In my sophomore year in college, I made a personal commitment to Learn About Drugs.
I turned first to my textbooks. The Harvard Bookstore was kind enough to special-order a copy of Feldman, Meyer, and Quenzer's Principles of Neuropsychopharmacology,a forbidding tome whose cover is adorned with a cute picture of norepinepherine receptors in a slice of rat brain. I spent not a few summer evenings curled up with Neuropsychophar- macologyand a gin and tonic, trying to figure out how anti-depressants work, why people get hooked on crack, and what the big hoopla was about LSD.
Feldman, Meyer, and Quenzer had some tentative answers to these questions, but as I read I started to feel like something was missing. The authors were intelligent and thorough when it came to describing the biological effects and chemical structures of drugs — the "neuro" and the "pharmacology" — but they were disappointingly uninformative about the drugs' effects on behavior and experience — the "psych." Like my introductory textbooks on psychology and neuroscience, they had little or nothing to say about what I really cared about: how drugs made people feel.
So I turned to the World Wide Web, and found a few sites that had exactly what I was looking for: first-person accounts of what it felt like, from the inside, to ingest a tab of acid, inhale a line of coke, or even, God forbid, imbibe a bottle of cough syrup. Chief among the providers of such lurid tales were the Lycaeum and Erowid. I can't remember what the sites were like five years ago, but they now offer, among other things, chat rooms, interactive MUDs, annotated bibliographies, articles on spirituality, legality, and botany, and searchable databases of "trip reports," the first-person accounts that drew me to the sites in the first place.
I soon realized there was something going on that I didn't quite understand. It was easy to come up with reasons why Feldman et al. might have written their book — the desire for money or prestige, maybe even good will towards students of medicine and science — but less easy to understand why hundreds of people had written and posted reports about drug use on the Internet. What was their motivation? What were they getting out of it? Who readthese things, anyway?
The Drugs of Yesteryear
Although the name is new, "trip reports" are a micro-genre with a long history. In the 19th century, trip reports usually took the form of book length narratives, written in the first person, in which the author described his and others' experimentations with some mind-altering substance — usually opium or hashish.
Thomas de Quincey's Confessions of an English Opium-Eater,published in 1824, is probably the first modern example, and a fun read. In it, De Quincey documents his years of opium addiction, the dreams and fantasies he experienced while under the influence of the drug, and his slow progress towards abstinence. Fifty years later, Charles Baudelaire translated De Quincey's book into French and used it as his model for a now-classic work, the Poem of Hashish. Together these books created the template for trip reports to come: man finds drug; man gets high; drug first makes man feel good, then makes man feel bad; man eventually stops getting high with the help of Art, God, Love, or common sense.
By the 20th century, hashish and opium had lost their novelty, so the genre turned to newly discovered psychedelics: peyote (and its active ingredient, mescaline), shrooms (psilocybin), and acid (LSD). Things got started with Havelock Ellis' turn-of-the-century report on the subjective effects of mescaline, but the biggest splash came from the discovery of synthetic psychedelics in the middle of the century. The years since Albert Hofmann's discovery of the psychoactive effects of LSD in 1943 saw the publication of Hofmann's own LSD: My Problem Child,Aldous Huxley's Doors of Perceptionand Heaven and Hell,Alan Watts' Joyous Cosmology(now out of print), and innumerable others. Although some, like Hoffman, stuck to the template laid down by Baudelaire and De Quincey, others started to give it a happier ending. Sometimes the drug never made the man feel bad; sometimes the man kept getting high for the sake ofArt, God, or Love (though common sense was still against him).Books like this are still being published, though not with great frequency. Part of the reason is that the '60s, during which most of these books were written, were followed by the '70s and '80s. The return of cocaine and heroin during those decades produced little fodder for trip reports: the effects of both drugs were already too well known. Furthermore, as Baudelaire noted in the introduction to his translation of De Quincey's Confessions,there is little in the world "as apparently monotonous as the description of an intoxication." What saved De Quincey and Baudelaire's books from monotony was the genius of their styles, a genius that, unfortunately, does not apply to everyone who subjects himself or herself to heroic doses of psychoactives. So potential trip report authors in the '70s and '80s had to face a dual hurdle: they were writing about an old subject in a genre that was boring to begin with. In the '90s, the rising popularity of ecstasy (MDMA) offered the opportunity to describe a new kind of drug experience. But of the few new books, none as yet rival the classics in eloquence.
One reason for this may be that the epicenter of the trip report genre has shifted from the static, slow, and painfully mainstream publishing industry to dynamic sites like the Lycaeum and Erowid, where those with the inclination to do drugs and write about it can find an easy outlet. In many ways, the World Wide Web is a better medium for trip reports than print ever was. First, it's democratic, in that the chat rooms and (to a lesser extent) the databases of trip reports are open and largely unregulated. Second, it's potentially anonymous, given the technology of "masking" sites such as zeroknowledge, whose services are to some degree targeted at users of counterculture sites like the Lycaeum and Erowid. Finally, the publishing mechanics of the Internet are friendlier to trip reports than paper-and-ink are. Web-published pieces can afford to be short-format, since distribution is so cheap, and the turn-around from submission to publication is often near-instantaneous.
