What Are Psychedelics?
Psychedelics are substances that induce an altered state of consciousness. The term psychedelic means “mind manifesting”, which refers to their capacity to open up the mind. They allow us to have a range of experiences, from seeing the geometric structures that underlie our visual perception to uncovering trauma that can be worked on therapeutically.
What Is Psychedelic Medicine?
Psychedelic medicine is the intentional use of psychedelic substances in the pursuit of healing. Traditionally, this practice is called shamanism. The term “psychedelic medicine” is typically used in the context of contemporary western medicine.
Indigenous Use of Psychedelics
The first use of psychoactive plant medicines dates back 5,000 years with the American Indians. Some archeologists think their medicinal or religious use predates written language.
Indigenous communities around the world continually use psychedelic plant medicines today for healing and divination. Ayahuasca is commonly used in the Amazon and there are Native American hallucinogenic rituals involving the peyote cactus.
The history of psychedelic research in western medicine begins with contact between European and American scientists with Native Americans. In particular, with regards to their hallucinogenic cacti rituals. Scientists identified the active chemical in the cacti as mescaline. The field of psychedelic research was born at this time, in the early 20th century.
This research became widely publicized when psychedelic researcher Humphrey Osmond offered the author, Aldous Huxley the opportunity to try mescaline. Huxley accepted the offer and described his experience in the landmark book, The Doors of Perception.
The Discovery of LSD
In 1938 a Swiss chemist by the name of Albert Hoffman was working at Sandoz Laboratories in Basel, Switzerland. He was researching chemicals extracted from the fungus, ergot and was attempting to develop a stimulant for blood circulation. One of the chemicals was lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD) which was deemed to have no use by Sandoz. 5 years later on April 16th, 1943, Hofmann decided to reexamine LSD. He accidentally absorbed a small amount while synthesizing a batch of the substance and felt the effects.
3 days later on April 19th, Hofmann decided to test the drug on himself. He took a quarter of a milligram (or 250 micrograms) which we now know to be a significant dose. He cycled home while the drug took effect. This event is commemorated today as “Bicycle Day”, a celebration of the first-ever intentional LSD trip.
Following the discovery of LSD, Sandoz offered free samples to researchers in order to discover possible uses for the substance. This led to a flowering of psychedelic research across Europe and North America.
During the 50s and 60s, LSD was found to be helpful in the treatment of alcoholism and many other issues, leading it to be known as a miracle drug. Soon, the power of LSD would become known outside of the laboratory.
The 60s Counterculture
In the 60s the CIA experimented with LSD as part of its MK-Ultra program. They investigated multiple ways in which it might be used by the military. One test subject in the program was the writer, Ken Kesey. Kesey would go on to distribute vast amounts of LSD throughout the San Francisco Bay Area as part of his “acid tests”.
The “acid tests” were a major spark that contributed to the emergence of the psychedelic counterculture of the 60s. The phenomenon was centered around the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood in San Francisco. When this movement began to challenge the war in Vietnam, drug abuse became a major concern for the Nixon administration.
The War on Drugs
In 1971, President Richard Nixon announced drug abuse as America’s “public enemy number one”. “In order to fight and defeat this enemy, it is necessary to wage a new, all-out offensive”.
The previous year, Congress had passed the Controlled Substances Act. This law made LSD and similar substances illegal. The following decades saw unimaginable violence being directed at vulnerable drug users and led to the cessation of the medical use and academic studies of psychedelics.
During the prohibition of psychedelic research, the psychedelic community continued to flourish underground. At this time, Stan Grof developed holotropic breathwork, a drug-free method of inducing altered states of consciousness. Terence and Dennis Mckenna developed methods for the home cultivation of psilocybin mushrooms. Indigenous communities continued to practice their use of psychedelic sacraments. In 1986, Rick Doblin founded the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS). This organization aims to make MDMA an FDA-approved medicine for PTSD.
Psychedelic research restarted quietly with Rick Strassman’s research on N,N-dimethyltryptamine (DMT) at the University of New Mexico, from 1990-1995. The story of this research was later published in the book DMT: The Spirit Molecule.
At the turn of the millennium, the antidepressant effects of ketamine were discovered. This substance would become the first publicly available medicine that elicits psychedelic experiences. Ketamine was never outlawed like other substances, because it has been used safely as s an anesthetic since the 1960’s.
In 2006, a landmark paper was published by researchers at Johns Hopkins titled “Psilocybin can occasion mystical-type experiences having substantial and sustained personal meaning and spiritual significance”. In 2016, two labs published findings showing that such experiences can reduce fear of death, anxiety and depression in people suffering from terminal cancer. These studies kickstarted the modern research into psilocybin for depression.
Psychedelic Medicine Today
Today, psychedelic medicine is in an exciting place. New centers for psychedelic research are opening every year and new companies are popping up everywhere with the same goal in mind: to make psychedelic medicine available to the public. At this time, the history of psychedelic medicine is not a closed subject, but continues to be written everyday.