be revered and respected as valuable members of society.
The church rightly feared anything that challenged their authority by democratizing spiritual revelation, so they ferociously repressed psychedelics and those who used them. Manifesting in the form of the Spanish inquisition, the Salem witch trials, and colonial missionaries, early prohibitionists successfully imposed their grip on Western consciousness for several hundred years. It was only after the Enlightenment, the Scientific Revolution, and a series of revolutionary wars that the conditions necessary for the rediscovery of psychedelics would emerge.
Mescaline was first isolated from peyote in the late 1800s by utilizing the relatively new science of chemistry and its tools. Reports documenting its effects were published as early as 1895. By the early 1900s, mescaline was being used to study psychiatric conditions like schizophrenia. However, the drug’s extended mode of action (the effects of a single dose can be felt for 12+ hours) and physical side effects like nausea limited its widespread adoption.
Mescaline circled through scientific and artistic communities in Europe and America for several decades before drawing the attention of Nazi Germany. During the Second World War, Nazi scientists sought to discover a so-called mind-control drug, and mescaline was one of the compounds they explored for this purpose.
Led by Kurt Ploetner, an S.S. scientist working at the Dachau concentration camp, numerous prisoners were forced to take mescaline as part of these experiments. While the Nazi search for a “truth serum” failed, the idea of using psychedelics as a tool or war continued. After the fall of Nazi Germany, French authorities tried to extradite and punish Ploetner for his crimes, but the U.S. government protected him in order to utilize his research for their own top-secret mind-control program MK-Ultra.
After Albert Hofmann discovered LSD, institutional attention began to shift from mescaline towards this promising new psychedelic. Hofmann’s employer, the German pharmaceutical company Sandoz, mass-produced LSD under the brand name Delysid and generously provided it to individuals and government agencies alike. However, while psychiatrists like Humphry Osmond utilized LSD in conjunction with psychotherapy for the purposes of helping people, the CIA’s MK-Ultra, led by “America’s Dr. Mengele” Sydney Gottleib, took a decidedly different tack.
At Gottleib’s direction, the CIA purchased the world’s supply of LSD for approximately $250,000. Using shell organizations and undercover agents, they then began supplying psychiatric hospitals, prisons, universities, and even sex workers with the drug. Unfortunately, many test subjects were treated like human guinea pigs and were dosed without their knowledge. This egregious lapse in scientific protocol, patient consent, and general human values lead to innumerable traumatic experiences and at least one suicide. Like the Nazi research programs that preceded it, MK-Ultra was ultimately a failure in terms of its stated goals. However, by exposing thousands of people to LSD, the CIA inadvertently kickstarted a psychedelic revolution.
In the 15 years between 1950 and 1965, it is estimated that some 40,000 people were treated with LSD. Amongst this number was a then Stanford student named Ken Kesey. The experience blew Kesey’s mind, and he went on to participate in other psychedelic studies and even worked for a time in the psychiatric ward. These experiences informed his writing of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, but Kesey wasn’t interested in pursuing a career as a best-selling author. So instead, flush with cash from his book sales, he hit the road with a jar of LSD, a group of friends dubbed “the Merry Pranksters,” and a psychedelic school bus called “Further.”
Loaded on LSD, speed, and a sense of purpose, Kesey and the Pranksters crisscrossed the United States for several years introducing thousands of people to LSD through mixed-media experiences they called “Acid Tests.” These events merged art, music, and LSD in a chaotic kaleidoscope of psychedelia that defined a generation. When author Tom Wolfe chronicled Kesey’s adventures in his book The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, millions more would be turned on to the Prankster’s mission and the growing psychedelic counterculture.
Having lost control of LSD, and in response to Kesey and other populist LSD advocates like Dr. Timothy Leary and Allan Ginsberg, the U.S. government attempted to close the lid on the psychedelic Pandora’s box. First, in 1965, Sandoz stopped producing Delysid, and by 1968 LSD was made illegal. Then, in 1970, the Controlled Substances Act was signed into law by President Richard Nixon, adding additional penalties, law enforcement priority, and even more psychedelics, such as psilocybin, DMT, and mescaline, to the list of banned “Schedule I” substances (Schedule I substances are considered the most dangerous class of drugs with the most potential for abuse and no medical use).
