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If I decide to ingest a psychedelic substance, such as LSD or psilocybin, I am committing a criminal action and risk being punished by law: But why?

  • Are these substances actually dangerous?
  • Is their prohibition to protect the public?
  • Are these laws just?
  • And do they benefit society?

I believe the answer to all of these questions is no, and that current laws which deem psychedelics illegal to be a transgression of freedom. These might sound like big claims, but I’m going to back them up with some help from our trusty friends science and logic. So, I believe a good place to start is to ask…

question mark

Why Are Psychedelic Substances Illegal?

The official answer, from those who created and enforce the law, (the government), goes like this;

“Current drug laws are there to protect citizens. Harmful, dangerous, and highly addictive substances are restricted by law to protect the public. Certain substances are illegal to prevent people from harming themselves and others.”

Sounds pretty logical, right? But if drug laws really exist to protect the public then it would logically follow that the most harmful substances carry the harshest punishments – and the least harmful would be legal. An assessment of harm will be useful here.

Assessing Harm: How Dangerous Are Psychedelics?

Let’s take a look at this chart which shows the results of a 2010 study in which drug-harm experts ranked 20 illegal and legal drugs on 16 measures of harm to both the user and wider society.

Drug Harm Chart

Source: David Nutt, Leslie King, Lawrence Phillips, “Drug Harms in the UK: A Multicriteria Decision Analysis,” The Lancet, Nov. 1, 2010

A more detailed breakdown of the harm analysis can be seen here:

detailed breakdown drug harms chart

The two psychedelics in the list, mushrooms (which contain the psychedelic compound psilocybin) and LSD are two of the least harmful substances. This list may be surprising or even shocking, but just take a moment to consider how our perception of drugs is influenced by hearsay and cultural norms as opposed to actual experience or valid scientific data. An amusing article which illustrates this point can be read on Vox here – Imagine If The Media Covered Alcohol Like Other Drugs

Making The Distinction: Psychedelics Are Their Own Class

If you’ve grown up in the Western world like me then you’ve probably been led to instinctively lump most illegal drugs into the same category – ‘dangerous and to be avoided’. But the truth is that there is an enormous difference between the effects and potential dangers of different illegal drugs. I’m sure you’d agree that heroin is more dangerous than weed, for example.

Psychedelics – like LSD, psilocybin, mescaline, DMT, and ayahuasca – also known as hallucinogens, are their own class and shouldn’t be confused or lumped in with other categories of drugs. Making this distinction is crucial when considering their harms and understanding the argument for their legalization. Here’s a chart which shows potential for dependence and the active/lethal dose ratio (how close the active dose of a drug is to its lethal dose).

active lethal dose dependence chart drugs

Source: Gable, R. S. (2006). Acute toxicity of drugs versus regulatory status.

Drug Law is Irrational

With all this in mind, it’s clear that the prohibition of psychedelic substances is not based on their potential for harm. The laws that prohibit them are not based on any scientific or logical analysis, and seen in this light can be considered irrational, contradictory, and massively biased towards users of legal drugs such as tobacco and alcohol.

So should our governments make alcohol and tobacco illegal, and put the punishment for their use in line with their potential for harm? I don’t think so, seeing as prohibition didn’t and still doesn’t work. Even if it did, this would be the stuff of a nanny state, interfering unduly with personal choice and treating its adult citizens like irresponsible children incapable of making such decisions for themselves.

The fair and logical way forward is to legalize psychedelics – in the interests of good sense and individual freedom. And this is what I believe is at the heart of this debate; freedom.

Psychedelic substances must be legalized in the name of freedom.

That may sound hyperbolic, but hear me out.

Freedom

braveheart freedom

FREEDOM!! But Braveheart jokes aside, current drug policy boils down to this:

I am not free to put what I want in my own body.

That’s it. I do not enjoy freedom over my own body. Think about it. Current law dictates that I should be thrown into a cage for the choices that I make about what I put inside it. The laws that prohibit me from making these personal choices undermine the whole notion of freedom that is fundamental to our sense of what is right and just in the West. I mean, we call ourselves the free world! And this is about more than just the body. It’s also about something just as, if not more, sacrosanct to who I am, an area that I as a free citizen must surely enjoy full sovereignty over: my mind.

Cognitive Liberty

LSD placebo brain scan images

Images showing brain scans from a 2016 study

Psychedelics alter the activity and chemistry of the brain and in doing so they alter consciousness. In other words, they change how we perceive reality at the most basic level. Their outlaw effectively means that we are not free to explore other modes of awareness or perception – we are not permitted to explore the altered states which psychedelics facilitate; states that enable us to plumb the depths of our own minds.

