I’ve taken psychedelics to expand my consciousness and pursue insight. I’ve taken psychedelics for depression that threatened to turn darker. I’ve taken psychedelics because I was in Vegas and wandering around on a mix of LSD and ecstasy sounded like the perfect idea. Spoiler alert—one of these didn’t have the desired effect.
I’m guessing you’re reading this article because the recent, favorable science and hype around psychedelic exploration in all its myriad forms has begun to beat back the historical negativity associated with psychedelics use—and now you’re psy curious about what’s out there.
First, a Brief History of Psychedelics
Humans and animals have always altered their consciousness, as far as we can tell. Soma, an almost certainly psychedelic drink, features in ancient Indian religious texts dating back to around 1,500 BCE. Reindeer eat magic mushrooms.
Regardless, tuning in and turning on entered modern reality with the accidental godfather of psychedelics, Dr. Albert Hofmann, who was also the first to pop a tab and trip the light fantastic. The Swiss chemist was synthesizing novel medicines when he chemically wrote the next chapter for psychedelic exploration, lysergic acid diethylamide, or LSD. Not knowing what to do with this new substance, the company gave it out to researchers for free. In one of the first—federally funded, BTW—studies on LSD for mental health here in the U.S., two of the first users found immediate relief from alcoholism and irrational fears. The director of the National Institute of Mental Health immediately recommended further study. Throughout the 1960s, several studies showed more promise.
Of course, psychedelics also hit the mainstream, people started experimenting on their own and, (surprise, surprise) started rejecting the dominant worldviews. Nixon got worried. The crackdown began. Once legal, psychedelics joined the ranks of heroin on the government’s no-no list. All research was cut off. So deep and wide was the media blitz, “demon” psychedelics wouldn’t recover their earliest luster until extremely recently.
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In this “second wave” of research, psychedelics have shown benefits for PTSD, smoking cessation and alcoholism, depression and more. The studies have been small, but the results are largely promising. Safety studies are on the side of psychedelics, too. LSD and psilocybin (magic mushrooms), for instance, are not addictive and show no signs of organ damage, even if you mistakenly eat the whole bag. Ecstasy, contrary to so many of us grew up hearing, will not burn holes in your grey matter.
Research is also showing that psychedelics positively affect neuroplasticity, our brains’ ability to create new stuff—pathways, abilities, mindset, and new connections. We used to believe that our brains stopped doing this after childhood, but no longer. Like London taxi drivers creating new connections in their brains, psychedelics can benefit by stimulating new pathways.
But, hold your horses, psychonaut. It’s not all melting sunflowers and unity with all that is out there. Science is still not in on, say, how drugs effect those with pre-existing cardiac issues. (Though, new research shows psychedelics could be good for heart health.) There also remains the very real possibility, though not yet fully understood, that psychedelics can cause psychosis in folks whose mental health already tips toward the disorderly.
TL;DR: By and large, we’re discussing very safe territory here. But, like almost anything one can consume, results may vary.
As the march of time and science move toward a glorious psychedelic future, a few old and new favorite psychedelics have effervesced to the forefront. This is mainly true for those seeking better mental health, as studies have focused on our plight. The rising tide does lift all boats, so the more party-focused among us benefit, too.
Here are the “big five” psychedelics, from gentle, rubbing-your-favorite-velvet-rave-jacket joy to what in holy-hell-did-I-just-experience?
MDMA (a.k.a. ecstasy or molly)
The first time I tried MDMA, in my case “molly,” it made me angry—angry that I had believed the negative press and waited so long. The experience was as advertised: ecstasy. I thought I had found a bullet-proof quasi-psychedelic experience, one that came without a downside. On my fourth trip, I understood my mistake. I spent hours cycling through periods of joy followed by a deep, depressing “understanding” that people kinda suck. It wasn’t the best night. See, true MDMA is an illusive creature, and unbeknownst to me I had gotten lucky the first three times taking some mixture that did in fact cause euphoria. (See below for more on sourcing.)
Regardless of my newbie mistakes, you might just want to begin your psychonautical explorations with MDMA. The hype around it for mental health is real and growing louder. The non-profit research and educational organization Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) is currently involved in FDA-approved trials to evaluate MDMA-assisted therapy for PTSD. MDMA may also help treat eating disorders, anxiety associated with advanced-stage illness and social anxiety.