Like the medieval church before it, the U.S. government rightly feared the anti-authoritarian thinking inspired by psychedelics. Also, like the church, their efforts would ultimately fail. Despite successfully stopping psychedelic research for nearly 50 years, the Controlled Substances Act and the so-called “War on Drugs” that followed only drove psychedelics underground. At great personal peril, clandestine chemists, therapists, and enthusiasts kept psychedelics alive through these modern “Dark Ages,” and it is thanks to these keepers of the flame that psychedelics would eventually come back more prominent than ever.
The Beginning of the Modern Psychedelic Renaissance
When the DEA placed psychedelics into Schedule I, the category reserved for substances lacking “accepted safety” even under medical supervision, they essentially closed the door on human psychedelic studies. Almost overnight, researchers faced daunting legal and professional risks that compelled them to turn over their drugs, abandon the field, or resort to inferior animal studies.
Outside of rebels like the late Alexander “Sasha” Shulgin, there would be no officially sanctioned human psychedelic research for nearly twenty years. However, this all changed when Rick Strassman achieved the impossible by convincing the University of New Mexico, the FDA, and the DEA that the powerful psychedelic DMT could be safely injected into human subjects.
Prior to launching his DMT trials in the early nineties, Strassman studied the hormone melatonin and its source in the body, the pineal gland. He was fascinated with the idea that the pineal might be the physical “seat of the soul” and that melatonin was, in turn, the proverbial “spirit molecule.” His research sputtered, however, when subjects reported only mild sedative effects when treated with melatonin.
This initial dead-end bore fruit when Strassman discovered the endogenously produced psychedelic DMT. N,N-dimethyltryptamine, or DMT for short, is widely distributed in nature and is even found in human lung and brain tissues. When Strassman discovered this fact, he suspected that DMT could be the elusive spirit molecule, but he would have to navigate a “labyrinth” of bureaucratic, financial, and legal hurdles in order to study DMT.
For nearly three years, Strassman diligently petitioned his university, the FDA, and the DEA to allow him to study DMT’s effects on human subjects. Despite delays, stonewalling, lost paperwork, unexpected expenses, and numerous other obstacles, he finally received permission to legally study DMT in 1990. Over the next five years, he dispensed more than 400 doses of DMT to dozens of volunteers, uncovering DMT’s fantastical effects (documented in detail in his book DMT: The Spirit Molecule) whilst paving the way for a new wave of human psychedelic research.
MDMA and MAPS: A Return to the Psychotherapeutic Model
3,4-methylenedioxyamphetamine, or MDMA, is a synthetic amphetamine in the phenethylamine class of drugs. MDMA was first synthesized in 1912 by a German chemist named Fritz Haber, but no one thought to sample the chemical, so its subjective effects remained unknown for decades. Eventually, in 1976, MDMA was rediscovered by the chemist Sasha Shulgin who is responsible for popularizing the drug within therapeutic and recreational circles.
Shulgin had been synthesizing derivatives of mescaline and stumbled upon MDMA during the course of his research. As was his practice, he tested his creations with his wife and a close group of friends. Their experiences with MDMA made it readily apparent that they were dealing with an entirely different kind of drug. Unlike classical psychedelics, MDMA is an “entactogen,” which primarily creates feelings of love, connection, and openness. These qualities make MDMA highly enjoyable in recreational situations and highly effective in therapeutic ones.
After characterizing MDMA’s effects, Shulgin began supplying MDMA to therapists interested in adding it to their practice. MDMA remained contained within the therapeutic community for several years, but it eventually broke out and blew up in the 1980s rave scene. The use of MDMA by ravers, who at the time were more likely to refer to it as ecstasy or E, drew the ire of reactionary politicians and the DEA, who invoked emergency scheduling powers in 1985 to put MDMA into Schedule I.
