Psychedelics and Society

by Michael Valentine Smith

Primitive man likely began altering his consciousness with psychedelics very soon after he first evolved into a creature that we could term human. Virtually every area of the world possesses some plants with psychedelic properties, and man seems to have a remarkable ability to find just which roots and leaves are most effective in blowing his mind. Unfortunately, Western Europe and North America contain few psychedelic plants, and even though primitive man may have brought marijuana seeds and the opium poppy into these regions, he would have found them to be poor psychedelics when grown in a cold, wet climate. In any case, psychedelic use largely disappeared in Western societies and did not reappear for several thousand years. Man has undoubtedly suffered considerably from the abuse of various consciousness altering drugs, in particular alcohol and the opiates; but less well known, at least in the West, are the benefits which psychedelics have produced. It is gradually becoming evident that the world owes much of its early art, music, literature, indeed perhaps the very fabric of many ancient cultures directly to the effects of the psychedelic state. Many millions of Westerners have recently gained personal experience with the euphoria, aphrodisia, relaxation, and stimulation of creative imagination which can result from psychedelic use. The failure of many otherwise enlightened people to accept psychedelics has many causes, one of the more important of which is probably that they are often among the fortunate few to escape the neuroses, psychoses, abuse of amphetamines, tranquilizers, barbiturates, and alcohol, which is the fate of the majority of the straight world.

While there are good reasons for supposing that psychedelics have much to offer society and at worst have considerably less potential for doing damage than many legal drugs such as tobacco and alcohol, an adequate analysis of the total impact of psychedelics will not be possible for at least several decades and perhaps not until they are legal. Legality could come about very soon in some areas, since a town can pass laws against manufacture, possession and sale which provide very light penalties (e.g., a $1 fine) for conviction.

Presumably, anyone busted could be prosecuted under city laws and thus double jeopardy might prevent state or federal laws from being effective.

Even though such laws will eventually be declared unconstitutional because of conflict with state or federal laws, others could be passed, and there are other legal grounds for challenging drug laws. For a useful article on ways of cross-examining the official chemist in drug cases, see Contemporary Drug Problems 2,225 (1973), and Microchemistry 4:555-67 (1960).

Drug Damage

For virtually every drug there is a portion of the population which will have an undesirable response. Medical journals are replete with descriptions of drug damage and fatalities. In the US, penicillin and aspirin each account for some 200 deaths yearly, and it was recently estimated that prescription drugs are implicated in the deaths of some 29,000 Americans a year. The most toxic drug commonly ingested in large amounts is probably nicotine; about three cigarettes contain a lethal dose (although some brands now require two packs or more for a lethal dose). In contrast, the psychedelics seem to be relatively safe and non-toxic. Some people, perhaps one in a hundred, can develop a temporary psychosis which rarely lasts more than a few hours or days, and which generally seems to indicate preexisting psychopathology. In a more enlightened future, psychedelics may be universally applied to expose latent mental illness. There is no sound evidence that any psychedelic damages human brains, genes, embryos, etc. Of course, all drugs are best avoided in the early months of pregnancy, and excessive or prolonged use may have undesirable effects.

Psychedelics may cause subtle psychological changes leading to apathy, fuzzy thinking, paranoia, etc., but the many studies noting such effects in users are almost all worthless, since they lack adequate controls. Psychiatric complications are common side effects of many prescription drugs (e.g., see "Psychiatric Complications of Medical Drugs," R. Shaden (Ed.), 1972); and Heusghem and Lechat "Les Effets lndesireables des Medicaments" (1973).

Opiates (Heroin, Demerol, morphine, opium, etc.), non-hallucinogenic amphetamines (Methedrine, Preludin, "bennies," etc.) and barbituates ("reds," "yellows," etc.) are all addictive, lend themselves to intravenous injection, nd when used heavily usually lead to bodily damage and frequently to death. Intravenous injection of anything under unsterile conditions is a bad idea, since it will almost invariably lead eventually to tetanus, hepatitis, bacterial or fungal infection of the heart and arteries, partial paralysis, etc. The death rate among intravenous addicts is extremely high (a recent English study found the rate for smack heads thirty times higher than for a control group) and the best that can be said for these drugs is that they are a rather expensive and unreliable way of committing suicide.

Medical Use of Psychedelics

It is often said that psychedelics have no recognized medical use. Anyone who examines the technical literature with even a modicum of critical competence realizes that this is true simply because there has been virtually no adequate research. Psychedelics clearly have tremendous potential in medicine (e.g., psychotherapy, antidepressants, appetite stimulators, analgesics, aphrodisiacs, etc.) as well as in biology and psychology. Psychotherapy is the most obvious area of application, and though many studies have been done, very few deserved publication. Careful selection of subjects, adequate controls, and careful followups are uncommon, and the techniques used usually border on the idiotic. For example, the use of LSD in the treatment of alcoholism: Four different studies reported in 1969 found, in contrast to other work, that LSD was of no use in the treatment of alcoholism. These four studies shared the following characteristics: 1) there was little or no preparation for the drug experience, and a large dose was given the first time; 2) the drug was given in a hospital setting; 3) the patient had to trip alone, and had no one present whom he loved or trusted; 4) there was little or no effort to use psychotherapy before, during, or after the drug experience; 5) perhaps the most important, the LSD was given only once. Since all five of these conditions are contrary to what experience has shown to be the most effective ways of using psychedelics, the negative results of the studies are hardly surprising. To varying degrees, such inadequacies are present in most medical research with psychedelics, and progress in this area can be expected to be very slow, especially in view of the legal hindrances due to neanderthaloid legislators.

