Adventures in Inner Space
Meet the Psychonauts
Originally ran in Feed’s Drugs Issue, November 6, 2000
Let’s say you’re a buttoned-down organic-chemistry jockey at Merck. One day you tweak a molecule ripped off from a Peruvian native medicine, and you wind up with a powerfully psychoactive compound. Instead of squelching anxiety, instilling a reliable boner, or giving young minds that magic amphetamine edge, the drug helps you touch the hem of God — or at least something a lot like the hem of God. At times it hurtles you into a blazing hieroglyphic phantasmagoria more sublime and gorgeously bizarre than anything on the demo reels of Hollywood FX shops. On other occasions it leads you to the lip of a fundamental insight into the dance of form and emptiness. And though later attempts to communicate your insight founder on the shoals of coherence, the experience still leaves you centered and convinced that ordinary life is fed by deeper springs.
Now, you think you’d zero in on this molecule, not only as a potential vector into the enigma of consciousness but as the basis for some really interesting commercial drugs. In other words, you’d be psyched. Right?
No way! It’s common knowledge that such molecules have been recognized and consumed by people for millennia, but have been effectively banished from the scientific mindscape of the West. Despite their mighty psycho-spiritual effects, the potential insight they might provide into the mind, and the largely non-addictive behaviors they elicit, psychedelic drugs like LSD, psilocybin, mescaline, ketamine, and DMT have been crudely lumped into the same legal and socio-cultural categories as speedballs and crank. And one result of this social policy is a withering of the research strategies that a rational civilization is supposed to bring to bear on the conundrums it confronts.
Despite the continued ferocity of the “war on drugs” and the largely foolish ideas about psychoactive substances it pushes, the last decade has seen a small renaissance in psychedelic research, both above and underground. On the official stage, advocacy groups like MAPS (Rick Doblin’s Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies) and the Heffter Reseach Institute (headed up by Dave Nichols), as well as individual researchers like Rick Strassman and the U.K.’s Karl Jansen, have done their homework, balancing loopy subjective accounts with the dry, methodical language of protocols, pharmacology, and action studies. Hopefully, these modest research reports are laying the groundwork for a resumption of the kind of official in-depth psychological studies squelched over thirty years ago.
Meanwhile, in the far margins of legality, small crews of brave, compulsive, and sometimes wacked individuals continue to compile and share fact, anecdote, and lore about exotic and new-fangled psychoactives and the even more exotic combinations they allow. Think of these so-called “psychonauts” as hobbyists of neural R&D. They like to plunge as far as any hippie into the bejeweled halls of hyperspace, but they also bring an almost geeky spirit of investigation to their exploits. They know their chemistry, and understand that the envelope of psychedelic pharmacology is pushed by recombining existing molecular Tinkertoys. They also take this recombinant logic a step further by mixing and matching different drugs from an ever-widening pharmacopoeia in order to craft new highs.
Even Burning Man veterans may not have heard of many of the esoteric compounds that float around the scene: AMT, 5-MEO-DMT, 2C-T-2, 2C-T-7, 5-MEO-DIPT, 4-Acetoxy-DiPT, DPT, DOB, 2-CB. With a few exceptions, these white powders have largely resisted being branded with cool names. Some have been known for decades, others are relatively new; a few have been scheduled, but many have so far been overlooked by the Feds and remain uncontrolled. However, because the vast majority of these substances are chemically similar to illegal drugs, people gobbling them technically can be snagged under the Federal Analog Act, which allows individuals to be prosecuted for recreational use of drugs that are “substantially similar” to scheduled drugs. But this rarely seems to happen, especially given the obscurity of many of these drugs and the difficulties involved in proving “substantial” similarity.
It’s impossible to say how many grams of these compounds are being synthesized and consumed annually, but there’s probably morsels of intrigue all over Europe and America. Though some demand complex procedures and elusive precursors to synthesize, the lion’s share can be cooked up by most anyone with undergrad training in chemistry and access to a lab. There’s really nothing to stop curious amateur organic chemists from brewing up a small batch of AMT or 2-CB in a weekend to share with a small circle of friends, and anecdotal evidence indicates that many do. Some of these modern alchemists even exploit the gray-market status of these compounds by marketing them for nonhuman “research purposes” over the Internet.