Like the classical psychedelics before it, MDMA was transformed from a legal, therapeutic tool to an illegal narcotic overnight. Therapists and researchers now had to contend with the looming threat of lengthy prison sentences and large fines, which dissuaded many of them from working with MDMA. That isn’t to say that advocates and practitioners allowed the criminalization of MDMA to proceed without a fight. Despite media scare stories, MDMA helped far more people than it had harmed, and groups quickly formed to fight the DEA’s scheduling.
One organization born out of this effort was the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS). Founded by Rick Doblin in 1986, MAPS failed in its short-term goal of re-legalizing MDMA, but it quickly pivoted its strategy to focus on psychotherapeutic research. The reasoning was that they could eventually change the laws restricting MDMA if they could prove that it was an effective adjunct to therapy.
It would take ten years, but MAPS eventually got FDA and DEA approval to perform a pilot safety study with MDMA. Having proven that the drug could be safely administered under medical supervision, they began exploring the therapeutic uses of MDMA with sexual assault survivors and people suffering from treatment-resistant PTSD. The data from these initial studies were promising. In one case, 83% of the PTSD participants no longer qualified for a PTSD diagnosis post-treatment, and because of this, MAPS was able to transition into larger-scale Phase 2 and Phase 3 clinical trials.
Despite MDMA’s Schedule 1 status, MAPS has been able to win both Investigational New Drug (IND) and Breakthrough Therapy status for the drug, putting it several steps closer to medical legalization. To complete their studies and prepare for what they believe is the inevitable de-scheduling of MDMA, MAPS is also training hundreds of mental healthcare professionals to become MDMA-assisted therapists.
In recent years, MAPS has drawn criticism from some for its close ties to the U.S. military. The criticism revolves around the Pentagon’s motives for engaging in psychedelic studies. Based on the admittedly poor track history of the CIA and other government agencies, this criticism is not unfounded. That said, MAPS’s impact on the furtherment of psychedelic studies is incontrovertible. In addition to funding MDMA studies, MAPS has also poured millions of dollars into LSD, psilocybin, ibogaine, ayahuasca, and cannabis research. The grassroots organization that started to fight MDMA scheduling is now at the forefront of the modern psychedelic renaissance.
Michael Pollan Takes Magic Mushrooms Mainstream
In 2018 the best-selling author Michael Pollan released “How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence.” As an author, Pollan was known for his explorations of subjects like cooking, gardening, and food, so a book about psychedelics was unexpected for both his fans and the academic press.
For Pollan, however, the seeds of the book had been planted long ago. Early in his marriage, he and his wife had enjoyed tripping on magic mushrooms, but the challenges of parenthood and their professional careers had put an end to their psychedelic use. Then, after the death of Pollan’s father, questions about his own mortality began to weigh on him and ultimately drew his attention to the work of Johns Hopkins University researcher Dr. Roland Griffiths.
Griffiths was studying psilocybin’s ability to “occasion mystical experiences” in psychedelically naive subjects, and Pollan, a devout scientific rationalist, was intrigued. Participants reported on qualities like “intuitive knowledge,” “transcendence of time and space,” “deep felt positive mood,” and “ineffability.”‘ Many of the participants even said that their psilocybin experiences were “among the most meaningful in their lives,” and follow-up interviews conducted more than a year later revealed that this assessment had only dropped slightly with the passage of time.
The Johns Hopkins psilocybin work inspired Pollan to dig deeper into the subject of psychedelics. He explored their history, past and current research, and the potential future of psychedelic-assisted therapy. The result of this exploration was a 2015 New Yorker article titled, “The Trip Treatment: Research into Psychedelics, Shut Down for Decades, Is Now Yielding Exciting Results.” Following the publication of his New Yorker piece, Pollan would spend three years expanding on the material, which ultimately became the book “How to Change Your Mind.