Although the style of trip reports has changed in the transition from print to screen — online trip reports tend to be short, casually written, and peppered with email-isms like "FOAF" (friend of a friend) and "CYA" (cover your ass) — the preference for writing about novel drugs that cause radical changes in thought, emotion, and perception has not. Alcohol and tobacco are starkly, and not too surprisingly, under-represented on the Lycaeum and Erowid. There's just no need to go to the Internet to read or write about alcohol; it's commonplace enough that most of what can be said about it has been said. No one but bright-eyed middle schoolers gets hot and bothered hearing about last night's tequila-fueled bender. Nor is there much need to look to the Internet for information about less common drugs, like hashish and opium, that have been written about for centuries.
But N,N-dimethyltryptamine (DMT), on the other hand — there's something to get excited about. The name alone evokes complexity, exoticism, and, of course, chemistry; the pairs of N's and y's combine to make a weirdly sinuous micro-poem that rolls as easily off the tongue as a nursery rhyme: enn, enn / die-meth-il-trip-ta-meen... What's more, trip reports about DMT (a smoked psychedelic whose effects last for about half an hour) are probably the strangest that have ever been written. They combine the standard psychedelic revelations (oneness with the cosmos, and so on) with personal encounters between the tripper and weirdly embodied Others — most often "elves" and aliens. In addition to being unusual, and maybe as a consequence of it, DMT trip reports are some of the most numerous on the Web.
In fact, trip reports about DMT and the other psychedelics (mescaline, LSD, psilocybin, and synthetic new-comers like 2-C-T-7) are more popular than those about any other kind of drug, despite the fact that they are some of the least used and abused drugs in the world. If trip reports were proportional to the actual number of people in the United States who used each category of drug, then — after alcohol and tobacco — marijuana, cocaine, and heroin would take first place. The actual order is something like this: LSD, DMT, MDMA, psilocybin, marijuana, ketamine, etc., with cocaine and heroin coming in near the bottom of the list, next to "betel nut chewing."
The most obvious reason for this last-will-be-first ordering is that both the Lyceam and Erowid are explicitly focused on the "entheogenic," or spiritual, use of drugs. ("Entheogen" is the word that has mostly come to replace the ideology-laden "psychedelic" within the community that uses these drugs. According to the Lycaeum, it means either "becoming the god within" or "generating the god within.") According to Erowid's "About" page, the creators of the site "are primarily interested in the use of entheogens as a potential tool for spiritual and personal growth." The absence of cocaine trip reports may be due to the fact that, well, there's just something not very God-like about a crack high. Crack makes the user feel good, but not reborn.
Entheogens, on the other hand, have a way of making experiences seem deeply significant: they give the ordinary the artificial sheen of the extraordinary (if you're a skeptic) or reveal the truly sublime nature of the mundane (if you're not). In short, one of the primary side-effects of enethogen use is the conviction that entheogens are important — important enough to talk about, write about, and even create online communities around.
By now there is probably an online community for everything under the sun — or at least the relevant domain names have been registered — but there's something special about online communities that are created around objects and acts, like drugs and drug use, that are mostly illegal and entirely stigmatized. Like sites about rare diseases, sites catering to the entheogen-using community are actually creating a community where there was not much of one before. The fact that the Internet allows instantaneous, cheap national and international communications means that rare or marginalized interest groups can reach the critical mass necessary to create a self-sustaining subculture. Erowid currently gets more than 100,000 hits a day, and the Lycaeum has published thousands of trip reports. These numbers are far larger than anything that could have been achieved via mail or telephone, let alone within local geographic communities.
Of course, the Lycaeum and Erowid are not creating a community entirely out of nothing. There are related communities with which the links are sometimes quite tight: Hyperreal, a rave-oriented web site, is Erowid's host. But it's far from true that all of Erowid's users are ravers, or have even ever been to a rave. Trip reports come from secluded suburban users, middle-aged hippies, and a wide range of other demographic groups. The only thing these groups have in common is the desire to use drugs and then talk about it.
An open question is whether the community created by sites like the Lycaeum and Erowid will end up with the power, and inclination, to change the illegality and stigmatism of the practices upon which the community is based. Organizations like the Multidisciplinary Associations for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) and the Lindesmith Center are explicitly oriented towards changes in public policy. Could participants in the Lycaeum and Erowid will become a constituent base that could make the goals of MAPS and drug policy reform activists a reality? Although Lycaeum and Erowid are good examples of the use of the Internet to create open forums for the discussion of marginalized topics, a trend no one in favor of democracy can seriously argue against, they are also good examples of preaching to the converted — and alienating the unconverted. The atmosphere of mysticism and supernaturalism that permeates most trip reports, their uncritical pro-drug (or at least pro-entheogen) stance, and the simple distance of most of the reported experiences from everyday life mean that readers who are not part of the community are not likely to find these sites convincing — nor, perhaps, even interesting.
E. Benson is an open-minded PhD candidate in psychology at Stanford University.