How can it be that we are not allowed to explore a domain so personal to ourselves? And in doing so face persecution, financial penalty and physical restriction? To me this is a crazy situation. These laws fly in the face of any idea that we are truly free. If we are to enjoy genuine freedom then we must be able to make our own reasoned choice as to what we put into our own bodies and in doing so, how we may choose to alter our perception of the world. Without this freedom of choice, we are not in fact free. Fundamentally, if you support freedom, you support the legalization of psychedelic substances.

Statue of Liberty

So where did these repressive laws come from? Surely they made sense at one time, at least when they were created…

The Origin Of The Law

The first country to outlaw psychedelics was the USA. Nixon signed the controlled substances act in 1970 which put most psychedelics on Schedule 1, prohibiting their use for any purpose. The decision to outlaw psychedelic substances was a move by the US government to stifle the anti-war and civil rights movements of the time, with the laws used to persecute, arrest, and make examples of leading figures of counter-cultural protest movements which growing use of LSD was linked with. It was a move the government made to ensure stability, or increase control – whichever way you choose to look at it.

“The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. […] We could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”
– John Ehrlichman, Former domestic policy chief and adviser to Nixon

Nixon launched the war on drugs and the appropriate government propaganda was spread to assure the public that these substances are dangerous and that it’s in society’s best interest that they be made illegal. Governments all around the world followed suit and psychedelics have been illegal and demonized in the Western world since. Nearly 50 years later we are still left with these laws, along with the fear and hysteria that surrounds them.

The Law Harms

As I said earlier, prohibition didn’t and doesn’t work, people continue to take drugs because it’s a natural human (and animal) urge to want to change our consciousness. By making psychedelics illegal we are actually making them more dangerous as there is no regulation or quality control of the substances and no designated establishments for safe or supervised use.

pub public house scotland

A pub – a licensed premises and designated space for enjoying a beer or other alcoholic drink

Bad experiences may also be influenced by a level of paranoia that might come when involved with a taboo and illegal activity. The creation of these black markets also means that all revenue from their sale is untaxed – money which could be going to drug education.

The Importance Of Education & Information

Education is a fundamental aspect of harm reduction when it comes to any potentially dangerous activity, not just drugs. This is why we have to get a driving license before we can take a car on the road, or have health and safety briefs or training for adventure activities like scuba diving, bungee jumping or skydiving. By and large, more education means safer. This is true of psychedelic experiences too.

Bungee jumping

Difficult or overwhelming experiences occur largely because someone is unprepared for what they experience or because they’ve taken it in an inappropriate setting. Rather than being a problem inherent to the substance, it’s because most people just don’t know any better.

Consider your own education of psychedelics, at school or otherwise. Now if you were to take LSD, how would you approach the experience? If you weren’t sure, would you feel comfortable asking a family member or work colleague for advice? How would you feel about searching online for advice if you were on a computer in a shared office or where someone might access your browser history? The stigma around the subject is a hindrance to the passing of information on the topic as it means that discussion is hidden and only talked about behind closed doors. You might even have friends or family members who have their own experiences and could offer advice – but as a taboo subject, you might not dare bring it up. The fact of their illegality only adds to the stigma and even those who take these substances will be afraid to share their experiences and knowledge.

Camera Shy Hidden

Psychedelics’ illegality and stigma stifle honest and open discussion of them – an informal education that not only reduces harm but can help to maximize the potential benefits of these substances.

Positive Potential Of Psychedelics

Psychedelics show incredible medicinal potential and are currently being studied in research settings for a wide range of treatments including addiction, depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, and also as a tool for psychotherapy. Early results are very promising. For example, in studies with psilocybin on terminal cancer patients suffering from depression and anxiety, 83% of participants reported increases in well-being or life satisfaction.

John Hopkins Psilocybin Study

Research setting for a study into the effects of psilocybin to treat depression and acute anxiety in cancer patients. John Hopkins University.

As well, psychedelics have served as inspiration for some of the greatest minds in history, be they writers, musicians, or nobel-prize winning scientists. The list of psychedelic users who have had a profoundly positive impact on society and the progress of humanity is extensive (link), and many have even credited their creativity and greatest discoveries to psychedelic use.

steve jobs iphone lsd

“Taking LSD was a profound experience, one of the most important things in my life.” Steve Jobs

“What if I had not taken LSD ever; would I have still invented PCR? I don’t know. I doubt it. I seriously doubt it.”
Biochemist Kary Mullis on his nobel-prize
  • Read more about the positive applications of psychedelic use here

Considering all the possible applications of psychedelics and their potential to improve lives and benefit society, we might even go so far as to consider that their prohibition is a serious hindrance to the progress of humanity.