In Pollan’s characteristic prose, “How to Change Your Mind” describes both the history of psychedelics as well as the author’s own personal experiences. It provides the reader with a humanized view of psychedelics that focuses on the scientists behind the psychedelic renaissance. By introducing people to Rolland Griffiths, they learned about psilocybin’s ability to enhance openness and creativity. By diving into the cutting-edge research of Robin Carhartt-Harris, they learned about the brain’s default mode network (DMN) and psychedelics’ ability to turn it (i.e., the DMN), and the ego, off. Finally, by hearing about Pollan’s own guided experiences with LSD, psilocybin, and 5-MeO-DMT, they learned how proper set, setting, and supervision could optimize the psychedelic experience.
The press that followed was surprisingly positive, and “How to Change Your Mind” earned accolades such as a spot on The New York Times’ “10 Best Books of 2018” list. In the way that Rolland Griffiths moved psychedelic research forward, Pollan moved the conversation about psychedelics forward, normalizing psychedelic use for millions of people and syncing the public narrative with the scientific reality.
However, for all their psychedelic advocacy, both Pollan and Griffiths have expressed skepticism about the recent move to decriminalize and legalize psychedelics. In their view, uncontrolled psychedelic drug use may result in negative experiences, public outcry, political blowback, and a return to the psychedelic dark ages. Therefore, as an alternative to full legalization, they recommend rescheduling, which would place psilocybin in Schedule IV where it could be prescribed like a sleep aid but with tighter controls.
Psychedelic Decriminalization and Commercialization
In 1966, Nevada and California became the first states to criminalize the possession and use of psychedelics. The Controlled Substances Act and federal prohibition soon followed, but after 50 years of failure, the tide of the war on drugs is finally beginning to turn. Following the path charted by cannabis decriminalization, medicalization, and legalization, states and localities are starting to reconsider their legal treatment of psychedelics, especially in light of overwhelming evidence of their therapeutic potential.
Unbeknownst to many people, New Mexico legalized the cultivation, possession, and use of fresh psychedelic mushrooms (but not dried mushrooms) in 2005. However, it would be another 14 years until Denver became the first city of the psychedelic renaissance to decriminalize psychedelic mushrooms. Soon after, cities in California led the charge to decriminalize psychedelics with “plant medicine” laws passing in both Santa Cruz and Oakland. Similar measures have also passed in Ann Arbor, Michigan, Washington D.C., and Somerville, Cambridge, and Northhampton, Massachusetts. In 2020 Oregon became the first state to decriminalize the possession of small quantities of all drugs, including psychedelics, and California may soon be following suit. In 2021, the California state Senate passed a bill titled SB 519, which, if signed into law, would legalize the possession of most psychedelics (with the possible exception of ketamine, which would still be available by prescription) for more than 39 million Americans.
These promising legal reforms have inspired entrepreneurs and their investors to capitalize on the burgeoning market potential for psychedelic drugs and psychedelic therapy. For example, new York-based MindMed and Berlin-based Atai Life Sciences have both raised millions of dollars with backing from supporters like PayPal founder Peter Thiel. Compass Pathways, another Thiel-backed startup, is even listed on the NASDAQ stock exchange.
The prospect of psychedelic businesses trading on Wall Street may excite some; however, others are ringing the alarm around standard business practices that may not align with the ideals and values of the psychedelic community. Companies are actively patenting novel psychedelic drugs, synthetic variations of existing drugs, and developing proprietary delivery methods. Recently Compass Pathways went so far as to seek a patent for the basic components of a psychedelic treatment room. In their 2020 application, they specifically claimed that decorating the treatment room in muted colors and furnishing it with soft couches was part of their intellectual property.
As legal reform and commercial activity around psychedelics continues to expand and evolve, questions of costs and equitable access must be answered. One possible solution is alternative business models such as that employed by MAPS. As a Public Benefit Corporation, MAPS seeks to strike a balance between social responsibility and profitability that may result in better outcomes for patients than standard for-profit enterprises. Regardless of how the process shakes out, it would be naive to assume that the structural pitfalls of capitalism don’t apply to psychedelics.
