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Full Review
Trips: How Hallucinogens Work in your Brain
by Cheryl Pellerin
Seven Stories Press 
Book Reviews
Reviewed by JF, 6/24/2001

It’s official: Psychedelics are back. At least that’s what “they” are saying, “they” being the usual tiresome crop of frightened, self-righteous moralists. Personally, I think psychedelics never left, which is borne out by near-constant usage levels over the past several decades. Nevertheless, something has changed: the forces of reform are now on the offensive, the FDA is cautiously allowing human studies to proceed, and people are (ever so slightly) more willing to examine our society’s attitude towards drugs as enshrined in law.

One delightful consequence of our changing attitudes towards drugs is Cheryl Pellerin’s recent book Trips: How Hallucinogens Work in Your Brain. Only a few years ago, Trips would have been unthinkable: a popular account written by a “legitimate” science reporter, published by the independent but still “respectable” Seven Stories Press (the same people that had the courage to bring us Gary Webb’s unustly maligned story of CIA’s sordid involvement with crack cocaine). Even better, it is illustrated throughout with classic cartoons by R. Crumb and the Zap Comix crew, carefully chosen to provide an ironic running commentary on the text. My favorite is the heading for a chapter of interviews with various government regulatory officials: An uptight “suit” frets, “I must maintain this rigid position or all is lost!”

Trips provides an accessible, balanced, and up-to-date account of psychedelics, ranging from ancient history to Rick Strassman’s latest human experiments with DMT. Despite the introductory tone of the book, Pellerin manages to cover a great deal of the material that makes psychedelics so interesting, even to non-users: Janiger’s LSD therapy for the stars of Hollywood, CIA mind control experiments, the connections between psychedelics and antidepressants, and so on. Nevertheless, she does not short-change researchers of the non-proselytizing variety who have learned a great deal over the last 20 years from animal studies during a de facto ban on human subjects. Substantial coverage is devoted to explaining neurotransmission and receptor studies in an attempt to get at, as the title suggests, “how hallucinogens work in your brain,” although as Pellerin is at pains to point out in the preface, there is no really satisfying explanation.

Trips relies heavily on interviews and writings from the major figures involved, somehow or another, with hallucinogens. This an interesting approach, although it is not completely successful. On the one hand, it’s good to let researchers and counterculture figures speak for themselves, and it’s positively delightful when Pellerin lets the DEA’s director of the Office of Diversion Control betray his colossal ignorance and plant his foot firmly in his mouth:

“We don’t judge drug policy based on cigarettes and alcohol because the law specifically says we can’t control them. I’m sure it’s obvious that they meet the scheduling criteria and would be controlled otherwise. But Congress says we can’t do that—for historical reasons I presume.”

On the other hand, extensive use of quotations and interviews disrupts, to some extent, the flow of the book. Indeed, Trips could be better organized throughout: the narrative often meanders, making it hard for the novice develop a precise and coherent picture of our knowledge of psychedelics. Also vexing are Ellen Seefelt’s molecular drawings, which are arguably worse than no drawings at all, as they are so misleading. They are rendered in two dimensions as circles and sticks, but without any concern for bond geometry and in a uniform gray that provides no cues as to the identity of each atom. Standard structural diagrams would, I think, be no less confusing to those who know nothing about chemistry, and would be a great deal more useful to those who do. Nevertheless, these concerns are outweighed by the many positive aspects of Trips

Pellerin is so witty, and sounds so reasonable, that it is easy to forget just how radical her message will be to some who read Trips. She flatly demolishes every conditioned “do what we say” reflex response, and insists at every turn that the reader must think. And that, really, is all that needs to happen. As Pellerin makes clear, a large part of our drug problem is our inability to address it in an effective and compassionate manner. For a first book on drugs in general, Weil and Rosen’s superb text (Chocolate to Morphine) reigns supreme, but for those whose interests lean towards psychedelics, however, Trips has much to recommend it.


Preface: 20th Century, 15 Minutes ‘Til Closing
1. Part I Everybody Wants to Go to Heaven, Nobody Wants to Die
2. Just Think of It as Evolution in Action
3. Early Research: Pioneers Are the Ones with Arrows in Their Backs
Part II
4. The 1950s: Hallucinogens—As Close As You Get to Psychosis Without Being Psycho Yourself
5. The 1960s: LSD —“Out of Kilter with the Basic Assumptions of Western Medicine”
6. 1970-1990: Animal Pharm—Rough on Rats
7. 1991-1993: Civilization Ho!
Part IV
8. LSD: Here Now
9. The Rest of the Hallucinogens
10. Gatekeepers: Your Government on Drugs
11. Hallucinogen Research into the 21st Century
12. Think or Die: The Real Problem With Hallucinogens
Drug use and Abuse: Internet Resources
Hallucinogen Profiles: Clocking Your Ground Speed

1 Comment »

  1. While “Trips…” probably won’t offer anything new for the psychonaught with a virtual library of books on psychedelic drugs, it would make a fantastic general introductionary text for the person who has an interest in these amazing substances.

    If you’ve found other books on the subject too dry or boring, you’ll probably love “Trips” light hearted approach on the topic. It presents a good deal of information about psychedelic history, culture, law, and pharmacolgy without going over the head of the average reader. This book just screams “attitude” with it’s unique approach, offbeat humor, and illustrations by the famous underground comic book writer, R. Crumb (probably one of the best aspects of the book).

    While the book is pretty unbiased, with the scientific studies and references to back it up, Trips still leads a little towards the “pro” side. However, most readers will probably share the same views as the author so it isn’t that big of a deal. I doubt a parent looking for practical advice and information for their kids would pick this book up just looking at the cover anyway.

    The only few shortcomings are a few times when I think the author overly “dumbs down” some material, some of the interviews are boring and don’t flow well, and some of the chemical diagrams, as has been pointed out by the previous reviewer in greater detail,are inaccurate and misleading.

    Even with it’s weaknesses, “Trips” is a very fun and informational read about a sometimes deep and hard to discuss subject.

    Comment by monoamine — 5/6/2005 @ 12:52 am

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