What it is:
MDMA, or 3,4-methylenedioxy-methamphetamine, was actually invented by the Merck pharmaceutical company in 1912. It’s commonly referred to as ecstasy in pill form and molly as a powder.
How it works:
Scientifically, MDMA is in a class of drugs known as empathogens or enactogens that produce feelings of empathy or sympathy. It’s thought to reduce fear by suppressing activity in the amygdala. It’s also been shown to increase connections in the hippocampus, the region of the brain that plays a role in memories. MDMA is also a stimulant. Not a far leap to figure out why MDMA is known as ecstasy or why it become such a popular party drug.
What to know about sourcing:
In the category of sad, but true: You almost certainly won’t find quality MDMA unless you seek a certified study or therapist, no matter what the legal status is where you live. Today, the powder or pill you scored probably has some percentage of MDMA in it, but more likely other substances such as cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine, amphetamine and more.
If you’re chasing your own dragon rather than finding a true medical source, you should know and trust your dealer. Better yet, find a reliable source, then, as Reagan said, “Trust, but verify.” Drug testing services such as drugsdata.org will take the trust out of the equation and test “drugs including ecstasy tablets, powders, research chemicals, novel psychoactive substances, and other drugs through our DEA-licensed laboratory,” according to the website.
Since almost none of us has actually taken pure MDMA and studies have focused on full doses of the pure chemical in therapeutic settings, microdosing MDMA isn’t advised. If we could get the real deal, perhaps. But, for now, probably best to focus on others on this list.
Psilocybin (a.k.a. mushrooms)
“Magic” mushrooms are hands down the most natural of all your options. They grow. You eat, drink, or smoke them. Easy. As long as you stay within dosing recommendations, you’re good to go without much more information. However, it’s helpful to ask your grower about the strain of mushroom and relative strength (amount of psilocybin), but it’s not necessary. (See below.)
What it is:
Psilocybin is the active ingredient in so-called magic mushrooms. As mentioned, you can scoop them fresh out of the bag and chow down, throw them on your homemade pizza, or brew them as a tea. If you’re feeling frisky, you can smoke the dried version.
How it works:
The first of our true psychedelics on this list, there are 180 different types of psilocybin-containing mushrooms. Researchers aren’t sure of the exact mechanism, but, like all psychedelics, the neurotransmitter serotonin is involved. With psilocybin, researchers believe parts of the brain that usually restrain the amount of information reaching our senses shut down, causing the doors of perception to fling open.
What to know about sourcing:
If you’re lucky enough to live in Denver, Detroit, Oakland or Santa Cruz, Calif., D.C., or a few cities in Massachusetts where psilocybin has been decriminalized, finding a trusted source should be fairly easy. (More cities and states are working toward decriminalization, so check up-to-date laws in your area.) In Oregon, psilocybin is also legal for therapeutic uses. Find a therapist offering psychedelic therapy and you’re set—they’ll provide the setting and guidance.
As noted above, similar to marijuana, there are a number of different strains of psilocybin-containing mushrooms. I’ve had consistently lovely experiences with all ‘shrooms, but one might make you feel great, another might turn you off the stuff forever. Start with a small amount and experiment with different strains and doses until you find what works for you.
Start somewhere between .1 and .4 grams. Current anecdotal wisdom suggests every three days seems to do the trick. If you’re truly microdosing, you shouldn’t actually feel anything. If the wallpaper comes alive, you’ve gone too big. If you aren’t experiencing psychedelic visuals, you’re probably in the right zone.
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Lysergic acid diethylamide (a.k.a. LSD)
John Lennon claimed Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds was never about LSD, but those tangerine trees, marmalade skies and kaleidoscope eyes seem to belie, at the very least, some experience with this psychedelic granddaddy.
LSD most often comes as a tiny drop of liquid on a paper sheet divided into sections, and is usually taken by “popping a tab.” Your “trip” will last somewhere around 12 hours with a typical hit.