The Law On Psychedelics Is An Important Issue

I understand that this is a contentious issue but its something I think needs to be talked about. I sincerely believe that it is not only with the interests of harm reduction and justice that this class of substances be decriminalized, but that it is fundamentally an issue of freedom. If you have made it this far and still believe there is good reason for psychedelics to be illegal, please get in touch, letting me know your thoughts and the reasons for your opinion. I’m open to new information and would like to be made aware of any arguments or points of view that I might’ve missed. I genuinely welcome the discussion and would like to believe that I would be willing to reassess my stance if I see that I’ve made a mistake.

If you’re not convinced either way or feel some resistance to the ideas that I’ve presented here, I ask that you consider at least some of what I’ve said might be true, and to then make your own investigation into the matter. There is increasing amounts of information about these substances online, including recent scientific research, their medical applications, and also the wider discussion of drug policy and reform. I’m not going to feed you any more sources, I’m sure you know how to do a google search 🙂

That’s it! Thanks for reading.

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spinning lights

Salvia Divonorum. The freaky batshit cousin of the psychoactive family.

If I had to describe salvia as a character it’d be the cosmic joker. He’ll flip you upside down inside out, pull your pants down and then whizz you on a merry-go round tour of the freakshow corners of the cosmos. He’ll suck you through a swirly straw to his lair, scream in your face, lick your ass crack and then spit you back out whilst he cackles in the background.

Sound weird? It is.

Amongst my experiences, the only things that have matched salvia in terms of brute intensity and weirdness are DMT, and nitrous oxide when combined with LSD and MDMA.

Salvia divinorum Herba de Maria

The salvia plant

Not Fun

I’ve smoked salvia a few times in my life, and like 99% of people who try it, did not find it a fun or enjoyable experience. As such its not one that most people really feel drawn back to. This is also true for myself yet I’ve returned a few times purely for reasons of psychonautic curiosity. Here I’m going to recount my first and most intense experience, now many years ago, which was also my first ever truly powerful drug experience (whilst salvia is a hallucinogen, its not a psychedelic – it’s a dissociative).

Background

I was in my final year of university, some of my housemates had bought an at-the-time legal drug called salvia from a local head shop. I had no idea what salvia was or what it would do. None of us did. But I thought sure, why not? I’m curious and like new experiences. A couple of friends had smoked it before me up in one of their rooms, taken small hits and felt a slight head high. They came down and one of them told me I should take as big a hit as possible. Two factors led me to the freaky ass experience that would totally kick my ass; the first was that I listened to my friend’s advice, the second was that being in the prime stoner era of my life, I was completely fluent in bong use and had the lung capacity for huge hits (a skill that would serve me well years later for breaking through on DMT). So with a few friends sat around my room watching, I filled my lungs, and held it in ’til I could hold no more.

spinning lights

Hysteria —> Reality Shattered

As I exhaled I felt reality caving in at the sides. I lifted my right hand up in front of me and my fingers grew out long like Mr. Stretch, extending and flopping about. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing! I started laughing, I was amazed that this was possible.

Then it happened; I got the baseball bat in the face that salvia will knock you out with.

The room collapsed in on itself, the walls merged and I went to some dark place with white lights spinning around me – this place wasn’t governed by any of the same laws or principles of physics or gravity that I was accustomed to, I saw lines of light in shapes that were inverting like the double rotations of a tesseract –  it was totally weird. I felt like my brain had been turned inside out and I’d been spun around a million miles an hour. My perception became hazy and confused, scattered all over the place – I was fucked. I don’t really remember more of what happened here but my friends told me that after my initial giggles I began to laugh hysterically like a total madman. Apparently I was laughing so hard that it didn’t even sound like someone laughing anymore – I was shout-laughing ‘HA-HA-HA-HA-HA!’. Then in a split-second, I stopped laughing, and a look of panic came onto my face.

lights circle spinning

Total Confusion

Salvia had smashed me so hard that at this point I’d completely forgotten that I’d even smoked anything. I wasn’t even really aware of who or where I was. Salvia had stripped me of my identity and memory and then tossed me back into the room dazed and confused. Salvia will do this – it will let you have your memories and identity back, but not immediately, only slowly- gradually filling in the blanks over a few minutes. Spat back out from Salvia’s whirlwind I was aware that I was a guy with some friends in a room, but not much else. Instinctively I was trying to make make sense of my situation, to fill in the blanks and find some context. Sweating a little, I felt paranoid – they all knew something that I didn’t (which was true, they all knew what was actually going on). These guys were all sat down and looking at me. I realised that I was the only one standing up.
‘You guys are all sitting down’ I said, recognizing a pattern. ‘Can I sit down too?’
They told me I could and I took a seat. Then it came back to me that the room we were in was my bedroom. ‘Actually this is my room, isn’t it? Yeah, this is my room. Get out, this is my room, get out!’
And as my confused friends started leaving the room I added…

‘….except for Paul, cause he’s recording guitars’. Around that time I was recording songs on my laptop with Paul, and by some weird quirk that knowledge had vaguely re-entered the back of my mind.