Tripping in the Psychedelic Renaissance
Whether inspired by studies that suggest psilocybin is “4 times more effective than antidepressants” or by celebrities like Mike Tyson, who recently claimed that “psychedelics saved his life,” more and more people are seeking psychedelic experiences. Until recently, this would mean purchasing drugs on the black market and using them illicitly, but now, there are various legal options that individuals can explore.
For those suffering from treatment-resistant depression, ketamine infusion and/or ketamine-assisted psychotherapy may be of interest. Ketamine is a dissociative drug with psychedelic properties that is FDA-approved for use as an anaesthetic. However, it may be legitimately prescribed for “off-label” conditions such as depression. Multiple clinical studies have shown that patients treated with ketamine reliably report reductions in depressive symptoms, anxiety, and suicidality. There are hundreds of ketamine clinics nationwide that currently serve the drug to qualifying patients.
If a more “classical” psychedelic experience is desired, there are numerous clinical trials in need of research volunteers. MAPS, Johns Hopkins, and the Imperial College London are all actively recruiting patients with a diverse array of psychiatric and neurological conditions such as anorexia, Alzheimer’s, and PTSD. Due to the inherent nature of clinical trials, however, participation in these studies cannot be guaranteed, and, even if accepted, there is a chance that a placebo will be administered as part of the study protocol.
In a sign of (hopefully) things to come, residents of the state of Oregon will soon have access to psilocybin treatment centers as part of the recently passed Ballot Measure 109. After a two-year development period, which began on January 1, 2021, the law stipulates that the state “license and regulate the manufacturing, transportation, delivery, sale and purchase of psilocybin products” in addition to establishing psilocybin services that provide a “safe, accessible and affordable therapeutic option.” This means that Oregonians aged 21 and over will soon be able to legally participate in the same psilocybin-assisted therapy that has shown efficacy in treating a broad range of conditions such as depression, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder, alcoholism, and tobacco use disorder.
Outside of the U.S., in countries where the laws governing psychedelics are more relaxed, psychedelic treatment centers legally offer a variety of psychedelic medicines and support services for medical, wellness, and spiritual seekers. For example, both Rhythmia and the Soltara Healing Center in Costa Rica offer guided ayahuasca journeys, Synthesis in Amsterdam utilizes psychedelic psilocybin “truffles,” and Clear Sky Recovery in Mexico provides iboga to those suffering from severe drug addiction. Not all retreats are created equally, however, and safety issues, including deaths, have been reported.
As the psychedelic renaissance continues, and with an expanding push to reschedule and decriminalize psychedelics, the slate of legal psychedelic experiences will only expand. That said, legal options are still in their infancy, and significant barriers in terms of cost and access remain present for the vast majority of people. For these individuals, illicit psychedelic use remains the most accessible path, but thankfully the psychedelic renaissance has something to offer here as well.
Since adulterated or improperly identified drugs are a primary cause of psychedelic-related medical events, drug testing kits from organizations like Dancesafe can offer users tremendous peace of mind. Using simple reagents, a tablet or a pill can be screened for common adulterants like fentanyl. Tests can also confirm the presence of desired drugs like MDMA or LSD.
Lastly, during a psychedelic experience, a guide can be employed to maximize the chances of a safe and beneficial journey and minimize adverse reactions by offering support should difficult experiences, spiritual emergencies, or other crises arise. Psychedelic integration coaches and integration circles––which are now widely available––can address the need for psychedelic community and connection following a psychedelic experience.
The Doors of Perception and Heaven and Hell
Aldous Huxley’s mescaline fueled exploration of the mind, consciousness and the psychedelic experience.
Animals and Psychedelics
In Animals and Psychedelics, Ethnobotanist Giorgio Samorini documents the known phenomena of animal intoxication and its implications for human drug-seeking behavior.
The Psychedelic Experience: A Manual Based on the Tibetan Book of the Dead
Published in 1964, and written by Timothy Leary, Ralph Metzner, and Richard Alpert (aka Ram Dass) The Psychedelic Experience is one of the seminal works of 60’s psychedelic culture.
