I can cure your depression.
I can show you different levels of consciousness.
I can remove the fear of death in cancer patients.
I can even make a blind man's sounds into visions.
By now most of us have heard the buzz about these magical mushrooms creating unimaginable effects. However magic always comes with a price. If we don’t get a good grasp of what psychedelics can do the consequences will be massive.
Let’s take a look at where this all began.
Psychedelic plants and fungi have been used as a part of Indigenous traditions and ceremonies for thousands of years. However modern psychedelic research started in 1938 when a chemist named Albert Hofmann first synthesized lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD).
In 1943, he ingested the first-ever dose of LSD. He was working with ergot fungus and accidentally ingested a trace of it one Friday afternoon. He experienced this altered state of consciousness that he thought about as he was growing up. His connection with nature was incredibly powerful to him.
On the following Monday, he decided to take a dose of LSD and rode his bicycle home as he reexperienced the effects of the psychedelic. That day, April 19, later became memorialized by LSD enthusiasts as “bicycle day.”
What’s interesting is that his first psychedelic trip was actually what's considered a bad trip. He was overcome with dizziness, anxiety and this deep feeling that he was going to die.
Regardless of his bad experience, he went on to take hundreds of doses of LSD and became a huge advocate for its ability. Not only did he find interest in its value to psychiatry but he believed it could be used to awaken a deeper awareness of our place on Earth and in nature.
During the 1950s and 1960s, there were hundreds of scientific reports on the use of LSD and psilocybin as therapeutic drugs. People not only discovered the alterations it made to their state of consciousness but also came to realize that it has great potential for a handful of mental disorders.
This was also around the time when it started to be used recreationally. Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert from Harvard University were heavily promoting the use of the drug along with many well-meaning people. It was believed to spread love and peace. But as more people began to take it in different forms from different sources, it became incredibly dangerous.
There were reports of accidents, mental breakdowns, criminal acts, murders, and suicide were reported. There were also tons of psychotic reactions to the drug creating social hysteria about LSD.
As it began getting too dangerous for the government to control LSD production was banned and its therapeutic use came to an end. In 1968 it became an I-rated drug and was listed as a schedule 1 controlled substance by the United Nations in 1971. This essentially means it was illegal to produce, distribute, possess and ingest psychedelics, even for medical or therapeutic purposes.
There was some underground work being done since then however things have started picking back up again in the last decade.
The FDA is starting to not only support but also encourage trials being done with these drugs. In 2019, they approved ketamine as a therapy for treatment-resistant depression. Recently, there were promising results published from FDA-approved studies for psilocybin for treatment-resistant depression patients and MDMA for PTSD treatment.
More companies and labs are investing their resources into psychedelic research and advancement daily and we're constantly producing more promising results.
There’s still a lot that we’re missing but after nearly 5 decades of silence, this industry is picking up faster than ever.
There are a lot of misconceptions when it comes to psychedelics vs empathogens. They are both types of psychoactive substances but have different functions and outcomes.
Psychedelics produce changes in perception, mood and cognitive processes. Empathogens produce changes in emotional openness. Psychedelics mainly affect the primary visual cortex and empathogens involve more of the limbic system.
Most people consider MDMA to be psychedelic but it’s actually classified as an empathogen. I’ll only be focusing on the 5 main types of psychedelics in this article (Ayahuasca, LSD, methoxybenzyl, Psilocybin, DMT).
Ayahuasca is a plant-based psychedelic that comes from the Banisteriopsis Caapi vine and the leaves of a Psychotria Viridis shrub. When you heat or boil the vine it turns into a brown-reddish liquid.
For centuries this drug has been used for religious ceremonies and as medicine, especially by the First Nations peoples of Peru, Brazil, Colombia and Ecuador.
Like all psychedelics, their effects differ between people and have a lot of dependent factors.
LSD (lysergic acid diethylamide) is a chemical made from a substance found in a fungus that grows on rye. It is incredibly powerful due to its high potency. It only takes a really small dose to feel the effects of the drug.