I sat down again and over the next few minutes everything came back to me – who I was, where I was, and most importantly, the missing piece of the puzzle that made everything else make sense – that I’d smoked some crazy ass drug that had completely fucked me over. If someone had told me that earlier I think the whole experience would’ve been less confusing. I went back out and invited my friends back into my room and we all had a laugh over the ridiculous episode.

Back To Earth

earth in space

After the relief of knowing what the hell was going on again and calming down, I was still totally blown away by the whole experience. This was my entry into extreme non-ordinary forms of consciousness and I had well and truly jumped in at the deep end. While the trip wasn’t enjoyable in itself, it was still mind blowing. I couldn’t believe how smoking an obscure plant could alter my perception of reality so much. For the next hour I was hyped up and couldn’t stop talking about it.

Notes on Salvia

My subsequent smokes of salvia, whilst not matching my original in terms of intensity, do share a few common attributes.
– Being so caned that I forget that I’ve even taken a drug
Confusion – very foggy and unclear perception, unsure of what’s actually going on
Distorted sense of gravity (& other fundamental laws of physics)
– Salvia signature – there is a weird ‘salvia-ness’ to the feeling. Inexplicable, but I think the strong distinctive (and horrible) taste of salvia adds to this, its like the backdrop to the whole thing.
– Did I mention, freaky? (Great strange trip report on reddit here)

Parting Advice

If you are smoking salvia, be prepared, it’s pretty full on. It you want your return to be a little more comfortable, I suggest having a friend there to remind you that you’ve taken salvia, reassure you that you’ll be fine and return to normal, and so in the meantime – dive into the experience and see what you see.

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Have you smoked salvia? Let us know your thoughts on this bizarre herb in the comments below.

colour universe

Smoking DMT was one of the single most intense and insane experiences of my life. Going in I figured that it would be bigger than I could possibly imagine and boy was I right. Here I will attempt the impossible: to describe the experience in words.

To summarize, it was:

  • Overwhelming – Monumental scale
  • Utterly bizarre – As I said during the trip – ‘just fucking absolutely insane’
  • Unimaginably complex – Mind. Blown.
  • Interdimensional travel – I didn’t get ‘high’, ‘fucked up’, or ‘wasted’. It was as if I was zapped through a wormhole to a different universe.

Preparation

I approached the experience with great curiosity and respect. I wanted a full breakthrough experience and did my homework on the technique. I had a friend sit for me in a quiet, empty apartment and spoke with him about my expectations beforehand. I meditated directly before. And I filmed the whole thing, so I could get a sense of timeline, see myself through the experience, and so I could start talking about the experience as soon as possible and have my thoughts captured – it is well known that the experience slips away very quickly and becomes hard to recall, like a dream. It worked, so I’ve written this with the aid of notes and the video footage.

Would you like to take your psychedelic use to the next level?
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R/EVOLUTION is a deep dive co-creative community experience designed to empower you to find a personalised approach to using psychedelics for transformation and growth. Starts November 1st 2021!

Smoking

smoke universe

I took the first huge hit, things started feeling wobbly. I took the second and my vision started becoming warped and I could tell it was really kicking off. I handed the bong to my friend because I could tell it would be difficult to hold for much longer. McKenna’s advice ran through my mind, that even though it really doesn’t feel like you need anymore, you need to push for the third hit to fully break through. My friend held the bong and lit for the third hit while I inhaled. I lay back and closed my eyes.

Blank

At this point I can’t remember what happened. Total blank. Here there is a period of 3 minutes that are unaccounted for and missing from my memory. The video shows me lying with my eyes closed and still breathing just as if I were asleep. The next thing I became aware of was an uncomfortable sensation. I wasn’t sure what it was or where it came from and it took me an eternity to think of what I needed, and then as I opened my eyes, the word that I was looking for came to me. With much struggle I faintly mumbled the word ‘water’ – my throat was dry as hell. My friend jumped up and handed me a glass of squash, at which point I threw up into my mouth, but I was still on another plane – brilliant streams of luminous colour shot out like lightning as I vomited. My buddy grabbed a bowl and held it in front of me while I spewed. It was quick and I lay back again. It was from this point that I again became aware that I had taken DMT. As I lay back and closed my eyes, I entered another universe.

