Throughout the tenure of the human species on Earth, certain mushrooms, extracts from cacti, various roots and herbs, and other unlikely substances have been chewed and ingested, not for the purpose of sustaining life, but for the physiological and psychological effects that they have on the body and the brain. Cults of mystical expression have grown up around the use of these mind-altering substances, for many shamans and priests believed that they could open portals to higher planes of consciousness and even to other worlds by ingesting certain plants. The ancient Greeks held the mushroom sacred, and some contemporary researchers have postulated that the famed Oracle at Delphi may have ingested some form of psychedelic drug, along with the fumes the entranced woman inhaled. Other cultures have also held the mushroom or the cactus sacred. The Mayan Indians of Central America erected stone monuments to the mushroom earlier than 1000 B.C.E. These monuments have been found in the tombs of the wealthier citizens of the Mayan culture, and for many years were thought to be fertility symbols.
Such drugs as mescaline from the peyote cactus, ibogaine from the root of a rain forest shrub, and the so-called "magic mushrooms" came to be known as psychedelic, because they cause people to hallucinate, to see and hear things that are not really there. Dr. Humphrey Osmond (1917– ) began studying hallucinogens at a hospital in Saskatchewan in 1952 when he was examining the similarities between mescaline and the adrenaline molecule. It was Osmond who coined the word "psychedelic" to describe the effects of the mind-altering drugs, and it was also he who supervised the author Aldous Huxley (1894–1963) in the well-known series of experiments with mescaline that Huxley recorded in his book The Doors of Perception (1953).
While modern research techniques focus on psychedelics for purposes of learning more about the human brain, relieving pain, finding antidotes to drug overdoses, and other medical applications, the ingestion of such drugs in the past was most often done to achieve transcendence or to accentuate mystical experiences. In 1953, R. Gordon Wasson (1898–1986), a vice president of the J. P. Morgan Company, and his wife observed a rite of the Mixtec Indians that involved the use of a sacred mushroom by a curandero, or witch doctor, who was said to have powers of prophecy after he had consumed the mushrooms.
The curandero made extensive preparations long before the all-night ritual began. For five days before and five after, he did not allow himself the company of a woman. He explained his actions to the Wassons by saying he feared he would go mad if he consorted with any female. He drank no alcohol for the same period and fasted for 24 hours before the ceremony began.
The Wassons first became involved in the ritual at nine o'clock in the evening when the witch doctor called them to a small room containing articles of ceremonial religious observance and asked them what information they sought. The Wassons answered that they wanted to know about their son, Peter, whom they had left in Boston.
Then in the small, dark room, illuminated only by candles, the witch doctor began the ceremony. By 10:30 P.M., he had eaten 14 pairs of the mushrooms. Other facets of the rite included the precise arrangement of the ceremonial articles in the room and the rubbing of green tobacco on the curandero's head, neck, and stomach. Then the candles were extinguished and they waited.
At 1:00 A.M. the witch doctor claimed that he was receiving a vision of the Wassons' son. He shocked them by saying that Peter needed them because of some emotional crisis in his life. The man continued, telling them that their son was no longer in the city they had thought he was in and that he was either going to war or joining the army. He ended his string of predictions by stating that a close relative of R. Gordon Wasson's would become seriously ill within a year.
It was not long after this ceremony that reality bore out the witch doctor's predictions. Peter Wasson had joined the army at the unhappy end of a romance that had left him emotionally distraught. He was only 18 at the time, but he had joined the service and was shipped to Japan before the Wassons could protest. At the time of the ceremony, he had been not in Boston but in New York. The last portion of the curandero's prognostication also came true when one of R. Gordon Wasson's first cousins died of a heart attack within the one-year period the man had foreseen.
Intrigued by the witch doctor's performance, the Wassons became interested in trying the mushrooms themselves. They traveled the back trails of Mexican bush country until they found a village where the natives were willing to let them join a mushroom ceremony.
The Wassons were given explicit instructions on what and what not to eat before they consumed the mushrooms. The gathering was held in the basement of one of the villager's dwellings, and each person present consumed six pairs of the greasy-tasting mushrooms within a half an hour. The scene was lit by the moon that shone through an opening in the wall.
About a half an hour later, Wasson said that he felt as if his soul had been scooped from his body and had been projected to a point far away. He went on to describe scenes resembling those commonly described by the users of mind-expansion drugs. Yet, in his case, there was no instance of any kind of prophecy or clairvoyance.
The question of whether psychedelic drugs can induce or enhance psychic phenomena or extrasensory abilities remains poised before researchers without an answer. Although the drug-induced experiences are similar qualitatively to those described by mystics and mediums all over the world, they may be only an accompanying manifestation of the brain state of these sensitives.
In 1960 Dr. Erick-Will Peuckert, professor at Germany's Gottingen University, found a formula for witches' salve in an ancient book on witchcraft. Peuckert was aware that the salve was known to contain such psychedelic drugs as the thorn apple, the Deadly Nightshade, and other regional fruits and roots, but he and an unnamed attorney friend decided to test the ancient recipe in the exact ritual manner prescribed by the book of magic.
After the salve had been applied, both men fell into a state of consciousness that resembled sleep. They were both entranced for 20 hours and awakened with mammoth hangovers, complete with dry mouths, sore throats, and headaches. Peuckert and his friend both claimed that they had witnessed the Black Sabbat of the witches.