Food of the Gods
Psychonaut, author, and orator Terence McKenna explores the differences between “partnership” and “dominator” societies while making his case for the Stoned Ape hypothesis.
The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test
Follow Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters as they road trip around the United States in a psychedelic school bus and a jar full of L.S.D.
PIHKAL: A Chemical Love Story
One part “fictional” autobiography, one part psychedelic chemists cookbook, Phenethylamines I Have Known and Loved provides a detailed guide for the synthesis and use of 179 psychedelic phenethylamines like mescaline and MDMA.
In the sequel to PIHKAL, chemist Alexander “Sasha” Shulgin continues his autobiography with stories such as the D.E.A. raid that followed the publication of his first book and cements his legacy as a psychedelic legend by synthesizing 55 tryptamines such as DMT, LSD, psilocybin, and 5-MEO-DMT.
DMT: The Spirit Molecule
Dr. Rick Strassman explores the connection between mystical states, near death experiences, and alien abductions with the powerful psychedelic DMT.
How to Change Your Mind
Blending personal experiences, scientific journalism, and expert interviews, Michael Pollan charts a course through the history of psychedelics with a special focus on psilocybin and LSD. Book, Audiobook
The Psychedelic Explorer’s Guide
The definitive guide on microdosing, set and setting, and safe psychedelic journeying.
Plants of the Gods
A global encyclopedia of psychoactive plants and the people who used them.
Shadows in the Sun
A globe-trotting series of essays connected at the intersection of ecology, industrialization, and psychedelic shamanism.
Have the DMT elves been with us all along? Graham Hancock explores the shocking similarities to fairy folklore, alien abductions, and smoked DMT experiences.
Tech executives, Navy Seals, and Fortune 100 CEOs are using psychedelics to enhance creativity and unlock problem solving capabilities and you can too.
Psychedelic Movies and T.V. Series
Hosted by Hamilton Morris (son of the documentarian Errol Morris), Hamilton’s Pharmacopeia is a T.V. series produced by Vice that takes viewers on a globe-trotting, gonzo journey through various drugs, their chemistry, and their impact on society.
Available to watch on: Vice, Prime Video, Hulu
In this Vice T.V. series, former bank robber turned self-described shaman Steve Hupp dispenses ayahuasca to drug addicts, sexual abuse survivors, and military veterans at his deep south retreat Aya Quest Native Americas Church.
Available to watch on: Vice, Prime Video
From psychedelic drugs to dreams and even UFOs, this documentary series produced by the Gaia network covers all aspects of the psychedelic experience and then some.
Available to watch on: Gaia, Prime Video
The Way of the Psychonaut
Filmmaker Susan Hess Logeais explores the life and career of pioneering psychedelic researcher Stanislav Grof while undergoing her own transformational journey aided by methods and techniques developed by Grof, such as Holotropic Breathing and Perinatal Matrices.
Available to watch on: Vimeo, Prime Video, iTunes
Adrianne, a heroin addict with deep unresolved trauma, attempts to break her addiction with the aid of psychedelic mushrooms and iboga in this raw and unflinching documentary.
Available to watch on: Vimeo, Prime Video, Vudu
After a “warm-up” session with psilocybin mushrooms, three friends partake of the world’s most powerful psychedelic, 5-MEO-DMT, with mixed results.
Available to watch on: Vimeo, Prime Video
From Shock to Awe
Two U.S. military veterans suffering from PTSD hit rock bottom with the conventional medical system and, as a last resort, try ayahuasca which gives them hope, healing, and a new lease on life.
Available to watch on: Vimeo, Prime Video
Psychonautics: A Comic’s Exploration of Psychedelics
Stand-up comic and self-described psychonaut Shane Mauss experiments with a wide variety of psychedelics, has a great time, suffers a psychotic break, and lives to tell about it.
Available to watch on: Vimeo, Prime Video, Vudu