Weird, Intense, Beyond Comprehension

Completely insane. Utterly alien. Wholly bizarre. So far removed from any other type of experience I’ve ever had. Next level freaky. This was interdimensional travel to a parallel universe, another tunnel of reality. Everything was of colours I’ve never seen before and at an unfathomable level of complexity and detail. I was entirely overwhelmed by the scale of what I was experiencing. It was information overload and then some. This wasn’t a human experience, humans aren’t capable of perceiving this much information.

I’ll try to explain it by way of analogy. Imagine your brain is plugged in to a machine that feeds you every single living person’s experience of the world, at the same time. So you are plugged in to 7 billion pairs of eyes and ears, every thought, emotion and feeling – receiving all that information as it is happening in real time. As well, you get a live feed of every single computer that is running, plus a direct download of the entire contents of the internet- every page, video, photo- every last piece and byte of information. You then make connections between all of this information and how it all relates to build a real time, continually shifting picture of reality in an immersive experience. DMT is on that level in the informational sense, and more bizarre than I can think of a way to describe.

Getting past the initial shock I began to come to terms with the experience and drew long deep breaths. I lay there and admired the DMTverse in awe.

colour universe

The DMTverse

It was a grand expansive space – dark but shot through with brilliant colours. The fabric of everything was made up of incredible and perfectly mathematical patterns. I had a panoramic view of some kind of organic factory, I saw massive cogs made of an earth-like substance churning. The whole scene was forever subtly shifting, metamorphosing and with absolute synergy between all things – everything moved in accordance with everything else and energy seemed to be flowing symbiotically between all things. Everything was overflowing with life and energy. I saw inscriptions of letters from an alien alphabet that seemed to have been made by intelligent life. And then I was in a…

City Of The Future

Everything was so advanced. I’m not talking flying cars or impressive gadgetry or any technology that we might imagine humanity might ever possess. I’m not even talking how it might be if we were to time travel and show a smartphone to a caveman. The jump in the level of complexity was like the gap between the first formations of atoms in the earliest stages of the formation of the universe, through the birth of stars and the formation of solar systems, to when molecules combined to create living organisms. Entropy over 9 billion years, then. It’s hard to fathom how anyone could even experience this, but that’s the mystery of DMT.

“It may be that DMT makes us able to perceive what physicists call “dark matter” – the 95 per cent of the universe’s mass that is known to exist but that at present remains invisible to our senses and instruments.”
– Graham Hancock

Somehow Sober

What’s interesting is that I maintained a sober cognition and consciousness throughout the experience. It was unique to other drugs in this regard. For example, when I drink alchohol I get inebriated and my cognition gets sloppy, with MDMA I feel euphoria and more loved up, when I smoke weed I get stoned or high and sometimes anxious, with salvia I’ll get confusion. However, with DMT, there was no ‘druggy’ effect, not dazed, confused, fucked up – it was just like I had been zapped through a portal into a parallel universe. Like my consciousness had just been picked up by a cosmic deity and thrown out into a world that was wholly other. Whereas other drugs enhance our existing reality – dulling it, numbing us to certain sensations, or amplifying it, making colours more vivid or lines more wavy – this was just transition to a different reality.

If you’ve ever seen the 90’s movie Contact, that’s a great analogy. You really do go through the wormhole on that inter-dimensional journey that Jodie Foster goes on. In fact I felt so much that that part of the movie was the perfect analogy for the experience that I googled it after to see if anyone else had made the same connection, and sure enough, loads of other people had commented the exact same thing.

Real?

Is the experience real? I don’t think anyone can really answer that question but I can say how it felt. It felt absolutely real. It felt more real than anything else I’ve ever experienced – including my experience of typing this at my computer right now. This is where you start to go down the rabbit hole. I’ve had hallucinations from other drugs, like mind-movies, but this was nothing like that. Like I said before, it was as if I were just in another place. It wasn’t as if I was observing pictures or patterns, but that I was IN another universe, which is actually a deeper level of reality – deeper in the sense that it’s truer than the one we normally inhabit.

Plato’s Allegory Of The Cave

 plato allegory dmt

If it really is a deeper level of reality, Plato’s Allegory of the Cave is the perfect analogy. The world as we understand it in a normal waking consciousness is the cave, a normal person is the prisoner, and DMT is what drags the prisoner upwards and out of of the cave. I see the part of my trip which is blank in my memory as the part in which the prisoner is blinded by the radiant light of the sun and is unable to see even one of the things now said to be true.

This fits in with the DMT experience being far richer and more detailed than our everyday experience.

No Contact

People often report contact with other entities and beings. To be clear, nothing like that happened to me. Everything seemed to be teeming with life and energy but I didn’t have any communication or contact with beings of any kind.