In spite of the hangovers both men had upon awakening from the trance, they immediately set about writing separate accounts of what they had envisioned. Except for differences in wording, they described the same scenes. Peuckert's theory is that the Sabbat was often manifest with the use of such salves, and although the people involved actually had no physical experiences, they could be made to confess to their witchcraft because they could not separate hallucinations from reality.
Dr. Sidney Cohen, a Los Angeles psychiatrist-pharmacologist, author of The Beyond Within: The LSD Story (1972), commented, "It is hardly necessary to invoke supernatural explanations for the mind's more exceptional activities.…Intuition, creativity, telepathic experiences, prophecy—all can be understood as superior activities of brain-mind function.…The experience called hallucinogenic will play a role in leading us into the future. It points out the existence of unique mental states that must be studied and understood."
On May 2, 1938, Dr. Albert Hofmann of the Sandoz Research Laboratories in Basel, Switzerland, first synthesized Lyserg-Saeure-Diaethylamid (LSD). Lysergic acid is found naturally in ergot, a fungus that grows on rye and other grains, and throughout history it has been used in various medications. Some researchers have even attributed ingestion of ergot to hallucinations that in the Middle Ages may have caused people to believe that they could fly through the air like witches or transform themselves into werewolves.
Five years after synthesizing the drug, Hofmann accidentally inhaled a minute quantity while working with other ergot derivatives and experienced a kind of pleasant feeling of inebriation, which consisted of hallucinations that lasted for several hours. Since Hofmann's accidental discovery, scientists have been trying to fit LSD-25 and other drugs with hallucinogenic properties into biochemical schemes of many kinds. In the 1960s and 1970s, substances and chemicals that formerly had an aura of mystery around them were being broken down by chemical analysis and were hailed by some individuals as "mindexpanders" and by others as recreational drugs that could be exploited for fast "trips" to "farout" places.
During the 20 years following World War II (1939–45), LSD was used to study brain chemistry and to trace its effectiveness in treating patients with schizophrenia and other mental disorders. It was also utilized in conjunction with cancer patients and alcoholics.
LSD was found to create such primary effects as the following:
In 1966 the investigational drug branch of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) distinguished four stages of LSD action:
According to many researchers, LSD is not addictive. It is, in fact, self-limiting. If one were to take the drug for three days in a row, it would no longer produce a psychic effect. A week or longer would have to pass before the drug would again expand the mind.
Long-term use of LSD has been known to cause permanent psychoses, schizophrenia, and severe depression. Some researchers have noticed a change in the aging process among native shamans and diviners who steadily partake of their own home-brewed psychedelics. Rapid aging might be an as yet unforeseen result of extensive use of psychedelics. Some psychiatrists maintain that a psychotic disturbance can occur days, weeks, or even months after receiving LSD.
In 1963, Dr. Timothy Leary and Dr. Richard Alpert were discharged from their positions at Harvard University for their enthusiasm in advocating the mind-expanding properties of LSD. Undaunted, the two went on to establish a number of colonies of their International Federation of Internal Freedom. Throughout most of the 1960s, Leary was the primary and most well-known prophet of the LSD movement, and he predicted that by 1970, as many as 30 million persons, most of them young, would have embarked on voyages of discovery through the limitless inner space of their own minds. According to Leary, these voyagers would return much wiser and much more loving than when they began.
Years before Leary's predicted voyages by millions through their inner space, law enforcement officials had begun to regard traffic in LSD and other hallucinogens as just another racket and feared that they would soon have to contend with a black market in the drugs and that it would be aided and abetted by the crime syndicates. The growing use of psychedelics by the counterculture, the
In 1966 further FDA research noted that extended use of the drug could lead to mood swings, including depression, which could in turn lead to suicide. Those who had continued to use LSD could also suddenly experience a sense of euphoria, which could lead to socially embarrassing situations. Time and space distortions could present obvious traffic dangers. A sudden onset of hallucinations could endanger the users and those with them.
Arguing the unpredictable results of uncontrolled use of such drugs as LSD-25, mescaline, and psilocybine, critics of unrestricted use of the drugs demanded legislation that would curb the distribution of psychedelics. In 1970 the U.S. Controlled Substances Act, responding to the unsupervised use and abuse of psychedelic drugs by millions of young adults, made open distribution of such mind-altering substances illegal. Since that time, however, the Food and Drug Administration has allowed projects by medical researchers to continue to explore the potential of psychedelics, explaining that the Controlled Substances Act was never intended to hinder legitimate research, only the misuse and abuse of the drugs.
Because the drugs are now classified as controlled substances, research scientists must apply to the Drug Enforcement Administration for a permit and file an application with the National Institute on Drug Abuse and the Federal Drug Administration. During the 1990s, researchers reported medical promise for the use of psychedelic drugs in the treatment of alcoholism, addiction to pain medications, and alleviation of pain in cancer patients.
Individuals who continue to use psychedelics obtained through various means other than the Drug Enforcement Administration have organizations of their own and are determined to meet what they consider a challenge to their personal freedoms. They claim that the benefits gained from the psychedelic experience is valuable and should not be forbidden anyone who, of his or her own volition, would like to explore it.
Although mind-expansion drugs have not been found to be narcotic in the sense that they set up a physical craving within the user, possible long-term effects of the drugs have not yet been determined. If the drug is used as a means of escape from reality, it is possible that a user could become dependent upon it in the same manner that many people become dependent upon alcohol. Psychedelics have been studied extensively since ibogaine was isolated in the early 1900s, mescaline in the 1920s, and LSD since 1943, but government scientists state that it is still too early to determine whether or not the drugs have serious or practical medicinal uses.