LSD is a white odourless crystalline substance but it is usually diluted with other materials. For example, drops of LSD solution can be dried onto gelatin sheets, blotting paper or even sugar cubes. You can also take LSD as a liquid, in tablets or capsules.
Most people who use LSD regularly or like to store it prefer liquid form because if you store it properly it can last for years. It has a quick effect once taken and is easy to split.
The effects of LSD usually begin 30 minutes after taking it and will last around 8–12 hours depending on the person's size, history with the drug, the amount taken etc.
The more you take the more likely you can overdose but the amount you take doesn’t impact whether you have a bad trip (panicky, high risk-taking, self-harm etc). That’s fully dependent on the circumstances you’re in when you take it, who guides you through the experience (if anyone at all) and more. Psychedelics enhance the experiences and thoughts you have as you take them.
People that take LSD regularly typically experience flashbacks to their trips when sober. They can happen weeks, months and even years after you take the drug and last for a couple of minutes.
The good thing about LSD is that you don’t develop a neurological addiction and there aren’t withdrawal symptoms. There may be psychological dependence but no physical dependence is developed.
Methoxybenzyl (NBOMes) are similar to LSD as it’s typically taken as blotting paper, a liquid, white powder or pill. It can also be very potent even in small doses, increasing overdose risk.
NBOMes are fairly new though so it’s hard to judge what the long-term effects will be of the drug.
Psilocybin (or the real magic mushroom) is particularly interesting to me. They look like ordinary poisonous mushrooms and are typically found in subtropical humid forests.
Typically people use synthetic psilocybin which is a white crystalline powder that can be processed into tablets or dissolved in water.
All the things I talked about with the other psychedelics occur with Psilocybin. This includes different reactions for different people, possible flashbacks, effects and bad trips.
The use of psilocybin for depression, anxiety and OCD is incredibly promising and I’ll be looking deeper into that soon!
Lastly, there’s DMT. This is pretty similar to Psilocybin and has all the same risks as other psychedelics mentioned above.
It’s also the psychotic ingredient found in ayahuasca! A plant containing DMT is boiled together with a plant containing a monoamine oxidase inhibitor (MAOI) and that’s what makes ayahuasca.
When DMT is synthetically produced it’s also a white crystalline powder.
The differences between all the substances come from what plants it's in and the very specific effects. But since no two trips are the same, it’s hard to say for sure what those are.
There are also so many different purposes for each drug, going back to cultural traditions.
Let's get more into what the purpose of psychedelics is in people's lives!
Why do people use psychedelics?
There are three main uses that I’ve seen for psychedelics: spiritual, recreational and as treatment methods.
For thousands of years, psychedelics helped shape many religions and cultural traditions that have been created. For example, Soma (a drink that comes from a plant) appears throughout Sanskrit texts in Hinduism. The active component of Soma is the hallucinogenic Amanita Muscaria (the Fly Agaric mushroom).
A big misconception is that they’re used recreationally as a party drug. The recreational use of substances such as LSD isn’t in the same context as marijuana. Instead, they’re used as a method for people to explore altered states of consciousness and modify perceptions, feelings etc.
Psychedelics also have major potential for treating depression, PTSD, anxiety, substance abuse, OCD and more.
Major Research Gaps
Everything I’ve told you throughout this article makes it seem like psychedelics should be used by everyone for everything. However, there are still a couple of things we need to tackle first.
Right now we don’t know what 100% of the long-term effects it could have. We need to understand more closely what the patterns are between people and the effect the drug has on them. This can help us predict what long-term side effects may occur.
We also need to create new laws around how you can get ahold of the drugs, how much you can use at a time etc. There are a lot of gaps in how accessible we should make it.
Since psychedelics still have a fairly intense stigma from the 1960s it’s going to take a large cultural shift to view these as a helpful tools instead of harmful drugs.
At the end of the day, all drugs have their risks, but understanding more about how it functions and how we can safely give the world access to it will be incredibly important.
The potential of psychedelics is massive and that certainly won’t go to waste.