This is the first of a multi-part series exploring psychedelics, its history, usage, effects and potentials, legalities, and future.

In today’s current environment, the word “psychedelics” tends to conjure negative beliefs and association about dangerous mind-altering drugs that might fry the brain and cause terrifying hallucinations. While there is truth to some of these concerns, these mind-altering drugs have been in existence in nature and safely used by many indigenous peoples all over the world for religious, spiritual, medicinal, and pleasure purposes for thousands of years. As such, they are not new in this sense, but they are new to modern day people. However, a growing segment of people around the world are interested in and making efforts to explore the mysterious and powerful affects of psychedelics in their own search for healing, for spiritual growth, and for joy.   

What is a psychedelic? This term was coined in 1956 by psychiatrist Humphrey Osmond during a correspondence with his friend and author of A Brave New World, Aldous Huxley. The word is derived from Greek, meaning “mind-manifesting”. Grinspoon and Bakalar defined it best: “a psychedelic drug is one which, without causing physical addition, craving, major physiological disturbances, delirium, disorientation, or amnesia, more or less reliably produces thought, mood, and perceptual changes otherwise rarely experienced except in dreams, contemplative and religious exaltation, flashes of vivid involuntary memory and acute psychoses.” This excludes drugs like cocaine, amphetamines, opium, etc., which can produce psychedelic-like states, but not as their primary effects.

Psychedelics are found in nature, but have been identified and artificially synthesized with the advent of industrialization. Nature-made psychedelics can be found in certain plants, animals, and fungi. Human manufactured compounds are chemically made through processes which isolate the psychedelic component of the plants, animals or fungi. They are pure forms of the psychoactive compounds without other ingredients naturally found in nature. The major psychedelics are psilocybin mushrooms, ayahuasca, peyote, kambo, salvia, San Pedro, mescaline, cannabis, LSD, DMT, 5-Meo-DMT, MDMA, ketamine, 2C-B, datura, and kratom. The following is a brief description of a few of the more well-known psychedelics. 

Ayahuasca is a vine native to South America. It contains the psychoactive compound, DMT. Historically, it was a culturally significant part of the Amazonia peoples and used for ritualistic ceremonies such as spiritual revelations and healing of the mind, spirit and body. Ayahuasca users report experiencing rebirth and gaining a deeper understanding of themselves, the universe, and God. However, it is important to note that some users have experienced psychological distress while under the influence of ayahuasca. The method of use is through ingestion, commonly followed by vomiting and/or diarrhea. South American shamans believe these effects are purging the users of negative energies and waste from their bodies and spirits. Lately, the interest and use of this potent psychedelic has grown in popularity and seekers journey to South America, especially Peru, to participate in ayahuasca journeys.

Another plant known as Salvia has grown in popularity due to celebrity endorsement. It is an herb native to Mexico with hallucinogenic properties from the active compound, salvinorin A, which activates specific nerve cell receptors. The effects are short lived and intense. They include changes in mood, body sensations, visions, feelings of detachment, and altered perceptions of the self. This plant is legal in the U.S. and can be eaten or smoked. Advocates of salvia deem its use to be spiritual, advising those looking for recreational usage to avoid it as they will be disappointed by its effects. This is in keeping with traditions long practiced by shamans to induce altered states of consciousness, to obtain spiritual guidance and knowledge, and to heal the participant mentally, physically, emotionally and spiritually.

A less known psychoactive plant is Jimsonweed, a member of the nightshade family of Datura. It is a weedy annual plant with striking white tubular flowers and spiky seed pods, growing throughout North and South America. The leaves and seeds contain alkaloids (hyoscamine and hyoscine) which cause hallucinations. Indigenous people use jimsonweed in ceremonies to induce intense spiritual visions. However, this psychoactive plant is highly dangerous and inexperienced and/or careless use of it can easily result in death. Some users have reported experiencing terrifying hallucinations and paranoid delusions. In addition, a negative, prolonged side effect is blurred vision after its use.

Many cacti are known to be psychoactive. Ancient peoples and current indigenous cultures still practice spiritual and healing ceremonies using potent cacti such as San Pedro (Central and South American peoples) and Peyote (North American peoples). Cacti contain psychoactive compounds called phenethylamine alkaloids, such as mescaline, which produce mind-altering experiences.

In the case of San Pedro, a trained shaman makes it into a beverage for ingestion and leads the participants in a spiritual and healing journey. Some users have report experiencing drowsiness or a dreamy state, feelings of lethargy, slight dizziness, and then a clearing of the mind and great visions. At first, San Pedro produces a light numbness in the body, but afterward users experience tranquility, then detachment, and finally an inclusion of all the senses, including the sixth sense. Time and matter are experienced in different ways, allowing users to telepathically transmit their thoughts and part of themselves to distant dimensions.

In the case of Peyote, there are a variety of ways to consume it. The tops of the roots of the cactus is harvested and dried. It can be eaten directly, brewed into tea, or grinded into powder and stored in capsules or rolled into a tobacco or marijuana leaf and smoked. Many Native American tribes only use peyote for religious purposes as it is a very focused and concentrated fire they attribute to an inner fire, causing an increase in energy and providing spiritual insights. Peyote is always use in sacred ceremony with drumming and sacred chants led by a trained shaman. It is also done communally and the vessel of peyote is passed around every two hours, lasting well into the night. They frown upon peyote’s use for recreational purposes.