The back-room circulation of these drugs has engendered a loose-knit and rather hermetic psychedelic scene devoted less to partying or cosmic communion than to a kind of weird science, where the purple haze is filtered through a knowledge and respect for methyl groups, monoamine oxidase inhibitors, and the value of keeping your eye on the clock. The godfather of this particular psychedelic style is Sasha Shulgin, a cheery, eccentric Bay Area chemist best known for the rediscovery of MDMA. With his wife, Ann, he wrote PiHKAL and TiHKAL, two phone-book-size tomes devoted, respectively, to phenethylamines and tryptamines, the two pillars of psychedelic pharmacology. Though Shulgin once had a license to study scheduled drugs, an irritated DEA responded to the publication of PiHKAL by swooping down on Shulgin’s grubby lab and slapping him with 51 violations they then effectively swapped for his license. In reaction, Shulgin simply continued to devote himself to the art of recombination that characterizes the synthesis of novel molecules. “Once they schedule something, I throw away my samples and continue my research in another direction,” he says.
The creator of 2C-B and 2C-T-7, two drugs popular among psychonauts, Shulgin has described, synthesized, and analyzed scores of substances whose potential for thrills and profit remain untapped. Many of the hundreds of compounds described in PiHKAL and TiHKAL are duds; others are actively unfun. 2C-B, on the other hand, has gained quite a following for its electric visuals and mescaline-like effects, while the more esoteric 2C-T-7 can unleash a hyperactive barrage of 3-D psychedelic imagery that can take some users to the edge of delirium. Dosage, of course, matters greatly, but dosages are by nature provisional in this scene — a psychonaut recently died after snorting an ungodly amount of 2C-T-7. Still, even at the right amounts, it could turn out that nothing in the Shulgin universe will ever match the depth of LSD, mushrooms, or DMT. But the genie is out of the bottle. “I find postings about compounds that are slipped away in little corners of my books,” says Shulgin. “And all of a sudden they are commercially available and people are talking about them. The seeds are all in there.”
To no one’s surprise, the weird scientists have embraced the Internet, which links the gossamer strands of data and debate necessary to support a shadowy and fragmented community that needs to stay informed. Sites like the Vaults of Erowid and the Lyceum provide loads of information on dosage, chemistry, legal status, effects, and, perhaps most importantly, experiential feedback. The problem is that such public information also runs the risk of killing the scene, especially when kids get into the act. “The more people know about what’s going on, the more likely somebody is to come in and try to squash it,” explains Scotto, one of the more balls-out contributors to Erowid’s growing vault of reports. At the same time, the persistent curiosity of psychonauts and the endless potential for pharmacological novelty may have created a perpetually expanding zone of gray-market psychedelia. “Humans are going to keep inventing these things faster than the government’s going to make them illegal,” says Scotto, pointing out that the efflorescence of esoteric synthetic compounds mocks the “logic” of the war on drugs. “Are we going to reach the point where I can be imprisoned for doing twenty milligrams of 4-acetoxy diisopropyltryptamine in my bathtub, when nobody even knows what that fucking is? What kind of culture is that?”
I’ll tell you what kind of culture that is: a posthuman one.
This might seem like a tall claim. After all, if you take a random slice of human history, you can pretty much bank on the existence of some popular and dependable pharmacological route toward altered states of consciousness, whether through snuff, brews, bark, or herbs. What makes the coming drug culture posthuman is the historically novel conjunction of our exploding knowledge of psycho-pharmacology, the growing dominance of reductionist accounts of the mind, and a consumer culture increasingly focused on what some have called the “experience economy.”
According to Earth, who runs the Vaults of Erowid with his also pseudonymous partner Fire, we ain’t seen nothin’ yet. “In the next fifty years, virtually everyone in developed countries will be faced with daily decisions about their psychoactive drug use,” he says. He argues that the number of psychoactive chemicals in our midst is about to explode, the work not so much of underground drug designers as of pharmaceutical companies. “Imagine a thousand caffeine replacements,” says Earth. “Myriad amphetamines, though less fun than ones today. Or, like Viagra, a coming class of pseudo-medicinal recreational drugs.”
The signs of this emerging culture are around us. Just ask subway and train riders across the land what time it is, and they’ll tell you: “It’s Prilosec time!” The garish $50-million direct-to-consumer ad campaign for the “little purple pill” is a remarkable indication of the shift toward a mainstream embrace of psychoactive enhancement. Though you can’t generally tell from the ads, the drug itself is indicated for nothing more interesting than heartburn. But the marketing machine presents Prilosec as a lifestyle drug, a kind of luxurious soma, floating against azure skies. Look at the connotations: the “little pill” is a microdot, the color a purple haze, and the image of the witchy New Age blonde exulting before the clock an ambiguous symbol of the slice of eternity that the greatest psychoactives promise — Eliot’s “intersection of the timeless with time,” hovering over hasty commuters.