Ineffable, Unimaginable

DMT is the definition of ineffable. Trying to describe it seems akin to trying to describe colours to a blind person. That’s why I’ve used so many analogies and said things that don’t totally make sense here. That’s DMT for you. There is simply no imagining what it’s like. If you want a peek behind the cosmic curtain you’ll just have to go see for yourself.

Had your DMT trip, but can’t remember shit?
Read more: How to Integrate a Difficult-to-Remember DMT Experience

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changa art lily peyote desert

This was originally written for The Mainland Trading Post.

With the sun overhead Pedro exhales a lungful of smoke, passes the pipe on, and goes back to checking the group’s food supplies in his bag. “I’m so high” Molly says amused as she gazes around at the empty village street we’re sat on the side of. I take the pipe on its way through, the sweet taste of Mexican ganja fills my lungs and I get excited about our imminent adventure; we’re heading into the desert in search of peyote – the small, spineless mescaline containing cactus that grows in this part of Mexico.

peyote hikuri heads cactus

There’s six of us in total, I met the others the day before, and they are exactly the sort you might expect to be making this journey; Pollo and Lalo, a pair of Mexican gypsy punks – complete with mandala face tattoos, mohawks and bongo; Molly and Lily, two young blonde English girls who’ve been hitchhiking around North America for the last 18 months, and whose main interests include astrology and beat literature; and Pedro, a long-haired pothead from Mexico City, half-hippy-half-city boy, and our crew’s desert guide.

We’ve actually already eaten some peyote for breakfast that morning – I’d acquired six heads from a Jewish priest in town the day before (another story) – and we now finish off the last of the disgustingly bitter green flesh. We haven’t eaten a whole lot, but already I begin to feel a giddy and energetic wakefulness as we set off.

We walk past the last small houses and out the edge of town, following a dust track that leads us out into the desert, literally walking out of civilization and straight into nature.

The panorama is undeniable; the landscape is flat for what must be hundreds of miles ahead of us before our view is eventually cut off by mountains that are probably months away on foot. The earth is pale and dry but there is life in small single shrubs that are scattered around everywhere. We see hanging clouds showering an area way off to our right, and looking back I see the huge shadows and outlines of another set of clouds hanging over the mountains we left behind this morning. It’s hard to fathom what the distances might be, but the vast wilderness has a calming effect. It’s peaceful in a humbling way.

The area of desert close to town has practically no peyote – already ravaged dry from decades of visits by seekers and peyoteros – so Pedro is leading us to what he calls the ‘hikuri zone’, an area he knows of that’s deep into the desert and rich with the cactus.

desert peyote cactus

Desert Hysteria

Stepping through a gap between shrubs Pedro turns to us; “Remember that we are in nature, so just watch where you step” he says, apparently referring to snakes. The area we’re headed to is a good few hours away so Pedro sets a steady pace and the group splits by native language; Pedro leading the way with the punks up ahead whilst I fall behind with the girls.

My 5 liter water bottle swings by my side and sweat trickles down my brow. The further we go into the desert, the more different I feel; disentangled from the world and society’s trappings, somehow elevated from it, and still giddy. The girls are getting silly and Lily is giggling at the fact that “everything looks so green on peyote”.

With Pedro’s warning in mind we begin discussing about what to do if we encounter a snake and the girls agree that Lily will pretend to be a snake so that Molly can demonstrate to us the appropriate response. Lily crouches and makes a hissing winding path towards Molly, who standing her ground just looks at Lily and says, totally deadpan, “fuck off”. Somehow the scene is absolutely hilarious and I slam the water bottle to the ground as I double over cracking up; I’ve hit a hysterical level somewhere between the peyote, the heat and the pipe.

Something’s Out There

After a short but welcome water break a couple hours in – in which it’s clear that everyone is a bit spaced out and weary from walking in the heat – Pedro leads us on. The town is now a distant memory and the silence and isolation of the desert amplified. Molly and I fall to the back of the group and she asks me if I believe in aliens – the area is a hot spot for appearances and other strange occurrences. I think for a moment – I don’t really know my own answer – and she warns me “Be careful what you say… because they are listening to you” Her response makes me uneasy and I tell her “I don’t really know”. “Ooh, he’s on the fence, get him!” she says as though she is actually speaking to the aliens herself, and the possibility that they are out there and will now be on their way to visit me out in the desert tonight suddenly seems very real. Something about the boundless open landscape makes palpable the feeling that anything – including an encounter – is possible, because it shows me how unfathomably massive the world really is; that exist huge swathes of the earth’s surface that I’ve never seen and never will, whole fields of experience that are so far removed from my own and will forever elude me. It all reminds me of how little I really, truly know. Awe and mystery of the unknown are in fact the reason I’m there trampling through the desert – what drives that innate and irrepressible urge to discover, explore, and experience – and Molly’s hint at a potential encounter leaves me unnerved in a weirdly thrilling way.