What it is:
LSD is a synthetic chemical partially constructed from ergot, which is a rye fungus (yep, you read that right). There are those magic fungi again. First created in 1938 by Dr. Albert Hofmann in Basel, Switzerland, for the Sandoz pharmaceutical company, LSD would begin its tortured ascent/descent as either a spiritual lightning bolt bringing clarity to the masses or the devil dragging all of society to hell after Hofmann became not only creator but psychonaut on the first ever trip in 1943.
How it works:
The exact mechanism behind LSD’s tripped-out effects isn’t fully understood. Scientists know that, like most psychedelics, LSD works on the brain’s serotonin receptors. What they suspect is that somehow this allows the brain to make connections between brain regions that usually ignore each other. This might explain why, say, someone on LSD might describe sounds as colors (synesthesia) and so on.
What to know about sourcing:
In some ways, sourcing LSD is the easiest of everything on this list. It’s ubiquitous, whether you currently know that or not. Because of the old stigma, you might have to dance lightly to get the info you seek, but chances are that friend who loves King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard can hook you up. Kids in college? They certainly can find it.
One study at the University of Chicago Medicine tagged an optimal microdose at 13 micrograms. That tracks with the general anecdotal suggestion of between 0.05 to 0.10 of a normal dose. Normal LSD doses track between 50-150 micrograms, especially for new or occasional users. Again, if lizards climb out of your sink and you neither own lizards nor live near enough to have them come crawling out of your sink, you’ve gone too big.
Ketamine (Special K)
I remember years ago a friend who grew up in the wilds of Northern California describing their experiences sitting with large groups of people taking Ketamine. To me, it was equal parts wonderful and insane, like some wingnut cult preparing for our alien overlords while simultaneously seeing God. They told me about slipping into a K Hole—when you dissociate from your body like a soul being punched clear of this mortal coil á la Marvel’s Doctor Strange—and feeling an ego death that wasn’t entirely pleasant, opposed to, say, a feeling of oneness with all that is you might find with LSD.
What It Is:
Technically, ketamine isn’t a psychedelic at all. It’s an anesthetic first used on animals then, later, humans. It’s also a dissociative, and that out-of-body experience seems a lot like tripping.
How it works:
Researchers are still investigating how ketamine works. Most psychedelics work by affecting serotonin levels, but ketamine seems to work on another neurotransmitter: glutamate. Again, researchers are still not sure of the exact mechanisms, but the working hypothesis is that it helps repair nerve damage in certain areas of the brain.
What to know about sourcing:
Similar to MDMA, you’re going to have to buy ketamine on the street unless you’re enrolled in a study or can find a doctor who will prescribe it. Different from the rest of this list, any doctor could do that. It’s officially a Schedule III drug, as is Tylenol with codeine, so not subject to the same laws as Schedule I drugs, as heroin, LSD and psilocybin are classified.
A number of online providers are popping up, and clinics around the country are starting to offer ketamine therapy. You can even have ketamine delivered to your home.
The microdosing recommendation is don’t—at least if you’re self-supervising your treatment. Why? Ketamine is an addictive chemical. Your best bet is to find a qualified practitioner and go from there. Your treatment will probably involve smaller doses taken in lozenge form. Trust your practitioner.
Dimethyltryptamine (a.k.a. DMT) and Ayahuasca
As we reach the “holy-hell-what-did-I-just-experience?” part of our list, we also reach the moment where the perceived spirituality of psychedelics blends with an inherent focus on and belief in something larger than ourselves—a magical world, a spiritual world, a world of plants as teachers and companions. DMT is known as “the spirit molecule,” and its closely related cousin, ayahuasca, is referred to as a teacher or goddess. The very names embody the intrinsic view of the psychedelic experience as a true connection via the natural world to the spiritual worlds hidden to us in everyday life.
What it is:
Dimethyltryptamine, or DMT, is actually found in numerous plants and animals. For example, studies have found it occurs naturally in rat brains; though, we’re not sure about the human brain yet. Known for short, intense trips—like, 15 minutes short—the spirit molecule might just be responsible for near-death experiences, as it’s thought human brains release it at death just as rat brains do in response to cardiac arrest. DMT is most often snorted or smoked.