Certain fungi (mushrooms) contain the psychoactive compound psilocybin. There are more than 180 species of mushrooms containing psilocybin or its derivative psilocin. For thousands of years, psilocybin mushrooms have been used for spiritual, religious, and healing rituals throughout Mesoamerica. The fungi can be eaten raw, dried, and made into tea or a brew. For a short time in modern day, psilocybin mushrooms have been used in therapeutic settings by trained clinicians to treat a variety of illness and disorders including cluster headaches, migraines, obsessive-compulsive disorders, anxiety, depression, and addiction. However, psilocybin mushrooms are illegal and classified as a Schedule I controlled substance in the U.S., but for the past decade or so, the FDA and DEA have allowed some small, highly controlled human studies on psilocybin’s medicinal properties to be used in medical and psychiatric settings. Literatures from prestigious institutions, such as Johns Hopkins and UCLA, have shown the efficacy of psilocybin mushroom in therapeutic settings.

Psychoactive compounds can also be found in certain venomous amphibians and fishes. The most well-known amphibian is the Colorado River Toad, found in northern Mexico and the southwestern U.S. Its toxin is secreted from a gland within the skin and contains the psychoactive compound, 5-Meo-DMT and bufotenin. The venom is carefully extracted and smoked to induce powerful psychoactive experiences of warm sensation, euphoria, and strong visual and auditory hallucinations. The experience is intense and short lived. In addition, no long lasting effects have been reported. It is illegal in the U.S. to capture this toad for the purpose of smoking its venom.

Kambo is the venomous secretion from the giant leaf or monkey frog native to the Amazon basin. The secretion is scraped off the back and legs of the frog and dried. Once dried, it can be mixed with water or saliva and applied directly to specially made skin burns. Kambo has a variety of indigenous and potential therapeutic uses. It is known for its powerful purgative effects which users seek out to revitalize the mind and body.

All of these natural psychoactive compounds found in plants, fungi, and animals have been identified and synthetically manufactured. The most famous and well studied of them is LSD, chemically known as lysergic acid diethylamide. In 1938, LSD was derived from a chemical in rye fungus by Dr. Albert Hofmann, a Swiss chemist, in his laboratory in Zurich, Switzerland while he was trying to find a compound for respiratory and circulatory stimulant. He set LSD aside for five years until 1943 when during re-examination, he unexpectedly discovered its powerful hallucinogenic effects when a tiny amount came into contact with his mouth, nose or eye. From its discovery, LSD was marketed and used in therapeutic settings. It was extensively researched and studied until the counterculture of the 1960s when all psychedelics were banned and classified as illegal drugs. LSD has been mainly used as a recreational drug and for spiritual purposes. Effects include altered thoughts, feelings, and heightened sense of awareness of one’s environment. Users report seeing and hearing things, dilated pupils, increased blood pressure, and increased body temperature. After taking the drug, effects begin within half an hour and can last up to twelve hours.

MDMA, also known as ecstasy or Molly, is a synthetic drug primarily used for recreation. It causes euphoria, enhanced sensations, and increased empathy with others. Users report sounds, colors, and physical sensations are more intense. It is taken as an oral tablet, but can also be snorted and smoked. Although illegal, the FDA and DEA have allowed MDMA research for its therapeutic value. Currently it is in Phase III clinical trials and has been granted “Breakthrough Therapy” status by the FDA.

DMT is a naturally occurring chemical found in both plants, such as ayahuasca, and animals. While it has a long tradition of Western usage dating back to the 8th century when it was used as an ingredient in various psychoactive snuffs, indigenous cultures of South America used it in religious ceremonies. DMT was first synthesized in 1931 by Richard Helmuth Fredrick Manske. In 1956, Dr. Stephen Szara spread interest and research into DMT when he visited South American tribes practicing ayahuasca in religious ceremonies. He observed the drug inducing hallucinations, illusions, distortions of spatial perception and body image, changes in thoughts, and euphoria. The first wave of clinical research followed in the 1950s and 1960s, but was halted in 1970 following the passage of the Controlled Substances Act. However in the 1990s, Rick Strassman pioneered contemporary research into psychedelics, mainly DMT. He believed their powerful and profound effects on the consciousness necessitated further exploration and knowledge. He published landmark studies including detailed dose-response experiments using a Hallucinogen Rating Scale to measure subjective experiences. In 2000, he published The Spirit Molecule, a landmark book on the many uses of DMT. As such, DMT has also been called “The Spirit Molecule.” DMT can be ingested in crystal form and smoked in a pipe or bong. When taken in this manner, users experience powerful and short-lasting hallucinogenic states that are considered to be the most intense psychedelic experiences in existence.

Ketamine is a synthetic drug developed as a general anesthetic widely used on animals since its development in the 1960s. But it has also been used on human patients with respiratory or circulatory problems. It has powerful dissociative and psychedelic effects. Recreationally, ketamine is snorted or injected. It is a controlled substance and recently has been hailed as a breakthrough therapy drug treating drug-resistant depression.

Before the Controlled Substances Act of 1970 was passed, all of these psychedelics were legal, researched, and used in therapeutic settings as well as for spiritual and healing purposes as practiced by indigenous peoples. Some of them, especially psilocybin mushrooms, MDMA, ketamine, LSD, ibogaine, marijuana, and ayahuasca, have been allowed limited research because of their therapeutic benefits in ailments and disorders that have been difficult to treat. As such, it’s important to respect these drugs and only use them under the clinical supervision of trained physicians, therapists, and professionals. Because of their proven efficacy, the variety of research conducted around the world—Canada, Israel, the U.S., Switzerland, the U.K.—show the growing interest and benefits of psychedelics rather than fear and misunderstanding that was generated by the Controlled Substances Act, which was driven by the counterculture of the 1960s. It is our hope that wisdom and understanding will lead us as we strive to understand and apply psychedelics in ways that will benefit all of us as they have benefited us for thousands of years.