Little Green Jewels

Spotting a pair of yuca trees which mark our turn, Pedro leads us on a new course and we’re told to keep our eyes peeled as we enter peyote territory. One of the girls spots one, poking its small head above the earth with its leathery green skin. I can tell Pedro wants to pull it out to start building our stash, but being our first find its not to be picked – its our guide – and he observes the ritual of making an offering to maintain some authenticity as our Mexican desert guide. Bending down he sprinkles a few lentils by the plant and we split off as the search begins.

Lalo pumps his bongo as he goes and his beat provides the soundtrack for what is like a bizarre psychedelic easter egg hunt. I wander gazing around the desert floor. I walk past Pollo sitting on the ground in front of a find, ‘gracias pachamama’ he says, offering thanks to the spirit of the earth, kissing his hand and placing it on the earth, kissing it again and placing it on his forehead. Lalo’s beat suddenly stops and he lets off a squeal of excitement; he’s found his first one too.

peyote desert

I spot one, and bending down I’m taken back by its appearance. The skin glows, its shade of green shifts; its somehow radiating life. The soft small head seems unnatural here amongst the dry earth, something about it is alien and mysterious. It has a rare beauty, so I leave this one be. I stand back up and walking away see another, then another. They all seem incredibly precious, like elegant jewels hidden scattered around the desert, and gazing at their beauty I don’t really want to take them out from the earth. It seems wrong, as though its killing something special and sacred and pure. I walk over to some of the others and before I’ve said anything Molly gushes the exact same sentiment “but they’re so beauuutiful”. “Yes, but remember, they are here to help us” Pedro insists, probably annoyed that we’re wasting time when we should be picking for the evening ahead. He does however, have a point, and I didn’t walk for hours through the desert just to admire their appearance, so I start collecting heads.

Night Falls

With about 20 heads collected between us, we meet by a tree to set up the tents. We get a fire going just as the sun’s setting and sit round. Snacking on more heads as the surrounding desert fades into darkness, we hear coyotes howling off in the distance. The altered space peyote has taken me to is different to what I expected; it has left me feeling wired but somehow zoned out. Despite eating more, my trip plateaus and I lie restless yet exhausted. The view overhead is pristine, and looking up at millions of stars, I reflect on what has been a long, hot, bizarre day.

When I’d first read about peyote about 7 years before, it seemed almost mythological; an exotic psychoactive plant that grows in the North American desert, consumed by natives and indigenous peoples over thousands of years for ceremonial and spiritual purposes. To my younger self it was a fairy tale, something of another world, some exciting legend that you come across in obscure books and cult films. It sparked my imagination and curiosity of the world, gave me a hunger for experience – but I never seriously considered it would be part of a journey that I’d actually undertake. To be lying there, many years later, under the stars out in the desert, is something surreal and life affirming. Even without an alien encounter, the desert trip has shown me something; anything is possible.

But the night isn’t quite over, there’s one more surprise.

One Last Journey

Pedro pulls out the pipe and loads it up again. “You should know, there is changa in there” he says with a mischievous smirk on his face. Changa is a smoking blend that contains DMT – “the spirit molecule” – possibly the most powerful psychedelic known to man. In other words, a complete mind-blower.

What happens next seems to happen very quickly; the pipe makes its way round the circle; Pedro, Pollo – who offers thanks to pachamama again- Lalo, Lily… everyone taking a deep hit from the pipe and passing it on, closing their eyes and sitting silently, off in whatever universe they’ve gone to. Before I know it the pipe is passed and in my hand. Really I’m nowhere like as mentally prepared as I’d like to be – five minutes before I wasn’t even considering that I’d be smoking changa – but at the same time there’s no way I’m going to pass up on this. Holding the pipe in front of me I pause to take a deep breath. I see Molly – who’s opted out of the multi-verse roulette due to a traumatic changa experience days prior – crouched behind Pollo, peering at me over his shoulder, and I can see the fear in her eyes at what I’m about to do. I light the end and the mix glows orange as I pull. It tastes horrible as I feel the smoke make its way down my throat and into my lungs where I hold it in.