DMT is one of two main ingredients in the psychoactive ayahuasca brew known in various forms to indigenous cultures throughout South America. DMT often comes from Psychotria viridis leaves, which are mixed most commonly with Banisteriopsis caapi vine. This combination extends the DMT experience from minutes to hours. As noted, the brew is often thought of as a teacher or even a goddess rather than just a mix of plants. There are two groups in the United States legally allowed to perform ayahuasca ceremonies, the União do Vegetal and the Santo Daime Church.
How they work:
Here too researchers aren’t sure of the exact mechanism, but the serotonin pathway is certainly involved.
What to know about sourcing:
If you can get to the União do Vegetal or the Santo Daime Church, you’ll have religious protections to participate. There are also retreat centers in Costa Rica, Mexico, Jamaica and the Netherlands (to name a few) ready to guide you on your journey. However, be aware that with the rise of psychedelic therapy and retreats there has also been a rise in stories of abuse. You are putting yourself in an intense situation, so do your research. The goddess might have pure intentions, but humans don’t always.
This is not a pool you dip your foot in. You’re either in or out. Nothing micro about it.
No matter which plant medicine you try, it’s important to remember that integration is key after your experience. You’ve come to see new things, and believe me, you will see some things that don’t fit into the “normal” world around you. I once saw a house fold in half and pop back open. That one was kinda fun. I once felt myself paradoxically absorbed into the devastating infinity of the universe even as I felt its overwhelming vastness spewing from within me, its creator. That one—not as much fun. I’m still working on making sense of it.
Like all new knowledge, you need time and practice to make it a part of yourself. If you need 10,000 hours to understand and master guitar, imagine what it takes to understand and master a completely new understanding of your worldview, emotions, motivations, psyche.
So, go easy. Pick the right setting. Find a knowledgeable guide, a therapist, a shaman, or a wiling friend who can help make sense of your new experiences. Give yourself time.
There’s one irrepressible cliché about the psychedelic experience: a feeling of pure love for all creatures, an understanding of our complete interconnectivity, a sense of being one with all that is, from the tiniest quark to the largest galaxy.
So, yes—turn on, tune in, and drop out of a world that constantly pulls our attention from this sense of unity. Maybe together we can dismantle our old, divisive structures and create a psychedelic world—one of openness, support, and love.
3 Tips if You Try Psychedelics
The first time I did ’shrooms I broke one of the fundamental rules. (Yeah, not the obvious illegal one, but the one meant to guide folks through the experience, especially someone like me—a noob.) I was on my first trip to Mardi Gras in New Orleans. People everywhere. Floats. Masks. Colors. Crowds. Alcohol. Street fights. Crowds. Not good.
My subsequent psychonautical excursions have been better, largely because I’ve followed these rules:
Set and setting matter.
This is the fundamental rule to every psychedelic experience, as best outlined by Harvard psychedelic researchers Timothy Leary, Ralph Metzner and Richard Alpert (better known as Ram Dass) in their seminal work, The Psychedelic Experience: A Manual Based on The Tibetan Book of the Dead. Set and setting matter. What is your mindset and what is the setting, the ambience of your physical space?
Know your metaphorical farmer.
If you decide to experiment with psychedelics for fun or healing, you will almost certainly need to source them on the street, so to speak. (Or, maybe literally.) Some of you lucky ones live where psychedelics’ legal status has changed or is changing. Your path is much easier, and you’ll be able to find a legal source. For the rest of us, it works like anything else: If you want a good car mechanic, you ask around and choose who you trust. This is like that, except the product you want is illegal. When you find a trusted source, still do your due diligence through groups such as drugsdata.org.
Stock up on this supplement.
Since psychedelics work in part by dumping a lot of serotonin, your happy chemical, into your system all at once, the resulting serotonin deficit that happens when your trip is over can feel like crap. So, take the serotonin precursor supplement 5-HTP before going to sleep, which may resupply some of that precious happiness chemical before you wake up. (You can also start taking 5-HTP several days before a trip to maximize the amount of serotonin ready to drop.) I can’t give you any real scientific backup here. All I can share is the experience of me and my friends who learned to battle the “Monday Maudlins” this way.
Bryce Edmonds is a freelance writer and sometime psychonaut living in Boise, Idaho.
Join the discussion! Have you tried psychedelic drugs—or are you interested in learning more and participating in a ceremony? We’d love to hear about your experience or get your thoughts on the topic here!