Ordinary drugs can promise such magic in part because we have so thoroughly adopted the notion that our subjective experience is largely, if not exclusively, a product of the activity of neural tissue. It’s a nineteenth-century idea, of course, but now we have twenty-first-century tools to back it up, not to mention a twenty-first-century identity crisis for marketeers to exploit. The thing is, if you push this reductionist paradigm far enough, then we are always on drugs. In other words, once you start aligning the subcomponents of selfhood with different rafts of neurotransmitters, you are already on the way toward reconceiving your experience as the product of a tumultuous cocktail of chemical triggers. When you hit the treadmill or string a full-spectrum light above your desk in order to ward off depression, not to mention pop a Prozac, you are in some sense treating your own neural juices as internal drugs whose flows you want to regulate. And this makes perfect sense. After all, the brain already makes its own equivalent of opium, cocaine, and psychedelics.
So we’re all druggies now. The problem is that we also live at a time when the official lies and obfuscations about psychoactives, which are necessary to justify the drug war and the multibillion-dollar industries it breeds, have the additional effect of eroding the personal responsibility necessary to weigh costs and benefits and make choices about how we dose ourselves. “Prohibition has broken people’s ability to manage their own psychoactive use,” says Earth. “We’ve created a culture that can’t choose.” Instead, we are offered a simpleminded and historically insupportable view of “bad” psychoactive drugs as malefic invaders whose presence in human brains and human societies is somehow aberrant. At the same time, people are being encouraged to take socially approved psychoactives (or, in the case of Ritalin, force them on their children). Rather than calling a spade a spade, however, the medical-industrial establishment coats these pills in “objective” rhetoric that elides the irreducibly subjective dimension of the drug encounter. From industry’s perspective, psychoactives are not presented as avenues for modifying your own subjectivity, giving you the opportunity to explore pleasure or insight or calm, but as technical solutions to “syndromes” within the fixed machinery of the bodymind.
The paradox of psychedelics — which is partly a source of their continued subversive power, despite the fact that pop culture has already become so thoroughly trippy — is that they simultaneously materialize and spiritualize the problem of drugs and consciousness. On the surface level, they seem to support a reductive model, especially against traditional religious accounts of subjectivity. That is, psychedelics seem to prove that some of the most exalted states of the human spirit — cosmic communion, profound aesthetic appreciation for nature, the integration of self and other, the perception of primary pattern, the visionary eruption of archetypal phantasms, the illumination of memory — can be triggered with a pill or a plant. But from the inside, so to speak, these very same states often seem to unambiguously support a profoundly spiritual, or at least consciousness-centered point of view, over and against a mere biological reductionism. In other words, they bring us to the edge of a spiritual materialism.
Even if you discount this subjective “evidence” as untrustworthy (a perfectly acceptable move in my book), the profound reflexivity of psychedelic drugs still makes itself known through the famed role that “set and setting” play in the phenomenology of the trip. Forty years ago, long before he went Sci-Fi, Timothy Leary was already talking about the programmability of psychedelic experience, arguing that the individual’s frame of mind and the surrounding mise-en-scène contribute substantially to the experience — a point that most later researchers only further underline. This acknowledgment profoundly changes the model of mind that emerges from the drug, because the attempt to purely mechanize the molecule — to see it as producing a small range of dependable perceptions and behaviors — founders on the enormous role that both culture and the psyche play in shaping the trip.
The dominant drug paradigm, in the rhetoric of drug warriors and industry pushers alike, depends on a very literalist model that ascribes agency to the drug itself. Psychoactive drugs challenge this model, functioning more like keys that open doors that you walk through. “The psychedelic drug doesn’t do anything,” says Shulgin. “The drug allows you to do something.” At the same time, of course, the drug definitely has its own say in the matter of what gets done. But the act of introducing the thing to your synapses, and hence your life, is more like initiating a relationship than simply jacking into cyberspace through a video-game deck. Many psychonauts naturally think of drugs as allies — even approaching traditional organic psychedelics like mushrooms and ayahuasca as if they were ensouled by ancient spirits. Many of these more explicitly “shamanic” trippers in turn denigrate synthetic, lab-produced compounds as soulless industrial chemicals.
But as the weird scientists point out, this is just mainstream literalism in reverse. The point is not the material; it’s the dialogic relationship, the loop of meaning, that ties together mind and molecule. Indeed, much of the appeal of novel chemicals is that they deliver one to zones that have yet to be mapped by cultural consensus, underground or not. “I start with bottles that have no personality at all,” says Shulgin. “You make a white crystal solid that you don’t know and it doesn’t know you. And so you begin to meet each other.” In some sense, this structure of relationship, which is open to meaning and communication, applies to all psychoactives, even the most mainstream. Like all relationships, they can go terribly, terribly wrong; like most, they are mixed bags. And yet, to experience yourself as a mind arising from a brain means that you are already constantly in relation with neurochemistry. And in the years to come, when the expanding range of molecular modification may wrap our hands ever tighter around the tiller of the self, it might serve us well to keep in touch with the mind that moves through realms far outside that anxious simian serotonin buzz we experience as ordinary reality.