I exhale, and my vision begins to morph, the small stones in the circle around the fire become warped, growing to the size of boulders and shrinking back again, my vision zooms in strange ways as I’m being pulled in. I look around and see the others around the fire. They all have their eyes closed. Of course, that’s what I need to do. I close my eyes and enter a spectrum of flowing colours. Luminous oranges and pinks meld into bizzare multi-layered forms as they fly through me, or I’m flying through them – I have no idea. The colours I see are from outside the spectrum of usually visible light, they are dazzling and the forms they carry approach from in front and pass through my eyes, flowing through and out the back of my head. I anchor to my breath for a reference point, some ground amidst the chaos, and I’m able to sit back passive to the kaleidoscopic whirlwind. The flight is intense, but as quick as it came on, the experience fades away. The brilliant colours gradually fade and I’m left in darkness, with a weird empty feeling – like something inside me has been wiped clean.

Last to smoke, I’m last to come round, and as I reopen my eyes everyone is just sitting quietly round the fire in their own space – apart from Pedro who has already got up and has his hand on Lily’s shoulder in what looks like an inappropriate attempt to forge a bond.

‘Man, that changa is something else’ I say finally, looking over at him. He rips into laughter. He’s laughing at the truth of what I say, the ridiculousness and outrageousness of it all.  Sometimes things are just so inconceivable or so weird that you can’t help but laugh. And this was one of those times.

changa art peyote desert

Sketch by ‘Lily’ (Lucy Porter) depicting the changa trip round the fire.

peyote hikuri cactus psychedelic

What Is Peyote?

Peyote is a small spineless psychedelic cactus native to Mexico and southwestern Texas – scientific name Lophophora williamsii. Peyote contains psychoactive alkaloids, and like the San Pedro cactus, the main one is mescaline.

peyote cactus mexico hikuri

Peyote cactus, known as ‘hikuri’ to the Huichol people of Mexico

Spiritual Tool? Healing Agent?

Peyote has a long history of ritualistic and medicinal use by indigenous Americans and continues to be used as an entheogen by people worldwide today. It is reportedly capable of triggering states of deep introspection and insight that have been described as being of a metaphysical or spiritual nature. In addition to psychoactive use, some Native American tribes use the plant for its curative properties; to treat all kinds of ailments, from various types of physical pain to fever and skin diseases. More commonly, ointments for pain are made with peyote and sold on the streets of Mexico.

peyote cream ointment

An peyote ointment for pain, sold in Mexico.

In Danger of Extinction

Peyote’s Natureserve conservation status is a G3, meaning that as a species it’s vulnerable on the global level. This is because, despite not being used that commonly worldwide, it’s extremely slow growing and the number of people on the planet consuming peyote exceeds the species’ ability to regenerate.

baby peyotes

A couple of baby peyotes

Harvesting Problem

The main problem is not that people are picking peyote, but how they are picking it. If the entire plant is pulled from the earth then the roots come with it and that’s the end of the plant’s life cycle. For the cactus to live on, only the head (the green part that grows above ground) should be removed. This leaves the roots intact in the earth which can then form a callus and grow back. The head is actually the valuable part – that contains all the mescaline – so there isn’t really any need to take the root too.

peyote information pick harvest cactus

A paper containing information on the proper harvesting of peyote cactus – found in a house near to the desert in San Luis Potosí, Mexico.

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How To Pick Peyote

If you’re planning to pick peyote, here is a method which leaves the roots intact, allowing the peyote to regenerate and grow back. You’ll need a piece of string, nothing more. Any type of string will do so long as its thick enough that it won’t snap too easily – think shoelace. [If you have a knife – check this video]

1. Firstly, you’ll need find a peyote. In Mexico it typically grows in the shade of this shrub. Can you spot the peyote in the first picture below?
desert peyote cactus

desert peyote cactus

2. Found it? Nice. Now clear the earth around it, making what is like a small moat.

desert peyote cactus

3. Loop the string around it at ground level, as if you’re going to choke it.

desert peyote cactus

4. Pull the string tightly from either side so the string cuts through the flesh, beheading the cactus. This will leave the root intact, and you with the head.

desert peyote cactus

5. Cover the remaining root with some earth, and sprinkle a few drops of water on top.

6. Enjoy your peyote, happy in the knowledge it will grow back and someone else may discover it one day!

peyote hikuri cactus psychedelic

Reminder – It’s Illegal

peyote cactus hikuri

I don’t like to end the post with this but unfortunately possession of peyote can land you in a lot of trouble. If you are caught by the police with peyote heads in Mexico you will probably go to jail. I imagine the same is the case in the States. For this reason I’d recommend eating peyote in the desert and not bringing any back with you after. Luckily police don’t generally hang out in the desert, so you can have your peyote journey there with no worries. Anyway, I think the desert is a fantastic setting for a peyote experience 🙂

Have you ever tried peyote?

What was the setting? How was your experience? I’d love to hear about it, so please leave a comment below.