Every era has the drugs that define it. The Victorians embraced opium for relaxation and cocaine-infused wine for pep. Post-Second World War businessmen had Martini lunches, their disaffected housewives had Valium; both indulged in amphetamine-laced pills. Today, Adderall provides the same focus and confidence of yesterday’s stimulants, while opioid pharmaceuticals fill our bathroom cabinets.
There are countless reasons people take drugs. To wake up. To fall asleep. To concentrate. To dissociate. To numb pain. To enhance pleasure. But the need that psychedelics meet is hard to pinpoint. Is it to commune with others? Connect with a higher power? Delve deep inside? All of the above?
Whatever the reason, LSD has become inextricably connected to the zeitgeist of the sixties as the first psychedelic to attain popularity in western civilization. Devotees felt it allowed them to understand the world in a completely new way. It didn’t just make you feel good, it made everything glow with significance. As LSD’s inventor Albert Hofman put it: “I felt that I saw the world as it really was.”
If we were to look for a drug that defined our culture today, it may very well be N,N-Dimethyltryptamine, or DMT. First synthesized by chemist Richard Manske in 1931, its psychoactive effects were discovered in 1956 by psychiatrist Stephen Szára who identified DMT as the active ingredient in snuffs used in South American religious ceremonies. Yet, even as LSD skimmed the mainstream in the psychedelic sixties, DMT was only used recreationally by the most adventurous drug enthusiasts.
Of those who had tried it, 24 percent reported it was the most recent new drug they had tried — far higher than other psychedelics and twice the number who’d tried LSD for the first time.
“DMT is a bit of the ‘new kid on the block’ right now, despite having been around for so long,” says psychiatrist Professor Adam Winstock of University College London, founder of the Global Drug Survey, which annually captures trends in recreational drug use based on anonymous information from over 100,000 people worldwide.
In 2014, Prof Winstock published the first study ever on DMT use, finding that almost 9 percent of survey respondents had used DMT, and 5 percent had used it in the past year. Of those who had tried it, 24 percent reported it was the most recent new drug they had tried — far higher than other psychedelics and twice the number who’d tried LSD for the first time.
“It offers something different than other psychedelics,” says Prof Winstock. “It has a totally different effect profile compared to LSD or mushrooms. It has a quick onset, short action, and is super intense and very weird — often in a good way.”
Fans report visions of angels, visits from long-lost loved ones, romps with aliens, adventures with elves or simply feelings of inner peace, complete ego loss, and oneness with the universe. If LSD opens the doors of perception, DMT blows them off their hinges. And while an LSD trip lasts six to eight hours, the journey into DMT space lasts just fifteen intense minutes.
DMT is also the active component in ayahuasca, the now fashionable traditional Amazonian brew that combines a DMT-containing plant (usually chacruna, or Psychotria viridis) with the vine Banisteriopsis caapi. The latter is crucial because it contains monoamine oxidase inhibitors — chemicals which prevent DMT being broken down naturally by the body’s enzymes and so allow DMT to take effect for several hours.
It’s estimated that every weekend at least 100 ayahuasca ritual gatherings take place in Manhattan alone. And though smoking DMT raw might seem insurmountably intimidating, 92 percent of respondents in the Global Drug Survey who had tried DMT had done just that — largely thanks to the rise in vape pens.
“I did a book signing at a Shpongle gig recently, and there was a stronger smell of DMT coming from the dance floor than marijuana,” laughs Dr. Rick Strassman, Clinical Associate Professor of Psychiatry at the University of New Mexico School of Medicine, who made DMT famous with his book The Spirit Molecule in 2000 and a documentary of the same title a decade later.
“On the street, it’s still a bit of a niche drug — but it’s definitely being used a little more casually than one would wish. Probably twice a year, I get an email from a parent with a subject line that reads, ‘My Son and Your Book’, and I shudder — because inevitably the email describes a kid who smoked more and more of it, convinced they had broken the code to reality.”