For a recent discussion of the potential value of LSD psychotherapy and the relative lack of adverse side effects, see Psych. Bulletin 79,341(1973). Above all, see Stanislav Grof's definitive study REALMS OF THE HUMAN UNCONSCIOUS (1976).

Synthetic Vs. Organic

Many people believe that organic or natural psychedelics such as peyote, magic mushrooms and marijuana are safer or produce better trips than synthetic compounds. This is almost certainly false, since any plant material contains hundreds of compounds, many of which have a definite toxicity, but few of which have psychedelic properties (they tend to make you sick, not stoned). The various impurities or the additives (e.g., amphetamine, belladonna, strychnine) sometimes found in synthetic preparations are probably no more toxic than many of the compounds found in the psychedelic plants, and like these compounds, such additives or impurities probably have relatively little effect on the trip.

There is a great deal of superstition regarding purification of psychedelics. Actually, any impurities which may be present as a result of synthetic procedures will almost certainly be without any effect on the trip. If there are 200 micrograms of LSD in a tablet, there could only be 200 micrograms of impurities present even if the LSD was originally only 50% pure (assuming nothing else has been added), and few compounds will produce a significant effect until a hundred to a thousand times this amount has been ingested. Even mescaline, which has a rather specific psychedelic effect, requires about a thousand times this amount. It is possible that iso-LSD may block LSD effects somewhat and inhibit the cosmic trips that can result from high doses; this is however unproven. Nevertheless, the prime reasons for a lack of cosmicity are undoubtedly low doses and the development of tolerance. A single exposure to LSD or other psychedelics may produce an adaptation or tolerance that lasts the rest of your life (seeing the ocean for the first time is not a repeatable experience). Furthermore, as seems to be the case with the active chemical (THC) and its inhibitor (CBD) in marijuana,the presence of the inhibitor may sometimes result in a more pleasant experience. Only careful studies in which varying amounts of iso-LSD are added to LSD will decide the issue.

Trip Differences

If a psychedelic is taken several days in succession, some degree of tolerance (failure to produce a trip) develops. If a different psychedelic is then taken and this also fails to produce a trip, the two compounds are said to produce cross tolerance, which strongly indicates that they act in the same way and create roughly the same kind of trip. LSD, mescaline, and psilocybin (and probably the hallucinogenic amphetamines) all produce cross tolerance, and there are some studies which indicate that people are unable to tell them apart. In comparing trips, it should be kept in mind that mescaline has seldom and psilocybin very rarely been available on the black market. Virtually all "psilocybin," as well as most of the "mescaline" has been LSD or one of the hallucinogenic amphetamines (when they haven't been atropine, PCP, speed, etc.)

PharmChem Dept. AA, 3925 Bohannon Drive, Menlo Park, CA 94025, will qualitatively analyze any sample mailed in for $10 and will give results by phone (415-328-6200) five days after the sample is received. Anonymity can be achieved by assigning an arbitrary 6 digit number to your sample and giving only this number when you call. They would like to know what you think your sample is, its street price and general area of origin. Envelopes with significant size specimens should be marked "Hand Cancel". The feds won't let anyone give out quantitative results anymore. PharmChem desires that letters be marked "Hand Cancel" and that you allow 5 days after receipt for results. Their rates are now $10 for a qualitative and $15 for a quantitative analysis (for the latter, you must first get from them a controlled drug transfer form to send with the sample and the $15).

Perhaps the only reliable way to identify a psilocybin trip is by its short duration; most trips are completely over in six hours or less. THC, DMT, glycolate esters and very likely muscimole probably do not produce cross tolerance with each other or with the LSD-mescaline-psilocybin group, as would be expected from the distinct kinds of trips produced by each of the former compounds. Other than the synthesis of new compounds, the most fertile source of new trips lies in the combination of varying amounts of known psychedelics.

Although tranquilizers tend to inhibit the effects of psychedelics if taken shortly before or during a trip, pretreatment (several hours to several days) with a tranquilizer will often enhance the effects. This enhancement is highly variable depending on the type and amount of tranquilizer and psychedelic, time between ingestion, etc. Prior administration of some tranquilizers is also useful in combatting the nausea which, though transient, is a common unpleasant side effect of most psychedelics. Certain phenothiazines (Stelazine, Compazine, Prolixin, Vesprin, Trilafon) are most effective as antiemetics. Immediate relief of nausea may be obtained from various nonprescription products, of which Emertrol is perhaps the best.

With most psychedelics, their activity can probably be considerably enhanced by prior (or possibly concomitant) use of a monoamine oxidase inhibitor (e.g., isocarboxazid (Marplan), nialamide (Niamid), phenelzine (Nardil), and tranylcypromine (Parnate)). Some compounds (e.g., DMT) which have no oral activity, can probably become orally active. These compounds are often prescribed as antidepressants, but it is not a good idea to use them frequently or in large doses. For antidotes to the hallucinogens see Amer. J. Hosp. Pharm. 30,80(1973).